Thoughts for the New Year. Brought on by a previous visit to Singapore's historical Capitol Theatre.

Where I Once Swooned

Rituals. Our intimate ceremonies to make sense of a chaotic world. I wrote previously I have a lot of these.

I don’t, however, have a ritual for New Year’s Eve. Reason being, I simply never did anything on Dec 31st that was memorable enough for me to long for the same experience again the next year. So far, I’ve tried boozing (ahem), fireworks awaiting, sulking at home, overnight gaming, home gatherings, aimless moseying, etc, none of which doesn’t leave a despondent fatigue the next morning, or involved hustling with way too many sweaty people. Never the sort to give up so easily, I decided two years ago to try the nostalgic approach. I decided to (attempt to) make a ritual out of watching a show at Singapore’s grand old Capitol Theatre every year on New Year’s Eve. I figured, what better way was there to end a year than to soak in the glories of the past, while indulging in the magic of modern make-belief. Indulge, step out, and there is the New Year literally. Fireworks and all. Capitol Theatre, for those who do not know, is just a stone’s throw from Marina Bay, where the annual New Year fireworks are.

About Capitol Theatre, Singapore

Allow me to give pen something about Singapore’s Capitol Theatre.

This is one of the oldest and grandest theatres / cinemas on the island. It had a truly colourful history, surviving the Japanese occupation, a bombing and several transitions of ownership, all the while plunked right in the middle of town. From what my parents told me, Capitol was also one of the atas, i.e. high-class cinemas of the 60s and 70s. It screened western films during an era when many in Singapore did not speak English. Here was where guys took their dates to when out to impress. You are classy, educated and well-primed, if you plan a movie date here.

Capitol Theatre in the 70s?
Capitol Theatre in the 70s? This is actually not the theatre but the surrounding Capitol Building. Picture from http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/1535/photos/147144

Prior to my New Year’s Eve visits, I’ve watched movies in Capitol Theatre thrice. The first and most memorable visit was in 1984, when my mum took me there to watch Gremlins. Oh gosh, what an adventure that was. How clearly I still remember that wonderful day too! We had circle seats, and the very act of ascending to the upper level where the entrance was, was akin to entering another world. One moment I was in the hustle and bustle of downtown. The next, I was clinging to mum in a quiet, slightly weathered foyer, where everybody seemed to be whispering and time felt to have slowed to a standstill. Before entering, the stern-faced usher regarded us with a critical glance, and then there was an almost formalistic surrendering of our tickets. A surrendering followed by us ploddingly led to our places in the dark by another usher equipped with a torchlight. To ten year old me, the whole thing felt like a ritual in itself. I was an acolyte, some sort of acolyte. I was solemnly inducted into the mysteries of a fantastical realm.

And the theatre. So majestic. So grand and European and un-Singapore-like! With its glorious rotunda and neo-classical statues of Pegai and immortal maidens. Immense as well. A dim, massive cavern promising exotic secrets, with tiers so steep at the upper levels, you have to careful with your legs or you would nick the head of the person in front. Throughout the run of Gremlins, I remained upright in my seat, clutching the wooden sides while I guffawed at the antics of Mogwai and shuddered at the experience that was the looming presence of this grand old theatre. For a good many years thereafter, I considered this adventure as one of the happiest days of my life. My concept of a perfect outing during those years was a movie at Capitol, with kacang putir (western nuts) and a circle seat. Followed by perhaps, ice-cream and western food at a nearby café afterwards.

My subsequent visits to Capitol Theatre were less memorable. They were in 1990 and 1991, to watch The Exorcist III and the godawful Double Impact respectively. By then, the place was decisively tired, although I still had a wee bit of that “awwww!” feeling when stepping in. After Double Impact, I never again watched a movie at Capitol, opting instead for the swanky, modern cineplexes popping up all over Singapore. Fast forward to 1998, I read about the permanent closure of the theatre and like many Singaporeans, I felt a pinch of regret. One born from a “I should have gone there once more!” sort of afterthought. But like many Singaporeans too, I expected the theatre to be quickly modernised. That was, after all, what was happening with several other atas angmo cinemas in the town area. Cinemas such as Lido and Orchard. It was sad to see a grand old dame go. But we didn’t really believe she would be gone for good or long.

