Skip to main content

Advertisement

Advertisement

Revisit Singapore’s pop history with Return To The Tea Dance

SINGAPORE — Back in the 1960s, one of the most popular forms of entertainment for Singaporeans was the tea dance. Held every Sunday afternoon, scores of young people would head to venues such as the Golden Venus, The Palace, The Princess Garni or the Celestial Room to hang out and dance as bands played their favourite tunes.

SINGAPORE — Back in the 1960s, one of the most popular forms of entertainment for Singaporeans was the tea dance. Held every Sunday afternoon, scores of young people would head to venues such as the Golden Venus, The Palace, The Princess Garni or the Celestial Room to hang out and dance as bands played their favourite tunes.

“I believe that a lot of men met their wives at tea dances,” said Zainal Abidin, the bass player for one of Singapore’s pop bands of the ’60s, The Dukes.

“Every time we played a slow song, there would be no movement on the dance floor, they would just hug their partner — I was told it was called the ‘candle dance’,” he added. “At every tea dance we played, it was the same.”

The band is part of a line-up for a concert this coming Saturday at the Esplanade Concert Hall. Titled Return To The Tea Dance, the show will also feature performances by The Trailers (led by original lead guitarist Victor Woo), as well as singers Vernon Cornelius (of The Quests) and Joe Aaron (of The Xperiment). Just like in the old days, the show will start in the afternoon and yes, the audience can get up and dance along the aisles as the musicians perform.

“The young people always looked forward to the tea dances every Sunday at the Princess Garni or the Celestial Room. They would all be full,” said Woo.

Sure, there were concerts, but they were not regular. Bands that wanted to gig consistently would vie for a slot at these weekly events.

“Those who wanted to hear the radio hits would come to tea dances to hear a live band play those hits,” said Aaron. The bands used to work quite hard to belt out all these songs.”

“It was a very busy period for us,” said Woo. “I remember I would work until 5pm, then go for my tae kwan do class, then at 8pm, I would go to the nightspot to play music. Sometimes on Saturday night, we would play at a club, on Sunday morning we would do the early morning show at the cinema and in the afternoon, the tea dance. It was very hectic.”

On top of that, the musicians also had to devote a fair amount of time in the studio rehearsing and recording.

“Don’t ask me how we did it — I don’t know,” mused Woo.

“We were young,” quipped Aaron.

Tea dances were breeding ground for musicians, said Cornelius. “The Trailers were kings in Katong, The Dukes were kings in Princess Garni, the Golden Venus was The Checkmates’ stronghold and so on. Each of these groups ‘held their fort’ for a number of years. There was a main act, but the bands also encouraged newer groups to play as support acts. That says a lot.”

The musicians weren’t only friends with one another; they were also fans of each other. “Sure, there was competition on stage – we all want to play better than the other band,” said Aaron. “But off-stage, we would all go for a meal together.”

“I remember the Golden Venus tea dance would end at 6pm, and then everybody would adjourn to Princess Garni to watch The Dukes, because they played until 7pm,” said Cornelius. “Also, going late meant that there was no ticket charge!”

Zainal said the Princess Garni tea dances, which were originally free of charge, became so popular that organisers decided to charge S$10 per head, inclusive of one non-alcoholic drink (“it wasn’t even orange juice, but orange squash”), in order to curb the number of fans turning up.

“That was a lot of money in those days, but it was always sold out,” said Zainal. “The young people didn’t mind — they wanted to meet their future wives there, you see.”

Whether or not one will meet future spouses at the coming concert is anyone’s guess. But the musicians hope this show will be more than just a trip down memory lane.

“The whole idea of coming together is to let the younger generation be aware of what was going on back in the ’60s and ’70s and the music we used to play,” said Aaron. “We may not be able to replicate exactly (what we did) but we’ll give them bits and pieces … of what it was like.”

Added Cornelius: “Tea dances were all about youth and having fun. It was a harmless thing to do on Sundays and this went on until the ’70s, when they closed down the clubs. Tea dances played a very significant role for the people in Singapore. It was a phenomenon. I hope this coming together of good friends will reignite the ’60s spirit.”

Return To The Tea Dance is on Nov 8, 4pm at the Esplanade Concert Hall. Tickets at S$38 and S$28 from SISTIC.

Read more of the latest in

Advertisement

Popular

Advertisement

Stay in the know. Anytime. Anywhere.

Subscribe to get daily news updates, insights and must reads delivered straight to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, I agree for my personal data to be used to send me TODAY newsletters, promotional offers and for research and analysis.