Although it was eventually cancelled, the drive-in movie screening at Downtown East has gotten many movie lovers excited. The screening originally scheduled on 8 August 2020 was sold out. The news did, however, bring back fond memories of the good old Jurong Drive-In cinema to many Singaporeans of the older generations.
The seventies was a period of rapid industrialisation for Singapore. The standard of living was improving, and people were looking for better entertainment. Movies had always been one of the favourite leisure and entertainment means for the locals, with many big and small cinemas set up at the city, suburban and even the rural parts of the country. But a drive-in cinema was a novelty. Attending a movie in a car with friends or loved ones was a trendy idea among the younger crowds.
Cathay Organisation adopted the drive-in cinema idea from other countries such as the United States and Australia. In the early seventies, it leased a 5.6-hectare (56,000 square metres) site, located off Yuan Ching Road and near the Japanese Garden, from the Jurong Town Corporation (JTC). Construction of the cinema, estimated to be $3 million in cost, began in early 1971.
A giant screen of 30.5m by 14.3m was set up at the site, installed at a height of 7.6m and tilted at 6.5 degree for the best visual experience. At the carpark lots were mounted stands of 880 speakers to accommodate up to 900 cars, with a maximum of five passengers per car including the driver. In addition, the cinema also allowed 300 people for its walk-in open-air gallery, bringing its capacity to a maximum of 4,800.
Opened on 14 July 1971 by the former Minister for Culture Jek Yeun Thong (1930-2018), the first movie, a 1970 British comedy called “Doctor in Trouble”, was almost a sell-out with 880 cars and 300 walk-in audience packed into the premises.
The Big Boss, the popular Hong Kong martial art film starring Bruce Lee, was even a bigger hit. When it was screened at the end of 1971, Jurong Drive-In Cinema was full almost every night.
Subsequently, throughout the seventies, the cinema mostly put up popular English movies from the United States and Britain as well as the Hong Kong kungfu flicks and action-packed films. The tickets were priced at $2 and $1 for the adults and children respectively, and the movies were shown at the 7pm, 930pm and midnight slots.
Sitting inside the comfort of the cars, with the movies’ audio piped in from the speakers, and munching the kacang puteh and drinks from the mobile vendors was a treat to many movie lovers.
There were, however, problems in the drive-in cinema concept. First of all, Singapore’s tropical climate meant that it could be warm and humid at night, and even more stuffy and unbearable inside the cars. Not every cars of the seventies were equipped with aircon; even if they were, it would be a heavy strain on the cars’ compressors for their aircons to run for two hours while the vehicles remained stationary.
On the other head, during rainy nights, the splashes on the cars’ windscreens made it difficult to watch the movies. The switching on of the windscreen wipers might led to the overheating and burning out of the cars’ ignition systems.
For the popular films, there were often long queues of cars entering the premises, leading to the delays of the movie screenings. Sometimes, gatecrashers added to the disorderliness and chaos. Due to these issues, Cathay Organisation’s plans to open more drive-in cinemas in Singapore never really took off.
Jurong’s Drive-in Cinema enjoyed a decade of popularity and profitability. By the early eighties, however, the fortune started to decline for the cinema. Modern cinemas with affordable ticket prices sprung up in the new towns. Movie piracy and illegal video tapes were also rampant. Moreover, the audience were spoilt for choices with the better programs on TV. And to make things worse, the large drive-in cinema site was often illegally used for car and motorbike racing in the middle of the night after the shows ended.
by 1981, the novelty and popularity of the drive-in cinema had clearly faded, with only 50 to 200 cars at each movie screened, a far cry from its packed days during the seventies. Cathay Organisation tried all means to revive the cinema’s fortune, giving free gifts and offering cheaper ticket prices, but to no avail.
By the mid-eighties, the company decided not to renew the lease and return the site to JTC. Finally, on 30 September 1985, the movies were screened for the last time, and the one and only drive-in cinema in Singapore was closed for good.
After the closure of the cinema, the site was taken over by Fairway Country Club. There were proposals to convert the site into a golf course, but the plans did not materialise. Today, the area is home to the new Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats of Taman Jurong.
Published: 15 September 2020