Friday, 4 June 2021

Back alleys and cabaret performances inspire Jalan Besar’s new night walk

Jalan Besar’s City Square Mall would be described by many as Singapore’s first eco-friendly mall. This was how it was promoted upon its launch back in 2009. The history of this land, however, goes back further. It sits on the site of Singapore’s historic New World Amusement Park and diagonally across from where the tragic collapse of Hotel New World took place back in 1986. New World’s End, the latest immersive art experience slash night walk created by OH! Open House, is set against the backdrop of New World Amusement Park in the 1960s.

This prominent landmark, which opened in 1923, attracted all walks of life. Both local and overseas visitors would check out Malay opera, Chinese theatrical performances and cabaret shows. Men would often stop off in the barber shops or attend boxing matches. Families could visit the cinema and go for rides on the Ferris wheels. Before the arrival of the television, radio and of course the internet, this was where they found entertainment.

Kaylene Tan came on board to write and direct this Jalan Besar neighbourhood experience. An audio tour that leads listeners from the streets of Jalan Besar to secret spaces that have been transformed into lavish theatrical sets.

Tan was an obvious pick for this role, as she was the one to pioneer audio-based walks in Singapore with Desire Paths back in 2004. “It was given out on a CD player, it was that old,” she notes. The underground experience required bookings and ran for almost 10 years. They managed to upgrade to MP3 players a few years in. Funnily, New World’s End is still running on an MP3 player.

We sat down with Tan to find out about what inspired her to write the fantastical scenes that link back to the glamorous New World Amusement Park, horrific hotel collapse and the intriguing alleyways of Jalan Besar.

New World’s End writer and director Kaylene Tan

What drew you to the Little India and Jalan Besar area, both for Desire Paths and New World’s End?

I know the Little India area very well because we had an office there. My background is theatre. We ran a theatre company in Little India on Kerbau Road around 2001. The area around there has always interested me. That part of Little India has become a lot more touristy. The area further up, where we are basing New World’s End, is a lot less explored by locals and by tourists.

I wanted to take the opportunity to move people further up to see what else is there and to dig a little bit deeper. I came across the New World Amusement Park… and was interested in its history. How people were experiencing entertainment in the past. There are so many stories, and that has always been a part of the Singapore imagination. The worlds and the dancing girls and the cabaret. People are fascinated by those kinds of stories.

What was New World Amusement Park like back in the day?

It was a place where there was dancing, people came to experience new things. People just came to have fun, fall in love, eat, go to the cinema, go to the theatre – it was all there. There was a real sense of coming together. Different people, different income groups, different races, all coming together in this “new world”. And it was very organic, there was no, “oh, let’s be multicultural”, you know. People just assembled and enjoyed themselves. I was attracted to that and the idea of the “new world”, which is self-created.

There was a real sense of coming together. Different people, different income groups, different races, all coming together in this “new world”

At the same time, digging a little bit deeper, diagonally opposite the New World Amusement Park Site was the Hotel New World. The hotel collapse was one of the biggest and most shocking disasters that happened in Singapore. I was interested in the contrast between something that is entertainment but also something that really captured the imagination of Singapore. It struck fear in so many Singaporeans. We had been this nation that was building rapidly and was forging ahead with progress. We were making money and building and building and building, and suddenly one of these dreams collapses. I was a child during that time and I think the idea of this happening was really shocking. It was exciting and weird.

I was trying to draw those kinds of parallels between the Hotel New World collapse and the amusement park. Thinking about those kinds of connections and what the idea of the new world means to people. Creating dreams, building the idea of possibilities and hopes and dreams. I was interested in those kinds of things. The New World’s End experience is that.

What other reasons are there to visit Jalan Besar?

There are loads of great places to eat. It’s not just Indian food either. There’s also a lot of good Chinese food. For dim sum, there’s a 24-hour dim sum place called Swee Choon Tim Sum. It’s one of those few places where you can still eat in the back alley. There’s the Jalan Berseh Food Centre, which always has lots of good food. All of the Indian eateries, places like Ananda Bhavan, are great too. And, just a few a few doors down from the New World’s End site is the famous South Buona Vista Duck Rice. It is good…. very good.

Any tips for shopping in the neighbourhood?

Mustafa Centre is a big draw. It’s open 24 hours, which shows that it really is an area that doesn’t sleep. There is constant life and [you can see] how that changes over the course of the day.

People used to sell things all around Sungei Road at the flea market. That area had to be cleaned up and people had to stop selling things. They’ve all moved to a little shop called Sungei Road Green Hub on Kelantan Road. So you can still go and find really cool knick knacks and old things. The people there are real characters. In Singapore it’s quite hard to do thrift shopping, because things get thrown away so quickly. But that’s a nice place if you like to dig around and find vintage things.

Artmakers in Singapore and around the world need support right now. What are some of the ways that people can help with this?

It’s important to change the mindset of artists being non-essential workers. Thinking about what it’s like during lockdown or circuit breaker and think, what did you turn to? You turned to entertainment, you turned to art. You can’t dismiss that. In terms of supporting artists, go and see things, be adventurous, explore things online because so many artists are putting work online. They are experimenting with a new medium. That’s what people can do. Also, artists are pivoting in all kinds of ways. Artists are becoming bakers and making sambals. Supporting artists in any way you can. They are being very nimble about what it means to work.

Early access previews are available on weekends until 27 June 2021. The official tours are available on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays from 2 July 2021 onwards. Early access tickets are $30 and available for purchase on Official tour tickets are $35 and are available for purchase from Monday, 14 June 2021. 

Please check the establishments’ respective websites for opening hours as well as booking and seating requirements before visiting, and remember to adhere to safe-distancing measures while out and about.

SEE ALSO: 3 ground-up arts and culture projects to visit in Singapore

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