Original film title in English: Singapore
Directed by John Brahm
Written by Seton I. Miller & Robert Thoeren
Starring: Ava Gardner, Fred MacMurray
Produced by Universal International Pictures
Year of release: 1947
Aerial view of Kallang Basin, Kampong Bugis & Kampong Rochor (Beach Road)
Tanjong Pagar Road
PEARL-SMUGGLER Matthew Gordon (Fred MacMurray) returns to Singapore after the Japanese Occupation to retrieve a bag of contraband that he has hidden before the war. He reminisces about his short-lived romance in Singapore with his pre-war fiancée Linda Grahame (Ava Gardner), who he had presumed dead after a Japanese air raid. As he tries to recover his pearls from the suite that is occupied by other tourists, he spots Linda at a dance party in the hotel. But she is suffering from amnesia and doesn’t recognize him. Overwhelmed with this new discovery, Matthew is then determined to reclaim his lost fiancée who is now happily married to a rich planter, along with his ill-gotten pearls…
The film begins with a plane about to make its descent to the Kallang Aerodome. A tourist-passenger peeks out of the window and takes in a bird’s eye view of the Kallang Basin. He remarks sneeringly to his exotic-obsessed wife: “Well…. There’s your Singapore, crossroads of the world, star of the Orient… “A somewhat fitting description for what he has just glanced over – the Kallang Basin, with its port town, sawmills and kampungs lining the coastlines and fringes of the Kallang and Rochor rivers. The area was indeed the hub for seafaring vessels from all over the Malay Archipelago (and even China) trading in firewood, charcoal, pottery, rattan, spices and other merchant goods. It was where there was a thriving cosmopolitan port town (‘New Bugis Town’ or Kampong Rochor) and numerous ‘amphibious houses-on-stilts’ settlements resided by Malays of various ethnic subgroups, for example, Kampong Bugis, Kampong Laut, Kallang Batin and Kallang Rokok, to name a few. (The last three in the list had been demolished in the 1920s to make way for the Kallang Aerodome.)
It is incredible that almost no traces of what was captured in that brief aerial shot of Kallang Basin remains today. Only two roads, Beach Road and Crawford Street, are still extant. The ‘Kampong Rochor’ shophouses and multi-ethnic communities that lined Sumbawa Road, Java Road, Palembang Road and Minto Road were completely demolished and displaced during an urban renewal exercise in the late 1960s. Reduced to just a cold technical name ‘Precinct N1’, the so-called slums were razed to the ground, ‘tabula rasa’, leaving only the Hajjah Fatimah Mosque standing. Even the grid street network was expunged. A new HDB housing estate (Crawford) and multi-storey office-residential-shopping blocks (along Jalan Sultan and the ‘Golden Mile’) were eventually built in the original port town and kampong’s place.
To the east of ‘Kampong Rochor’ across Rochor River, Kampong Bugis, a crowded shipbuilding and traders’ settlement of attap houses on stilts, succumbed to a massive fire on 2nd August 1951. A road named ‘Kampong Bugis’ remains till today and the original swampy lands where the kampong and sawmills once stood were reclaimed or ‘cleaned up’. Now, a landscaped Kallang Riverside Park lines the coast and empty plots of land on the former Kampong Bugis site await new developments.
Further into the movie, we also spotted Raffles Place, Tanjong Pagar Road and an as-yet-unidentified colonial bungalow – extremely brief on-location shots wedged between extended dialogue scenes filmed in the Hollywood studios. That was probably an effort to give the film an air of authenticity. The film company also tried filming with (very imaginative) studio set replicas of – Rochor Canal; a port town likely modeled after Kampong Rochor; and a famous local hotel with bad plumbing (we think it is ‘Raffles’). Genuine authenticity might have been better achieved if the studio had flown Ava Gardner and Fred MacMurray into Singapore for location shoots. That would have caused a stir.
Ha, we wished.
1. Million Dollar Film on S’pore. The Straits Times, 11 May 1947, p. 7.
2. Imran Tajudeen, ‘Kampong Gelam, Rochor & Kallang – The Old Port Town’, in Aileen Lau & Dr. Bernard Platzdasch (ed.), Malay Heritage of Singapore (pp. 56-69). Singapore: Suntree Media, 2010.
3. Joan Hon, Tidal Fortunes. A Story of Change: The Singapore River and Kallang Basin (pp. 111-118). Singapore: Landmark Books, 1990.
© 1947 Universal International Pictures
© 2013 A&R Productions
Digital Map Source:
1. Great Britain. Army. Far East Land Forces, Singapore, National Library of Australia, MAP G8044.S5 1924. [http://nla.gov.au/nla.map-vn2057537]
2. Great Britain. Ordnance Survey, Singapore Island, National Library of Australia, MAP G8040 1941. [http://nla.gov.au/nla.map-vn1900708]
© 2014 Toh Hun Ping