10 Snapshots from 60 Years of the Singapore Film Society

It's so hard to imagine that film buffs have been huddling to share their passion for cinema since 1954. This has been the work of the Singapore Film Society (SFS). Founded on 14 November 1954, SFS was founded by British cinephiles at the University of Singapore’s Guild House. It was then an ‘amateur cine group’ with its inaugural meeting held in the preview theatre at United Engineers, River Valley Road. Today, SFS is an important component of the film community. We hear about the latest films, the latest works-in-progress from the SFS. If not for the SFS, we may not get the chance to watch some of the latest award-winning films in the international film festival circuit.
60 years is a long time and the SFS has dabbled in so much in this time span. One can almost say the Singapore International Film Festival we have today found its seeds in the SFS. Started with regular screenings at places like Alliance Francaise and the British Council, in the 70s and 80s, the SFS has also introduced more films through the country-themed film festivals it has organised. From Sweden to Seoul, from Taiwan to Toronto, we have a lot to thank the SFS for bringing the world to our comfortable air-conditioned cinemas here in Singapore.
David Lee vs Kenneth Tan, somewhere in a theatre near you...
As the SFS celebrates its 60th Anniversary, Kenneth Tan (Chairman), David Lee (Vice Chairman) and Sherman  One (Marketing Director) dug out some old photos and took SINdie on a little trip down memory lane.

Old Singapore Film Society Member Card

What were membership features (what benefits and what did they have to pay) in the past compared to today? Staring at the old card, what are you feelings? 

Kenneth: When I first joined SFS in 1982, it was $50 for a year. The Society screened one film per month, so that was 12 movies for $50 if you watched them all. Fast forward to today, we screen over 200 films, on average, every year. 

Of course not everyone makes full use of their membership by watching such a large number of movies, but, for the $160 it now costs to take up our Film Addict (highest tier of) membership, it really is quite a bargain even if you watch only a fraction of what we programme.

Projectors at the Goethe-Institut and actual film reels used for showcasing films there

Who operated the projectors? Did you hire professionals or did it yourselves? What do you miss most about the days of screening from the actual reels? 

Kenneth: The projectors were operated by Goethe-Institut technicians, Richard Ong and Eddie Keck. They were superb! They became pretty much part of our SFS family. We even attended their weddings. What do I miss most about those days? The excitement of hearing the start of the projector's whirring sound, seeing the reels of celluloid move as the film strip got threaded through the projector mechanism, and then seeing the images burst onto the screen.

The Singapore Film Society Committee in the late 1990s

Other than Toh Hai Leong, who else do you miss from the committee? 

1. Len & Kathy McClure -- A wonderful couple who were professional filmmakers, who ran their company called Filmakers Pte Ltd out of their home in No. 7 Whitchurch Road. Len is American; Kathy is originally from Taiwan. It was Len who suggested that I be considered for succession to Mani as Chairman. Kathy had a pet cat called Bubblegum. 

2. Patrick Shen -- Our Vice-Chairman for many, many years. A chemical engineer by training, and one of the best film critics (most astute) I've ever known. Pat used to write freelance for The Straits Times, and would review our upcoming films in the Life section. He's a really nice guy who has a terrific sense of humour, and his knowledge of cinema is so vast and deep, the word 'encyclopaedic' doesn't begin to do justice to it. 

3. Dr Tim White -- Also held the Vice-Chairmanship for many years. Tim taught Film Studies at National University of Singapore (NUS), as part of the English Language and Literature programme. He married one of his students, and returned to the U.S. where he continues to teach Film. 

4. Shirley Soh -- The very first committee member (the very first person) I got to know in SFS. She was a senior person in Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) (forerunner of Mediacorp) at the time; a senior producer I believe. Dynamic, warm, personable, infectiously energetic and enthusiastic lady. Last I spoke to her, she was Director of the Office of Student Life at Singapore Management University (SMU). That was some years ago.

A Singapore Film Society Committee Meeting 

This SFS Committee meeting looks very informal. How were meetings like generally? 

Kenneth: Every committee meeting is a joy! We are all film buffs united by the common cause of our love for cinema.

Movies and fancy cars go together - SFS old boys (left to right) Chee Yen, Toh Hai Leong, Wong Lung Hsiang and Kenneth Tan huddled around some toys

Whose toy automobiles are these? 

Kenneth: Collecting die-cast models has been a lifelong hobby of mine. I've displayed some of my collection in every office I've had in my career. :)

Stars and film personalities like Daniel Wu, Lee Khan and Shu Kei descended upon Singapore for the HK Taiwan Film Festival in 2000

Who started the HK Taiwan FF and what's happened of it? 

Kenneth: This festival was the brainchild of Lung Hsiang and a really nice gentleman by the name of Ou Weiyi (Desmond), who owned and ran a music store in Shaw Towers, called Dreamland. We only did that festival once. One of my vivid memories is of Khan Lee (Ang Lee's brother) saying there's no such thing as arthouse movies and commercial movies, there's just movies we enjoy watching and movies we don't enjoy watching. I thought that was a terrific way to put it all into perspective.

Former Singapore Film Society Chairman N Subramaniam with the Singapore Film Society Youth Committee

What is your best memory about former SFS Chair N Subramaniam?  

