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Oct 03

Story Time

After seeing the trailer for Return of the King, I got all fired up about LOTR again. When it gets released in December though, I’ll most probably be in Malaysia. Based on the previous two overseas experiences, watching the premieres of the first two instalments in Bangkok and Singapore, I gained a new appreciation for the excellent quality of Australian cinemas – comfy seats, adequately tiered seating, terrific sound and huge screens (if you get the right cinemas). Dave is going to try and book out a bunch of seats in Kuala Lumpur at the end of the year in the “gold seating” area of the cinema. Incidentally, a premium ticket there is cheaper than an ordinary ticket in Australia. However, I remain skeptical about the quality of cinema screens in Asia. I also appreciate the “first come, first served” nature of ticketing in Australia. We don’t give a stuff how much money you have, if you want good seats then you’ll just have to line up earlier. (Excepting those gold class and La Premiere yuppies who are getting ripped off.)

I was grumbling to Dad about Asian cinemas when he promptly launched into an anecdote about how the cinemas of the good ol’ days totally 0wN3d today’s cinemas. No, he didn’t actually use the word “owned”.

During the middle of the 20th century, Singapore used to have a huge cinema which sat over a thousand people. The seats were zoned and priced accordingly. There was upper level seating (“circle seating”) in addition to the regular floor seating. The seats closest to the screen cost $1, those further away cost $2, and the circle seating was $3. The circle seating was mainly occupied by the British colonialists who were still fairly prominent in Singaporean society at that time, comfortably segregated from the slantier-eyed plebians sitting below.

Going to the movies was a bigger deal back then than it was now, no doubt due to the relatively costly nature of it. Dad recalled when one day his grandfather took him and my uncle out to the movies. My great-grandfather was a well known business tycoon, making his millions doing something or other with palm oil in the shipping industry. Despite the respect he garnered among even the colonialists, he never adopted the coat and tie attire of the West, preferring to wear the simple garb of “Chinamen”. More than one occasion arose where he was mistaken for a simple pauper and shooed away from stores, only to return clutching an imposing wad of paper bills to the intense chagrin of the store owner.

Family legend has it that he went shopping for a fridge one day. Upon inquiring about the price, the sales attendant snidely remarked, “Uncle, if you can afford it, I will give it to you for free!” My great-grandfather chuckled and declared that he would buy all the fridges on display. The amused attendant didn’t recognise the simply-dressed man, but the store owner certainly did. He was an acquitance of my great-grandfather. After a flurry of apologies, the owner chased off the sales attendant, reprimanding him. “Do you know who that man is?”

My great-grandfather was a strange fellow. He had money — money which has long since evaporated through the spending and vice of the following generations — so I guess that made him eccentric. One day he arrived home in the evening and declared to my Dad, about 12 at the time, and my uncle that he would be taking them to a movie. They both expressed delight at the treat, and went off to get changed from their pajamas into something more presentable. Before they could move, however, the old man grabbed them by the wrists and whisked them into the waiting car with a stern, “No! There’s no time! Let’s go!”

What followed was a period of extreme mortification for Dad. I can only imagine the scene. A simple-looking chinaman arrives at the circle seats of the cinema, among the formally-dressed, pecunious upper-class white folk. He is dragging his two utterly embarrassed grandchildren, who are wearing nothing but PJs. He received strange stares all night. It’s like rocking up to A-grade opera seats in PJs today. Dad claims he still has nightmares about the incident.