Tea dances



Tea dances were a popular social event in Singapore from the 1920s to the 1960s where patrons socialised over music and drinks. In the 1960s, tea dances organised by clubs became the centre of the rock ’n’ roll culture in Singapore. Such tea dances eventually died out due to a clampdown by the authorities in response to frequent brawls occurring at these events. In the mid-1980s, the government revived tea dances to matchmake young Singaporeans, and discotheques subsequently organised tea dances on weekend afternoons for teenagers. This trend waned as well when the authorities deemed the activity to be a bad influence on youths, which led to a ban on those under the age of 16 from attending.

Social activity for the Europeans
Tea dances accompanied by orchestral music were popular in the 1920s among the European community in Singapore. The grandest hotels at the time – such as Raffles, Adelphi and Sea View – held these dances at least twice weekly in their ballrooms and usually after office hours from 5.30 pm onwards.1 The men would head straight from their offices to meet the ladies at the hotels.2 Bachelors were known to meet their future girlfriends or even wives on the dance floors of such events.3


Raffles Hotel was the centre of British social life, especially after the opening of its new ballroom in 1920.4 The opening coincided with a boom in Singapore’s hotel business, as peace and prosperity brought more tourists and transit passengers to the port city. The ballroom overlooks the sea, and was referred to as the “coolest ballroom in the East".5

The crowds at the tea dances were predominantly British, with a handful of Malay royalty and wealthy Chinese.6 Mailboats arriving from countries like France would bring new faces, but regulars made up the majority of patrons.7

While the main activity was dancing to tunes performed by the Raffles Dance Orchestra, the patrons also enjoyed dance and acrobatic shows put up by cabaret artistes from countries such as Portugal, Spain, the Philippines, Britain, Australia, Mexico, Russia and Hungary.8

Ironically, no tea was served at these “tea dances”, which did not have a cover charge then, and the name was said to have derived from the one beverage that was not consumed at such events.9

Taxi dancers
Amusement parks such as Great World and New World introduced tea dances in their nightclubs in the 1930s.10 To facilitate partner dancing, the clubs offered cabaret girls for hire and sold the men dance coupons in a bundle of six for $1. The cabaret girls, also known as the taxi dancers, earned a commission with every dance coupon received and made an average of around $160 a month.11


The Chinese clubs also organised tea dances during the 1930s. These were not for profit, but provided opportunities for club members to socialise and dance. By 1939, the Chinese Association was holding a tea dance every fortnight for its members. Some 12 to 15 taxi dancers were hired for each event, which usually lasted two hours. The dancers were paid $2.50 as well as provided with dinner and drinks for their services. Members were charged a rate of $1 for eight dance coupons.12 In 1936, the Aston Athletic Club introduced a fortnightly tea dance that became the club’s most popular amenity and a means to draw new members.13

Entertaining youths in the 1960s
Tea dances were the most popular form of entertainment for Singaporean youths in the 1960s. Clubs that once played cha-cha music and songs from earlier decades to cater to the working crowd began introducing tea dances along with rock ’n’ roll, a genre of music that was then becoming increasingly popular with youths.14 This shift in musical genres began when the clubs’ patrons, mostly British servicemen stationed in Singapore, demanded for pop music to be played.15

One of the first clubs that offered tea dances was Cellar at Collyer Quay, a basement restaurant-cum-night club. The management introduced tea dances in 1961 to draw the crowds on weekend afternoons. The tea dances became so popular that fights would break out as people tried to cram into the small venue.16 Other clubs that subsequently held tea dances included Golden Venus, Prince’s Hotel Garni and Celestial Room, which were all situated along Orchard Road.17

Unlike decades before, tea dances in the 1960s were held mostly on Sundays and in the afternoons from around 2 pm to 6 pm.18 Participants paid around $3 per entry, which included drinks and cakes.19

The dance that was popular at the time was the “shake” – vigorous body movements accompanied by songs from The Beatles such as Hippy Hippy Shake. Because the “shake” was in vogue, music of the British beat scene was generally well received by the youths.20

By the late 1960s, the authorities began clamping down on tea dances because they were attended by gangsters who frequently got into fights.21 It was common, especially at the larger clubs, to have groups of 20 to 30 secret society members in attendance. Broken bottles were reportedly thrown at musicians when they did not oblige to songs requests.22 Recreational drugs were also sometimes offered for free at these venues.23

Platform for pop and rock music
Tea dances provided a platform for aspiring local musicians in the 1960s to perform.24 There was a craze for instrumental bands like The Shadows helmed by popular British musician Cliff Richards, English rock band, The Rolling Stones, and Swedish rock group, The Spotnicks. Their music – mainly rhythm and blues, or R&B, and progressive rock – inspired many local musicians. Young men formed their own four-piece bands consisting of a lead, rhythm and bass guitarist and a drummer. Singers sometimes fronted these groups.25 They would perform at tea dances and also at the clubs in the British camps. The bands’ frequent contact with the servicemen, who preferred the British beat for dancing, further influenced their taste in music.26


