Relive the heyday of Hotel New World and discover the joys of Jalan Besar in this site-specific audio tour.
Few people from this generation will remember it, but Jalan Besar used to be home to a thriving, bustling carnival atmosphere, thanks to the presence of New World Amusement Park.
While all that remains of the park is a single gate, still standing outside Farrer Park MRT station, it is the stories passed down from the generations that came before, and fragmented recollections that keep the park’s memory alive even today. Perhaps one of the strongest memories lies in its plethora of entertainment options, ranging from striptease, cabaret girls, opera shows and even boxing matches during its heyday, one that comes to life in OH! Open House’s new self-guided audio tour New World’s End.
Written and directed by Kaylene Tan, New World’s End is part tour, part immersive experience, as audience members are led around Jalan Besar, visiting various sights and landmarks. It’s not a particularly difficult walk, and taking place in the evening, as the sun is about to set, the weather is cool, and you won’t have to jostle with a crowd to get from place to place. While I’m the kind of person who tends to lose my way easily, throughout the experience, one never feels lost or alone, thanks to the clear, pre-recorded directions from narrator Lim Kay Siu, as he patiently guides listeners carefully down busy roads and narrow alleyways via the audio device we are given, and follow the pacing of the footsteps layered over the audio tracks.
Those familiar with the area would likely have encountered most of these sites, but there is always something magical about using audio tours as a means of rediscovering a seemingly ordinary route we might have previously walked countless times. As day turns to night, and the evening sky takes on a flurry of vibrant colours, the scene is set for romance, as Kay Siu fills our head with facts about the district’s history and vivid imagery. It’s easy to imagine how these physical buildings before us used to be in the past, far more lively and bustling than the quietude we see in the midst of this pandemic. Not only do we feel immersed visually, but also sonically, as NADA’s evocative and varied soundtrack helps adjust our mood in each segment. Whether it’s putting us in a reflective reverie as we backtrack down a street, or even putting on a disco beat as Kay Siu recalls heady dancefloors of the past, these elements all come together to make us feel like we were lost in our own world, leaving the present behind as we time travelled back to the 70s.
But New World’s End isn’t just here to imbue you with historical facts; interwoven into the experience is a fictional narrative that traces a love story set in the past. We follow Kiran (voiced by Salif Hardie), a cinema projectionist and Rosa (voiced by Moira Loh), a dance hostess at the New World Cabaret, and their turbulent relationship over the years. It’s not hard to root for them and their romance; Kaylene Tan, known for her dreamy writing style, excels here at drawing out the nostalgia of New World, transporting us from nightclubs filled with dancing ladies, to sensual, sultry hotel rooms. It is these memories narrated to us that make the ordinary world around us come alive, as the present day melts away, and we imagine these scenes playing out before us.
Perhaps the most exciting part of New World’s End is when fact with fiction begin to mix, and Kiran and Rosa’s fictional story begins to bleed into reality, as we find ourselves in ‘Kiran’s bedroom’. It is in these parts that Kay Siu lets go, and we are given the opportunity to play detective and explore on our own. If you like the feeling of finding Easter eggs in video games, then this is the moment for you to shine, as more adventurous audience members will likely uncover everything from love letters to mementos that serve to deepen Kiran and Rosa’s story.
Set designer Alan Oei has evidently spent a lot of effort in creating the space, right down to little details from movie posters of films mentioned in the audio, to even headlines on newspapers lining the windows that reflects the era. It feels like a room that has been lived in, helping further immerse us into the space’s realism, and allowing us to feel the pain of heartbreak and loss that Kiran goes through.
It is inevitable that an experience about New World Amusement Park would eventually mention the disastrous Hotel New World collapse in 1986, and it is here that the tour reaches its climax, where audience members find themselves in a re-creation of the hotel’s ruins. The change in environment is sudden and surprising, and helps replicate that feeling of being thrust into the midst of a disaster. Weaving our way through narrow corridors and ducking to avoid the rubble, it’s a surreal moment as we sit in the darkness of the collapsed hotel, while Brian Gothong Tan’s films are projected onto the walls, each one depicting Kiran and Rosa’s relationship. Brian Gothong Tan’s love for classic Singaporean cinema is evident here, as each film reimagines the two characters as black and white cinema from the Shaw Brothers Studio era. Even while silent, Salif Hardie and Moira Loh’s expressions capture their feelings completely, while the picturesque sets and scenography cranks up the feeling of nostalgia, elevating their relationship to a film-worthy romance.
Tragedy leaves us on a poignant note, and as we leave the area, and wind our way down a back alley, we listen to the final fates of Kiran and Rosa, and ponder over how much has been lost to time, from the buildings to the people and their memories. We end off by making our way through a dressing room, as if we’re awakening from a dream, or come to the end of a performance by being privy to the backstage, as we remove our earphones and return to reality. Even if Kiran and Rosa were fictitious, we are moved, as it feels as if we’ve just gone on a long journey with them, following the ups and downs of their tumultuous relationship, much as we walked up and down the streets of Jalan Besar.
As an experience, New World’s End knows that it cannot squeeze an entire district’s history into its short one-hour run, and so goes for the emotional jugular instead. With Kaylene Tan’s writing and NADA’s atmospheric music, it succeeds at this, resulting in a production that elevates the normalcy of Jalan Besar into something surreal and dream-like over the course of your walk. The message behind of New World’s End lies in its title: it is a meditation on loss and the beauty of the past, and an experience that allows us to see Jalan Besar through the lens of the past, calling to mind the romance and tragedy of New World Amusement Park each time we return to these streets again in future.
Photo Credit: OH! Open House
OH! Open House: New World’s End is a permanent installation and is open to the public from 2nd July 2021. Tickets and more information available here