Gay World was one of three amusement parks built in Singapore before World War II around which Singapore's nightlife revolved from the '20s 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 combined a heady mix of eastern and western forms of entertainment including cabaret, operas, movies, gaming, sport matches, stunts and shopping. Ravaged by fires many times, Eng Wah terminated the lease to the park in 2000, marking Gay World's exit from Singapore's amusement park scene.
Gay World was one of the three "World" amusement parks that provided affordable entertainment for Singaporeans. The other two were Great World (early 1930s-1978) and New World (1923-1987). Before the days of television and shopping malls, Singaporeans of all ages and from all walks of life sought out thrills provided by these amusement parks. Gay World, located between Mountbatten and Geylang roads, was set up in 1936. The founder was George Lee Geok Eng (of George Lee Motors fame), and the park was originally known as Happy World when it started. Happy World catered especially to families with children.
Before the war, patrons at Happy World were kept enthralled by an east-meets-west mix of entertainment; cabaret, ronggeng, bangsawan, wayangs, movies, gaming, sport matches, stunts, circus and shopping. The fees to these recreations were affordable, even to youths.
In the years leading to WWII, Happy World was caught up with mainland China's war effort. The Straits Chinese China Relief Fund Committee of Singapore organised activities to collect funds for China, including staging a modernised bangsawan for 3,000 babas and nyonyas. Shortly before the Japanese Occupation, the Aihua Musical Society which supported resistance against the Japanese, promoted concerts by Wuhan Choir from China who sang in Mandarin to packed audiences at Happy World for ten evenings. When Japanese air-raids hit Singapore in January 1942, business at Happy World continued, and the cabaret had blackout dances (with no lights) to escape the Japanese bombings.
During the Japanese occupation, the Japanese turned all the Worlds into gambling farms, encouraging Chinese businessmen, like the Shaw Brothers, to run the parks as gambling dens. As these dens were precluded from raids, the bright lights at the World's continued. They attracted gamblers who fed into the Japanese effort to derive revenue from tax and license fees of gambling farms. The Japanese though were not allowed in the gambling farms but they could patronise the cabarets and nightclubs. When rumours about the Japanese surrender were rife in August 1945, the gambling stalls in all the Worlds closed down.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Singaporeans thronged the Happy World when it opened in the evenings. It was renamed Gay World in 1966. However by the late 1970s and the 1980s, the place was already considered out-dated, especially with the dawn of cineplexes, glitzy shopping malls and game arcades. The four main tenants that remained the longest at Gay World were Eng Wah Organisation, Datoh Rajah Theatre and Cabaret, Tai Thong Restaurant and New Happy Cinema.
The Gay World was ravaged by fire many times. In 1962, fire broke out twice in two months, destroying a theatre, part of the cabaret and 26 stalls. More blazes happened at least twice in 1972, and once in 1976 damaging the stadium, and again in 1977 and 1988. In 1996, Gay World was in a shabby state with a number of shops and a Gay World Exhibition Centre which was actually a furniture store. There was also a food centre with a seafood restaurant.
In 2000, the Land Office, owner of the 3.2 ha. site gave notice to 150 tenants of Gay World to vacate the premise by March 31. The site had been slated for residential development. The main tenant Eng Wah Organisation, who also managed the park, ended its lease. About 40 tenants housed mainly in sheds stayed on when the lease was extended till June 30, using rented generators and car batteries for electricity when power and water was 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 Theatre and Cabaret had loyal patrons and attracted up to 300 patrons each weekend up to its dying days. The Gay World indoor stadium, later renamed Geylang Indoor Stadium and managed by the Singapore Sports Council, continued to operate at the site until it was demolished in 2001. Gay World was the last of the three Worlds to go.
Apart from the usual recreations movies, operas, cabaret, sports, shopping - Gay World also hosted many cultural shows in the 1960s, including a six-week long Singapore Festival in 1968.