Although these bands played mostly cover versions of pop music, their performances subsequently won them recording contracts as record labels frequented tea dances to find new talents. Local bands such as The Trailers, The Checkmates and The Quests signed with music labels Cosdel, Philips and EMI respectively. After their big break, these bands produced several original songs that topped the local charts.27

Other than local groups, the Royal Air Force’s instrumental bands also played at tea dances. They were invited to nightclubs like the Palace and Golden Venus to attract British clienteles.28

Revival in the 1980s
The government started organising tea dances in 1985 to matchmake young Singaporeans. The Social Development Unit held such events for single graduates at a discotheque in Mandarin Hotel where each participant paid S$10 to have tea, sandwiches and dance with members of the opposite sex. Tea dances became one of the unit’s most popular social activities.29 Such success led the Social Development Section of the People’s Association to organise dance events for non-graduates as well.30

Private discotheques also joined in the trend and successfully appealed to the authorities to lift the ban on tea dances in clubs in October 1986.31 The Warehouse was the first to hold tea dances and within a year almost every discotheque was cashing in on its popularity.32 Besides weekend afternoons, some discos also held tea dances daily during the school holidays.33

Most of the patrons were teenagers, some as young as 13. They were attracted by the low charges and the relaxed dress code. Entrance fees were between S$5 and S$8, inclusive of up to three drinks.34 T-shirts and denim jeans were the order of the day. Another attraction was the presence of the opposite sex and the ease of making friends in the clubs.35 The teenagers only hit the clubs in the day, typically between 2 pm and 6 pm, and the discos did not serve alcohol. It was not unusual for dates to result from tea dances.36

By the late 1980s, tea dances had become the preferred form of entertainment for youths, edging out roller discos that used to pack in thousands only a few years earlier.37

Ban in the 1990s
In the mid-1990s, a debate grew over whether tea dances were a bad influence on teenagers.38 This came at a time when there was a rise in the number of fights and riots at tea dance venues. Some 282 youths were arrested for rioting and fighting in 1996, while 117 were nabbed in the first half of 1997. Clubs such as Fire and Sparks had replaced The Warehouse, Rumours and Zone Two to become the preferred venues for tea dances and teen gangs were known to recruit members at these places.39 It was reported that a group of teenagers chanted the name of a well-known gang during a tea dance and ended up throwing drinking glasses at one another.40


In October 1997, teenagers under the age of 16 were banned from attending tea dances to prevent them from falling prey to gangs. Nightspots that broke the new rule risked having their licence revoked. Then Minister of State for Law and Home Affairs Ho Peng Kee explained that youths between the ages of 13 and 15 tended to assert their independence and were most susceptible to bad influences.41

While most members of parliament (MP) supported the ban, there was one MP who spoke out against it.42 Aljunied GRC MP David Lim argued that teenagers needed to meet and socialise and cautioned that the ban might drive them underground.43 June Wong, then director of the Marymount Centre for teens, also pointed out that teenagers would not remain at home just because tea dances were no longer an option for them. Some nightspot owners, parents and counsellors believed that they would simply hang out at shopping centres and game arcades instead.44

Tea dances today
In 2014, The Esplanade organised a concert “Return To The Tea Dance” featuring bands that played at tea dances back in the 1960s.45 Apart from such an effort to reminisce, this afternoon entertainment has mostly faded into history, unfamiliar to Singaporeans born after the 1980s.




