During the golden age of Singapore music in the 1960s, Geylang was the epicenter of a pop revolution - where music spilled from nightclubs and kampongs, and Cliff Richard and The Rolling Stones ignited a fire.
SINGAPORE: At the start of Geylang Road, coming in from the city, sits an empty patch of land.
When a couple of camera-toting tourists step onto that nondescript field flanked by Mountbatten Road and Kallang Airport Drive, it is only to get that perfect, unobstructed shot of the nearby National Stadium’s shiny dome.
The empty plot, with a view of the National Stadium, along Geylang Road where Happy World (Gay World) once stood, before it was demolished in 2001. (Photo: Mayo Martin)
But had they been standing on this same spot in the early 1960s, that dome would not have existed - and even if it had, it might not have mattered.
Because on any random weekend night, beckoning the senses instead would have been a brightly-lit “Happy World" sign that seemed to draw a constant throng to an amusement park.
They would hear, from the two nightclubs flanking its entrance, the muffled live-band strains of Chinese, Malay or English pop, as formally-dressed folk pushed open the doors to head inside.
And if they were curious enough to enter the amusement park, and jostle their way through the maze of stalls selling food and all sorts of items, they would see a large, circular stadium in the centre. If there were no wrestling or boxing matches scheduled, it would be converted into a dance hall where, say, a Singaporean group like The Flamingos would be banging out Western combo music.
Back in the day, cabarets such as this one were a magnet for entertainment at night. (Photo: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore)
Outside the stadium, they would see small gazebos where shy, young men came up to shy, young women and, for a bit of change, danced to cha-cha, rhumba or ronggeng rhythms dished out by Malay bands.
It was a time when Singapore pop music was at the cusp of something radically exciting - and Geylang was at the heart of it all.
TRACK 1: A WHOLE NEW WORLD
Built in 1936, Happy World was the latest in the famous trio of “World” amusement parks. Along with New World at Jalan Besar and Great World at Kim Seng Road, these all-in-one consumer complexes were where Singaporeans got their fix of entertainment, from movies and arcade games, to sports and shopping, to, of course, music.
“All these so-called Worlds had a similar set-up. They would have night markets, dancing halls and cabarets,” said Mr Joseph Pereira, 62, author of three books on Singapore’s 1960s music scene.
For all that they were alike, however, each ‘World’ had its own claim to fame. New World’s was a certain striptease queen named Rose Chan, as well as popular cabaret Bunga Tanjong. Great World, too, had its own famous cabaret called the Flamingo.
But there was something extra special about Happy World - or Gay World, as it came to be known from 1966.
In 1966, Happy World Amusement Park was renamed Gay World. On either side of the main entrance were the nightclubs Datoh Rajah and Golden Coach. (Photo: MITA Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore)
For one, you could say that the local cabaret scene began here. The grand Datoh Rajah, one of the two nightclubs that flanked Happy World’s main entrance, was Singapore’s oldest.
It was also huge. “They would have 400 dancing girls inside, and there was a foodcourt in its basement,” recalled Mr Pereira who used to live in Kembangan, just east of Geylang.
“It was an amazing place. The professional bands, which were mostly Malay musicians, played on a raised platform and there would be many singers. It was like a show revue.”
But while Datoh Rajah might have reigned, it was for another sort of music royalty that Happy World went down in pop music history.
Over two nights in November 1961, British rock idol Cliff Richard and his backing band The Shadows held court at the amusement park’s stadium. After playing a total of four shows (at 6pm and 9pm each night), Richard and gang changed Singapore’s music scene forever.
Sharply dressed, in their early 20s and toting guitars that were — gasp! — plugged into amplifiers, the group was an out-of-this-world vision for many of the 20,000 mostly impressionable, music-loving youths who had come to watch.
Up to this point, they had been used to a relatively tamer, acoustic-driven sound – not this glorious ruckus played by people their age.