Kenneth: Mani, as we all addressed him, was (and is!) a true gentleman in every sense of the word. Refined, soft-spoken, kind, gracious, widely-read, widely-travelled. He was Senior Partner at Ernst & Whinney (today known as Ernst & Young) and we used to use his office conference room for SFS committee meetings. He was a wonderful chairman -- kept things running effectively and efficiently, always had a sophisticated sense of humour, and was willing to believe in youngsters like myself.

Film aficionados, including SFS's Chee Yen and Jon Foo making a beeline for autographs from film director Lee Hsing at the 2015 Singapore Chinese Film Festival

How popular was Lee Hsing as a director then? What did he have to say about Singapore? 

David: The picture was taken after a panel session "Tribute to Lee Hsing: A Life in Cinema" that was held in conjunction with SCFF2015 retrospective of Lee Hsing's films.

Lee Hsing was a very important award winning Taiwanese director whose filmmaking career had spanned more than three decades from the 1950s to 1980s. He has many fans in Singapore, including our former Committee Member Ng Chee Yen. 

Many of his films were box office hits in Singapore starring some of the most popular actors and actresses such as Zhen Zhen, Alan Tang, Chin Han, Lin Fengjiao, just to name a few. He once directed a romance drama adapted from a Qiong Yao novel that was partially filmes on location in Singapore in 1974. The title of the film is "Where the Seagulls Fly 海鸥飞处". When we brought him for dinner and a walk along the Singapore River, he could still recognise some of the locations e.g. Boat Quay and Cavenagh Bridge.

The Singapore Film Society volunteers are quite a mixed and international bunch

Where did you find your volunteers from? Who were or are some of your unlikeliest volunteers?

Sherman: Volunteers primarily come through our website, and also through friends and contacts who we get in touch with during our events. I think there’s no difficulty in finding volunteers in general. However, the difficulty lies in finding volunteers who are both responsible and willing to take up bigger roles in the organisation (i.e. programming, marketing, social media etc). 

As everyone has their own full time commitments, changes in life priorities, they tend to come and go. And most volunteers prefer to focus on basic roles like Front of House and ushering etc. There are many unlikely volunteers in SFS. I myself have completely no film background at all - my background is actually in finance and accounting. 

We have people who are working in all sorts of industries in SFS, and all sorts of nationalities (Singaporean, Japanese, Sri Lankan, German, Turkish, etc).

Historically significant (2nd in Singapore since 1998) screening of Wong Kar Wai's Happy Together at the closing of the 2018 Singapore Chinese Film Festival

Did the event hit the high note the team was hoping for? What were the things you would remember for good at this event? 

David: We picked Happy Together as SCFF Closing Film primarily for a few reasons: I wanted to do a tribute to Leslie Cheung and also to stoke people's memory of Happy Together's first and only public screening in SG as the Closing Film of SIFF almost 20 years ago at the old Capitol Theatre. As the film was subsequently banned from commercial release due to its homosexual scenes, it was hardly ever seen by a younger generation of film buffs in SG, and certainly not on the cinema screen. So the "return to Capitol" factor was a major reason and also a strong pull factor when we were marketing the event for the festival. 

The second reason is the opportune timing as the film was beautifully restored recently, I believe to coincide with the film's 20th Anniversary, and the feedback from the sold out screenings at the Golden Horse Film Festival just four months before convinced me that I had to bring this cinematic experience to Singapore. Our decision was validated by a near sold out screening and several positive response from many audiences and friends in the film community. 

It also gave the SFS team, including myself and key people like Sherman Ho more confidence in handling a large venue like the Capitol, which we are using again for SFS 60th Anniversary x SHIRKERS premiere.

Interview by Varun Naidu and Jeremy Sing

About the 60th Anniversary Special Screening of Shirkers

Sandi Tan, director of the Sundance award-winning film SHIRKERS, will be in attendance of the special event on 20 October, which will also be attended by Minister of Finance, Mr Heng Swee Keat as Guest-Of-Honour. 

As a non-profit organisation, the 60th Anniversary will be a fundraiser that will go a long way to support the society’s vision and mission in the promotion and appreciation of films. Furthermore, in line with the celebratory theme, SFS is offering its Film Addict members a 20% discount. 

Tickets will be sold in three tiers: 
$60 (Stall Seats), $40 (Dress Circle), $20 (Upper Circle). 

All proceeds will go towards covering event costs and to the maintaining the work that SFS to promote film appreciation. 

Singapore Film Society Film Addicts Members enjoy 20% off ticket prices. Ticket will be available for purchase at all GV Cinemas except Gold Class® and GV@Capitol, and GV Online here. 

Together with SHIRKERS, a campaign to find the “LOST SHIRKERS” was launched to find key cast and crew members that worked on the original fictional feature-length project. Over 20 years later, SFS is happy to announce that some of these members have been located, and some among these will be invited to the Premiere. These include:  
  • Jasmine Ng, Assistant Director on the original film  
  • Ben Harrison, Composer for the original film  
  • Alex Mallinson, a Production Assistant from the original film  
  • Ronnie Lee, a Camera Operator from the original film  
  • Philip Cheah, an extra in the original film  
  • Pohshon Choy, “Cecilia the Nurse” in the original film

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