Gay World (Happy World)

by Marsita Omar

Gay World was one of three amusement parks built in Singapore before World War II and around which Singapore’s nightlife revolved from the 1920s to the ’60s. The other two were New World and Great World. Gay World was a popular entertainment joint before the advent of television and shopping malls. It featured a variety of entertainment including cabaret, operas, movies, gaming, sport matches, stunts and shopping. The site of many fires over the years, Gay World was demolished in 2001 to make way for redevelopment.

History
Gay World was one of the three “World” amusement parks that provided affordable entertainment for Singaporeans. The other two were Great World (early 1930s–78) and New World (1923–87). Before the days of television and shopping malls, the local population – of all ages and from all walks of life – sought out thrills provided by these amusement parks. Gay World, located on 10 acres of land1 between Mountbatten and  Geylang roads, was officially opened on 6 May 1937.2 Founded by George Lee Geok Eng of George Lee Motors, the brother of rubber tycoon Lee Kong Chian,3 the park was originally known as Happy World.  Patrons were kept enthralled by an east-meets-west mix of entertainment including cabaret, ronggeng, bangsawan, wayang, movies, gaming, sport matches, stunts, circus and shopping.5


Japanese Occupation (1942–45)
In the years leading to World War II, Happy World served as the venue for many of the fundraising activities for mainland China’s war effort. The Straits Chinese China Relief Fund Committee held events there, including a modern bangsawan, plays6 and a charity badminton match.7 Shortly before the Occupation, Aihua Musical Society, which supported the anti-Japanese resistance, promoted concerts by the Wuhan Choir from China which performed to packed audiences at Happy World for 10 evenings. When Japanese air raids hit Singapore between December 1941 and January 1942, businesses at Happy World continued, and the cabaret held dances with the lights off to avoid being the target of Japanese bombings.8

During the war, the Japanese converted Happy World into a technical school for youths between 14 and 19 years old. Students received a year of training in courses including mechanics, engineering and aviation.9

Postwar developments
After the war, locals thronged Happy World and business was better than before. It was renamed “Gay World” in 1964.10 On 24 July 1973, Gay World was acquired by the government for use as one of the event venues for the 7th Southeast Asian Peninsular (SEAP) Games held in Singapore that year, with a longer-term goal of developing the park for sports and recreation.11 After the acquisition, Eng Wah Organisation, who was the park’s primary lessee and operator, continued to manage the stalls and shops.12

However, the popularity of amusement parks began declining in the 1950s with the accessibility of radios and, later, television. The crowds had dwindled by the 1970s, although the cinema, Sin Hua Emporium, Pesta Tarian Ria and the stadium still attracted some crowds.13 By the ’80s, the amusement park was considered outdated compared with the newly built cineplexes, shopping malls and game arcades. The four businesses that remained were Gay World Stadium, Datoh Rajah Theatre and Cabaret (the oldest cabaret in Singapore then),14 Tai Thong Restaurant and New Happy Cinema.15 Gay World was reduced to a mass of buildings and shops selling car parts, used cars and furniture, and a “car park” where office workers nearby parked their cars.16


Entertainment
At the time of its opening, Happy World featured four theatres for plays and magic shows; a talkie theatre that could seat 300 people; 300 stalls with games, food and goods; Happy Restaurant, which had a roof-top garden; and a mini golf course.17 The Chinese operas performed at Happy World were mostly from Chaozhou and Fujian.18 They were put up mainly by three troupes – Sin Khee Lin, Sin Sai Hong and Lum Gay – and usually to fullhouse audiences.19 Apart from the usual recreational activities, Gay World also hosted many cultural shows in the 1960s, including the six-week-long Singapore Festival in 1968.20

