There was once a renowned Chinese opera theatre in the centre of Chinatown, where opera celebrities travelled from China and Hong Kong to perform. The theatre was so well-known that the surrounding streets were dubbed after it. Hei Yuen Koo (Theatre Street) was named after the Hei Yuen Company, which had its offices on Victoria Street. Temple and Trengganu Streets were respectively known as Hei Yuen Hau Kai and Hei Yuen Wang Kai (theatre street). The theatre, known as Lai Chun Yuen (Lai Chun), was situated at 36 Smith Street.
The Lai Chun Yuen Tea House was constructed in 1887 and has Chinese teahouse-style architecture. It could accommodate up to 800 people. It presented Cantonese opera twice a day, as well as other Chinese theatrical genres. The most famous performing arts venue in Singapore during the late 1800s was undoubtedly Sun Yat-sen’s Grand Theatre, which was completed in 1874.
Li Ching Chu, a Shanghai official who wrote this in his book A Description of Singapore in 1887, described Lai Chun Yuen as “well-known for its entertainment.” This may be seen from the following description by Li Ching Chu, a Shanghai official who published it in his book A Description of Singapore in 1887:
“When it comes to prosperity, no place in Singapore can rival Greater Town.’… In the city of Kuta, there is a district known as Greater Town, which has restaurants, entertainment, and brothels. It’s the most filthy and dirty place in Singapore. It is by far the most populous region where filth and muck are hidden. There is no comparison to be made with it anywhere in Singapore.”
On the stage, opera singers sang. Patrons sat at small tables as they ate dinner and listened to the music. The grounds of Lai Chun Yuen were also used to grow poppies and cultivate opium. There were also private cubicles for personal purposes. Smith Street was notorious for its brothels in the 1800s. The decline of Lai Chun Yuen’s popularity started in 1927 when motion pictures arrived. It was eventually phased out and replaced by the Shaw Brothers with Sun Seng Cinema after it was destroyed in World War II.
The shophouse is presently home to the Santa Grand hotel chain. The hotel is named Lai Chun Yuen, after the structure’s heritage as Singapore’s most popular Chinese opera theatre. The building has been restored, and the high-ceiling rooms with wooden balconies and painted ornaments have survived to this day. Along the five-foot walk, there are a number of retail outlets that cater mostly to tourists.
The Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre continues to pay homage to Chinese opera, despite Lai Chun Yuen is a tale from the past. The Singapore Chinese Opera Company has been performing operas in the traditional style of China since it was established in the late 1960s at 30A Kreta Ayer Road.