The Show Must Go On! The Projector Overcomes Pandemic Hurdles to Turn Abandoned ‘Siam Diu’ Into Pop-Up Cinema12 min readReading Time: 9 minutes
Nestled between modern shopping malls in Clarke Quay sits a strange warehouse-like building with pitched roofs. A trip on its bumpy hydraulic lift to the top floor brings you to a pair of unassuming glass double doors, behind which lies one of the newest and most exciting gems in Singapore right now.
The building is Riverside Point, and this not-so-secret-anymore find is The Projector’s new pop-up theatre, dubbed Projector X. A tunnel of fairy lights and vertical screens greet you upon entering, which then opens up into a wide lounge space. Pick between vintage sofas or wooden bar stools and take a seat. The floor-to-ceiling windows flood the place with light in the day and the view is quite something — The Singapore River flows right outside and its iconic bumboats are parked along the banks. Some of the island’s most well-known nightlife spots sit just across the water.
Here we met up with Prashant Somosundram who is the General Manager at The Projector. He graciously gave us a tour and told us about the interesting story behind the venue’s colourful history from a hostess club, or siam diu, to pop-up indie cinema.
A few years ago, this space was a Chinese disco. One could imagine the sort of nightlife and excitement that lit up the place. But one night the siam diu owners left and never came back, no one knows for sure why. One theory is that they simply failed to pay their rent and got locked out, but the theory remains pure speculation. When The Projector first took over, the place looked like it was abandoned in a hurry.
“We pretty much had a month and a half to turn the space around. We took over in mid-March and we opened on 30 April,” Prashant tells us. The whole makeover of the new theatre was happening while their Golden Mile theatre was still operating as well. Much of the venue has now been given a new lease of life and at first glance, you might never guess that it used to be a lively disco. But upon closer inspection, there is still a glimpse of the old that can be seen in the small details.
In the lounge area, the DJ booth was conveniently converted into their box office, complete with pandemic-appropriate accessories such as temperature scanners and TraceTogether token readers. The glossy black flooring was possibly the old dance floor, now with the addition of a few paint splatters from the new paint job. “Our friends and family actually came over the weekends to help us paint so we kept costs very low,” Prashant explains. The wooden bar stools were also repurposed from the disco. There is even a small glass booth with more private seating which used to be the smokers’ corner, as hinted at by the ventilation fans.
Some of the smaller spaces from the siam diu such as the backstage changing room and manager’s office have been preserved for the general public to see. In the changing rooms, floor-length gowns and cosplay outfits hang from the clothing racks. High heels are strewn across the floor, kicked off the feet of the girls who had just come off stage. In the manager’s office, the desks are covered in paperwork and used beer mugs. Eagle eyes may spot food menus and old flyers that the club printed for an event. There is almost an apocalyptic feel to how everything has been left completely as it is since the siam diu was abandoned.
While it has its unique features, the pop-up location still pays homage to its roots and is proudly part of The Projector’s bigger family. Some features from their flagship location at Golden Mile Tower have been mirrored here including the playful letterbox marquee and a bar that has been painted with the same chevron pattern on the front of the Intermission Bar.
The Intermission Bar is a spot in-between the box office and cinema hall at Golden Mile, but the bar at Projector X is designed to be more of a destination bar with the aim to improve the experience outside of the cinema hall and encourage people to visit the bar even if they are not watching a movie. Plans are brewing for bartender pop-ups and kitchen takeovers so audiences can certainly look forward to that hopefully in the near future.
Stepping into the actual theatre itself, the room is bathed in the colourful neon lights and, as Prashant points out to us, there are bits of confetti on the ceiling left behind by the disco that they couldn’t get down. There are booth seats on the far left and right sides which definitely give off nightclub vibes. 48 red chairs sit in the middle section, grouped in pairs and socially distanced from each other with side tables in between. Like many other furnishings, the chairs were repurposed too. Another cinema was going to throw them out but Projector X decided to take them instead since they were still in good condition and it turned out to be perfect for a pop-up cinema like this.
In a similar style to silent discos, wireless headphones are handed out to the audience. This might be the biggest difference the pop-up has not just to The Projector’s flagship theatre at Golden Mile, but to cinemas in general. We asked Prashant about this difference, and whether perhaps it was due to noise restrictions in the building. But no, he told us very candidly that it was simply a matter of cost. For a short 18-month lease, it wasn’t worth it to install a full sound system in the cinema. When Projector X screened Kinky Boots recently, they were not sure how audience members would feel about the headphones. To their surprise, it actually enhanced the musical experience while still retaining the sense of watching a film with other people.
Indeed the pop-up is only around for 18 months, until the end of 2022. Opening a cinema in the midst of COVID-19 seems like a risky move, especially one that’s temporary, but as it turns out the concept has been in the works since 2019.