In the crowd was Mr Andy Lim, a Geylang resident in the 1960s who had earned the monicker the ‘Paul Anka of Singapore’, thanks to a sing-alike contest he’d won two years before. But Paul was no Cliff. And Paul didn’t have The Shadows.
“The stadium was so crowded. But nobody bothered with the heat because the heat onstage was worse — in a good way! It was a fantastic, really hot show. That’s when every boy who saw Cliff Richard and The Shadows, in their resplendent suits and with those guitars, went: ‘I wanna be a band boy!’” said Mr Lim, now a 75-year-old retired teacher and blogger.
“Those were really crazy years.”
In the early 1960s, Mr Andy Lim (second from right) performed with members of The Velvetones. He met the band as they were practising at a bungalow near the junction of Lorong 39 Geylang and Sims Avenue. (Photo: Andy Lim’s blog, http://singapore60smusic.blogspot.sg)
TRACK 2: GEYLANG ROAD ROCKERS
The youth had seen the future. And now, it seemed, they all wanted to be in a band, to dress up, and to rock out with an electric Fender guitar. The seismic waves of revolution spread out from Happy World to the rest of Singapore.
By the time fellow Brits The Rolling Stones dropped by for a one-night gig four years later, their venue, the Singapore Badminton Hall on Guillemard Road, had become a happening place to catch international and local acts. Such as the legendary The Quests - a group started by four teenage students inspired by Cliff and The Shadows, and whose chart-topping hits displaced even The Beatles here in Singapore.
For those who lived in Geylang, the reverberations were literally louder and more sustained. This new brand of pop music flowed all the way down Geylang Road, branching out into the lorongs, and further on, into the kampongs of Geylang Serai, Eunos, Kembangan and Chai Chee.
The streets were alive with the sound of music. Clanging, noisy, thumping music at just about every street corner. And even if you shied away from calling yourself a musician, you inevitably got sucked into becoming something of one.
Take Mr Lim, for example. During the early 1960s, he was a young teacher. But he soon found himself taking on the stage moniker Andy Young. At various points in his relatively short, semi-professional-but-really-more-amateur music career, he performed with bands such as The Velvetones, The Silver Strings and The Swallows.
It just couldn’t be helped — bands and musicians were all over the place.
Up until the late 1960s, Mr Lim lived in a shophouse on Geylang Road, between Lorongs 39 and 41, diagonally opposite another famous entertainment landmark in Geylang – the Queen’s Cinema, where films by P Ramlee were shown.
“Two doors away, there was a medical clinic where I came to know of a William Tan, who was a singer in a Peranakan group. Five to seven houses down from where I lived was The Stylers, a very famous band in the Chinese pop scene. For the first party I ever organised, I got them to play,” he said. “In the evenings, you’d walk down the streets and you would hear music somewhere.”
One of these places was a huge bungalow at Lorong 39. Owned by a certain Mr Wahab, bands would congregate there to practice. It was there that Mr Lim first met his future bandmates, The Velvetones. And when not jamming out there, he could cross over to nearby Geylang Serai to hang out with his musically-inclined Baweanese friends, at the area where City Plaza now stands.
“That’s where I picked up playing the guitar. There’s one chap I remember who carried one everywhere. He’d go to the market with his guitar!”
Musicians used to congregate at a few places. One of these was where City Plaza (right) now stands. (Photo: Mayo Martin)
TRACK 3: MALAY POP GOES YEH YEH
It wasn’t just Happy World, the Singapore Badminton Hall or those lorongs lined up all the way to Paya Lebar Road that were crawling with musicians and bands.
The predominantly Malay area of Geylang Serai and surrounding kampongs was a vast beehive of band activity. It was home to one of Singapore’s most important pop music movements, Pop Yeh Yeh.
The British invasion may have been spearheaded by the live concerts of Cliff Richard and The Rolling Stones, but it was the biggest band sensation in the world that helped shape the identity of an entire new sub-genre of youth music — without them even setting foot in Singapore.
