Cinemas and Movie Memories of Brunei

[I wrote the following article for last Monday's Golden Legacy column on Brunei Times. Regular readers of this blog would realised that this article is a combination of my recent (about 2 months back) entry on the one and only Brunei movie and an old entry (about 3 years back) entry on cinema memories. I have incorporated some of the comments on those entries as part of the article as well.]

HOW many people in Brunei remembered when our nation produced its first and so far only movie?

Yet we did, although you have to go a long way back to remember this movie. In fact you have to go back more than one generation ago — you have to go back more than 42 years back in time and you would at least have to be in your 50s now to even recall that movie.

Those who remembered would know that the movie was called “Gema Dari Menara” (Voices or Echoes from the Minaret). The making of the movie was sponsored by the Religious Affairs Department (now the Ministry of Religious Affairs).

The movie was filmed on location at the house of Pengiran Anak Kemaluddin, (now known as Yang Amat Mulia Pengiran Indera Mahkota Pengiran Anak Dr Kemaluddin Al-Haj ibni Al-Marhum Pengiran Bendahara Pengiran Anak Haji Mohd Yassin, the Speaker of the Legislative Council). Pengiran Anak Kemaluddin, then as the Principal of the Religious Affairs Department also directed the movie.

Outside scenes include Jembatan Rangas, Jerudong and Batu Satu. The actor was Pengiran Abbas, an Inspector with the Department. The actress was also a local named Aisah Haji Mohd Noor.

A local band by the name of Dendang Teruna appeared in the movie. Dendang Teruna was a regular on Radio Brunei but apparently never recorded an album. It was said that the movie was funded by the government to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars.

The storyline was that of a young man who did all the bad things like partying, drinking etc and he repented after a car crash. According to some folks who remembered watching the movie, some of the actors were clearly reading their lines from where the script was written down — on their hands and on their palms.

The movie was shown at Boon Pang Cinema in 1968 and after it ended there, the movie was shown from time to time at one of Information Department’s nightly showings in their visits to villages. Not many people remembered what happened to this movie. The movie was said to be controversial as too many people either enjoyed too much or disliked the “sinful” sins; and it was said that because of that it was withdrawn. Despite the fact that the acting was not as good, tickets were said to be sold out and some of the collection was donated to the Orphans Fund.

Similarly, not many people remembered what happened to the Boon Pang Cinema which showed the movie. In fact not many people remembered what happened to the other Brunei cinemas in the same era. In today’s multiplexes cinemas world such as the Mall Gadong, Empire and the Q-Lap Mall, single screens cinemas are considered so yesterday.

For some reason, cinemas never found a strong foothold in Brunei. Before the First World War, there was one cinema but it was destroyed during the war. It was rebuilt as the Boon Pang and later on in Bandar, there were three — the Boon Pang, the Bolkiah and the Borneo, the latter two built in the 1950s. The Boon Pang is now gone replaced by the BIBD building.

The Boon Pang had an interesting history. It was once used as a detention centre for a few months. After the 1962 rebellion, the army rounded up all the detainees and placed them in the open tennis court areas at the padang. The Police Station in front of the mosque was still there then. The detainees were eventually moved to the Boon Pang to keep them from being out in the open and while preparing the teacher training institute in Berakas as a detention centre for long term placements.

One avid movie-goer reminisced the Boon Pang Cinema also had a little cafe or snack bar attached to the side of its first floor, called “OKK CafĂ©” — OKK being the initials of the cinema’s owner Dato Ong Kim Kee. Many remembered it as somewhat of a dark and smoky dive, where one can enjoy “ice cream floats”. Apparently, it was a popular place for dates in the 1960s and 1970s (one has to imagine bell bottomed trousers, kebayas and beehive hairdos).

Other than the Boon Pang, the Borneo and Bolkiah are still standing. The Bolkiah, originally said owned partly by the Shaw Brothers has been upgraded and one should go there at least to find out the better experience of watching a movie in a full size cinema unlike the smaller screens in the Empire or the Mall.

