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The Old Cathay Cinema Building
By: HungZai Team

The old Cathay Cinema Building was amongst one of the oldest landmarks in Singapore and was reputed to be haunted. This tale was documented in one of Russell Lee’s True Singapore Ghost Stories Collection where apparently there is this hairy hand that has a passion for stroking some ladies legs. It goes that when the victim was truly engrossed with the movie, the hand would make its appearance and takes a bit of liberty on their legs.

Here are some interesting facts about this place. Cathay Building & Cinema was closed in December 1998. During its hey days, the 17th-storey building was the tallest building in South-east Asia.

Built by Frank Brewer, it was designed primarily as a hotel and was completed in October 1939. A subsequent glut of hotel space led to its transformation into an office building both by filling in all the balconies and making bay windows.

The 32 luxury flats on offer came with hot and cold water, refrigerators and the use of a squash court. The apartments were completed in August 1941.

Upon completion, it was also the tallest building on the island (over 83 m high) and the first public air-conditioned place in Singapore. It required two years of construction and contained, in addition to the 1,300-seat cinema, a lounge and bar, the Cathay Restaurant and luxury apartments.

Cathay cinema first screening was at the outbreak of World War II, on 2 October 1939 with Zoltán Korda’s war adventure, The Four Feathers (1939). During the Japanese Occupation, the Japanese Broadcasting Department, the Military Propaganda Department and Military Information Bureau were housed in the building but the cinema continued its business under the name of Dai Toa Gekkyo. Regular screenings resumed in September 1945. Between 1945 & 1946, the building also served as the headquarters for Admiral Lord Mountbatten, South-East Asian Supreme Allied Commander.

Immediately after the war, Cathay Cinema was the first movie theater to re-open even though a large part of its air-conditioning plant were missing. In 1948, LOKE Wan Tho, the boss and head honcho demanded that the building be returned to civilian use and the colonial government vacated the various offices. In celebration of its return to civilian use, the Cathay Restaurant was officially opened on 2 May 1948.

In 1954, the 60-room Cathay Hotel was opened in the building and it later expanded to 170 rooms. By 1970, costly plans to renovate the hotel were abandoned and the hotel reverted to office space.

I had the honour of watching a film there sometime back when the cinema was still around but nothing happened. Before it was demolished around 10 years ago, me and some friends went to do some investigation around the back area of the building as it was said to be very dark and something could be conveniently lurking. So one evening I went with a few friends. Here’s what we saw…trees with hanging roots…

Just then we noticed that there’s a staircase by the side of the building. Where it could it leads us I wonder?

Off we go to another nocturnal adventure seeking what lies on top of the staircase. Pretty soon, we reached the end of the stairs. From our vantage point, we notice the seemed to be a hollow space in between the cluster of trees below.

However since we are at the top, we might as well see if we can gain access into the building. There I notice by the side of the glass entrance, stacked a few cardboard cartons belonging to a local mover .. K.C.Dat movers.

Looks like we need to hasten our exploration before the wrecking ball takes away all the fun.

We searched every single inch for an opening to the building with no luck. I even climbed the ledge to the other side of the blocked staircase looking for an access but still no luck. Frustrated and not to mention extremely tired after climbing the stairs, we gave up and walk to near the trees.

We were now in the heart of the trees…trying to snap some nice photos but something happened and I need to get out as fast as possible. I just took two quick shots of the inner circle and rushed out.

No… its not what you are thinking….there’s no ghost or hairy hands. Actually, I had to leave quickly because I felt something…….it’s in my shoes……AND IT’S BITING ME!!! BLOODY ANTS!

That right folks, I stepped on an ant’s nest.

The strangest thing was when I was cleared of the trees….the ants were no longer on my legs….except for one particular ant which somehow made it’s way up to my back and bit me. I asked a friend to help me get rid of that one ant which is still bothering me giving me quite an itch as a result, not to mention painful as well.

As he lifted my shirt from the back, I heard her uttered ‘Oh my god…’ and that I should stay still.

“Don(Shouting to another friend of mine) Come here!” He yelled.

Don took a look at whatever was on my back and commented,”Don’t you feel anything?”.

I replied, “ARRGGHH! ARRGGHH! Owww… owww… Ummm.. No?”

“Why? What’s on my back?” I asked.

He told me that there were what appeared to be fingernail scratches all over my back! I told him that it might be me because I’ve scratched my back quite a bit trying to get rid of that bothersome ant.

“Not this time dude…” Don said. “Because your fingernails… they are too short to create this kind of result.” He added.

Hmmmmm….if that was really serious as Don said, then why I did not felt a DAMN thing. I quickly told Don to take a picture but as luck would have it….the blooming batteries died on me.

We head straight for the nearest 7-Eleven to get some fresh batteries and something to pacify the growling from Faizal’s stomach.

We got the batteries and the camera was up and running when we discovered another strange thing…….the markings disappeared!

Till today, we still have no idea what happened that night! One moment I had all the nasty scratches and the next moment, they completely disappeared! What an experience!

It’s quite funny when I think back of the old days. Cathay Cinema and these hangin’ roots trees then were well known to be one of the most haunted places in Singapore.

But when I’ve reviewed the photographic results of the exploration, everything seemed ordinary except for just one photograph that showed what looked like orbs. So how did the cinema gain notoriety as one of the most haunted place? Perhaps this is the legacy from the Japanese occupation. So here I’ll sign off with the starting of the demolition of the building a decade ago..

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