Pearls Centre, located along Eu Tong Sen Street, was a 22-storey residential-commercial building completed in 1977, although its 99-year lease began as early as 1969. It was a joint venture by Outram Realty, Keck Seng Pte Ltd and the Sim Lim Investment Group, under the private development of the Urban Renewal Programme, to construct a modern multi-functional complex at the bustling Pearl’s Hill district which, in the seventies, had several well-established malls such as the People’s Park Complex, People’s Park Centre and Ocean Garment (OG) Shopping Centre.
In the late seventies, Pearls Centre was heavily advertised in the newspapers for its luxury apartments, shopping units, theatre, night club, restaurants and a 7-storey carpark spacious enough for 380 cars. During its peak in the eighties and nineties, Pearls Centre was almost fully occupied with 199 shops in its 4-storey of shopping centre, mostly made up of small strata-titled retail businesses such as food and beverage stalls, coffee houses, travel agencies, beauty centres, tailor shops, traditional Chinese medicine stores and hairdressing salons.
In addition, there were 44 residential units in Pearls Centre’s 12-storey apartment tower made up of single-, double- and three-bedroom units. The apartments would cost between $65,000 and $190,000 in the seventies.
Pearls Centre also boasted one of the earliest versions of food courts in Singapore. On the fourth floor of the building, it housed Fast Food Centre, an air-conditioned hawker centre that was popular among office workers and cinema-goers when it was opened in February 1978. As many as 30 stalls, selling Chinese, Malay and Western food, operated in the hawker centre that could seat 450 people. The concept of enjoying hawker food in an air-conditioned environment led to the rise of food courts in Singapore since the eighties. Picnic Food Court, was dubbed as Singapore’s first food court, was opened at the now-defunct Scotts Shopping Centre.
One of the key tenants of Pearls Centre was the Yangtze Theatre (长江戏院), famous as the last cinema in Singapore to screen R-rated and soft porn movies. Originally named as the Pearls Theatre, it was changed to Yangtze, named after the longest river in China and Asia, upon its opening on 27 January 1977. In its early days, the 1,159-capacity cinema occupied six storeys inside Pearl’s Centre, with a gross floor area of 8,010 square metres.
Yangtze Theatre, in the seventies and eighties, used to screen Hong Kong kungfu movies mainly catered for the Chinese residents living near Chinatown. With its whitish and clean outlook, the cinema and apartment tower actually resembled the suburban cinemas and HDB flats built in the new towns such as Ang Mo Kio, Bedok and Clementi. The cinema, along with the nearby Majestic and Oriental theatres, proved to be popular entertainment venues within the Chinatown vicinity.
The ownership of Yangtze Theatre had changed hands several times over the years. In 1983, its owner Pearls Theatre Ltd, which also owned the Straits Theatre at Woodlands, faced a winding-up order by the High Court. Yangtze was subsequently forced to shut down and sold. Four years later, its new owner, a Malaysian investor, put the cinemas of Yangtze and Straits up for sale for $5 million and $1.8 million respectively. There were proposals to convert the premises into a church, offices or even a high-tech entertainment centre named “Fantasy World” catered for tourists, but none of the plans were successful.
With the failure in the conversion of its premises for other commercial usages, Yangtze Theatre was renovated and reopened in September 1991 as Yangtze 1 and Yangtze 2. Local artistes and Hong Kong stars such as Michelle Yim were invited for the grand opening. However, the cinema faced declining revenues due to the slowdown in the local movie industry in the nineties. In 1995, it was converted again, this time as an erotic films’ provider.
This business strategy lasted for more than a decade, before its management attempted to change the cinema’s image by including conventional movies and blockbusters in the late 2000s. But by then, the reputation of the cinema was already well perceived in the eyes of the public.
Thus, after a $350,000 renovation in 2011, Yangtze Theatre was reverted to the screening of erotic movies until its closure in 2015. The unsavoury reputation of Yangtze Theatre also affected the image of Pearls Centre, which, throughout the 2000s, was started to be tenanted by numerous shady massage parlours dealing in sex-related services. Regular reports of police raids of vice activities also caused Pearls Centre to appear in the wrong headlines.
In August 2012, the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) announced the acquisition of Pearls Centre for the construction of the new Thomson Line (TSL), where its site will be replaced with underground tunnels and a new high-density, mixed-use building that will be integrated with the current Outram MRT station. By August 2015, Pearls Centre was almost emptied with the departure of most of its tenants who have accepted the government’s compensation packages.
A last look at the now-vacant Pearls Centre while it awaits its impending demolition:
Published: 20 September 2015
Updated: 23 October 2016
Hello, do you know when it is to be demolished?
From the news, some parts of the building will begin its demolition next month, while the rest will be demolished next February.
Sir, what you’re doing with remembersingapore.org is serving our nation with distinction! I’ve really enjoyed your articles and pictures and would like to give thanks. I really appreciate your time and effort in capturing what is unique to Singapore. Thank you once again!
I was surprise to learned of the history behind this places. Hardware i.e. buildings can go for redevelopment purposes. The heartware i.e. the people and its spirit would continue even after years passed. Urban renewal & development is inevitable. It create jobs, stimulate economy, rejuvenate deteriorated hardware. Now that global warming becomes macro issue, engineering design to eliminate carbon dioxide emission from fossil fuel burning automobiles. i.e. MRT train energise by electricity[both AC & DC]. Appreciate your understanding and concurrence on this matter. Thank you.