Another avid movie-goer recalled a story. He said that for many years, the Bolkiah Cinema was run by a group of mainly Chinese shareholders. One of the perks of being a shareholder was that every month they get a special card that entitles them to 5 (free) tickets to every show in the cinema. He used to have a neighbour whose family has one of those cards, so on lazy afternoons during school holidays they would show up and the lady in the ticket booth would simply mark-off the spaces on the card and they would get their tickets. The downside is that shows on week day afternoons were usually bad…pretty bad!

As for the Borneo Theatre, it is no longer in operation as well. The fire to the department store right next to it triggered an effort to remodel the place, but still has not got many patronage like it used to. The last time anyone remember when the whole theatre was full, was of a showing of Isabella, a Malay movie, released way back when.

Another cinema was the Seri Theatre at Batu Satu, Jalan Tutong which opened around the mid 1970s. That did not survive for long. At first run by the owner but later on by the Chinese Chambers. It did not make much money and was razed down when the owners were thinking of building a hotel there.

Seri Theatre has a little restaurant as an extension of its front and many remembered being taken for treats of fried chicken wings as children.

There was an old cinema in Tutong. One former Tutong resident said it did not have a name. Whereas there are others who vaguely remembered it said it was named Mohamed Bolkiah. It was somewhere opposite the Police Station.

Kuala Belait had at least 4 cinemas previously. The Roxana has been razed down. Roxana was said to be structurally unsound.
Another cinema in Kuala Belait was the Capital. The exact location of the Capital (which had been demolished ages ago) is now a vacant lot in between the KB Chung Hua Middle School and the Swiss Hotel there. There used to be a famous cafe/restaurant selling chicken rice that’s in the same building.

The Marina in Seria is still standing. It used to be a grand building when Seria was completed in the 1950s. Another one which people still remembered is the Puspa which was somewhere at the back of the Seria filling station.

Not many remembered the time when cinemas ruled the entertainment of the public in Brunei.


Unknown said…
Tks for this - sure brought back fond memories of $6 orange juice besides that Seri Theatre, and the original Thien2 chicken rice place :). Seri also used to have live Chinese HKG filmstars concerts. My late grandfather co-owned Borneo Theatre until late 80's, I think so yep, there were indeed freebie tickets for non-sold out shows.And Boon Pang was where Rano Karno, Barry Prima and Lydia Kandou met their adoring public hehe..
Anonymous said…
I'm born in the 90's and reading this post reminds me of some fond childhood memories. Dad used to bring me and my elder sis to The Marina for movies on weekends. Although I can't remember which movies we've watched, but I remembered the place as a large cinema, even bigger than Empire's or Mall's. Haha. They have plenty of seats and before the show started, they used to play Aqua's songs, one that goes "Happy Boys and Girls". The movie quality wasn't good and subtitles were crappy. And most times there were just small crowds, at most 80 people. Whenever I passed by The Marina, I get this nostalgic feeling. That place is left unmanaged and I feel sad for it. Hopefully that place can be opened again. I miss those huge posters they had outside the cinema.
Unknown said…
My father used to be a manager at the now defunct Roxana in Seria. My dad loved the old western movies and we watched alot of it. My family would go to the english-american movies for free and sat in our reserved seats-row f. I have such great memories of Seria and Kuala Belait. My mom worked for Shell. Our family left in 1971 when I was 8 for Canada. I want to go back to visit all the sites in Seria (if they are still there) esp St Margaret school. I enjoyed growing up in Seria.
carrie said…
Thank you for your posts on old school Bruneian cinemas! Nowhere else as informative as yours. Really needed this for a project, thank you! :D
Anonymous said…
Now me feeling in sentimental mode.. I did work as projectionist in Boon Pang theatre in 1981 for one year before continuing my study.. It was a great experience for me..n..i did remember 'pak Mad, an old long time projectionist there n he taught me alot.....

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