SINGAPORE - It was December 1950. Deadly riots had broken out across Singapore due to unhappiness over a final court ruling for Maria Hertogh, a 13-year-old raised by a Malay foster mother, to be returned to her Dutch-Catholic biological parents.
But teenage ballerina Jean Chan, and fellow dancers from Maudrene's School of Dancing, were a picture of calm as they continued rehearsals at the Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall.
Ms Chan, now 78, remembers flitting across the stage of the Grand Old Dame in a white chiffon costume with gold braiding - she was playing a Persian princess in a production called Persian Market.
"We were asked to leave the venue immediately after rehearsals to keep to the curfew imposed by the Government, but apart from that, we weren't too alarmed," she recalled at the opening of a new heritage gallery at the national monument at Empress Place yesterday.
The gallery was launched yesterday by Mr Lawrence Wong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, at an event that also recognised 350 pioneers from the arts and heritage scene.
Like Ms Chan, many artists of that era had taken to the stage to uplift a war-weary public. The others included The Stage Club and Bhaskar's Academy of Dance.
Programme booklets from the School of Dancing - including one where Ms Chan starred as Snow White - are part of the more than 100 exhibits on show at the gallery for the first time.
The gallery also features milestones of the Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall and its lesser known facts, such as how it was a makeshift hospital during World War II. It was also where convocations and university balls were held.
Dating back to 1855, it reopened last year after a four-year restoration costing $158 million. Addressing a crowd of 150 pioneers, Mr Wong said although the preoccupation was with bread-and-butter issues in the early days, many of them had pursued their passion for the arts.
"And thanks to your pioneering efforts, our lives have been enriched... Today, we have access to quality arts to express ourselves, to enjoy the beauty around us and ultimately to become better human beings.
"This is the rich legacy that you have left for all Singaporeans," he said.
Among those honoured yesterday were theatre pioneer Stella Kon, Cultural Medallion winner Alex Abisheganaden and Malay literary pioneer Suratman Markasan.
They were presented with plaques and a lifetime membership at the National Gallery, which will open in November.
This article was first published on Jan 28, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.