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Tucked away on Banda Hill, a former hillock on the edge of Chinatown in Kreta Ayer, is a fully air-conditioned, 1,118-seat modern theatre located just next to the Kreta Ayer Community Club there. Built to classical Chinese architectural design with green glazed tile rooftops, the theatre is a popular venue for Chinese opera performances by Singapore and overseas troupes.
Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre was the brainchild of the late former Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee. He was also the Member of Parliament (MP) for Kreta Ayer between 1959 to 1984.
Birth of Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre
On the evening of December 29, 1967, Dr Goh Keng Swee, as MP for Kreta Ayer and adviser to Kreta Ayer grassroots organisations, announced the plan to build a permanent stage. He also spelt out the reasons for it. They included promoting Chinese opera as a traditional performing art form in Singapore.
The idea was strongly supported by cultural groups and the Chinese community in Singapore. That helped speed up the construction of the permanent stage with one fundraising event after another. Several were organised by the supporters themselves.
When Theatre Becomes a Foundation
Just as Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre was enjoying a boost from the Chor Fong Meng Cantonese Opera Troupe’s performances, it changed its registration from a society to that of a charity foundation in May 1975.
It was done to enable the theatre to perform its functions more effectively. For example, as a foundation it could do away with the need to apply for annual waiver from income tax as the theatre’s activities were never for any financial gain.
A board of governors was formed with the then Deputy Prime Minister Dr Goh Keng Swee as its first chairman. The then Attorney-General Tan Boon Teik was vice-chairman and state counsel Sivakant Tiwari as secretary. Mr Tiwari drafted the Memorandum and Articles of Association for the foundation.
Other members of the board included the then Senior Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Defence Phua Bah Lee, banker Cheong Wai Choo and People’s Association director Lee Wai Kok who was also chairman of the theatre’s management committee then.
Besides promoting music, the theatrical arts and multi-cultural activities, the new foundation with its management committee running the theatre’s operations and activities, also started to give financial aid to the poor and needy in Kreta Ayer as well as those from outside the constituency.
It also gave support to other arts groups such as the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and Chinese Theatre Circle. The money came from ticket sales of performances at the theatre and rental income of its premises.
Since 1976, the year after its formation, the foundation started to donate money to charities of all kinds; from supporting old folks’ homes and disaster relief missions, both here and overseas, to funding community hospitals and education centres.
Highlight of the foundation’s work is the distribution of new year goodies and hong baos (red packets with money in them) to the needy in Kreta Ayer every Chinese New Year. “Some $50,000 in hong bao money were given to the needy in the constituency yearly,” said Mr Goh Ngan Hong, a long-time treasurer of the theatre’s management committee.
Dr Goh’s idea to set up the foundation to do charity with money raised from the theatre’s performances and other activities was a brilliant one, according to Mr Tiwari, the foundation’s founding secretary.
“People paying to see a performance at the theatre are contributing to a charity or two at the same time and that is very meaningful,” he said in an interview he gave to this book before his unexpected death in 2010.
Kreta Ayer Community Centre opened one year after the People’s Action Party was swept into power during the 1959 Legislative Assembly election when Dr Goh Keng Swee became the assemblyman for Kreta Ayer.