Follow the streams of cars purring east and west, the sweating rickshaw pullers pulling families of two, three or four, mingle with the walking crowd and let yourself be led by them and you eventually come to a huge gateway. Electric words proclaim you are entering a 'World', a 'Great' and a 'New' world, a world bounded by high fencing, inside which can be found laughter and happiness, and the comedies and tragedies of life.
(Singapore Free Press, Apr 27, 1937)
It was after the Depression that the Shaws diversified their entertainment business into other areas like amusement parks. These were modelled after the ones in Shanghai where they were a massive hit with the local population.
From the mid 30s to the 80s the Shaws operated two highly popular fairgrounds. They were the Great World at Kim Seng Road and New World at Jalan Besar.
The New World had already been operating since 1923 under Ong Boon Tat and Ong Peng Hock, two prominent Baba Merchants. It entertained with boxing, wrestling, variety shows, opera and a small cabaret with Philipino artistes.
Soon after, the Great World was opened by businessman Lim Choon Seng.
Eventually, the Shaws bought out their partner and wholly owned both New World and Great World.
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The New World, bounded by Serangoon and Kitchener Roads whose population was predominantly the middle and lower strata, started out much more boisterous than Great World. However, both parks had their fair sprinkling of all the races including Europeans and Eurasians.
Without television, and for most people, even radio, going to the amusement parks satisfied their craving for entertainment. Many families went at least once a week.
With admission price of 10 cents, patrons were greeted by joyrides such as roller coasters as well as the usual fun fair games, ferris wheel, ghost trains, open air dancing, circus and fashion shows. Within the parks, regular contests and lucky draws were also held. In some events, attractive prizes such cars were up for grabs.
Refreshments could easily be found in the parks. Apart from the many excellent hawker stalls, both New World and Great World had formal restaurants serving Cantonese as well as Western cuisine. The Cantonese restaurants were popular venues for wedding dinners and matchmaking among the Chinese. In the Great World, the Black and Normal Cafe was a popular place for the latter.
Dance floor of the Great World cabaret, 1947
Another big draw were Chinese wayang and Malay opera performances.
Patrons who were willing to view them from the sides could avoid the 10 cents charge for seats within boundaries. Fairground cinemas were also immensely popular with the crowds.
They were the Pacific, State and Grand in New World; Sky (top right), Globe (center right), Canton and Atlantic in Great World. In fact, cinemas already existed in the fairgrounds since 1927 'the silent film era', long before the Shaws came in.
By the late 30s, New World had invented itself as the pioneer amusement park in Malaya. Visitors to Singapore like Charlie Chaplin even included it in his itinerary.
Arguably the most popular attraction in both New World and Great World were their cabarets. These opened around 7 pm, closing on midnight during the week and 1 am on Saturdays. In the 1930s, admission fee was between 50 cents and one dollar.
On weekends, there were tea dances that cost a dollar for three dances. Cabaret ballroom dancing was dominated by the waltz, fox-trot, quickstep, tango and rhumba. Big bands like the American Dance Band and D'Souza's entertained crowds in the 1930s with the latest Western tunes.
One of the main draws was the nightly floor shows performance by Shanghainese beauties. These floor shows were patronised by all segments of society but mostly towkays and young Chinese men dressed in Normal European clothes and black leather shoes. Many were regulars and came almost every night. Besides floor shows, customers to the cabaret were entertained by cabaret girls who, at any one time, numbered over 150.
Band of the New World cabaret, 1930s
They were predominantly local or Hong Kong Chinese girls but attired in semi-European dresses with provocatively high side-slits. Sometimes, Eurasians, Indians and Filipino girls were also available. The Eurasian girls were especially popular with British soldiers who did not understand the languages the other girls spoke.
Of all the Cabarets, the New World boasted the youngest girls. The cabaret girls were known as taxi-girls because they could be hired for dancing by anyone with a coupon. These coupons were purchased by single men at the door. Three dances cost one dollar. Out of this, Cabaret girls were generally paid a commission of about 8 cents a dance and each dance is registered on a card.
Popular girls, whose dance cards were always filled, would be promoted by management and allowed to keep all their coupon takings. Others were paid a fixed salary of $25 monthly but only 40% of coupon takings. The girls could even be booked at a rate of $13 an hour, of which they kept a fraction as commission. Often, 'booking' meant that the man could date the hostess after the cabaret closed. But at such a high booking fee which only rich towkays could afford, most men could only engage dance hostesses for a few dances.
The dancing floor in the cabarets were huge. In New World, the dance floor could hold up to 500 twirling couples. Security within the premises were tight and drunks were kept in check by beefy bouncers.