Gay World was known as a sporting arena, especially for its boxing matches.21 The indoor Gay World Stadium was once hailed as the greatest covered stadium in Southeast Asia and was purportedly the first covered stadium in Malaya.22 The roofing was reconstructed in 1937 with a section that could be opened up.23 Later known as Geylang Indoor Stadium, the octagonal stadium with 15 tiers of seating24 was ideal for many types of indoor sports and could accommodate 7,000 spectators. It was the venue for Malaya’s first Thomas Cup for badminton in 1952, SEAP Games in 1973, and the 1983 and 1993 Southeast Asian Games, among others.25

In 1937, the year of its opening, Happy World started to hold boxing matches to showcase new and emerging boxers who were otherwise unable to find regular engagements.26 Besides local wrestlers, boxing matches at Happy World also featured reputable wrestlers from other countries.27 Visitors paid 20 cents per ticket to see wrestlers such as Tiger Ahmad and King Kong.28

The stadium occasionally also held circus shows29 and exhibitions such as the first Engineering Exhibition in Malaya (1939)30 and the Singapore Trade Exhibition (1949).31

There was a dance hall that could accommodate 300 couples. The dance hall was equipped with good acoustics and an elliptical floor skirted by marbled columns. Tables were tiered so that patrons had an unobstructed view of the dance floor.32 In the 1930s, entry to the cabaret cost between 50 cents and a dollar and ordering drinks was mandatory. The dance hostesses or cabaret girls were also known as “taxi girls” or “taxi dancers”. Customers could engage their services by buying dance coupons priced at one dollar for three dances. Other forms of dance that took place in Gay World were the Malay ronggeng and joget, catering to the Malays and babas (Peranakan Chinese men). Gay World had a ronggeng kiosk like a bandstand, and men could have a dance partner at one dollar for three dances.33

There were four cinemas in Gay World, including an open-air one that became a favourite for courting couples. By 1987, however, only one was left. Gay World also housed Eng Wah’s first three cinemas: Victory, its first cinema opened in 1945,34 Silver City and Happy. They only showed Chinese films until 1988, when they started screening English movies. In 1982, New Happy Cinema screened Tamil films exclusively, the first cinema in Singapore to do that. It survived the turn of the century and, with just one screen, was the smallest cinema operator in Singapore.35

Fires

Gay World was ravaged by fire many times. A blaze in 1947 destroyed 29 stalls and a restaurant.36 Another fire in 1958 razed 33 stalls and part of the stadium, leading to losses of $300,000.37 In 1962, a fire broke out twice within two months, destroying a theatre, part of the cabaret and 26 stalls. More blazes occurred throughout the 1970s. The fire of 1988, however, was the most severe in 50 years, burning down approximately a quarter of the park, resulting in at least $1 million worth of damages.38 In 1996, Gay World was in a shabby state with some shops, a food centre and Gay World Exhibition Centre, which was in fact a furniture store.39

End of lease
In 2000, the Land Office, owner of the 3.2-hectare site, gave notice to the 150 tenants of Gay World to vacate the premises by 31 March that year. The site had been slated for residential development. Eng Wah Organisation thus ended its lease, while about 40 tenants housed mainly in sheds stayed on when the lease was extended till 30 June. They used rented generators and car batteries for electricity when power and water were cut off. Three tenants – Tai Thong Restaurant, New Happy Cinema and Datoh Rajah Theatre and Cabaret – stayed on beyond the deadline on temporary leases. Datoh Rajah had loyal patrons and attracted up to 300 patrons each weekend up until the last days. The park was finally demolished in 2001.40 The Gay World indoor stadium, later renamed Geylang Indoor Stadium and managed by the Singapore Sports Council, continued to operate at the site until its demolition after the Singapore Basketball Association ended its lease.41 Gay World was the last of the three Worlds to go.42