When The Beatles sang ‘She Loves You (Yeah Yeah Yeah)’, it inspired the phrase that came to describe the melding of the Fab Four’s pop sensibilities with Malay rhythmic and vocal stylings. (It may have been coincidence, or not, that around the same time the French also experienced a similar youth music movement called “yeye”.)
Mr Andy Lim performing with the Pop Yeh Yeh band The Swallows in the early 1960s, at the Adelphi Hotel. (Photo: Andy Lim’s blog, http://singapore60smusic.blogspot.sg)
Pop Yeh Yeh’s roots were in the so-called kugiran bands, a shortened term for Kumpulan Gitar Rancak or “lively guitar group” in Malay, who would team up with singers. And in Geylang, there was no shortage of either.
Pop Yeh Yeh singer-drummer M Ishak had already been in bands before the new scene exploded, but when it did, it was really something else. Now 70, he recalls how musicians — including himself, his band The Young Lovers, and others such as The Siglap 5 and The Rhythm Boys — would hang out at a restaurant at Block 1, Geylang Serai.
“It was a very lively atmosphere. Sometimes overseas bands would hang out there too. There was a lot of networking, and everyone who wanted us to play (for an event) knew to look for us there,” he said.
The bands would rehearse at community centres or at each other’s houses. “Last time, it was very free, so we could do whatever we wanted,” Mr Ishak added.
The kampongs around Geylang Road, with their modest atap and wooden houses, evoked a contrasting vibe to the shophouses and huge bungalows in the numbered lorongs. What they did have in common was pop music and the integral fashion of the times – although, some would argue that to be honest, the kampong folk had the edge musically and fashion-wise.
“The Malays were trendsetters,” said Mr Pereira, who lived in a wooden house in Jalan Lapang in Kembangan. “They dressed very sharply, whether it was going to work or just hanging out. They followed fashion trends — at that time it was mod fashion — and they’d be on scooters. At every kampong, you were bound to see a Vespa parked alongside the roads.”
The 1960s music phenomenon Pop Yeh Yeh emerged from the kampongs of Geylang Serai, Eunos, Kembangan and Chai Chee. (Photo: Mayo Martin)
During the Pop Yeh Yeh boom, bands mushroomed all over the place. For a time, Mr Pereira even had a singer named Ahmad Jais living right next door.
“He had a very powerful voice and when he took a shower, he liked to sing. His voice carried into our house,” the author recalled.
In nearby Jalan Senang lived some members of five — yes, five — bands. When his family moved from Jalan Lapang to nearby Jalan Wijaya, said Mr Pereira, “a lot of musicians also stayed in that humble little street”.
Had there been a national census on people who could sing or play an instrument, the kampongs around Geylang Road could probably lay claim comfortably to being the collective capital of Singapore music in the 1960s.
“The greatest concentration of pop bands was in this area. From the beginning of Paya Lebar Road all the way to the foothills of Chai Chee, all the sub-streets would have bands rehearsing and performing,” said Mr Pereira.
Some of the Pop Yeh Yeh bands that hit the local music scene: (clockwise from top left): The Clans with Fatimah M Amin; The Cliffters; Eddie Ahmad and The Antartics; and The Bateks. (Photos: Courtesy of Joseph Pereira’s Beyond The Tea Dance Facebook page)
“At that time, the thing to do when you had a wedding reception in the village was to hire a pop band to play. And many did.” As a primary school boy, he’d go and listen free-of-charge to such wedding bands.
“The houses were not gated. In between houses, there would be a tent for festivities and they would have a bandstand to the side. I’d stand there thinking they looked very cool. They really dressed up, not like now where bands dress down,” said Mr Pereira.
Mr Lim, who had many friends in the kampongs, also recalled Malay weddings as a place to check out musical talents. “There would always be a band onstage. And two things would always attract people to a Malay wedding — the fabulous food and the music,” he said.
