Reminiscing the Days of Steamboats, Bowling and Arcade at Marina South

For many of those who were youths in the nineties and 2000s would probably remember Marina South fondly. It was a popular and fun place of BBQ and seafood steamboats, bowling, snooker and 24-hour arcade, before its transformation into a highly-rated tourist destination today, made up of integrated resort, hotel, casino and giant steel trees.

Marina’s transformations underwent three stages. Originally a body of water, the area was reclaimed throughout the seventies and eighties, using earth and soil transported from Tampines and Bedok. By the mid-eighties, a 660-hectare (6.6 square kilometres) reclaimed site was created. The new piece of land was divided into Marina Centre, Marine East and Marina South. In 1992, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) launched the first detailed plan of land use for the Marina area.

Since 1985, Marina Centre was rapidly developed, with shopping malls (Marina Square, Suntec City, Millennia Walk) and hotels (Marina Mandarin, Pan Pacific Hotel, Mandarin Oriental) popping up in a matter of years. The opposite Marina East and Marina South, on the other hand, were turned into waterfront parks, although the longer term plans for them were to be developed into residences or places of interest.

Marina South in 1985 was the venue of the 2-day Singapore International Kite Festival, where teams from Singapore, China, Japan, France and six other countries showcased and competed their prized kites. Dozens of fanciful kites could be seen flying above the then-empty Marina South. Other events also held at Marina South included the Tree Planting Day (1986), Singapore Family Fitness Festival (1996) and Carnival at the Bay (2000).

In the late eighties, Marina South was part of a Singapore Entertainment Centre project, where it would have an entertainment complex, hotels and yacht club. The plan, however, did not succeed in taking off.

Instead, a small 30-hectare site at Marina South was converted into a park. Named Marina City Park, it was opened on the last day of 1990. Former Minister for Labour Lee Yock Suan was invited as the guest-of-honour for the opening of the park and unveiling of The Spirit of the Sculptural Fountain.

The park was supposed to last for a few years, as URA proposed a theme park development for Marina South in 1994. But the plan, once again, failed to materialise. Eventually Marina City Park existed for 17 years, before it was closed on 1 June 2007 to make way for the construction of the Gardens by the Bay, the new place of interest that opened in 2012 and continues to attract millions of visitorship each year.

In the following decade, Marina South largely remained as a leisure place for families, couples and friends. Roads leading into the area were built, and horticulture was regularly maintained with rows of planted trees, shrubs and landscaped plants. The large spacious fields were ideal for kite flying, picnics and other activities.

Steamboat restaurants, bowling alleys, snooker saloons, arcade centres and karaoke outlets were also established, becoming the main attractions of Marina South from the nineties to the mid-2000s. Marina Bay MRT Station was already opened since 1989, providing the ease of accessibility to the public who could alight at the MRT station and take a relax stroll to their destinations.

It was common to see many National Service (NS) boys who would book out on Saturdays and gather at Marina South to feast on the all-you-can-eat steamboat buffets. Offered by the likes of Chin Huat Live Seafood Restaurant, Chong Pang BBQ Seafood and Marina Seafood Restaurant, the cost of the buffets typically ranged between $10 and $15, an affordable and worthwhile meal where one could eat his fill. Never mind the hygienic conditions and litters, the outdoor dining areas were almost certain to be packed to the brim especially during the weekends.

The restaurants were also favourite late night supper venues for the clubbers and party-goers at the nearby Canto, a popular local Mandopop and Cantopop discotheque. Another group of frequent visitors were the car clubs and their members’ meetups at Marina South. In the later days, the roads exiting Marina South became a favourite road blocking checkpoints for the Traffic Police (TP) and Land Transport Authority (LTA) enforcement officers to intercept the street racers and their illegal car modifications.

It was time for the entertainment after the hearty steamboat dinners and suppers. The 24-hour arcades boasted the latest popular games such as Daytona, King of Fighters and Virtua Striker, where the competitive teens challenged each other all night long. Sometimes, the games ended in squabbles and, less commonly, fights.

Bowling was the focal activity at Marina South. There were two bowling alleys – Victor’s Superbowl and Superbowl Marina South. Both popular bowling alleys offered multiple lanes and could accommodate dozens of bowlers.

The Marina South bowling alleys were also the venues of the National Schools’ Bowling Championships as well as several international bowling events, such as the 1991 FIQ/WTBA (Fédération Internationale des Quilleurs/World Tenpin Bowling Association) World Championships and Santa Claus Open.

Like the other establishments at Marina South, due to the redevelopment plans, the two bowling alleys had to close in late 2007. That year was not a good year for local bowling enthusiasts – elsewhere in Singapore, the Cathay Bowl (The Grassroots’ Club), Pocket Bowl (Katong Shopping Centre), Plaza Bowl (Textile Centre) and Kim Seng Starbowl (Kim Seng Plaza) had also shut down.

The face of Marina South changed forever after 2008. The steamboat restaurants, bowling alleys and arcade centres were all demolished. The new landmarks in the vicinity are the Marina Barrage (2008), Marina Bay Sands (2010) and the Gardens by the Bay (2012) opened.

Although the entertainment establishments and restaurants of Marina South lasted only a relatively short period of time – slightly more than 10 years – they will forever be the fond memories for the youths of the nineties and 2000s.

Published: 19 August 2020

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