Authors
Marsita Omar, Nor-Afidah Abd Rahman & Goh Lee Kim



References
1. Singapore’s new playground. (1937, April 27). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. 100 new “taxi-dancers” make Singapore debut. (1937, May 7). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. $200,000 to be spent on Happy World. (1936, August 2). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Rudolph, J. (1996). Amusements in the three WorldsIn S. Krishnan, et al. (Eds.), Looking at culture. Singapore: Artres Design and Communications, pp. 21–22. (Call no.: RSING 306.095957 LOO); Tyers, R. (1993). Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then & now. Singapore: Landmarks Book Pte Ltd, p. 201. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS]); Ho, J. (1996, April 18). Great to be back in a whole new WorldThe Straits Times, p. 2; de Souza, A. (1998, July 16). Of fights and sweaty dinersThe Straits Times, p. 29; Tong, K. (1997, October 11). Once, the World was greatThe Straits Times, p. 1; Goh, C. L. (2004, June 14). Gay World no moreThe Straits Times, p. 2; Singapore’s new cabaret opens tonight. (1937, May 6). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Tyers, R. (1993). Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then & now. Singapore: Landmarks Book Pte Ltd, p. 200. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS]); Rudolph, J. (1996). Amusements in the three WorldsIn S. Krishnan, et al. (Eds.), Looking at culture. Singapore: Artres Design and Communications, pp. 21–22, 25, 28. (Call no.: RSING 306.095957 LOO)
6. Plans for charity performance. (1938, July 29). The Malaya Tribune, p. 7; Heathcott, M. (1940, November 19). Oleh Oleh play for war fundThe Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Badminton charity match in Singapore. (1939, October 12). The Malaya Tribune, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Rudolph, J. (1996). Amusements in the three worlds. In S. Krishnan, et al. (Eds.), Looking at culture. Singapore: Artres Design and Communications, pp. 24, 29. (Call no.: RSING 306.095957 LOO); Bose, R. (2012). Singapore at war: Secrets from the fall, liberation & aftermath of WWII. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 73. (Call no.: RSING 940.5425 BOS-[WAR]); Warren, A. (2002). Singapore 1942: Britain’s greatest defeat. Singapore: Talisman, p. 212. (Call no.: RSING 940.5425 WAR-[WAR])
9. Another 250 boys required for training. (1943, March 22). Syonan Shimbun, p. 22; Big chance for 250 enterprising youths to learn useful trades. (1942, September 13). Syonan Shimbun, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Mok, S. P. (1964, February 4). Trustee assumes control of parkThe Straits Times, p. 13; Court order in land case. (1963, September 20). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG. 
11. Fong, L. (1973, July 25). Govt takes over Gay WorldThe Straits Times, p. 1; Gay World Stadium gets $22,000 face-lift for Seap basketball matches. (1973, July 29). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Chang, K. S. (1983, June 25). New plans for the Gay World ParkSingapore Monitor, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Heng, G. (1976, July 13). Oh, so many worlds apart! New Nation, pp. 10–11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Tan, J. (1999, September 14). A faded, lonely placeThe New Paper, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Rudolph, J. (1996). Amusements in the three Worlds. In S. Krishnan, et al. (Eds.), Looking at culture. Singapore: Artres Design and Communications, p. 30. (Call no.: RSING 306.095957 LOO); Then & now. (2004, June 14). The Straits Times, p. 2; Goh, C. L. (2004, June 14). Gay World no moreThe Straits Times, p. 2; Leong, W. K. (2000, May 20). The last days of Gay WorldThe Straits Times, p. 69. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Tan, J. (1999, September 14). A faded, lonely placeThe New Paper, p. 18; Pleasure domes of the past. (1987, July 8). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Singapore’s new playground. (1937, April 27). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, p. 1; “Happy World” in Singapore. (1937, May 4). The Malaya Tribune, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Lee, T. S. (2009). Chinese street opera in Singapore. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, p. 34. (Call no.: RSING 782.1095957 LEE)
