For a small town like Muar, having five cinemas in the early sixties was quite extraordinary and something to be proud of. Before independence, the Rex cinema was considered the grandest of them all and by the early sixties, another cinema came to take over the first spot known as the Cathay Organization. Three other cinemas in operation were the Asiatic, the Grand and the Victory.
The area around Tanjung and the cinemas were the only beacons where Muarians of the lower and middle-class population could spend their time entertaining themselves. The Taman Selera was not in existence in the late fifties as it was built only in the early sixties. The Padang Muar Club and the Tanjung Muar Club were only for members and the rest could only pass by and just watched. The Grand Paradise opened for active business only during the night and slumbered throughout the day. It was the most sought entertainment outlet for every cheeky elderly man who always had new things to lie to their wives.
The area around Tanjung was only for sight seeing, catching up with friends and some longing for the famous ‘Rojak Kamal’. At the Padang Muar Club there was this famous Chinese hawker selling his ‘roti bakar’ and ‘rojak tauhu’ and we had to squat while eating because he could not provide many stools. His tea was superb and because we had to squat while drinking, his tea became known among Muarian Malays of my time as ‘teh cangkong’.
Entertainment during the day was almost nil as the Grand Paradise was not operated twenty four hours. Furthermore, this place was considered not too decent for the young ones unless a Malay or Chinese drama was staged. That was one of the reasons why we always organized our own social parties. Those dating their girlfriends could spend their lovely time at the ‘Kim Leng Restaurant’, ‘Chuan Lee Restaurant’ and the ‘Sin Sin Restaurant’. For those who could afford a better venue would surely choose the ‘Eastern Restaurant’ where they could enjoy their delicious meal of beef steak and chicken chop both cooked oriental style. However, going to these places too often could sometime feel a bit boring and so many opted for the cinemas.
THE CATHAY ORGANIZATION: This cinema was built in mid 1959 and immediately became the talk of the town. If you went for a date with your girlfriend in this cinema you would be considered as ‘having a class of your own’.
During my primary education, our school organized twice for students wishing to watch movies recommended by our Headmaster. The first movie was ‘The Ten Commandments’ starring Charlton Heston as Moses. We all went to the cinema with our school uniform and we enjoyed it very much. During the movie, it had an intermission and so we went out to have some bites. When Moses parted the Red Sea, everyone in the cinema was speechless and the subject became a daily conversation for quite some time. When grandma heard of this movie about prophet Moses, she was yearning to watch it. Although she could not understand the English language, she wanted to see for herself the miracles performed by Moses. The director, Cecil De Miles did a fantastic job with his camera particularly on the scene of the parting of the Red Sea. It was in the late fifties and such a fantastic scene was worth the money. It was my cousin Kamariah who had to accompany grandma to the Cathay cinema. To the best of my memory, that was definitely the first and the last time that grandma watched a movie in a local cinema.
The second movie I watched with my school mates was ‘The Sound of Music’ starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. It was the story about the Von Trapp family when Austria was under the Nazi rule. All the songs in this movie became my favourites until today. Both these movies were screened at the Cathay cinema.
Once there was a cultural show organized by our country performed by the cultural representatives of Indonesia, Singapore as well as our county Malaya. This was the second time the show was performed in Muar town. The first show was held at the Rex cinema a year ago while the second show was held at the Cathay cinema. At the end of the show, the performers from Indonesia sang ‘Ole Ole Bandung, the Singaporeans sang ‘Gelang Sipaku Gelang’ and the performers from our country sang ‘Rasa Sayang’.
Most of the Elvis movies were shown in this cinema and some other classics like Ben-Hur and The Great Gatsby.
For the Malay movies, only those produced by the Cathay Organization were screened in this cinema. Famous Malay actors and actresses of the Cathay Organization were Nordin Ahmad, M.Amin, Mahmud June, Mustaffa Maarof and few other talented actors while Maria Menado, Latifah Omar, Salmah Ahmad were among the best actresses. Malay classics screened at this cinema were ‘Bawang Putih Bawang Merah’, ‘Lancang Kuning’, Sri Mersing’ and few eerie movies like the ‘pontiank’ series.
The first ‘Pontianak’ filem was screened at this cinema featuring Maria Menado. I was a very young boy and was terribly scared after seeing this movie and after arriving home almost midnight, I could not sleep and and our maid-servant Mak Yang had to sleep beside me. I would gaze at the ceiling to see whether any pontianak had sneaked into the house.
Chinese movies too particularly those of Hong Kong and Taiwanese productions were often shown in this cinema. I remember watching one good Chinese movie about a blind warrior who could catch a fly by using his ears. At home I tried to do the same and so I covered my eyes with my handkerchief and listen to the fly but was never successful. Mak Yang laughed at me that I could not tell whether she was laughing or crying. She said even the fly was also laughing at me.
Since the Cathay cinema came into existence, many Talent Time Shows and other musical shows were also conducted here. Those with very low budget still rented some school halls and other cheaper halls like the Ghandhi Memorial Hall. When I was slightly older, I used to perform in this cinema with my band ‘The Dreamers’ and also with another band ‘The Kool Kats’.
Just a block away was the famous Grand Paradise and right across the road was the ‘kedai siang malam’ where the restaurant serving the original ‘mi bandung’ was. Most movie goers normally stopped by for a drink and chat as well as those waiting for the mid-night show to begin.
The ticket was priced at $1.40 for upstairs while downstairs at the back rows was $0.80 and $0.60 for the front rows.
THE REX CINEMA: When the Cathay cinema began operation, the Rex cinema managed to maintain its grand status and refused to play second fiddle. The building may be old but the interior managed to stand against the pace of time. Most of Cliff Richard’s movies were shown in this cinema and all the James Bond series too.
Chinese movies too were frequently shown and few quality Hindustani movies.
