Occupying 2 MacKenzie Road, the iconic industrial grey building of the Rex Cinemas reaches up three storeys high. It is an icon of local entertainment history and a familiar household name among many Singaporeans.
The Rex was first opened in 1946 by the Shaw Brothers to much fanfare; local news coverage proudly announced its air-conditioned modernity as well as the inclusion of tea rooms and restaurant in the building. From its first screening, ‘the Jungle Book’, the Rex entertained the masses with films from various genres and in different languages. The building was financed by the gold, jewellery and cash that the Shaw Brothers had hidden away before the war.
Marking a new era of post-war celebration, the cinema was one of many new entertainment offerings that had sprung up around the island. The building’s façade is simple: plain metal frame windows are dotted on a backbone of modern reinforced concrete, but its asymmetrical design was a deliberate challenge to traditional European architecture. On the ground level, a triangular marquee¾typical of standalone cinemas¾protrudes out to welcome filmgoers.
Back in its heyday during the 1970s, it was not unusual to see long queues snaking out of the cinema. Tickets were in extremely high demand: Moviegoers would show up early in the morning, long before the screening time, to purchase tickets before they sold out.
At its peak of popularity in 1976, the Rex drew even larger crowds than ever before when it screened ‘Earthquake’, which came with new ‘sense-surround’ sound effects that sent simulated vibrations throughout the cinema seats to depict a real earthquake.
The large audience footfall also drew several other businesses to the area. Entrepreneurial hawkers set up makeshift stalls to cater to the hungry theatre crowd late at night. Popular eatery chain ‘Old Chang Kee’ famously had its start here¾as a stall on the corner opposite the Rex, to be exact. Others capitalised on the popularity of movie tickets to set up a thriving black market.
By the 1980s, a dwindling cinema business forced the Rex to close its doors. The building has since been used as a performance house for singers, an ice rink, the premises for a church, and a disco at different points in time.
For a period between 2009 and 2018, the Rex returned to its roots and served its original purposes as a movie cinema. Its interiors underwent a $2 million makeover, which added two smaller halls on the upper levels. The standalone theatre specialised in screening Tamil and Hindi films, catered specially to the crowds at nearby Little India.
Eventually Rex ceased operation in 2018, and the building is currently not in use.
Buildings and sites featured on Roots.SG are part of our efforts to raise awareness of our heritage; a listing on Roots.SG does not imply any form of preservation or conservation status, unless it is mentioned in the article. The information in this article is valid as of September 2019 and is not intended to be an exhaustive history of the site/building.