19. Tan, B. B. (1978, July 29). The early days of wayangNew Nation, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Singapore Festival ’68 will last one month. (1967, December 9). The Straits Times, p. 5; The big turnout is proof of public support. (1968, January 28). The Straits Times, p. 6Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Chan, K. S. (2000, June 12). Worlds of fun and gamesThe Straits Times, p. 7; Bud Walley wins over Gabo. (1937, November 13). The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. $200,000 to be spent on Happy World. (1936, August 2). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. The club verandah. (1937, November 17). The Straits Times, p. 17. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Singapore’s new playground. (1937, April 27). The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Sea Games venues. (1991, December 15). The Straits Times, p. 39; Lim, M. (1993, June 14). Mixed fortunes in the ring for duoThe Straits Times, p. 29. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Boxing innovation a success. (1937, October 23). The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Filipino boxers are due today. (1954, June 14). The Singapore Free Press, p. 14. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. De Souza, A. (1998, July 16). Of fights and sweaty dinersThe Straits Times, p. 29. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. Tyers, R. (1993). Ray Tyers' Singapore: Then & now. Singapore: Landmarks Book Pte Ltd, p. 201. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS]); Goh, C. L. (2004, June 14).  Rudolph, J. (1996). Amusements in the three Worlds. In S. Krishnan, et al. (Eds.), Looking at culture. Singapore: Artres Design and Communications, pp. 23, 28. (Call no.: RSING 306.095957 LOO); Goh, C. L. (2004, June 14). Gay World no moreThe Straits Times, p. 2; Chan, K. S. (2000, June 12). Worlds of fun and gamesThe Straits Times, p. 7; Leong, W. K. (2000, May 20). The last days of Gay WorldThe Straits Times, p. 69; De Souza, A. (1998, July 16). Of fights and sweaty dinersThe Straits Times, p. 29. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. Thousands throng engineering fair. (1939, August 2). The Malaya Tribune, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31. Trade fair puts colony on world map today. (1949, October 1). The Malaya Tribune, p. 2; Tonight’s the night- at Happy World. (1949, October 1). The Singapore Free Press, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
32. 100 new “taxi-dancers” make Singapore debut. (1937, May 7). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
33. Goh, C. L. (2004, June 14). Gay World no moreThe Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Rudolph, J. (1996). Amusements in the three Worlds. In S. Krishnan, et al. (Eds.), Looking at culture. Singapore: Artres Design and Communications, pp. 25–28. (Call no.: RSING 306.095957 LOO); Tyers, R. (1993). Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then & now. Singapore: Landmarks Book Pte Ltd, p. 200. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS])
34. Mak, M. S. (2007, November 3). The cinema manThe Straits Times, p. 71. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
35. Chee, F. (2009, February 22). Open-air cinema makes a comebackThe Straits Times, p. 45; De Souza, A. (1998, July 16). Of fights and sweaty dinersThe Straits Times, p. 29; Growing up on film. (2002, October 2). The Straits Times, p. 3; Ho, K. (2002, October 2). Goes placesThe Straits Times, p. 3; He’s happy to run just 1 screen. (1998, April 18). The Straits Times, p. 17. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
36. $80,000 fire in Singapore. (1947, June 3). The Singapore Free Press, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
37. Stadium damaged, stalls razed in park fire. (1958, March 23). The Straits Times, p. 1; 33 stalls razed by the big fire. (1958, March 4). Singapore Standard, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
38. Police suspect arson in Gay World fire. (1988, June 28). The Straits Times, p. 11; “火龙”肆虐繁华世界. (1988, June 27). 《联合早报》 [Lianhe Zaobao], p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
39. Then & now. (2004, June 14). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG. Rudolph, J. (1996). Amusements in the three worlds. In S. Krishnan, et al. (Eds.), Looking at culture. Singapore: Artres Design and Communications, p. 31. (Call no.: RSING 306.095957 LOO)
40. Then & now. (2004, June 14). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
41. Kua, E. (2001, January 22). BAS bids goodbye to Gay WorldThe Straits Times, p. S3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
42. Leong, W. K. (2000, July 18). Business as usual for Gay World tenantsThe Straits Times, p. 40; Leong, W. K. (2000, May 20). The last days of Gay WorldThe Straits Times, p. 69; Then & now. (2004, June 14). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at July 2020 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
Amusement parks--Singapore--History--20th century
Business, finance and industry>>Industry>>Leisure and entertainment
Recreation>>Places of Interest
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