Well, she ended up being away for over ten years.

The facade of Capitol Theatre in 2006, prior to redevelopment. As you can see, it looks quite weather-beaten.
The facade of Capitol Theatre in 2006, prior to redevelopment. As you can see, it was quite weather-beaten.

There were many reasons behind why Capitol Theatre was left shackled and untouched for over ten years. Languishing beside a dirty alleyway and growing spookier by the day. I shan’t go into these. I’d just say that in my case, I stopped expecting it to reopen And so was I thrilled when the area, including the adjacent buildings, were finally hoarded up for redevelopment a couple of years ago. I awaited eagerly, and when the redevelopment was finally completed in early 2015, I waited further for the perfect movie and the prefect evening to return to Capitol Theatre. This, hmm, lasted another few months, but the impeccable moment eventually presented itself. In December 2015, I booked a ticket for the New Year’s Eve screening of The Force Awakens at this nostalgic showpiece. I reserved a circle seat, of course. And before going in, I bought three types of kacang putir to feast on. By my estimation, the movie would end around 10.30pm. This gave me ample time to saunter over to the nearby Marina Bay where the New Year Fireworks were to be. It was going to be such a wonderful, unforgettable night out. Finally, I could relive that day in 1984. This time with Jedis, instead of slimy, cackling beasties.

Stage area of the restored Capitol Theatre in downtown Singapore.
Stage area of the restored Capitol Theatre in downtown Singapore.
The famous winged horses and maidens in Capitol Theatre Singapore.
The famous winged horses and maidens.
The famous ceiling dome with illustrations of the Zodiac.
The famous ceiling dome with illustrations of the Zodiac. This is huge! I couldn’t capture the entire thing with a 17mm from the upper level.

Everything Feels Larger When You’re A Kid

Here’s what happened that night. I was neither disappointed with the movie nor with the theatre. But it also wasn’t what I anticipated the evening to be.

To begin with, Capitol Theatre didn’t feel as cavernous as I remembered it to be. I had this sensation the moment I stepped in. According to news coverage, the refurbished Capitol is the largest single-screen theatre in South-East Asia. Well, it is large, just not as laaaargggee as I remembered it to be. Actually, I felt it was only a little broader than the cinemas I go to every weekend. The only difference being it had two additional levels that were the circle and dress seats.

Oh, and that foyer outside the circle entrance. So … cramped. Did I once ran in circles there till my mother yelled? Or was the area shrunk, for whatever reason, during redevelopment? **

Foyer before the entrance for Dress and Upper Circle seats at Capitol Theatre Singapore.
Foyer before the entrance for Dress and Upper Circle seats at Capitol Theatre Singapore. This is quite small now!

As for the interior, everything that’s fondly remembered is there. The statues, the zodiac on the ceiling, all the ornate trimmings. Very grand, if, a little too grand? The problem I had was that these felt rather distracting during the movie. The statues, in particular, also framed the screen tightly, resulting in the screen feeling unusually small. In actual dimensions, the screen was probably little different than the ones I watch my weekly movies at. But that visual perception persisted throughout the movie. It “nagged” and bothered me.  I ultimately realised it was a case of me being too used to having the screen flood the entire area up ahead. One without irrelevant statues and gold trimmings and stage riggings all around.

And the seats. The seats … New ones, but in the same style as the one I shuddered on in 1984. Retro cinema flip-flip seats, in other words. With wooden backs and armrests. The polite way to put it is that these were compact, compared to the plushy, cushy ones I slump and sigh on every Saturday night at the cineplexes. They weren’t uncomfortable. But they were hardly delightful to sit on for two hours too. The back barely reached my neck.

