8 Facts About The Cathay Building Spanning Decades Of History
Many Singaporeans reacted with sadness to the news that The Cathay Cinema would be shutting down after Sunday (26 Jun).
But the closure is just the latest event to happen over the many decades in the life of the iconic Cathay Building that houses the cinema.
As we say farewell to its cinematic operations, at least for a while, Singaporeans may want to get to know what other experiences it’s had.
Here are eight facts about the old building that we can add to our memory banks for old times’ sake.
1. The Cathay Building is 83 years old
While it may not look that old now, the Cathay Building is actually older than some of our grandparents.
The building opened way back on 3 Oct 1939, according to the National Library Board (NLB) — making it 83 years old this year.
And The Cathay Cinema, which began operations that day, was the first to open. This means Singapore’s losing a veritable institution from 27 Jun, when there will no longer be a Cathay Cinema there.
The rest of the building, i.e. the main block, was completed in 1941.
2. The cinema was the first air-con public space
Air-conditioning is ubiquitous in Singapore’s indoor spaces as a way to beat the sometimes-unbearable heat and humidity.
But the first public space to have air-conditioning in Singapore was none other than The Cathay Cinema.
The 1,321-seat theatre, with its black marble pillars, green-tiled floors and gold ceilings, must have been considered really posh at the time.
3. It used to be Singapore’s tallest building
As we gaze at the many skyscrapers in downtown Singapore, it may be hard to believe that the 16-storey main tower of The Cathay Building used to be the country’s tallest when completed in 1941.
Though the actual height of the building was 70m, its roof stood 87m from street level as it sits on the slope of Mount Sophia.
From its roof, one could see all the way to Singapore harbour at that time.
It was overtaken 13 years later by the Asia Insurance Building.
4. It broadcast military info during WWII
The Cathay Building played an important role during the turbulent World War II period.
Its radio station helped broadcast information on the advance of the Japanese army.
Sadly, a few people died when the cinema was attacked by shells in Feb 1942, before the British surrendered.
5. The Japanese military displayed severed heads there
During the Japanese Occupation, The Cathay Building was used by the Japanese Broadcasting Department, transmitting Radio Syonan from there.
The Japanese Propaganda Department and Military Information Bureau also used the cinema facilities to screen Japanese movies and pro-Japanese propaganda films.
However, the outside of the building had a far more grisly purpose.
Actual decapitated human heads were displayed there, stuck on poles — they belonged to looters and other victims of the military. It served as a warning to those who would defy the occupiers.
6. Its founder was a businessman & film lover
A mansion owned by influential tycoon Loke Yew used to be at the site where The Cathay Building now stands.
Loke Yew’s son Loke Wan Tho founded Cathay Organisation and The Cathay Cinema, which owns the building till now.
Loke was also the first chairman of the NLB.
After the war, Loke rebuilt the film business, making Cathay the first major cinema to resume operations, according to the NLB.
He even moved to film production, setting up his own studio — Cathay-Keris Studio — which was behind a host of Malay and Chinese films.
Consolidating all his family’s cinemas under Cathay, his empire was most powerful in the 1950s and 1960s.
Unfortunately, Loke passed away prematurely in a plane crash in 1964 while departing Taiwan. He’d attended a film festival in Taipei with his wife days before.
7. There used to be a hotel there
Not many Singaporeans would know that besides a cinema and restaurant, there also used to be a hotel in the building.
The Cathay Hotel, which opened in Jan 1954, initially had 60 rooms but later expanded to 170 rooms.
Besides a restaurant, nightclub, swimming pool and shopping arcade, the hotel also had ballrooms that hosted meetings and dinners attended by celebrities and VIPs.
However, the hotel shut down in Dec 1970.
8. It’s a national monument, so its facade can’t be touched
In 2003, The Cathay Building was gazetted as a national monument due to its historical value.
At the time, the building was being redeveloped — a project that started in 2000 and which required the cinema to be temporarily shut.
Due to this status, the famous art deco facade of the building had to be preserved, including the rounded and stepped walls and vertical signage that spells out the word “Cathay”.
The rest of the building, however, could be refurbished — which accounts for its current half-retro-half-modern look.
The redeveloped building was reopened in 2006, along with a multiplex.
Following the decline of the cinema business, Cathay Organisation sold it to mm2 Asia in 2017.
However, they still retain ownership of The Cathay Building.
On 17 Jun, mm2 Asia announced that they’d wind up its cinema business in The Cathay Building, leaving it without a cinema for just the second time in 83 years.
The Cathay Building has a rich history
The Cathay Building isn’t just a landmark perched at the end of Orchard Road, but a rich repository of history.
While the building will remain, things won’t be the same without a cinema there as the Cathay name is inextricably linked to the business.
Hopefully, when The Projector takes over in August, they’ll continue this tradition ably.
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Featured image adapted from National Archives of Singapore and MS News.
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