I fulfilled my dream

Text by Nahar Khan

On 19th October 2010, my kids gave me a surprise present for my birthday… A book written by writer director Amir Muhammad entitled ‘120 Malay Movies'. The book is a romp through the Malay films that was made in Singapore and Malaysia. It was a good and informative book regarding 120 Malay movies that was made during P Ramlee heydays which includes all the movies made by prominent studios of Shaw Brothers' Malay Film Productions, Cathay Keris and Merdeka Studio from 1948 to 1972.

Outside the Jalan Ampas studio

I was so touched and thanked my children, Farez n Ellis, for such a wonderful and thoughtful present, (they always knew where my weak spots are!!) and immediately, the book began to fill up most of my free times every day especially during lunch times or a few hours before bedtime. I would read the book slowly and took my time digesting the new interesting informations about all the Malay movies produced from year to year even though there are some old ones which I have already read somewhere before. As I was reading about P Ramlee and the movies made in the 50s and 60s, I had a sudden overwhelming urge to find out about what ever happened to Jalan Ampas Studio in Singapore, the original Malay Film Productions studio that was the only one shown as part of the location for SENIMAN BUJANG LAPUK (1961) which I’ve watched over numerous times.

Actually, I have met one of the greatest comedians of the Singapore era, S Shamsuddin about two years ago during the making of Astro Prima's comedy, TIGA MENANTU (2008) which was produced by P Ramlee's old friend Cikgu Yusnor. I was so excited to meet and directing him for the old Singapore studio actors have always inspired me in my works as a film maker. S Shamsuddin still had his old smile when we met, but unfortunately, something was missing. He was more serious and his humorous funny look was all gone. And being 80 years old made it harder for him to remember his lines. But meeting and talking to him about the good old studio days just made this one of the best TV drama I have ever directed. Beside S Shamsuddin, I've worked with Aziz Sattar and Mat Sentol in the movie JIBON (1994), Kuswadinata in the TV Drama HARGA SEBUAH KEBEBASAN (1999) and Mustapha Maarof and Neng Yatimah in SETITIK PELUH SEBUTIR INTAN (2004). I've listened to their stories first-hand about the old studio systems and many many more intimate stories but only now I realised I should go and visit the old Malay Film Productions in Jalan Ampas or at least whatever is left of the studio.

Cikgu Yusnor, who still lives in Singapore, once told me that Jalan Ampas studio office is still there but in a very sad condition. Well I didn't really care much about the conditions for as long as it is still there its fine with me. Anyway, I better go before the whole place is demolished. So, I've decided it was time to travel with my wife, Gee, and our kids to Singapore. For the first time we drove our small car to Singapore, thanks to my brother Najib, his wife Kak Asiah and his niece, whose husband happened to be a Singaporean. He was our unofficial tour guide and was glad to take us to Jalan Ampas even though he actually never really been to the studio himself.

We began our two cars journey through the JB-Singapore causeway and after travelling for nearly an hour we reached Boon Teck Road. Now, this road sounds familiar... Mmm… Boon Teck Road… Yes, it was where the Shaw Brother's office used to be, if I am not mistaken. My excitement grew and a few metres away from Boon Teck Road, we suddenly saw the signage 'Jalan Ampas'… I tried to hide my excitement upon entering the road but my wife kept telling me that my face was actually glowing!!!

We managed to find the road that should now lead us to the studio. But unfortunately, as we look around all we could see was a few factories and condominium buildings… I began to wonder if the studio has already been demolished!!!

It was actually a frustrating feeling not to find the one famous building that should be there. We took another turn and again we couldn't find it. I decided to ask around... A once famous building like this should not be so difficult to find. I could imagine how it supposed to look like during the time of the movie Seniman Bujang Lapuk was shot which I have seen a thousand times!! We saw a Chinese guard standing at a nearby factory He told us that the building we were looking for was just in front of us a few metres away. Even the factory that he was guarding was part of the old studio which has long been converted into a huge factory. From the look of it, the factory does resemble a large studio building...He then pointed us what remained to be the old Shaw Brothers building.

We were stunned… The buildings were actually hidden behind a greenish aluminium cover with a sign 'No Paking' (Yes, not Parking) No wonder we couldn't find it. We passed it twice and we still missed it!! I was sure there would be thousands of people coming to Singapore with one intention, just like us, to find the famous studio and the only landmark available was a simple brick memorial signage located next to the entrance that stated in small print "Jalan Ampas, Shaw Movie Studio".

