Gay World (Happy World)

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.

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

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


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

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

1. “Singapore’s New Playground,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 27 April 1937, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
2. “100 New “Taxi-Dancers” Make Singapore Debut,” Straits Times, 7 May 1937, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
3. “$200,000 to Be Spent on Happy World,” Straits Times, 2 August 1936, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
4. J. Rudolph, “Amusements in the Three Worlds” in Looking at Culture, et al., ed. Sanjay Krishnan (. Singapore: Artres Design and Communications, 1996), 21–22 (Call no. RSING 306.095957 LOO); Ray Tyers and Siow Jin Hua, Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then & Now (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1993), 201 (Call no. RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS]); “Great to Be Back in a Whole New World,” Straits Times, 18 April 1996, 2; Alison de Souza, “Of Fights and Sweaty Diners,” Straits Times, 16 July 1998, 29; Kelvin Tong, “Once, the World Was Great,” Straits Times, 11 October 1997, 1; Goh Chin Lian, “Gay World No More,” Straits Times, 14 June 2004, 2; “Singapore’s New Cabaret Opens Tonight,” Straits Times, 6 May 1937, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 200; Rudolph, Amusements in the Three Worlds,21–22, 25, 28.
6. “Plans for Charity Performance,” Malaya Tribune, 29 July 1938, 7; Mary Heathcott, “Oleh Oleh Play for War Fund,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 19 November 1940, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
7. “Badminton Charity Match in Singapore,” Malaya Tribune, 12 October 1939, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Rudolph, “Amusements in the Three Worlds,24, 29; Romen Bose, Singapore at War: Secrets from the Fall, Liberation & Aftermath of WWII (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2012), 73 (Call no. RSING 940.5425 BOS-[WAR]); Alan Warren, Singapore 1942: Britain’s Greatest Defeat (Singapore: Talisman, 2002), 212. (Call no. RSING 940.5425 WAR-[WAR])
9. “Another 250 Boys Required for Training,” Syonan Shimbun, 22 March 1943, 22; “Big Chance for 250 Enterprising Youths to Learn Useful Trades,” Syonan Shimbun, 13 September 1942, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Mok Sin Pin, “Trustee Assumes Control of Park,” Straits Times, 4 February 1964, 13; “Court Order in Land Case,” Straits Times, 20 September 1963, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Leslie Fong, “Govt Takes Over Gay World,” Straits Times, 25 July 1973, 1; “Gay World Stadium Gets $22,000 Face-Lift for Seap Basketball Matches,” Straits Times, 29 July 1973, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Chang Kwang Seh, “New Plans for the Gay World Park,” Singapore Monitor, 25 June 1983, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Geraldine Heng, “Oh, So Many Worlds Apart!,” New Nation, 13 July 1976, 10–11. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Jason Tan, “A Faded, Lonely Place,” New Paper, 14 September 1999, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Rudolph, “Amusements in the Three Worlds,30;Then & Now,” Straits Times, 14 June 2004, 2; Goh, “Gay World No More”; Leong Weng Kam, “The Last Days of Gay World,” Straits Times, 20 May 2000, 69. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Tan, “Faded, Lonely Place”; “Pleasure Domes of the Past,” Straits Times, 8 July 1987, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
17. “Singapore’s New Playground”; “‘Happy World’ in Singapore,” Malaya Tribune, 4 May 1937, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Tong Soon Lee, Chinese Street Opera in Singapore (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 34. (Call no. RSING 782.1095957 LEE)
19. Tan Bah Bah, “The Early Days of Wayang,” New Nation, 29 July 1978, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
20. “Singapore Festival ’68 Will Last One Month,” Straits Times, 9 December 1967, 5; “The Big Turnout Is Proof of Public Support,” Straits Times, 28 January 1968, 6(From NewspaperSG)
21. Chan Kwee Sung, “Worlds of Fun and Games,” Straits Times, 12 June 2000, 7; “Bud Walley Wins Over Gabo,” Straits Times, 13 November 1937, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “$200,000 to Be Spent on Happy World,” Straits Times, 2 August 1936, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
23. “The club verandah,” Straits Times, 17 November 1937, 17. (From NewspaperSG)
24. “Singapore’s New Playground.”
25. “Sea Games Venues,” Straits Times, 15 December 1991, 39; Marc Lim, “Mixed Fortunes in the Ring for Duo,” Straits Times, 14 June 1993, 29. (From NewspaperSG)
26. “Boxing Innovation a Success,” Straits Times, 23 October 1937, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
27. “Filipino Boxers Are Due Today,” Singapore Free Press, 14 June 1954, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
28. de Souza, “Of Fights and Sweaty Diners.” 
29. Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 201; Rudolph, Amusements in the Three Worlds,23, 28; Goh, Gay World No More”; Chan, “Worlds of Fun and Games”; Leong, “Last Days of Gay World”; de Souza, “Of Fights and Sweaty Diners.” 
30. “Thousands Throng Engineering Fair,” Malaya Tribune, 2 August 1939, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
31. “Trade Fair Puts Colony on World Map Today,” Malaya Tribune, 1 October 1949, 2; “Tonight’s the Night- at Happy World,” Singapore Free Press, 1 October 1949, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
32. “100 New ‘Taxi-Dancers’.”
33. Goh, Goh, “Gay World No More”; Rudolph, “Amusements in the Three Worlds,25–28; Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 200.
34. Mak Mun San, “The Cinema Man,” Straits Times, 3 November 2007, 71. (From NewspaperSG)
35. Frankie Chee, “Open-Air Cinema Makes a Comeback,” Straits Times, 22 February 2009, 45; de Souza, “Of Fights and Sweaty Diners”; “Growing Up on Film,” Straits Times, 2 October 2002, 3; Karl Ho, “Goes Places,” Straits Times, 2 October 2002, 3; “He’s Happy to Run Just 1 Screen,” Straits Times, 18 April 1998, 17. (From NewspaperSG)
36. “$80,000 Fire in Singapore,” Singapore Free Press, 3 June 1947, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
37. “Stadium Damaged, Stalls Razed in Park Fire,” Straits Times, 23 March 1958, 1; “33 Stalls Razed By the Big Fire,” Singapore Standard, 4 March 1958, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
38. “Police Suspect Arson in Gay World Fire,” Straits Times, 28 June 1988, 11; “‘Huolong’ sinue fanhua shijie” 火龙”肆虐繁华世界 [‘Fire Dragon’ ravages the prosperous world], Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报, 27 June 1988, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
39. “Then & Now”; Rudolph, “Amusements in the Three Worlds,31.
40. “Then & Now.”
41. Elgen Kua, “BAS Bids Goodbye to Gay World,” Straits Times, 22 January 2001, S3. (From NewspaperSG)
42. Leong Weng Kam, “Business as Usual for Gay World Tenants,” Straits Times, 18 July 2000, 40 (From Newspaper); Leong, “Last Days of Gay World”; “Then & Now.”

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.


Amusement parks--Singapore--History--20th century
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