Planning first began because their Golden Mile Tower location was becoming limited by its capacity, leading them to have to create more capacity elsewhere. Right next door, Golden Mile Complex was also in discussions for an en bloc sale which added further unpredictability.
When The Projector team first approached the developers of Riverside Point, the mall had other plans in mind and so discussions fell through. It remained in the back of the team’s mind nonetheless as the space had such an interesting history.
When the pandemic hit, plans to open an alternative space were scrapped for the year as The Projector shut its doors for four long months.
“The arts industry always gets hit the hardest,” I commented, to which Prashant replies: “Yes but we’re also the most creative.” Initially, their financial situation and how they were going to continue paying for rent and labour were the main concerns. The Projector put out tote bags and vouchers for sale, and the support from not only the arts community but also the audience was overwhelming.
“Sometimes you just go back and read those comments on our Instagram posts when you’re having really challenging days, you look through that and you’re like okay actually there’s an audience and there are people who are willing to support us and our presence really means a lot to them. People just bought [the merchandise] and that gave us a two-week breathing room and peace of mind to look into building up Projector Plus.”
Projector Plus was a daunting project on its own as streaming was unventured territory for them but the team acknowledged the need to adapt. Prashant reveals to us that the online platform actually gained a new audience of its own including people who, prior to the pandemic, were not able to find time to catch The Projector’s films in person.
Towards the end of 2020, the Golden Mile cinema was able to get back on its feet again and the team was more comfortable moving their focus back to creating more capacity. From all the struggles of the pandemic, a new perspective also arose. The Projector found new motivation in a desire to bring positivity to the community, especially for the badly affected arts scene. Thus, Projector X was born.
“This presented an interesting opportunity to try a new experience and offer our community something interesting to look forward to in a very dreary landscape,” Prashant says.
I posed him the question: “If not for COVID, do you think you would have still done this pop-up?”
“We wouldn’t have done it this way,” he said, “The opportunities wouldn’t be there also, the opportunity to work with a landlord who is open to leasing out a space for such a short term lease with an experimental concept, I think that circumstance wouldn’t have arisen in a non-COVID environment. Now because things are all stagnating, there are opportunities for us to try new things.” Ultimately they picked the Riverside Point venue quite simply because it became available the soonest.
Interestingly, Riverside Point has had quite a significant cinematic history. The dancefloors were once halls for Studio City Cinemas in the 1990s. Later from 2003 to 2006, it became the temporary site of the National Museum which hosted the debut of Singapore Short Cuts, a showcase of Singapore short films and the genesis of the Asian Film Archive. “We were always interested in this whole idea of adaptive reuse and finding old spaces and breathing new life into it.” Prashant himself visited when it used to house the National Museum and screenings were held in the auditorium. From cinema, to siam diu, and now a cinema again, it truly feels like the legacy of the venue has come full circle.
Although the pop-up is temporary, The Projector is still planning on a new long-term location in the future. While permanent locations allow for the build up of infrastructure, Projector X has had its perks as well including serving as a sort of testing ground for them to try out new ideas that could be implemented in the permanent locations. “It’s good for us in a way that it’s experimental. It’s a sandbox, essentially, where we can try new things with limited liability.”
While it is still new, Projector X has its appeal in its novelty. Ticket sales have been doing well and shows have been selling out. But the team is always thinking of ways to keep things fresh once the novelty wears off. In the weeks and months to come, programming will become a huge focus of scrutiny so that they can find out what their audience is interested in and what keeps people coming back.
The team is already pitching plenty of new and interesting ideas because of Projector X, including more future pop-ups under the Projector X label, outdoor cinemas, or even turning their lounge area into a co-working or social space. It really only seems to get more exciting from here.
But the reality of COVID-19 remains, and circumstances can change like the flick of a switch.
With the recent surge of locally-transmitted cases, Singapore moved from Phase 3 back into Phase 2 restrictions not too long after Projector X opened its doors. Social spaces including cinemas are facing new regulations, but fortunately, Projector X is not affected at the moment. Since it was opened in the middle of the pandemic, it was designed with social-distancing in place and thus fits with restrictions more naturally. Of course, whether restrictions will be tightened even further is still uncertain.
I asked Prashant a big picture question: “If in the worst-case scenario we go back into Circuit Breaker next week, what do you think will happen to this space?”
He said: “We survived the last circuit breaker, and the team is quite dynamic to adapt to different situations. Yeah, we’ll adapt.”
The Projector is located at Golden Mile Tower #05-00, and Projector X is located at Riverside Point #04-13. Visit https://theprojector.sg/ for tickets and screening schedules.