We excitedly peeked inside and saw the building. It was really in poor condition just like Cikgu Yusnor said but I was determined to go inside. We searched for a way to go in and found a small door which wasn't locked and we opened it. We looked around and were prepared for any hostility. I was ready for anything. I wouldn't want to go back home empty handed and wouldn't want to let an old aluminium gate stop me from going in!! There was nobody in sight so we decided to just start clicking our camera to the fullest.

Being inside the studio area was just indescribable. I saw one spot and tried to imagine A Rahim kicking his stool for no particular reason as in one of the scenes of Seniman Bujang Lapuk at the entrance of the studio itself. Then I was imagining P Ramlee, Suddin and Ajis standing looking at him in awe. I could also imagine the old Singh (the studio guard) sitting at the entrance mumbling about the attitude of the Malays. His words were ringing in my head; "Baru orang mintak kerja, lu macam-macam cakap. Amacam lu punya bangsa boleh maju?? Lu punya nasib lu makan, dia punya nasib dia makan, Apa salah makan sama-sama?” I just smiled to myself.

On the other side I could see in my head Ahmad Nesfu standing and saying "Ini macam nak jadi Hang Tuah?” to an old man who wished to be in the Malay movie. As I walked further I saw a door that led to a room… Could this be the door Suddin entered to ask for a loan from Kemat Hassan in Seniman Bujang Lapuk? Or was it where the new Haji Labu was mumbling in his office about how Haji Bakhil rejected his marriage proposal to her daughter Manisa... "He made me drop my waterface!!!! Well, I don't know if I am going to hell or to the heaven..."

I started to walk further in...I noticed the Shaw Brothers logo is still there although the 's' has already faded out to show how old the building must be. I was told that it was built before World War 2 and was originally a biscuit factory. The Japanese occupation converted the factory into Japanese Propaganda film studio. Shanghai born Run Run Shaw and Runme Shaw then setup and rebuilt the studio facilities at the cost of $100,000 after the war to produce local movies with the name Malay Film Productions. They had actors, directors and crew under contract and paid regular salaries. At their peak, the actors lived in designated areas, with their image and appearances tightly controlled. You couldn't see any of them walking around in the markets or coffee shops. if you want to see them, pay for it and watch them only in theatres!!!

They are a few buildings still standing here even though you could hardly find anything relating to the old studio inside it except for three dustbins with Shaw Brothers logo which we noticed still lying there in one of the rooms. The rest are just old junks and stuff which could probably be the props of those days.

I suddenly saw a Chinese man walking out from nowhere. He looked at us casually and disappeared behind one of the main buildings. I was surprised that he didn't say anything. Maybe he had seen so many visitors like us that our appearance meant nothing to him anymore. I followed him and saw a few more Chinese men who were repairing the back wall of one of the building that was about to collapse. Now that’s a good sign I thought. This means that this building is not going to be demolished anytime soon. I read somewhere that the owner of this building is a Malay film fan and she is such a sentimental person who has no heart to destroying such a historical building. Well, she could also be a smart Chinese business woman who is waiting for the right timing for Singapore government to buy over at a high price for its historic value. Whatever the reasons, it’s good to know that the building is still there. Hopefully the Singapore government could convert this place as a Malay film Museum to attract millions of Malay film fans all over Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. After all there is money to be made here.

As we were walking around this empty surrounding, we noticed that the only stars around here are these strange looking chickens 'berjambul' walking around the studio. Even the chickens here are different and as glamorous as the stars that used to reside here at one time or another!!!!!!

I walked out the studio and began reading the simple remarks written on a brick signage; “Jalan Ampas - Shaw Movie Studio” located beside the entrance of the building that is now covered by yellow aluminium with the large red number 8 on it. It was sad that the glorious days of Malay film industries had to end abruptly in 1967 after producing many memorable films such as Ibu Mertua ku, Antara senyum dan Tangis, Aloha, Ali Baba Bujang Lapuk, Labu Labi, Sargeant Hassan, Panggilan Pulau, Raja Bersiung etc... I guessed with P Ramlee gone after Malaysia and Singapore went separate ways, the Malay Film Productions was never the same again after that. Even P Ramlee wasn't the same P Ramlee after moving to Kuala Lumpur. The movies he produced in KL could never match his Singapore movie years.

As we drove away from the old studio, my wife noticed me smiling from ear to ear. She realised that somehow I had fulfilled my dream of standing at the place where P Ramlee and other great actors and directors of the Malay film productions such as Ahmad Nesfu, Ahmad Mahmod, Saadiah, Zaiton, Aziz Satar, S Shamsuddin used to walk, work, tell jokes and play.

I guess being at the old studio was the best trip to Singapore for me as I reminisced the old forgotten world of movie making at Jalan Ampas studio. I hope the building will remain there for many years to come for the diehard Malay movie fans like me to come and get excited.