At the intersection of Maxwell Road and Tanjong Pagar Road, there’s a peculiar four-story church that doesn’t quite match. Aside from the title and the cross, the edifice hardly looks like a church at all. Painted off-white with horizontal stripes of bright yellow, the Fairfield Methodist Church is a jarring aesthetic disruption from the neighborhood’s construction, shophouses, modern towers, and the colonial-era Maxwell Food Center across the street. Indeed the structure was not intended to be a church, nor offices or homes. Despite being 61 years of age, the Metropole Cinema movie theater is still an impressive and attention-grabbing futuristic form.
The building opened in 1958 but ceased operations as a theater in 1986. During its likely successful run, the establishment catered to the Chinese neighborhood, screening mandarin films and even once bringing in a Hong Kong star actress in 1967 to promote her work, (source). The building played an important community-building role as one of three theaters servicing the Chinatown neighborhood.
The Metropole Cinema is a pristine example of the Streamline Moderne movement. It was popularized in the ’20s and ‘30s, but had gone somewhat out of vogue by the late 50s when architect Wong Foo Nam designed the theater. Despite an originally bare concrete facade, it is a delight. I recommend you visit the building if you can. It is legible, so to speak. The most significant decorations are the simplified windows. The facade is organized to please and direct, making a significant effort to encourage movement towards the central lobby and into the theaters. The west facade is broken up by three floors of saw-tooth windows looking towards the entrance, while the north-east facade gives space for signage. All in all, the facade is a graphic design masterpiece.
The tropical influence on the architecture can be noted with two design features, the five-foot way, and the two entrances into the lobby with no doors to allow a natural airflow. As a testament to the effectiveness of the airflow for the lobby, its fans were turned off. That said, the building still has aircon. In fact, this was part of its appeal, since when the theater opened, it was among the first to be air-conditioned.
A spiral staircase is at the core of the lobby. While access to the second floor is denied, the most exciting design feature visible in the lobby is the railing. The repetitive angled railing acts as an opaque arrow that directs guests to move up the stairs and towards the show.
And as you leave, you might notice outside of the main entrance underneath the five-footway, there are decorative brick screens that act as air vents for the underground parking lot. Having a basement garage was also a first for any movie theater in Singapore at the time. What they show is that the decoration is neatly integrated into the facade.
There is much more I would like to know about this unique building, but there really are only a handful of credible sources providing meaningful information about the design. Few records exist about the architect, Wong Foo Nam. I did find a single portrait, seen here. Attached to it is a list of several positions he held, but the most notable position is as a member of the Malayan Chinese Association political party. He served as a Member of the Legislative Assembly for Pasir Panjang from 1955 to 1959 with the MCA party, the same period of time that the cinema was construction. He won the 1955 race in Pasir Panjang with 45% of the vote but lost during the 1959 race to represent Mountbatten. He came in third with 21% of the vote, while the PAP candidate came in second.
While he is likely a Singaporean, the Malaysian Chinese Association was formed following World War II with the explicit support of the British colonizers. From 1948 to 1961, a long war was waged by the British against Malayan communists who had the support of the Vietnamese, Indonesian, and Chinese. During this time, the MCA was designated to manage the social and welfare concerns of the British concentration camps for the forced resettlement of the Malayan and Chinese during the decade-long Malayan War, (wiki).
The MCA was active in aiding the colonial government which was doing a bad job at providing order and civility in Singapore. At least three deadly riots occurred in Singapore due to the British’s poor social management and aggression in clamping down communism. The city was dirty and the government was doing a poor job providing housing to the public, and it was in this environment that Wong Foo Nam was working with them to try and help the system.
It may be fair to characterize Mr. Wong as being concerned about the travesty and horrors that Colonialism was causing, but he was afraid of change and believed maintaining colonial power was best for the future of Singapore. This is why I posit he might have turned to the main terminal building at the former Kallang Airport for inspiration. It was Singapore’s first purpose-built commercial airport, and it proved to be a strategic and popular airport, warmly connected Singapore with the world. Amelia Earhart once described it as, "an aviation miracle of the East,” (source). However, its own success in bringing the world to Singapore led to its demise. It ceased operations in 1956 to make way for a bigger modern airport.
The terminal was designed by British architect Frank Dorrington Ward and opened in 1937. The Streamline Moderne architecture was part of the appeal, as its futuristic aesthetic came hand in hand with fast access to the whole world. Analyzing the airport, Professor Johannes Widodo writes, “the building clearly displays the new modern architectural language of functionalism, with exposed concrete, horizontal lines, transparent glazed walls, and streamlined curves,” (pg 55).
By adopting the architectural style of the Kallang Airport, Wong Foo Nam was adopting the fantasy of exploring the world. The only difference is that rather than exploring by travel, the cinema would let you explore the world through cinema in the comfort of your own neighborhood.
There is also an undertone of colonialism involved. If this was indeed read by residents as a reference to the airport, it can be seen as a reminder of how the British were responsible for connecting Singapore with the world. This sentiment comes up today, in articles like Jeevan Vasagar in the Guardian, where he writes, “The country’s postcolonial rulers seized the advantages left them by the British empire and used them, for the most part, for the benefit of wider society,” (source). However, such reframes must be presented with an asterisk, for if the British and other European nations had never engaged in the practice of colonization, and simply traded with the inhabitants of the island with respect, a lot of problems that plague South East Asia would not exist, and the economically lucrative trading routes could still have existed.
There’s not really a proper conclusion here. The purpose of this article is to put up a giant question mark on top of the former Metropole Cinema building, to start an investigation into Wong Foo Nam. His architectural style is unique. Both this building and his condominium building along Emerald Hill are clearly special in their ability to captivate the audience. Any comprehensive history of Architecture in Singapore and the world would be well-served to include his work if we could only learn more about him.
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