Dress and Upper Circle levels (Levels 3 and 4) of Capitol Theatre Singapore. With the flip-flip cinema seats.
Dress and Upper Circle levels (Levels 3 and 4) of Capitol Theatre Singapore. With the flip-flip cinema seats.

It was while shuffling in the flip-flip, trying to be comfy, that I finally understood that wisdom I read about in books. It’s true, I groaned. What the wise say is true. The past is always sweeter. The past always feels better too. Because we tend to remember only the nicest bits.

** I went back after writing this post, and realised the area has indeed been reduced. Part of it is now a restaurant.

Remembering the Past. But Not Longing For Its Return

Before all else, let me state that I am not slamming Capitol Theatre with this post. I readily agree that the developers did a fantastic job in restoring the building. In no way is the new Capitol Theatre horrid. I wouldn’t have returned there for another show two nights ago, had it been.

What I’m trying to say is instead, how misleading nostalgia could be! Particularly during times when things ain’t great. Everything from the past seems magnificent. Everything feels to be at its best. On hindsight, was I really gripping my seat during Gremlins because I was so awed with the theatre, or was it because I was actually terrified of rolling down those super steep steps to a ghastly death below? Was that upper level foyer really that formal and mysterious, or was it no more than plain desolate and run-down?

By the way, are circle seats the more expensive or cheaper ones? They should be the cheaper ones, right? Since they are so far back. But as I remembered …

Hmm. Hmm …

The point of this post. The one I took over a thousand words to get to! It’s 2017, and a lot of people around me are not looking forward to this New Year. They fret about further fallout from Brexit and Trump. They worry about the worsening economic climate. Specific to Singapore, many lose sleep over what feels to be a sharp worsening of relationships with the powerhouse that is China. Some are even claiming there is a top-secret conspiracy by China to doom Singapore.

In the face of these concerns, some folks naturally begin to long for yesterday. For example, the Singapore of the 80s and 90s. When everything felt great, when we were one of the Asian “tigers,” when we didn’t have to worry about terrorism and global fallout, at least not that much. Actually, could I add that a lo

I understand the sentiments of these people, some of which are close friends. But I wonder whether they remember that no era is free of conflict. The same goes for Singapore in the 80s and 90s. Wasn’t there the Cold War? Wasn’t there the Asian Financial Crisis? It’s perfectly human to distract oneself from current woes by remembering glorious days past. But to long for their return? To bring back the problems of yesterday, the very ones which led to the crises of today? That doesn’t make sense, does it?

Why not focus instead on improving the present? Or making the best of what we currently have?

For most parts of the world, I think there is proof that we are improving. Albeit, very slowly and often unnoticeably. 2016 is considered a terrible year by many people. But according to lists like this, the world actually made significant improvements in several important areas in 2016. Awful as Earth might still feel to be, isn’t this reason enough to anticipate the future, and to strive for an even better one?

Not forgetting too the improvements in life we have become accustomed to. The Congo Free State was massacred in the late 1800s before the world even knew about it. Nowadays, anyone can organise a global aid campaign by just typing a few words online. As highlighted in the link above, there have also been significant improvements in medical science, and slowly but increasingly, despots are finding it harder and harder to preserve their playgrounds. These would still be around for a long time, don’t be mistaken. But you can bet they aren’t going to last as long, or as healthily, as their notorious predecessors.

Because of these, I think 2017 and years to come are times to look forward to. There would be a lot of work necessary to sustain improvements, but it is work worthwhile. Definitely.

Here’s to a great 2017 for every man and every country. Here’s to a better tomorrow for everybody too. One built on learning from the past, remembering the past, but never longing for its return.

 

About Scribbling Geek

The geek is a lover of everything birthed by imagination. He constantly dreams about faraway lands and distant realms, and through writing, envisions himself as a product of these places.

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