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Cathay Building – Singapore’s first skyscraper is opened 1941

Located at 2 Handy Road, Cathay Building was Singapore’s tallest building upon its completion in August 1941. At 83.51 m tall, the 16-storey building is considered Singapore’s first skyscraper, and its cinema was the first fully air-conditioned public space in the colony at the time.[1]

Cathay Building was designed by Scottish architect Frank Wilmin Brewer of Arbenz and Brewer, who practised in Singapore between 1921 and 1939.[2] It was commissioned and owned by Mrs Loke Yew née Lim Cheng Kim and her son Loke Wan Tho, who established the cinema arm of the Loke business by establishing Associated Theatres in 1935, the predecessor of Cathay Organisation. Khoo Tiek Ee, a relation of the Lokes and one of the company’s partners, managed the construction of the Cathay Building, completing it in time for Loke Wan Tho’s return from  overseas  studies.[3]

In 1937, workmen began demolishing a Victorian-style building, as well as associated buildings on the site which housed at various turns the Far Eastern Film Services, Royal English School, Toyo Hotel, Teo Hoo Lye Institution and Louis Molteni’s bakery. They also tore down three retaining walls measuring five ft (1.5 m) thick, taking two months to complete all demolition work.[4]

Work on the building began at the end of November 1937.[5] As the building stood at the foot of the hillock, Mount Sophia, the work required strong reinforcements and entailed some danger. At least 100,000 tons of rock and earth were excavated, following which 40,000 tons of concrete and 7,659 cu m of reinforcements were used in its construction.[6] Unfortunately, one Chinese labourer was killed and another injured by falling stones while excavating earth at the building site.[7]

Constructed at a cost of $1 million, the building was completed in two phases: the auditorium housing the cinema finished first in 1939, while the apartments and restaurant were completed in 1941.[8] The cinema, restaurant and roof garden formed part of the section rising from Dhoby Ghaut; the other section, comprising eight storeys of apartments and other amenities, was built on a higher level with its entrance at Mount Sophia.[9]

The 1,300-seat cinema was fully air-conditioned. It had plush armchairs and generous space, featuring broad aisles between rows of seats[10] as well as box seats for distinguished guests. Like the cinema, the proscenium was decorated in art-deco style with four modern pillars and a shell-shaped acoustic plaster design on the walls.[11] The art-deco style was repeated in the crush hall, which had  “black marble walls and pillars, green tiled floors and a gold ceiling”.[12]

The cinema opened on 3 October 1939 with the premiere of London Film Productions’ The Four Feathers directed by Zoltan Korda, which was originally banned in Singapore. Special guests for the 9.15 pm show included then Colonial Secretary Alexander Small and Lady Small. To add pomp to the occasion, the band from the 2nd battalion of the Royal Regiment (North Lancashire) played before the start of the show.[13]

The restaurant was located on the fourth floor of the cinema block. The design process was managed by Mrs Loke Yew, who had hired artist V. A. Zasipkin to decorate the interiors of the cinema and dining room, while W. W. Wagstaff & Sons oversaw the detailing of the frescoed walls and ceilings of the restaurant. The restaurant had a dance floor and  two bars.[14]

All the apartments in the building had verandas and balconies. Each apartment was equipped with hot and cold water as well as refrigeration. Additional amenities and services include meal deliveries from the restaurant, a squash court and an indoor swimming pool. Each apartment offered a bird’s-eye view of the sea and harbour, while those on the higher floors could see as far as the Straits of Johor. A two-storey penthouse was specially reserved for Mrs Loke Yew and Mr Loke Wan Tho.[15]

Unfortunately, the art-deco building was not immediately appreciated. Someone criticised it as “an enormous tall-boy with all the drawers pulled out… a skyscraper [that] lacks the beauty and harmony of the bigger skyscrapers of New York”.[16] Another person, however, defended its bold, modern style that spoke of its purpose as a building for entertainment.[17]


1. Lim, K. T. (1991). Cathay: 55 years of cinema (pp. 97–98).  Singapore: Landmark Books for Meileen Choo. Call no.: RSING 791.43095957 LIM; Singapore’s first skyscraper. (1939, December 8). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Page 2 Advertisements Column 2: Arbenz and Brewer. (1932, April 2). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Dictionary of Scottish Architects. (2014). Frank Wilmin Brewer. Retrieved April 3, 2015, from Dictionary of Scottish Architects website: http://www.scottisharchitects.org.uk/architect_full.php?id=205464
3. Cathay Organisation Holdings Limited. (2012). Corporate history. Retrieved April 3, 2015, from Cathay website: http://www.cathay.com.sg/corporate_history.html; Millet, R. (2006). Singapore cinema (pp. 22–23). Singapore: Editions Didier Millet. Call no.: RSING 791.43095957 MIL; Cheah, U.-H. (2006, October 13). Take a walk down S’pore’s cinematic memory lane. The Business Times, p. 39. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Lim, 1991, p. 97; Artist’s pictures of the interior. (1939, April 9). The Straits Times, p. 32; Singapore’s highest building. (1937, September 26). The Straits Times, p. 10; Ramachandra, S. (1950, July 27). Memories of old Orchard Road. The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Yap, P. (1928). Far Eastern Film Services Limited [Image of photograph], [Online]. Retrieved April 3, 2015, from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
5. The Straits Times, 26 Sep 1937, p. 10.
6. The Straits Times, 9 Apr 1939, p. 32; Lim, 1991, p. 97; The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 8 Dec 1939, p. 2.
7. Chinese killed on Cathay site. (1938, July 5). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Lim, 1991, pp. 97–98
9. The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942). 8 Dec 1939, p. 2; Holmberg, J. (1975, March 22). When Cathay was Singapore’s tallest building. New Nation, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Lim, 1991, p. 98
11. Cathay Cinema opens doors tonight. (1939, October 3). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. The Straits Times, 9 Apr 1939, p. 32.
13. The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 3 Oct 1939, p. 5; The Cathay opening. (1939, October 3). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Lim, 1991, p. 98.
14. Lim, 1991, p. 98; Elegance in interior decoration is Cathay Café’s keynote. (1939, December 8). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), p. 1; Page 4 Advertisements Column 1: W. W. Wagstaff & Sons. (1939, August 2). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. The Straits Times, 26 Sep 1937, p. 10; The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942). 8 Dec 1939, p. 2; Singapore’s fine new buildings. (1938, March 6). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Yan, K. L. (1939, June 21). Chinese view of dome. The Straits Times, p. 17; W. G. H. (1939, June 12). Supreme Court and Cathay Cinema. The Straits Times, p. 15.
17. P. B. E. (1939, June 16). Singapore in transition. The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.


The information in this article is valid as at April 2015 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.

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