The Tropicana is a hotel and casino in Las Vegas that is home to high-end restaurants, performances by celebrities and, at one point, a cabaret-style revue.
The Tropicana is also a nightclub in Havana, Cuba, home to cabarets, revues and, despite tensions with the USA, housed performances by celebrities like Nat King Cole.
Wikipedia lists three more Tropicana resorts, all of them casino hotels dotted around the United States, all of them unrelated to each other. But there used to be another Tropicana, located well outside North America.
One that was home to high-end restaurants, performances by celebrities and, you guessed it, a cabaret-style revue. Where could it be? Maybe in France, the home of such revues? Italy perhaps? Maybe somewhere in Latin America?
Nope. That one Tropicana was right here, in Singapore, and in a place you might be familiar with…
You know the junction of Orchard Road, Scotts Road and Paterson Road? It’s probably Singapore’s most glamorous road junction. Wheelock Place on one corner, Shaw Lido opposite that, Tangs opposite that and ION Orchard opposite that, all interconnected by underpasses and Orchard MRT Station. If Singapore had to pick a road junction to be it’s very own Shibuya, it’d be this one.
However, back when Singapore first gained independence, Orchard Road was still in its infancy as the retail and tourist destination to be in Singapore. Tang Plaza and Shaw Centre were there, roughly at the same location as they were now, but there was barely anything else to catch tourists interests, which was becoming paramount as Singapore wanted to entice its appeal to foreign visitors and investors.
One way the Singapore Tourism Promotion Board (STPB), the predecessor to today’s STB, thought of enticing visitors was expanding the nightlife scene. They reached out to anybody interested in furthering this goal. And they got an interested stakeholder in one Mr. Shaw Sun Ching, no relation to the Shaw brothers of theatre fame.
Mr. Shaw was a real estate developer who found a fortune post-war, selling building materials and developing Serangoon Gardens estate. He wanted more than to just build housing estates or sell construction materials. He had heard the call from STPB to develop a nightlife destination around Orchard Road. Living near the Orchard-Scotts Junction, tucked away in an apartment complex just behind Shaw House on Scotts Road he was more than familiar with the location. In fact, he went up to STPB to propose establishing a nightclub for the sophisticated and well-to-do in his backyard.
And he wasn’t joking when he said in his backyard.
He literally bought his apartment’s plot of land and demolished his own apartment to build his pet project.
If tearing down your own house wasn’t enough to show your commitment, Mr. Shaw travelled across the world to Paris, Tokyo and Las Vegas just to gather inspiration for this project, and the influences from his travels were obvious in the finished product.
Elegance and Class
The first inspiration came in the name, which was covered earlier. After visiting Las Vegas, Shaw was not only inspired by the showmanship of the Strip, but he chanced upon the perfect name for his nightlife destination: Tropicana. Whether he was inspired by the hotel or the orange juice, Shaw found it to be the perfect name for Singapore’s tropical climate.
The inspiration he borrowed from Tokyo was more subtle, adapting the layout of Tokyo’s Mikado nightclub to the Tropicana. One grand stage with a massive restaurant, the Orchid Lantern, seating 500 guests that served the floor of the stage, with three other establishments – a cocktail lounge, an Indonesian restaurant and the VIP lounge – located on different levels, all with a view of the main stage itself. The Indonesian restaurant, Rasa Sayang, also converted into a nightclub of smaller capacity as the night went on.
But the most obvious inspiration came from Paris. Sure, they had a great big stage with a fancy restaurant to accompany it, but what could they possibly put in as an act?
The solution was to have full-on revues. For those unsure of what a revue is, think Moulin Rouge. Plenty of in-house or visiting all-female troupes performing a loose set of musical numbers with an excess in both showmanship and skin showing. The Tropicana was the first of such revue destinations in Singapore, and created a stir when the performers in these revues often went topless.