The final deadline, both the cinema and building will officially operate on its last day on 29 Feb, do visit quickly!
Goodbye to softcore cinema Yangtze
The Straits Times
01 March 2016
South Korean softcore movie Taste (2013) was the last film to play at Yangtze Cinema, before the 39-year-old theatre closed its doors for good at soon-to-be-demolished Pearls Centre last night. Mr Mono Chong, the owner, looked upset when The Straits Times caught up with him yesterday, but he is hoping to reopen it in another location.
Choking back tears, the 63-year-old says in Mandarin: “I have been in talks with a partner to see if we can move to another place and reopen. If the talks go through, a new Yangtze may open in three months.
“After managing this place for close to 30 years, I just cannot bear to let it go.”
He took over the reins of the cinema from a friend 27 years ago. Earlier, reports had indicated that the Chinatown cinema might relocate to the East, but he immediately shoots down the rumour.
“That’s not possible. It has to be somewhere in the city centre. You cannot play R21 movies in the heartland,” he says.
The cinema is closing its doors as the 23-storey Pearls Centre will be demolished so the area can be redeveloped and make way for the Thomson MRT line. Given how deserted the building has been for the past year, with shopfronts shuttered, it appears that Yangtze was the final tenant to move out.
Mr Chong says he will try to rent storage space to house some of his hundreds of 35mm film reels, but he will have to bid goodbye to some of the bulkier equipment, such as the film platters that feed the film to the projector.
“We have quite a number of antiques here, but I have no choice but to leave them behind. Maybe the museum may want them?”
In recent years, Yangtze has a reputation for playing seedy Asian and European softcore films, which are restricted to viewers 21 years and older. Dank and musty, the two-hall, 425-seat cinema is mostly frequented by male retirees who while the afternoons away by watching a movie, followed by a cup of kopi from the dimly lit concession stand.
Retiree Tan Yao Chong, 70, is a customer who has been visiting Yangtze almost every day for the last seven years. He does not watch a movie every day, but he finds it “comforting” to sit around in the lobby.
“When I started coming here, I would watch two or three movies a day, but now, I just treat this place as a place to pass the time. I’m not sure where I will go after it closes,” he says in Mandarin, adding that he has lost touch with several of his friends over the years as they do not enjoy watching “this kind of movie” with him.
The future is equally uncertain for the cinema’s staff of 10, including Mr Tan Chai Chai, who has worked there as an usher for the last 20 years. The 82-year-old, whose job had been to check tickets before patrons head into the halls, says: “I can’t say that I’m sad because none of us had any choice in this matter. I’m grateful that the boss let me work this long.”
Mr Chong says that should Yangtze reopen, he would gladly re-employ all of its old staff.
A big part of why he is having a hard time letting go of the cinema is that he has fond memories of the 1980s, when Yangtze Cinema was a flourishing movie theatre. Back then, it screened popular Hong Kong films starring the likes of Andy Lau, instead of its current staple of restricted content.
“It was only during the mid-1990s that I had to re-brand the cinema as an R21 one, due to fierce competition from modern cineplexes opening.
“People weren’t interested in coming to Yangtze because they were going to places such as Yishun, where there are 10 screens and fancy interiors. I had no choice, really.”
Before the Malaysia-born Australian citizen took over Yangtze, he worked as a film distributor for Shaw Organisation in Kuala Lumpur for a decade. After he left the company in 1979, he formed his own film distribution business named Mono Films and also started buying and managing cinemas across South-east Asia. At his peak, he owned 20 cinemas in Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore. Yangtze is his only Singapore outfit, and also his last one, as he has sold the rest.
Mr Chong, who, until the cinema’s closure, had insisted on personally buying film titles, says: “Movies are my passion. For both me and my customers, there have been many wonderful memories created at the cinema here.
“Wherever we move to, the rent will cost more than double what we pay at Pearls Centre, so I have some financial calculations to do. But I don’t want Yangtze’s legacy to be over. I hope this will not be the end.”
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Its sad especially the mainland chinese cusine is so popular there. I always drop by for the chinese dumplings, hand shaved noodled, pamcakes, buns and not forgetting the chinese salads.
Where are they now??????
You must be young. The mainland Chinese folks/cuisine (notably Dongbei and Sichuan) were newcomers who came later only after the govt had let in a wave of PRC workers/migrants from around the mid-2000s. You can find Dongbei and Sichuan Chinese restaurants on the other side of the road – in fact, they’re quite ubiquitous now and can be found islandwide e.g. mala hotpot. Food always follows demographics.
The Chinatown area has always been predominantly Cantonese, back in the day it had vibes of being a ‘Little Hong Kong’. Almost all shopkeepers spoke Cantonese.
The main tenants of Pearl’s Centre were: Yangtze Theatre (for erotic R-rated movies, a great hit for the horny uncles), a vegetarian restaurant, some Chinese medicine shops, KTV lounges and a Burger King outlet. When mobile phones started arriving on the scene, Pearl’s Centre gained a bit of notoriety for some dishonest retail tactics by those phone sellers. It was after this period (and the departure of Burger King) when the mainland PRC Chinese started moving in to open their eateries and restaurants.