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When We Were Young
How did young people have fun in the fifties? We take a look at pop culture in the years leading up to Merdeka.
Cathay Cinema in Ipoh showing the Hong Kong film Mambo Girl (曼波女郎) and also Hollywood sci-fi thriller World Without End. The cinema first opened in 1957. Courtesy of www.ipohworld.com
“I’ll be loving you, always
With a love that’s true, always.”
As he sings to himself, retired teacher Othman Dahlan recalls the lyrics of a song that echoed through his youth. The song is Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “Always”. Now aged 81, he still remembers the song’s popularity: “Such a simple idea, everyone would want to sing it.”
During the Second World War, the Japanese occupation of Malaya had lead to years of deprivation and terror. Just a few years later, a new period of uncertainty started: the ‘50s was the decade of the Emergency, of curfews, guerrilla warfare and political prisoners. But for young people who had lived through the war, the new decade was also a return to familiar pleasures and pastimes.
As a trainee teacher at England’s Kirby College in the ‘50s, Othman and his friends loved to keep up with the latest pop music. When he returned to Malaya, the same hits were often played on the radio and in dance halls.
Tea dances, which had started off as elite British social occasions, became a way for young Malayan people to mingle while keeping up with new music. The style at tea dances was strictly ballroom, with dances including the fox trot, waltz, cha cha and quick step. Of course, not everybody knew how to dance formally, so sometimes friends would get together to teach each other the moves.
Some tea dances had live bands, but it was also common to use a gramophone. “We used 16 inch ‘singles’ so when a song was about to finish, the feller had to be there ready to change it,” says Othman. “Otherwise you might hear the crackle.”
Other popular songs of the decade included classics such as “As Time Goes By” by Bing Crosby, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” by the Platters and “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Many tea dances were held at hotels, others at amusement parks such as Happy World in Singapore and Lucky World in Kuala Lumpur. Amusement parks then weren’t just about fairground rides: you could also go to the movies, watch a wrestling match, have a haircut or go for a dance.
An advert for ballroom dancing lessons in a pamphlet for the Perak Ballroom Dance Championship in 1954. Courtesy of www.ipohworld.com
The amusement parks hired professional dancers, known as “taxi dancers”, to partner up with men on the dance floor. The men would then buy dances in the form of a book of coupons for $1.
“Sunday afternoons were for tea dances. The night time was cabaret, for adults,” explains Hock Nien Bien, 79, a retired rubber technologist. “But the cabaret dancers, some of them would come to the tea dances and teach young people ballroom dancing. The more daring students would learn to dance from them.”
Usherettes at the Ruby Theatre in Ipoh, 1954. Courtesy of www.ipohworld.com
The early ‘50s saw a craze for ronggeng among young Malay people. Blending elements of joget with Western music like the rhumba, ronggeng drew plenty of young men to amusement parks to dance with professional “joget girls”. But the dance was also seen by some conservatives as immoral, because it brought Malay boys and girls into close proximity – even though they did not touch during the dance.
If ronggeng was considered risqué, this was nothing compared to cabaret. In the ‘50s, the striptease queen Rose Chan toured Malaya and Singapore with her topless stunts. She danced, sang, and even wrestled pythons. By the time local authorities clamped down on her shows, Rose Chan had become a household name.
Making waves on the radio
Those living outside big cities had to make do with other forms of entertainment. Jukeboxes were one way to get your fix of music. Othman Dahlan remembers a coffee shop in Kuala Kubu Baru, where people often gathered: “There was one jukebox there and at the other end of the town, you could still hear it.”
Mari Ketawa being broadcast on Radio Malaya, 1956. Courtesy of NST Archives.
Then there was Radio Malaya, which had been set up by the British after the Second World War. According to Paul Augustin, ownership of radios rose from 28,000 to 150,000 from 1949 to 1959. The radio became the household’s portal to news and entertainment.
Listeners tuned in to hear musicians such as Jimmy Boyle, the Soliano family and Ahmad Merican, who introduced both international and local music to the airwaves.
