Lee Chun Yuan Theatre
Singapore Chinatown used to have a famous theater whose reputation lingers on long after its disappearance.
This theater was Lee Chun Yuan, 梨春 园, believed to have been built in 1887. Lee Chun Yuan offered Cantonese opera performed by local, China and Hong Kong troupes.
The performers were celebrities and had their own fan clubs. The fans would shower their favorite stars with expensive gifts and jewelry.
Perhaps the most glamorous gift was boards containing dollar bills arranged to form the artiste’s name. These exquisite boards can still be seen at some opera performances today.
The theater sold deluxe- to economy-class tickets for each performance. The wealthy had their own viewing gallery while economy-class ticket holders congregated on the first floor, in front of the stage. The theater could accommodate an audience of about 500.
Hawkers sold food while toy stalls offered opera related handicrafts and toys in the vicinity of the theater. Some of these handicrafts are still being offered in the Chinatown night market.
In the late 1930s, new opera theaters opened and competed with new forms of entertainment – the movies. Consequently Lee Chun Yuan, 梨 春 园, declined in popularity and eventually stopped operations.
The theater was subsequently rented by Shaw Organization and renamed New Sound Theatre, 新 声 戏 院, offering movies and modern plays to a new group of audience.
During the Japanese aerial attacks in December 1941, the theater was bombed and went up in flames.
In December 1988, the Taiwan Buddhist charity Tzu Chi Foundation moved into the former location of Lee Chun Yuan. In 2004, a Tzu Chi free clinic and the Jingsi Books & Café, was opened. In late 2007, Tzu Chi moved out of Chinatown.
Lee Chun Yuan’s story reflects the changes in the entertainment scene and how it has been shaped by advances in technology as well as shifts in the theater-goers‘ preferences. Opera has evolved from daily entertainment to an art form to be appreciated, and its former role has been replaced by movies.