Gay World was a sporting arena. It had an indoor stadium called the Gay World Stadium that was once billed the greatest covered stadium in Southeast Asia. It was later renamed Geylang Indoor Stadium. The octagonal stadium was ideal for many types of indoor sports and could take up to 7,000 spectators. It was the venue of Malaya's first badminton Thomas Cup in 1952. In 1973, the government chose it to be one of the venues for the 1973 Southeast Asian Peninsula Games (SEAP). Boxing and wrestling fights also attracted crowds to the Gay World Stadium who paid only 20 cents to see wrestlers like Tiger Ahmad and King Kong circling the ring. The Gay World Stadium occasionally held circus shows.
There was also a dance hall that could accommodate 300 couples. The dance hall was equipped with good acoustics and a floor skirted by marbled columns for couples to dance. In the 30s, 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. While most of the 100 odd dancers were local girls, some were from China, Thailand and the Philippines. Customers could engage their services by buying dance coupons priced at one dollar for three dances. Other forms of dancing in Gay World were the Malay ronggeng and joget, catering to the Malays and Babas. Gay World had a ronggeng kiosk, ala a bandstand, and men could find a dance partner at one dollar for three dances.
There were four cinemas in the Gay World, including an open air one that became a favorite for courting couples. By 1987 though, only one was left. Gay World also housed Eng Wah's first three cinemas named Victory, Silver City and Happy. They only showed Chinese movies in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1982, New Happy Cinema screened Tamil films exclusively, the first cinema to do that. It survived the turn of the century and it was the smallest cinema operator in Singapore, with just one screen. Up until the end it could still attract about ten viewers on a weekday and a much bigger crowd during the weekend.
1936 : The predecessor of Gay World, Happy World, set up.
1939 : Held Singapore's first trade show : the Engineering and Trade Exhibition.
1942-1945 : Converted into a military workshop during the Japanese Occupation.
1962 : Fire broke out twice in two months; destroyed theatre, part of the cabaret and 26 stalls. Fires continued to trouble the theme park, in 1972, 1976 and 1977.
1973 : Used as one of the venues for the 7th Southeast Asian Peninsula Games.
8 Jul 1987 : Free admission did not attract visitors; only one of the original four cinemas remained.
May-Jul 2000 : 150 tenants moved out and Eng Wah Organisation, the main tenant, terminated the lease. Despite the power and water cut, 40 tenants remained using portable power supply.
2001 : Demolished together with Geylang Indoor Stadium. The area was zoned for homes.
- Marsita Omar & Nor-Afidah Abd Rahman, "Gay World (Happy World)", Singapore Infopedia.
- Article on the Blogspot blog "Looking Back, Memories of our Past, Key to our Future", "Gay World Amusement Park", 12 December 2012 (updated 26 October 2013).
- Rudolph, J. (1996). Amusements in the three worlds. In Sanjay Krishnan et al. (Eds.), Looking at culture (pp. 21-33). Singapore: Artres Design and Communications.
(Call no.: RSING 306.095957 LOO)
- Tyres, R. (1993). Singapore then & now (p. 201). Singapore: Landmarks Book Pte Ltd.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS])
- The big turnout is proof of public support. (1968, January 28). The Straits Times.
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- De Souza, A. (1998, July 16). Of fights and sweaty diners. The Straits Times.
- Goh, C. L. (2004, June 14). Gay World no more. The Straits Times.
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- Ho, J. (1996, April 18). The way we were. The Straits Times.
- Ho, K. (2002, October 2). Eng Wah goes places. The Straits Times.
- Leong, W. K. (2000, May 20). The last days of Gay World. The Straits Times.
- Leong, W. K. (2000, July 18). Business as usual for Gay World tenants. The Straits Times.
- Month of cultural shows at Gay World. (1967, December 18). Malay Mail.
- Tong, K. (1997, October 17). Once the world was great. The Straits Times.