Great World Amusement Park
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One of the three "Worlds" which lighted up Singapore's nightlife in the '50s and '60s. Although it closed in 1964, cinemas and restaurants continued to run at the park until 1978. Today, the site is occupied by Great World City Shopping Centre. The complex's snazzy facade bears no resemblance to the old park.
Great World Amusement Park was also known as Tua Seh Kai in Hokkien, meaning "great world" . It sat on a 300,000 sq ft site bounded by Kim Seng Road, River Valley Road and Zion Road. In the 1920s, the site was a Chinese cemetery. The park had a humble beginning, with 150 wooden shacks. The owner of the land was Lee Choon Yung (relative of philanthropist Lee Kong Chian) who developed the site into an amusement park in the 1930s. Back then, mainly British servicemen and the upper classes patronised Great World. There were free films and Peking operas to watch in addition to wrestling and boxing matches. But business was bland and Lee Choon Yung sold his park to the Shaw Brothers in 1941, too soon before WWII broke out.
During the Japanese Occupation, the park was transformed into a prison for Australian POWs. Many suicides occurred due to the ill-treatment and harsh conditions in the camps. Later, the POWs were transferred to shacks behind the park so that the park could continue with its activities, particularly gambling.
The end of the Japanese Occupation led to the exit of gambling from Great World and the revival of cultural shows. Cantonese, Chaozhou and Peking operas and revue shows featuring popular songs began to attract families who flocked to the park. The rubber boom in the 1950s brought prosperity and more business, and Shaw upgraded the park in a big way. They spruced up the wooden stalls, created fountains and installed carnival rides including the carousel and ferris wheel. The Ghost Train however became almost synonymous with the park.
In 1958, the park had a grand reopening. It coincided with Sky's (one of the cinemas in the park) grand premiere that was graced by Elizabeth Taylor and her late husband Mike Todd. From then on, Great World bustled with visitors who included attendees to major trade events like the Indian Trade Exhibition in 1958. During its heyday, the park's record attendance for one night was 50, 000.
Food was said to be excellent at Great World. Besides the hawker selection, two restaurants serving Cantonese cuisines became household names; Wing Choon Yuen famous for its suckling pig and sharks fin, and Diamond. Other mainstays of the park were cabaret, housed by the Flamingo Nite-Club, and theatres namely Canton, Atlantic, Sky and Globe, which screened both Chinese and English films.
As with the other two amusement parks in Singapore then, Gay World and New World, the boom period came to a standstill with the arrival of television and the mushrooming of supermarkets and pasar malam (night roadside market) in the 1960s. The number of visitors to Great World declined and it closed down on 31 March 1964 although the cinemas and restaurants remained until 1978.
In 1979, Shaw sold the park to Robert Kuok, dubbed Malaysia's "Sugar King". Midpoint Properties belonging to the Kuok Group proposed to build a residential and shopping complex but was deterred by the S$162 million development charge to change the landuse from an amusement park into a shopping zone. It abandoned the plan in 1982 but eventually paid a reduced charge of S$55 million in 1986. The group then resumed the construction of the S$600 million Great World City Shopping Centre. The shopping complex presents an almost total break from the loud and luminous old amusement park.
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The information in this article is valid as at 2006 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.