TRACK 4: THE PEAK AND THE HANGOVER
Of course, a music scene doesn’t just thrive on wedding gigs alone. Pop Yeh Yeh became a national phenomenon.
Geylang Road today may be a one-way street, but back then it went in both directions. And you could say the same of the music at that time. Just as the impact of British pop coursed its way down to the kampongs and lorongs, so the burgeoning music from inspired Singaporean lads also worked its way up and around the entire country.
Albums from some of the proponents of Pop Yeh Yeh: (clockwise from top left) Jeffrydin and The Siglap Five, A Ramlie and the Rhythm Boys; The Swallows; The Clans and Fatimah M. Amin; Eddie Ahmad and The Antartics; and Ismail Harun. (Photos: Courtesy of Joseph Pereira’s Beyond The Tea Dance Facebook page)
One love song called ‘Suzanna’, by Pop Yeh Yeh singer M Osman, became a nationwide hit in 1963, for instance. Radio and television took note and spread the sound to a bigger audience.
Even before Pop Yeh Yeh, movies were already a crucial outlet for many Malay musicians, who would write tunes and soundtracks for the studios of Shaw Brothers and Cathay Keris. And in 1967, the scene itself became the subject of a film — A-Go-Go `67 featured performances from 12 Pop Yeh Yeh bands.
Among them was M Ishak and The Young Lovers. The group had already had a hit called ‘Yale Yale’ – a slow Indonesian song given the up-tempo Pop Yeh Yeh treatment – and was enjoying popularity that, while not quite Beatlemania standards, came close. Especially when they performed in Malaysia and Indonesia.
“It was crazy whenever we went overseas to perform. All these girls would chase after us screaming. They’d make us sign everything, even their own clothes,” Mr Ishak recalled.
As for Singapore? It was slightly tamer. “They’d scream but we didn’t get mobbed. Our management and security were very strict,” he quipped.
YouTube user: dekerinchi
By most accounts, Pop Yeh Yeh eventually fizzled out in 1971. But it wasn’t the only music movement that had to adjust to the changes in that decade.
The Government had increasingly been casting a critical eye on afternoon tea dances, at which youths were rockin’ and rollin’ across the island, due to gangster-related violence and drugs. And in 1972, there was a stabbing incident at the Boiler Room nightclub at Mandarin Hotel, which led to the authorities imposing a total ban on live music in clubs, said Mr Pereira.
“Gangsterism, the increasing drug addiction problem — it was all associated with the nightlife scene. (The ban) lasted for about five years, and by the time it was lifted, it was a bit late. The live music scene had totally weakened. A lot of the working bands went elsewhere, where they could find work, or stopped playing completely,” he said.
A series of other events after that further ensured that the collective live music scene would take a while to recover: Nightclubs found it cheaper to hire bands from the Philippines, and later on, an even cheaper option called karaoke was introduced.
As for Geylang itself, the area was undergoing an identity crisis of sorts. Amid all the multiracial peace, love and happiness vibe of the early 1960s, a bomb had exploded in Geylang Serai during the Konfrontasi period, and there were two incidences of racial riots — all taking place in 1964.
At the same time, the modernisation of a newly-minted post-Malaya Singapore was underway. In 1965, the year of Singapore’s separation from Malaysia and the year The Rolling Stones played at the nearby Singapore Badminton Hall, construction began on flats in the kampongs where Vespas were once casually parked outside atap houses.
The character of the Geylang of the numbered lorongs was changing, too. The rich folks who lived in those grand bungalows, such as that of the generous band-supporting Mr Wahab, were slowly shifting out. Sleaze and vice, which for the longest time was discretely tucked away, started to become more prominent.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, this part of Geylang Road was so quiet that come 10.30pm, you could sleep on the road, quipped former resident Andy Lim. (Photo: Mayo Martin)
It was a far cry from the Geylang that Mr Lim had grown up in, during the 1950s and early 1960s.
