old film photographs by american photographer harrison forman of 1940s and 1950s colonial Singapore
Life

Opium Dens, ‘Taxi Girls,’ and Firewalkers: Portraits From Singapore’s Past

The photos paint a vivid image of Singapore from the 1940s and 1950s. 
February 22, 2021, 11:57am

With its modern cityscape today, it’s hard to imagine a version of Singapore where street food actually belonged on the streets, not in the UNESCO-approved hawker centers scattered around the city; or a time when dance halls were the nightlife entertainment of choice, not the bass-heavy sweatfests that are now our favorite nightclubs. But Singapore once looked very, very different. 

Harrison Forman was an American photographer and journalist who traveled extensively around Asia, capturing the daily lives of people in the region. Some of his photos recently went viral when they were shared on Facebook, striking a chord with many Singaporeans who were fascinated by how different the city-state looked through the mid-twentieth century.

The following photos, taken from the Harrison Forman Collection at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, paint a vivid picture of Singapore in those decades, documenting a different way of life that reframes contemporary urban sights in a new light. 

truck drives past traffic police with semaphore signal in 1940s singapore

A truck goes past a traffic cop with a semaphore signal on his shoulders in the 1940s. From the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

two smiling women in 1940s singapore

Two smiling women in the 1940s. From the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

capitol theatre in 1940s singapore

Facade of the Capitol Theatre in the 1940s. From the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

Officially opened in 1930, the Capitol Theatre was considered one of Singapore’s finest theaters at that time. It was officially closed in 1998 before reopening in 2015 after redevelopment, and remains a prominent landmark in the town center.

two men in opium den in 1940s or 1950s singapore

Men smoking in an opium den in the 1940s or 1950s. From the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

man in western suit in butcher shop in 1940s singapore

A man purchasing meat in a butcher shop in the 1940s. From the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

boys in chemistry class at anglo-chinese school in 1950

Boys in a chemistry class at the Anglo-Chinese School, 1950. From the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

One of the oldest educational institutions in Singapore, the Anglo-Chinese School was founded by a bishop in 1886. What started in as an extension of the Methodist Church in a shophouse with 13 pupils has since developed into a family of six Singapore-based schools across levels, and continues to provide education for Singaporeans today.

passengers of boat at a dock in 1950s singapore

Passengers exiting a boat at dock, taken between 1955 and 1956. From the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

man eats from street hawker in 1940s singapore

A man eating food from a street vendor in the 1940s. From the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

tobacco stand selling cigarettes in 1940s singapore

An arrival of cigarette stocks starts a rush on a tobacco stand, as people gather around the vendor to purchase cigarettes in the 1940s. From the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

From the banning of tobacco advertising in 1971 to the raising of the legal smoking age to 20 years old in 2020, the tobacco industry in Singapore has been subjected to increasing scrutiny over the decades. Besides strict laws regulating the sale of tobacco products, attempts to discourage tobacco consumption also includes the gradual expansion of smoke-free zones across the country and the introduction of designated smoking areas in popular central districts. 

fire pit for Theemithi at Sri Mariamman Temple in the 1950s singapore

People preparing a fire pit for Theemithi at Sri Mariamman Temple in the 1950s. From the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

Theemithi (firewalking) is a Hindu religious festival that originated in South India. Sri Mariamman Temple, Singapore’s oldest and largest Hindu temple, has been hosting Theemithi since 1840. During the firewalking ceremony, devotees walk across a fire pit to honor the goddess Draupadi.

audience taking photographs at Theemithi festival at the Sri Mariamman Temple in the 1950s

Spectators taking pictures of a Theemithi festival at the Sri Mariamman Temple in the 1950s. From the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

man from indian hospital corps lights woman's cigarette in 1940s singapore

Man in uniform lighting a woman's cigarette in 1941. The men were possibly members of the Indian Hospital Corps. From the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

rickshaw puller working in front of chinese shops in 1940s singapore

A rickshaw puller in front of a shop in the 1940s. From the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

Rickshaws began appearing in Singapore in the late 19th century and became immensely popular as a cheap and fast mode of transportation.

rickshaw puller and cars driving in front of shops on a street in 1940s singapore

Cars and rickshaws driving past storefronts in a business district in the 1940s. From the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

From the 1920s to 1940s, a clampdown by the British colonial government saw a dramatic decrease of the number of rickshaws in Singapore. Due to the extreme physical exertion required of rickshaw pullers, who were mostly illiterate immigrants from southeastern China, the hand-pulled vehicle was banned in 1947.

boy holding straits times newspaper in 1940s singapore

A newspaper boy holding a Straits Times newspaper in the 1940s. From the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

Founded in 1845, the Straits Times is Singapore’s oldest and most circulated newspaper.

men and women drinking and smoking at a nightclub in 1940s singapore

A group of people at a table in a club in the 1940s. From the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

The three “Worlds” — New World, Great World, and Happy (Gay) World — thrived as popular entertainment spots in Singapore from the 1920s to the 1960s. These parks contained various forms of entertainment including getais (Chinese stage performance), cinemas, dance halls, restaurants, skating rinks, and retail shops. It is not known if this photo was taken in one of the three Worlds.

men and women dancing in a dance hall in 1940s singapore

People dancing in a dance hall in the 1940s. From the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

Most of the nightlife in the 1950s happened in New World, which boasted a dance hall and cabaret girls, also known as “taxi girls.” It is not known if this photo was taken in one of the three Worlds.