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The Singapore Grip -- why the Worlds?

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

Why did last night’s episode of The Singapore Grip (Christopher Hampton, ITV) spend so long – as does the eponymous novel by JG Farrell it adapts – in a place called ‘The Great World’? What were the Worlds, and what their significance for Singapore at the end of British Empire?


The Worlds is the most evocative place in the pre-war Singapore of her childhood that my mother has described to me. The Worlds, in fact, comprised three worlds: New World, Happy World, and Great World.


The Singapore Grip, directed by Christopher Hampton, ITV, episode 2


The Worlds was a kind of scaled-down model of Singapore: a micro-city. The architecture consisted of magisterial European castles, Middle Eastern palaces topped by domes and minarets, and, by the time of my mother’s visits, a Chinese pagoda that towered at the very centre of the main New World.


A maze of alleyways gave onto open-air theatre stages, raised dance floors, and platforms for sideshows, limned with hawker stalls. On hand was every imaginable kind of entertainment, from every cultural provenance, and in every language. Side-booths offered Chinese ‘street opera,’ wayang, with clashing cymbals and high-singing troupes all the way from mainland China. Shakespeare would be playing, adapted into Malay cabaret, bangsawan, with Gertrude now a Sultana, Claudius a Rajah, and Hamlet taking a steamer to Asia instead of Denmark. Next door, a small, open-air cinema would be showing the latest Errol Flynn or Johnny Weissmuller film. Among the favourite solo acts, there was Ali Ahmad, the ‘Malay Tarzan’; ‘King Kong,’ a Hungarian strongman who once ate a whole goat on stage; and Rosie Chan ‘Queen of Striptease,’ who would be wrapped in little more than a python by the end of her routine.


Inside the dancehalls, in ‘tea dances,’ Chinese couples, Chinese girls and European men, Eurasian girls and European men, could be seen doing the foxtrot, the waltz, the Lambeth Walk, the cha-cha, the rumba. ‘Taxi dancers’ lined the walls, the local girls who, for the price of taxi, would take a single man onto the dance floor (and maybe more, as the louche Monty Blackett leers to disapproving Matthew Webb in The Singapore Grip).

Especially in its dancing, the Worlds permitted the intimate cross-cultural encounters the British Empire officially prohibited. In the actual city, well into 1960s when my parents met and fell in love, social contact between rulers and ruled was off limits, as set by club entry rules, memberships, and so on. In the 1940s, when The Singapore Grip is set and during my mother’s childhood, pretty much the only place where Asians and Europeans could mix therefore was The Worlds -- though the place was made seedy in association with this illicit ‘fraternisation’. ‘Fraternisation’ was the right, if ugly, word. You would not see a European woman dancing with an Asian man; the cultural crossing was gender restrictive.

Think of the Worlds as a kind of pressure valve for releasing and facilitating the multiple flows of the cosmopolitan culture -- which is the true beating heart of Singapore -- that were otherwise implicitly, at least, segregated.

That The Singapore Grip spends so much time there suggests both the hypocrisy of colonial segregation at the end of the British Empire; and also that this shakily-balanced world couldn’t last.

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