Great World Amusement Park
by Marsita Omar
Great World Amusement Park was one of the three “Worlds” that lighted up Singapore’s nightlife in the 1950s and 1960s. Although it closed in 1964, cinemas, cabaret and restaurants continued operations at the park until 1978. Today, the site is occupied by Great World City, which comprises a shopping centre, office suites and a residential complex. The new complex’s snazzy facade bears no resemblance to the old park.1
Great World Amusement Park was also known as Tua Seh Kai in Hokkien, meaning “great world”.2 It sat on a 300,000 sq ft site bounded by Kim Seng Road, River Valley Road and Zion Road.3 The park had a humble beginning, with 150 wooden shacks and was sited at a Chinese cemetery in the 1920s. The owner of the land was Lee Choon Yung (a relative of the philanthropist, Lee Kong Chian) who then developed the site into an amusement park in the early 1930s for low-income families. There were free films and Peking operas to watch in addition to wrestling and boxing matches. But business was dull, and Lee Choon Yung sold his park to the Shaw Organisation in 1941 during World War II.4
During the Japanese Occupation of Singapore, the park was transformed into a prison for Australian prisoners-of-war (POWs). Many suicides took place at the park due to the ill-treatment and harsh conditions in the camps. Later, the POWs were transferred to shacks behind the park, so that the park could continue with its activities, particularly gambling, which had become popular. During the Japanese Occupation, the park was renamed as Dai Segai and boxing matches were often held.5
The end of the Japanese Occupation also meant the end of gambling dens in Great World. Instead it heralded the revival of cultural shows. Cantonese, Chaozhou and Peking operas, as well as Bangsawan (Malay operas) and revue shows featuring popular songs began to attract families who flocked to the park. The rubber boom in the 1950s brought prosperity and more business, and Shaw provided major upgrades to the park. Wooden stalls were spruced up, fountains were created and carnival rides were installed including the carousel and ferris wheel. The Ghost Train in particular became a popular ride.6
In 1958, the park had a grand reopening. It coincided with the grand premiere of Sky, one of the cinemas in the park. The premiere was graced by Elizabeth Taylor and her late husband Mike Todd. From then on, Great World bustled with visitors during the major festivals and several trade fairs organised by the Shaw organisation, such as the Indian Trade Exhibition in 1958. During its heyday, the park’s record attendance for one night was 50,000.7
Food was said to be excellent at Great World. Besides hawker food, two restaurants serving Cantonese cuisines became household names – Wing Choon Yuen and Diamond – with the former being famous for its suckling pig and shark’s fin. Other mainstays of the park were cabaret performances, hosted by the Flamingo Nite-Club, and four theatres namely Canton, Atlantic, Sky and Globe, which screened both Chinese and English films.8
As with the other two amusement parks in Singapore then, Gay World and New World, the boom period for these outfits came to a standstill with the arrival of television and the opening of supermarkets and pasar malams (night roadside market) throughout the island in the 1960s. The number of visitors to Great World declined, and the park was eventually closed down on 31 March 1964, although the cinemas and restaurants remained until 1978.9
In 1979, Shaw sold the park to Robert Kuok, a Malaysian Chinese business magnate and investor, dubbed Malaysia’s “Sugar King”. The Kuok Group-owned Midpoint Properties proposed to build a residential and shopping complex in 1981 but was deterred by the S$162 million development charge to re-zone the land into a shopping area. It abandoned the plan in 1984 but eventually paid a reduced charge of S$55 million in 1986. The group then resumed the construction of the S$600 million Great World City Shopping Centre. The shopping complex presents an almost total break from the loud and luminous old amusement park.10
Marsita Omar & Makeswary Periasamy
1. Tyers, R. (1993). Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then & now. Singapore: Landmarks Book, p. 200. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS]); Great to be back in a whole new world: the way we were. (1996, April 18). The Straits Times, p. 2; Chan, K. S. (2000, June 12). Worlds of fun and games. The Straits Times, p. 7; Tong, K. (1997, October 11). Once, the world was great. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Tong, K. (1997, October 11). Great World. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Chan, K. S. (2000, June 12). Worlds of fun and games. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Tong, K. (1997, October 11). Great World. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Tong, K. (1997, October 11). Great World. The Straits Times, p. 4; Chan, K. S. (2000, June 12). Worlds of fun and games. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Tong, K. (1997, October 11). Great World. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Chia, F. (1984). Reminiscences. Singapore: Magro International, p. 60. (Call no.: RSING 959.5700994 CHI-[HIS]
7. Tong, K. (1997, October 11). Great World. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Tong, K. (1997, October 11). Great World. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Tong, K. (1997, October 11). Great World. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Lee, L. (1988, March 9). The Kuok Group reaches for the sky. The Business Times, p. 1; Great to be back in a whole new world: The way we were. (1996, April 18). The Straits Times, p. 2; Tong, K. (1997, October 11).Great World. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
The information in this article is valid as at 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.