Author
Sheere Ng




References

1. Untitled. (1920, December 24). The Straits Times, p. 9; Raffles Hotel ballroom. (1926, July 8). The Straits Times, p. 10; The Adelphi Hotel. (1928, February 22). The Straits Times, p. 10; Public amusements. (1928, December 10). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Tea dances. (1923, July 27). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. BBC films Ena down memory lane. (1971, May 17). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. BBC films Ena down memory lane. (1971, May 17). The Straits Times, p. 11; Untitled. (1920, November 1). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Liu, G. (2006). Raffles Hotel. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, pp. 82–83. (Call no.: RSING q915.9570613 LIU-[TRA])
6. Liu, G. (2006). Raffles Hotel. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, p. 82. (Call no.: RSING q915.9570613 LIU-[TRA])
7. Tea dances. (1923, July 27). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Sharp, I. (1981). There is only one Raffles: The story of a grand hotel. London: Souvenir Press, p. 41. (Call no.: RSING 647.945957 SHA)
8. Raffles Hotel. (1932, July 4). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Liu, G. (2006). Raffles Hotel. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, pp. 82, 100–102, 112. (Call no.: RSING q915.9570613 LIU-[TRA])
9. Sidelights on Shanghai. (1928, February 20). The Straits Times, p. 8; Raffles Hotel. (1927, September 5). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Round of Christmas festivities. (1933, December 23). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. ‘Ten-cents-a-dance’ girls. (1934, December 18). The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Tea dances in clubs. (1939, May 28). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Aston Athletic Club. (1936, March 22). The Straits Times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Those were the days… (1986, March 14). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Pereira, J. C. (2011). Apache over Singapore: The story of Singapore sixties music, volume one. Singapore: Select Publishing, p. 6. (Call no.: RSING 781.64095957 PER)
16. Pereira, J. C. (2011). Apache over Singapore: The story of Singapore sixties music, volume one. Singapore: Select Publishing, pp. 38–39. (Call no.: RSING 781.64095957 PER)
17. Those were the days… (1986, March 14). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Untitled. (1982, April 15). The Straits Times, p. 1; Those were the days… (1986, March 14). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Juanit Melson. (1988, July 27). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Ruzita Zaki. (Interviewer). (1995, December 6). Oral history interview with Vernon Christopher Cornelius [Transcript of cassette recording no. 1711/18/09, p. 104] Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
21. A brew in search of a new infusion. (1989, May 21). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Remember when... (1982, August 10). The Straits Times, p. 22. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Ghazali warns: Free ‘white pills’ at parties. (1971, August 1). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Pereira, J. C. (2011). Apache over Singapore: The story of Singapore sixties music, volume one. Singapore: Select Publishing, p. 6. (Call no.: RSING 781.64095957 PER)
25. Pereira, J. C. (2011). Apache over Singapore: The story of Singapore sixties music, volume one. Singapore: Select Publishing, p. 1. (Call no.: RSING 781.64095957 PER)
26. Pereira, J. C. (2011). Apache over Singapore: The story of Singapore sixties music, volume one. Singapore: Select Publishing, p. 37. (Call no.: RSING 781.64095957 PER)
27. Remember when... (1982, August 10). The Straits Times, p. 22. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Pereira, J. C. (2011). Apache over Singapore: The story of Singapore sixties music, volume one. Singapore: Select Publishing, pp. 2, 31, 39. (Call no.: RSING 781.64095957 PER)
28. Pereira, J. C. (2011). Apache over Singapore: The story of Singapore sixties music, volume one. Singapore: Select Publishing, pp. 31, 45. (Call no.: RSING 781.64095957 PER)
29. Invitation to tea dance – and how the grads respond. (1985, March 16). The Straits Times, p. 48; Six couples tie knot – thanks to SDU. (1985, July 19). The Straits Times, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. Productive 10 months for PA’s matchmaker. (1987, November 11). The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31. A brew in search of a new infusion. (1989, May 21). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
32. Teenagers lap up tea-dances at discos. (1987, March 28). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
33. Fade-outs, comebacks and new kids in town. (1987, December 25). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
34. Teenagers lap up tea-dances at discos. (1987, March 28). The Straits Times, p. 10; A brew in search of a new infusion. (1989, May 21). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
35. Discos latch on to tea dances for teens. (1987, December 20). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
36. An up-to-date look at teen love. (1987, November 29). The Straits Times, p. 2; Teenagers lap up tea-dances at discos. (1987, March 28). The Straits Times, p. 10; Discos latch on to tea dances for teens. (1987, December 20). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
37. Roller discos skate out of fashion. (1988, January 31). The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
38. It’s Saturday afternoon fever!. (1989, May 21). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
39. Teo, G., & Tan, J. (1997, July 17). Thumbs up for under-16 disco ban. The Straits Times, p. 32; Ban on tea dances and discos for those under 16. (1997, July 17). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
40. Teo, G., & Tan, J. (1997, July 17). Thumbs up for under-16 disco ban. The Straits Times, p. 32. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
41. Ban on tea dances and discos for those under 16. (1997, July 17). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
42. Leong, C. T., et al. (1997, July 25). Get tough to tackle problem, say MPs. The Straits Times, p. 41. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
43. Tan, H. Y., et al. (1997, July 23). Banning teenagers from tea dances not the solution. The Straits Times, p. 40. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
44. Teo, G., & Tan, J. (1997, July 17). Thumbs up for under-16 disco ban. The Straits Times, p. 32. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
45. Revisit Singapore’s pop history with Return to the Tea Dance. (2014, November 3). Today. Retrieved from website: http://www.todayonline.com/entertainment/music/revisit-singapores-pop-history-return-tea-dance



Further resources
Great World taxi-dancers to return. (1941, September 17). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.


Hostesses call strike at local cabaret. (1941, September 13). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Kelvey dancers. (1931, May 28). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Mr. A. E. Baddeley leaves for home. (1930, September 10). The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

No tea dances. Say taxi girls. (1948, November 14). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Raffles Hotel. (1927, September 5). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Remembering the ‘60s. (1982, April 15). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Untitled. (1922, November 22). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

What the merry-makers are doing in May. (1987, May 20). The Straits Times, p. 19. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 14 March 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

Subject
Dance--Social aspects--Singapore
Heritage and Culture
Recreation--Singapore
Recreation
Sports and Recreation
Events