Aspiring musicians found opportunities through Radio Malaya’s competitions, the most well known being Talentime – the “X Factor” of its day. It was in fact on Talentime that a young musician known as P. Ramlee got his first break.
Kuaci at the movies
P. Ramlee’s career as an actor, musician and director grew with the confidence of and hunger for local pop culture in the ‘50s. It was the golden era of Malayan film studios, and cinemas were opening all over the country.
As well as screening Malayan films with local stars such as P. Ramlee, S. Shamsuddin, Saloma and Saadiah, the studios kept audiences happy by importing films from Hollywood, Hindustan and Hong Kong.
The Star cinema in Kuala Lumpur, opened by Tunku Abdul Rahman, 1957. The opening night proceeds went to the UMNO Welfare Fund and the Chinese Maternity Hospital. Courtesy of NST Archives.
“Westerns and musicals were very popular,” says Bien, who grew up in Malacca and remembers the Rex, the Savoy and the Capitol cinemas. “Elizabeth Taylor was just getting into the picture then, of course later she became very famous. John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Fred Astaire too.”
“There was also the Savoy cinema, which only showed Chinese movies. Sometimes we watched kung fu movies there,” he says. “We went to the cinema more during the school holidays. Or the cheap matinees on Saturday.”
Going to the cinema meant choosing between “first class” and “second class” seats. The first class seats were those near the back, and they cost over $1 while the cheaper second class seats, at 60 cents, were the front half near the screen. Common snacks were kuaci seeds and ice cream.
During the Emergency period, a curfew was imposed, which meant that people had to be home by 11pm. This sometimes interrupted cinema screenings.
“There would be announcement: ‘All the people who live across town must leave now, it’s almost 11 o clock’,” recalls retired teacher Siti Zain Sheikh Mansor, 83. “They wouldn’t stop the film but people would leave.”
A foot in the future
The everyday joys of music and movies persisted, even in a time of great political uncertainty and change. These days, while grandparents may remember Merdeka day, it is the small pleasures of their youth that bring a big smile to their face.
Saloma singing at China Café in 1957. Courtesy of NST Archives.
In the ‘60s, tea dances would become quite different: they evolved with rock ‘n roll tastes during the Pop Yeh Yeh movement, and then became part of early clubbing culture in the ‘70s.
Cinemas and productions studios also changed drastically. Malaysian films had to compete harder with both Indonesian and Hollywood films, studios lost their monopolies, and gradually cinemas became dominated by mall multiplexes.
But the ‘50s was a decade that shaped how young people in Malaya would define themselves for years to come, and the memories of those days still shine brightly for many. In the words of the song, “Always”:
“Not just for a day,
Not just for an hour,
By Ling Low
Find more info on Malaya in the ‘50s:
- Just For the Love of It: Popular Music in Penang, 1930s – 1960s by Paul Augustin and James Lochhead
- 120 Malay Movies by Amir Muhammad
- Cathay Cinema in Ipoh showing the Hong Kong film Mambo Girl (曼波女郎) and also Hollywood sci-fi thriller World Without End. The cinema first opened in 1957. Courtesy of www.ipohworld.com
- An advert for ballroom dancing lessons in a pamphlet for the Perak Ballroom Dance Championship in 1954. Courtesy of www.ipohworld.com
- Usherettes at the Ruby Theatre in Ipoh, 1954. Courtesy of www.ipohworld.com
- Mari Ketawa being broadcast on Radio Malaya, 1956. Courtesy of NST Archives.
- The Star cinema in Kuala Lumpur, opened by Tunku Abdul Rahman, 1957. The opening night proceeds went to the UMNO Welfare Fund and the Chinese Maternity Hospital. Courtesy of NST Archives.
- Saloma singing at China Café in 1957. Courtesy of NST Archives.
- The Merdeka Day parade in front of the Sultan Abdul Samad building in Kuala Lumpur, 1957 (Banner). Courtesy of NST Archives.
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