“It was quiet in the early years. Last time, by 9.30pm, 10.30pm, you could sleep in the middle of the road,” he quipped. “As Singapore became a city and everything grew, it slowly changed.”
Happy World, too, wasn’t immune — and it wasn’t just the cosmetic name change to Gay World that took place.
The year after Cliff Richard and The Shadows played, fire broke out twice at the amusement park, damaging Datoh Rajah and a movie theatre. There would be fire troubles throughout the 1970s and by then, Datoh Rajah had also acquired a reputation for being sleazy and rough.
Then, in 1992, Singapore’s oldest cabaret was gone — gutted by a fire believed to be started by arsonists. Like an omen of sorts, two musicians had broken their legs jumping out as they tried to escape the blazing inferno.
By 1999, Gay World had become a hollow shell, populated by stray dogs and people who collected scrap metal pieces and sold car parts. The following year, the handful of hardy remaining tenants continued to trudge on without power or water.
In 2001, Gay World finally gave up its ghost, and the entire area was flattened and demolished.
While the land has been designated for residential use, a huge question mark continues to hang over it to this day. Except for a brief period where temporary concrete-making plants were up on the site, it now lies there like a vast flat tomb, its only marker a converted-shophouse hotel across Geylang Road that bears the same name as the amusement park.
Gay World was such a Geylang Road landmark back in the day that there's a hotel named after it across the road. It’s the only sign now that the amusement park once existed. (Photo: Mayo Martin)
TRACK 5: OLD WAVE MEETS NEW WAVE
The bright lights of 1960s Geylang may have dimmed, but the music it spawned eventually did recover.
These days, music practitioners point to the healthy interest in local bands, the growth in music audiences, and the increase in festivals, music events and venues, as signs of a renaissance decades after what many consider to be the golden age of Singapore music.
And while disco, punk and indie music have taken their turns as the music of choice for youths, the DNA of the Pop Yeh Yeh sound and its counterparts in the other languages can be seen in some of today’s bands, such as retro rockers The Pinholes, whose snazzy fashion sense is arguably a direct throwback to the mod fashion of the 1960s.
Even the old-timers are getting in on the action once more.
In August, M Ishak will be performing outdoors at The Esplanade for the first time, as part of a Pop Yeh Yeh concert for the Pesta Raya festival. Incidentally, the show, which also features other music veterans such as Maria Bachok and M Wari, was spearheaded by the son of another Pop Yeh Yeh icon, the late Salim I.
“I’m very excited because I’ve never performed there before and I think the crowd will be great,” said Mr Ishak. “The younger generation know how to appreciate Pop Yeh Yeh, and I’ve seen a few bands playing music from the `60s. I think they do justice to the era and genre.”
Pop Yeh Yeh singer and musician M Ishak has still got it in him. He will be performing at an outdoor concert at the Esplanade in August. (Photo: Esplanade)
Of the current Singapore bands that tip their hat to the past, the most interesting of these has been a duo called NADA. They describe what they do as a “homage to the golden era of Malay music and culture”.
But it’s as strange an homage as you can get. Singer-performer Rizman Putra and electronic musician Safuan Johari don’t dress up like mod rockers and they don’t even play guitars.
Instead, Rizman struts around like a hyperactive zombie, his face painted white, blurting a mash-up of chopped-up retro rock lyrics translated into Malay and random nonsense; he’s part-athletic cheerleading frontman, part-heckler.
Meanwhile, Safuan comes across as some hip wizard manning the computer. Wearing a hat and a black jubah, or traditional Arabic garb, he dishes out electronic beats with sounds sampled from Malay, Chinese and Western pop music of the 1960s to the 1980s.
Music duo NADA, comprising Rizman Putra (left) and Safuan Johari, take 1960s Malay pop tunes into the 21st century by combining samples with electronic music. (Photo: throbbingpixels)
It started off as a one-off art side-project in 2014, an exhibition at the Malay Heritage Centre about a fictional band called NADA (they’ve even invented names for their personas, anagrams of their own names).
