The closing of Cathay cinema at Handy Road, one of Singapore’s oldest cinemas, marks the end of an era. Here’s a look at the Cathay Building and cinema over the years.
By Soh Gek Han
The First Skyscraper in Singapore
The 16-storey Cathay Building at the foot of Mount Sophia was once the tallest building in Singapore, at about 87 m (from the street level to the top). The front block of the building housed the Cathay cinema and Cathay Restaurant, and at the rear was the apartment block, which later became Cathay Hotel.
Cathay Building under construction, 1937. Image reproduced from Lim Kay Tong, Cathay: 55 Years of Cinema (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1991). (From National Library, Singapore, RSING 791.43095957 LIM)
Grand Opening in 1939
The 1,321-seat cinema opened on 3 October 1939 with Four Feathers, a British adventure movie about the war in Sudan that was previously banned in Singapore on racial grounds.
Left to right: Cathay Cinema opening souvenir, 1939 (Courtesy of Wong Han Min); advertisement of the opening film of the “air-cooled luxury” of Cathay cinema (Image reproduced from Malaya Tribune, 26 September 1939, 3).
The theatre was opulent, with black marble pillars, green-tiled floors, silver curtains and gold ceilings. On either side of the screen was acoustic plaster in the shape of shells.
Interior of the theatre. Image reproduced from Lim Kay Tong, Cathay: 55 Years of Cinema (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1991). (From National Library, Singapore, RSING 791.43095957 LIM)
The Cathay Restaurant subsequently opened in 1940, and the apartment block in 1941.
World War II
In 1941, Cathay Building was leased to the colonial government and the Malayan Broadcasting Corporation. The latter continued to broadcast updates of the war during the Japanese invasion, and the cinema was used as a shelter in the last days before the Japanese Occupation.
Cathay Building, 1941. Chung Shui Ken Collection, PictureSG, National Library, Singapore
After Singapore fell to the Japanese, the building was renamed Dai Toa Gekijo (Greater Eastern Asian Theatre) and became home to the Japanese broadcasting department, military propaganda department and the military information bureau. Transmissions of Radio Syonan from Cathay Building began in March 1942.
The daytime radio programme usually had Japanese lessons and songs for students, while the evening programme included a segment for Japanese soldiers, as well as news and entertainment in Japanese, Hindustani, Tamil, Malay, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien and English.
“Radio news”. Programme of Syonan Broadcasting Station. Images reproduced from Syonan Shimbun, 28 June 1942,3;Syonan Shimbun, 26 July 1942, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
Headquarters for SACSEA
After the war, Cathay Building became the headquarters for Admiral Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander of Southeast Asia (SACSEA), from November 1945 to November 1946. To commemorate the setting up of the SACSEA headquarters, Mountbatten presented a brass plaque to Mrs Loke Yew and Mr Loke Wan Tho, owners of Cathay Building.
Left to right: Brass plaque with the logo of SACSEA (Singapore Broadcasting Corporation Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore); Mrs Loke Yew (Sir Percy McNeice Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore); Mr Loke Wan Tho (Sir Percy McNeice Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore).
Cathay Organisation Regains Control
The cinema and restaurant reopened in September 1945 and May 1948 respectively, but it was only in February 1949 that the government vacated the building and Cathay Organisation regained full control. Cathay Hotel began operations on 9 January 1954.
Image reproduced from “Loke Demands Release of Cathay,” Straits Times, 11 January 1948, 3.
By 1955, Cathay Building was no longer the tallest in the land, but it remained a landmark in the city centre.
Night shot of Cathay cinema at the premiere of South Pacific, with the hotel in the background, c. 1958. Image reproduced from Lim Kay Tong, Cathay: 55 Years of Cinema (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1991). (From National Library, Singapore, RSING 791.43095957 LIM)
From the 1960s to 1990s, the building underwent various redevelopments. The hotel space was turned into office premises, and the hotel closed on 30 December 1970. The cinema was expanded from a single-screen to a multiplex in 1991.
Cathay Building, 1965. David Barker Collection, PictureSG, National Library, Singapore.
In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII in 1995, the National Heritage Board erected a WWII plaque outside the building.
WWII plaque outside Cathay cinema, 1995–99. Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.
A National Monument
In 2000, Cathay Organisation had plans to redevelop Cathay Building for $100 million. Before the plan was approved by the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the then Preservation of Monuments Board identified Cathay Building as a possible landmark for preservation because of its history, especially during WWII. Cathay Building was gazetted as a national monument on 10 February 2003.
A marker of history on Cathay Building. Photo by and courtesy of Soh Gek Han.
The cinemas in Cathay Building closed on 30 June 2000 for redevelopment. In line with its status as a national monument, the art deco facade of the building was preserved, with its geometric forms and curved, stepped walls. The name in vertical display was also retained. The rest of the building was redeveloped, and the original brown-tiled façade was incorporated into modern glass architecture.
Cathay Building, 2022. Photo by and courtesy of Soh Gek Han.
The Cathay reopened in 2006 with a shopping mall and an eight-hall multiplex – including Picturehouse, which had first opened in 1990 to feature art films.
In 2017, Cathay Organisation sold its cinema business to entertainment company mm2 Asia for $230 million, and continued to own the Cathay Building and Cathay Cineleisure Orchard mall.
Cathay Cineplex’s last day of operations was 26 June 2022, when it screened its final show, Top Gun: Maverick, at 9pm. The space used by the cineplex will be occupied by a pop-up run by The Projector from August 2022. Named Projector X:Picturehouse, the new cinema will show films and live performances.
Soh Gek Han is the engagement editor of BiblioAsia.