i am sure that there are some places which foreign visitors are aware of but which are not known to many local people. today, i stepped into a place which has been visisted by many tourists from other countries but which had escaped my attention all these years. how many of us have walked past this building without realising its historic and cultural past?
it is lai chun yuen located at the junction of smith street and trengganu street. when my friend jason told me that we could go inside the building, i did not quite believe him. i thought that that could have been possible in the past. was i surprised when the security personnel waved us on.
lai chun yuen was by far the most popular chinese opera theatre in singapore in the late 19th century. built in 1887 and originally designed in the style of a chinese tea-house, its overwhelming popularity made it a prominent landmark.
patrons would sit around small tables, nibbling tidbits and sipping chinese tea while famous opera singers performed on stage. wealthier patrons had private cubicles where they enjoyed more personal services, rendered by girls from the brothels on smith street.
all these took place in high-ceilinged rooms with wooden balconies, decorated with painted ornaments and dimly-lit lanterns.
opera stars and patrons from hong kong and china graced the theatre. the most well-loved stars were showered with gifts of money or gold and silver pendants.
opium smoking and gambling were fashionable. in fact, the more famous an actor was, the more copiously he smoked and the more recklessly he gambled.
all these gradually came to an end in the late 1930s, with the advent of the 'talking' movies. in 1941, lai chun yen was converted into a cinema, bt did not survive the japanese occupation.
these days, full opera performances at lai chun yuen are rare. cultural and musical performances are sometimes held in this old opera house. however, on every tuesday and friday, an extract of a cantonese opera classic is performed. the show is accompanied by a talk and some snacks. these performances in the opera house are carried out as a workshop.