But NADA has since become the real deal, and they’ve gone on to perform their retro-tinged music in Paris, Beijing, New York and London, as well as at festivals in Singapore.
The two members of NADA are in their 30s and are obviously too young to know first-hand about the 1960s, but both grew up listening to stories and music about that particular era. (Rizman digs singer Ismail Haron, aka the Tom Jones of Singapore, while Safuan’s a huge fan of The Swallows, the Pop Yeh Yeh band that Mr Lim once performed with as Andy Young.)
And while their dance tunes are as far as you can get from Pop Yeh Yeh (or any old pop music for that matter), they say it is precisely this post-modern take — invented personas, a larger-than-life and almost theatrical approach, plus randomly selected tracks put respectfully in a music blender — that lets them explore their musical heritage in as fun a way as possible.
“None of us actually lived in that era or have a personal experience of the scene, so as we’re creating our work, we’re also trying to create a bridge to reimagine things back then,” said Safuan.
Added Rizman: “It’s easy to be nostalgic, but we’re trying our best not to. It’s more about excavating these old songs that people have never heard of and presenting them in a new format and platform. We are like the ghost of the past.”
BONUS TRACK: THE GHOST COMES ALIVE
At the tip of Geylang, coming in from the city, a stone’s throw from where Gay World Amusement Park used to be, is an abandoned building.
Before the 1960s, Old Kallang Aiport used to be just that – an airport. When the Swinging Sixties came along, it became the headquarters of People’s Association’s community-bonding plans before it was gazetted for conservation.
A few years ago, it became a fashionable venue-for-hire for arts and lifestyle events, such as the Singapore Biennale in 2011 and a few other shows by fashion brands.
Nowadays, it’s tough to get a decent picture of its modernist-looking Terminal Building because directly behind it looms the distracting shiny, futuristic-looking dome of the National Stadium across Nicoll Highway.
The Old Kallang Airport building, located a stone’s throw from the start of Geylang Road, was the site of Club Malam, a show that revived the old 1960s spirit of Geylang over one weekend in July 2016. (Photo: Mayo Martin)
But had camera-toting tourists (and Singaporeans) been here at night, on the second weekend of July 2016, they would have seen the ghost of Geylang’s music past come alive…
The event is Club Malam, by the Singapore International Festival of Arts, and NADA is performing to an enthusiastic crowd.
Rizman is singing in Malay, cheekily encouraging people to shout “Bodoh!”, Malay for “stupid”.
“Who says humans are stupid? Who says humans are dumb? But you gotta listen to your mum. ‘Cos you are as dumb as a goat!” he proclaims, jerking around as if possessed.
“Bodoh!” the crowd cheers on. Shaky footage, whether from an old Malay television show or movie, one is not sure, flashes in the background. Meanwhile, Safuan is hunched over his laptop, fiddling with the beats, taken from two Chinese pop tracks — including an instrumental song by The Stylers.
It’s an odd coincidence, considering that once upon a time, members of The Stylers hung out just a short distance down at Geylang Road.
It’s just as odd as what happens offstage at Club Malam. Look closer, and one realises another performance is simultaneously taking place — a small group gathers in one corner and is doing the ronggeng, a few young ladies sidle up to strangers with a coy smile, a subtle invitation to dance.
There’s a brief feeling of deja vu. Fifty years after the boom of Geylang’s music scene, you can dance with "cabaret girls", Malay musicians are dishing out infectious pop, and everyone is having fun.
It’s not quite the same, but it will have to do.
“Cabaret” girls mingling with the audience and electronic music duo NADA bring Geylang’s 1960s music scene briefly back to life at the Old Kallang Airport, at the Club Malam event for the Singapore International Festival of Arts’ The OPEN mini-festival. (Photo: Ruth Lo Weng See)