Where I Once Swooned – Capitol Theatre

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

A return to the wonderfully atmospheric Capitol Theatre.

Rituals. Our intimate ceremonies to make sense of a chaotic world. I previously wrote 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 didn’t leave a despondent fatigue the next morning, or involved hustling with way too many sweaty people. Not the sort to give up so easily, though, 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. The bay is where the annual New Year fireworks are nowadays.

About Capitol Theatre, Singapore

Allow me to provide an introduction of Singapore’s Capitol Theatre.

This is one of the oldest and grandest theatres/cinemas in the country. It had a truly colourful history, surviving the Japanese occupation, a bombing, several transitions of ownership, all the while plunked right in the heart 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. A movie treat here implied one was classy, educated, and well-primed for the future.

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.

My first and most memorable visit was in 1984, when my mum brought 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 fourth level where the circle 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 inside a quiet and slightly weathered foyer. Everybody seemed to be whispering and time felt to have slowed to a standstill too. 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 experience felt like an exotic ritual. I was an acolyte, some sort of acolyte. I was solemnly inducted into the mysteries of a fantastical realm.


And Capitol theatre itself. So majestic! So grand and European and un-Singapore-like too. With its glorious rotunda and neo-classical statues of Pegai and immortal maidens, it was like an enigmatic cavern promising exotic secrets, one with tiers so steep at the upper levels, you really have to careful with your feet or you would nick the head of the person in front. For a good many years thereafter, I also regarded this adventure 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. These 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 an “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, 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 for long.

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

Singapore Capitol Theatre in 2006.
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. I eagerly awaited and after redevelopment was completed in early 2015, I waited further for the perfect movie and the prefect evening to return to Capitol Theatre.

This subsequent wait, hmm, lasted another few more months, but the impeccable moment eventually presented itself, in the form of The Force Awakens. In December 2015, I booked a ticket for one of two New Year’s Eve screening of this new Star Wars movie. I reserved a circle seat too, 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 would then give me ample time to saunter over to nearby Marina Bay where the New Year Fireworks were to be. It was going to be such a wonderful and unforgettable night out. I could finally relive that splendid day in 1984. This time with Jedis, instead of slimy, cackling gremlins.

Capitol Theatre Stage.
Stage area of the restored Capitol Theatre in downtown Singapore.
Capitol Theatre Pegasi and Maidens.
The famous winged horses and maidens.
Capitol Theatre 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. I had this sensation the very moment I stepped in. According to news coverage, the refurbished Capitol is still the largest single-screen theatre in South-East Asia. Well, it is large, just not as laaaargggee as I remembered. Actually, I thought it was only a little broader than the cinemas I go to every weekend. The only other 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 run in circles here till my mother yelled? Or was the area shrunk, for whatever reason, during redevelopment? **

Capitol Theatre Foyer.
Foyer beside the entrance to the Dress and Upper Circle seats at Capitol Theatre, Singapore. This feels 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 with these was that they felt rather distracting during the movie. The statues, in particular, framed the screen too tightly, resulting in the screen feeling unusually small. In actual dimensions, Capitol’s screen is probably little different than the ones I watch my weekly movies at, but that visual discomfort persisted and nagged and bothered me.  I ultimately realised it was a case of me too used to having the screen flood the entire area up ahead. It was just so much better to watch a movie 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 ones 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 exactly uncomfortable, but they were hardly delightful to sit onto for two hours too. For starters, the back barely reached my neck.

It was while shuffling in the flip-flip, trying to get comfortable, that I finally understood. 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 only remember the nicest bits.

Capitol Theatre Best Seats.
Dress and Upper Circle levels (Levels 3 and 4) of Capitol Theatre, Singapore. And retro-style cinema seats.

** 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 marvellous job restoring the building. In no way is the new Capitol Theatre horrid too. I wouldn’t have returned there for another show two nights ago, had it been.

What I’m trying to say is, how misleading nostalgia could be! Particularly during times when things aren’t looking great. Everything from the past seems magnificent. Everything feels to be at its best too. On hindsight, was I really gripping my seat during Gremlins because I was so awed with the theatre, or was it because I was terrified of rolling down those super steep steps to a ghastly death below? Was that 4th level foyer really that formal and mysterious, or was it no more than plain desolate and run-down?

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 the 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. To these people, these were the years when everything was great, was right, when we were one of the Asian “tigers” and when we didn’t have to worry about terrorism and global fallout. At least not that much.

Well, I understand the sentiments of these people. I also know what they are hoping for. Yet, I do wonder whether they realise that no era is free of conflict? During 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 only remembering glorious days past. But to long for their return? To bring back the problems of yesterday, the very ones that led to the crises of today? Doesn’t make sense, does it?

Why not focus instead on improving the present? And 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 reports like this, the world actually made significant improvements in several important areas in 2016. Awful as the 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 just by 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 to preserve their playgrounds. Don’t be mistaken, these tyrants would still be around for a long time. But you can bet they aren’t going to last as long, or as healthily, as their notorious predecessors.

The short of it, 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 not longing for its return. Not too much, anyway.

Where I Once Swooned
Article Name
Where I Once Swooned
Thoughts for the New Year and the challenges to come. Brought on by a previous visit to Singapore's historical Capitol Theatre.

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