Granted, sex tourism in Singapore was rampant back in those days, almost to the point where Singapore was simply known for sex tourism. But keep in mind, Tropicana was given the green light (or red light) by the STPB. To have government approval to showcase acts by girls stripped (almost) to the bare minimum sounds mad, almost like showcasing the dirtier bits of Geylang on tourist brochures nowadays. But unlike Bugis or Geylang, where everything was free and easy, unregulated and mostly a sleazefest, the Tropicana brought class and sophistication to the trade.
The restaurants were all first-class establishments, with foreign chefs flown in. The decorations on the main stage were ornate and lit up by the intricate yet dominating chandeliers. Though relaxed in later years, there was a strict suit-and-tie dress code upon its opening. The Tropicana, while displaying extravagance and extra skin, also exuded of elegance.
The Bust of the Bust
When it first opened, the Tropicana was wildly popular. Revues came in from far and wide to perform, with some American and European acts showing up to entertain those that could afford it. Local businessmen often entertained foreign clients in the cocktail lounge. The place was fully booked for its first three years of operation. For what it was, it became a rousing success.
The splendour of the establishment also brought in fairly noticeable names onto the main stage, those being old-school stars like Pat Boone and Duke Ellington, while Count Basie’s visit in 1971 generated the most expensive ticket in Singapore at the time at $85 (over $300 in today’s money). David Bowie’s film “Ricochet” featured a brief shot of its exterior facade, while Frank Sinatra supposedly visited the theatre as well.
However, by the turn of the seventies, the interest in the Tropicana started to fade. Competition had sprung up elsewhere in Singapore, most notably in the Neptune at Shenton Way, which featured a near carbon copy of Tropicana’s layout with a grander, revolving stage. There was more to do along Orchard Road now that drew the crowds away. And most importantly, it seemed the allure of watching topless revues had dwindled.
One part could be due to the heavy regulation of such revues, which required a member of the Ministry of Culture and other police officials to approve the performance and censor any “objectionable parts” of the performance. These officials would also arrive in plainclothes to some performances and were allowed to suspend a club’s license should there be any infringement in the prudish rules. While the Tropicana was mainly a venue for the glamorous and extravagant revues, there were other, unregulated forms of sex tourism not just in Singapore, but across the strait in Johor, with raunchier revues and shows, drawing allure away from the Tropicana.
The Tropicana tried to expand by revamping their restaurants to serve more reasonably-priced dishes catered to locals and introduced a wider variety of acts, from flamenco dancers to ballets and everything in between. And, to their credit, it worked. Crowds never reached their previous peak, but they were still drawing in a profit year on year.
However, the place was getting seriously dwarfed. Scotts Shopping Centre and Far East Plaza had opened nearby, while Tangs got a significant upgrade. With the already dominating Shaw Centre next to it, the Tropicana was a guppy in the ocean, looking like the last, tiny piece in the middle of one of those Russian dolls. Furthermore, with the MRT station being constructed, the Tropicana was now taking up some seriously valuable land.
Despite investing everything he had into the Tropicana, a realtor like Shaw Shun Ching couldn’t possibly see too long of a future before he had to sell it off. And in 1989, he gave in to a Hong Kong developer, closing the theatre in June and ridding everything in the theatre, from the glass cups to the glass chandeliers, in a final closing-down sale. Pacific Plaza was opened in its place, but Shaw still wanted to re-open the Tropicana elsewhere. However, at age 78, he couldn’t invest the time or money, and passed away 14 years later in 2003.
Sex tourism and entertainment clearly isn’t dead in Singapore; one just needs to see Geylang or the rise of siam dius as evidence of that. But the Tropicana was a pioneer of something more than just a place for men to find pleasure. It was one of Orchard’s first first attractions. It was a glamorous venue that brought in multiple celebrities. For those first few years, it was the talk of the town.
It was our own Moulin Rouge. Just that it didn’t take a fire to tear it down. We just weren’t interested in it.