On the right side of the cinema was a small restaurant situated on the first floor and you need to climb a spiral staircase to reach. It began serving in the evening and lasted until midnight and served satay, mi bandung and mi jawa.
The Rex cinema would screen only the Malay movies produced by the Shaw Brothers. All the P.Ramlee movies were screened at the Rex cinema. Other Malay classics screened by the Rex cinema were ‘Si Tanggang’,’Batu Belah Batu Bertangkup’, ‘Isi Neraka’, ‘Lela Manja’ and many more.
The tickets were priced at $1.20 for upstairs, $0.80 for downstairs’ back rows and $0.60 for the front rows.
THE ASIATIC CINEMA: Situated along Jalan Abdullah, this cinema was famous for screening Hindustani and Tamil movies. I remember going to this cinema with our adorable maid-servant Mak Yang of an Hindustani movie called ‘Mother India’ starring Sunil Dutt. About ten minutes after the movie started, I was already on Mak Yang’s lap in a deep slumber. She had to wake me up several times when the movie ended and of course we had to go back home on a teksi (beca).
The last Hindi movie I watched in this cinema was ‘Junglee’ with my two friends Yem and Halim. It was a good movie and very touching that it could shed tears to many. The only problem watching a Hindi movie was to catch up with the sub-titles. Sometime these sub-titles could not be trusted at all. In one English movie I watched, the cowboys were trying to run away from the pursuing Red Indians. In the midst of their scramble, one of the cowboys shouted at his accomplices to ‘open fire’ at the Red Indians and the sub-title read…”Buka api”. In another English movie, a father said to his daughter ‘hi honey’ and the sub-title was written as “apa khabar madu”. So you could not rely on the sub-titles in those days.
THE VICTORY CINEMA: This cinema was a single-storey building and most of the movies were Chinese, maybe those second rated because the good ones would surely be shown either at the Cathay or Rex cinema.
The English movies during the days of my primary school were mainly those like Captain Marvel and his ‘chapter’ series. There were many ‘chapters’ from ‘Chapter 10’ to ‘Chapter 39’.
The tickets were priced at $0.60 for the back row seats and $0.40 for the front rows. Every Saturday mornings there would be a morning show with the tickets priced at $0.25 per ticket. There were two wooden poles attached in between the screen and those unlucky need to adjust their necks to get a better view. After the movie, you would surely suffer a neck pain.
There were many bugs too and some were really big. So we always made sure no bugs could be found on the chair we sat.
THE GRAND CINEMA: This cinema was situated inside the Grand Paradise amusement park. Almost all the movies were of the Chinese operas, those with their artificial moustache and beards hanging by using a wire and their long sleeves covered their hands.
The cinema was also a one storey building and the walls were made mainly of zinc. Besides this cinema was a famous ‘sotong bakar’ and while eating you could hear the sound of the movie very clearly. Whenever there was a singing scene, the ‘sotong bakar’ seller would always sing along and of course his voice was louder. Sometime he would dance while grilling his ‘sotong’.
The tickets were priced at $0.60 for the back rows and $0.40 for the front rows. This was the only cinema infested with bugs and you would surely be scratching your body after the show.
These cinemas created some unforgettable characters each with their own individual characteristics. My contemporaries will surely remember ‘Mat Rop’ the man many would look for whenever blockbusters reached the town. His specialties was to get tickets. Before the ticket counter opened for business, many people would gather around the counter and there was no such thing as queuing, so when the counter opened, the scene would be quite similar to watching a wrestling match. Mat Rop somehow could sneak in between these rough ‘hooligans’ with his shouts. In most cases he would always win and leaving the counter unscratched.
These ‘hooligans’ were mostly touts looking for profits, selling tickets at inflated prices. They could sell these tickets at double the price and they would be hanging in between the crowd when the movie almost begun. In all cases, they won and walked away with handsome profits. In Mat Rop’s case, he did it for a fee and his fee was quite decent.
Bribery on the other hand would be rampant only during normal days when many tickets were unsold. This time it was the ushers who would be making some extra cash. When the movie began, the ushers would invite ‘late comers’ inside the hall for a small fee. These people would looked for empty seats but they normally entered when the ticket counter closed for business. Occupying empty seats too early could be quite embarrassing sometime because the rightful owners would suddenly appear right in front of you. At the Rex theatre it was Pak Abu who would be doing the ushering. He was a good man with a very kind heart. Sometimes after a few minutes after the show started, he would let those with not much money to let them in for free; after all these seats would be empty throughout the show.
Hindustani movies somehow attracted more Malays than the Indians. Most Hindustani movies were screened at the Asiatic cinema and in most cases it was always a full house. Some of them especially smokers would get their match boxes ready to add some percussion when the songs began. Hindustani songs are very lively and the actors and actresses need at least five to six costumes to sing one song. When the first verse begins, he will be singing at the railway station with a checkered shirt and he will immediately be inside the coach when the second verse takes its course and his shirt too becomes red in colour. By the time he finishes singing, he will be about two hundred miles away from the station he started. Sometimes the song can last as long as six minutes.
During some of these lively songs, the audiences sang along and some would be strumming their match boxes in tandem to the tune. Somehow they could remember the words quite perfectly but they surely had no idea what the words were all about.
There was one guy my contemporaries would surely remember. His name was Abdullah with a nicknamed “Dollah Celak”. He was a very good artist and almost every pictures displayed at the respective cinemas were drawn by him. Not a tall guy, Dollah Celak could always be seen wearing a drain-pipe trousers and his handkerchief dangling at the back pocket of his trousers.
All these cinemas are no longer in existence as technology has killed their trade. But during those days when entertainment in Muar town was rare, these cinemas played a significant role in providing Muarians of my time the best entertainment they could yearn for.