Brew up tea dances to get into swing of SG50

Brew up tea dances to get into swing of SG50
The Singapore 50 (SG50) logo. It represents the little red dot (Singapore) that we have come to know as home. It celebrates the Singapore spirit - signifying that our dreams are not limited by the physical size of our island nation.

SINGAPORE - Organisers looking for a party idea for Singapore's 50th jubilee next year may want to consider tea dances, going by the almost full turnout at an Esplanade gig a few weeks ago featuring bands that played at those Sunday-afternoon events back in the 1960s.

Tea dances also surfaced in the 1980s and 1990s to let people mingle and find romance, so they have left a big imprint on at least two generations of Singaporeans.

While there is no shortage of nightspots now to party every night if you want to, it was not like that in the 1960s, says Jerry Fernandez, who helped put up the recent tea-dance tribute at the Esplanade.

"I saved my recess money to attend those Sunday outings," recalls the 64-year-old, who even formed a band, Jerry and the D'Peddlers, to play at such functions when he was 16 and studying at St Joseph's Institution. He still sings for a band that plays at a Bedok nightspot.

Tea dances came about when band managers broached the idea to bosses of nightspots. Held on Sundays from 2.30pm to 6pm, they soon found a loyal following, with their heyday spanning 1963 to 1969. They could draw up to 300 young people, who came to check out the hot groups of the day like Checkmates, X'periment, The Dukes, The Trailers, The Boys, Blackjacks and Mysterians.

"The boys came in groups, and so did the girls," recalls Mr Fernandez. The bands gave them a chance to invite someone to dance to the hits of the day like the Rolling Stones' (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, The Beatles' Ticket To Ride and Wilson Pickett's Midnight Hour. The venues included Golden Venus, Prince Hotel Garni and Celestial Room (all in Orchard); The Palace in East Coast Road; South-east Asia Hotel in Waterloo Street; and Wong Kiong nightclub in Middle Road. The charge? $1.50 to $2.50, inclusive of a drink.

But the good times faded out in the 1970s because of a rumoured clampdown by the authorities when things got too rowdy.

Tea dances found a new lease of life in the early 1980s when the Government's Social Development Unit and then Social Development Service included them, among other initiatives, to get graduates and non-graduates, respectively, to meet, and hopefully, result in more marriages and higher birth rates.

Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1983 said Singapore might be doomed by a shrinking talent pool because too many educated women stayed single and childless.

Part of the problem was that young men preferred women less educated than they were.

I was then a young graduate working in the civil service and turned up at many of these heavily subsidised tea dances held at places such as Top Ten in Orchard Towers and Kasbah in Mandarin Hotel.

The music spun by deejays ranged from Tarzan Boy by Baltimora to We Built This City by Starship to A-ha's Take On Me.

Commercial discos also whipped up a tea-dance mania in the 1980s and early 1990s. Held in venues such as Fire, Sparks, Canto, Warehouse and Club Barracuda, the gatherings were a big magnet for teenagers who came to show off their fancy dance moves to techno and Eurodisco music.

But unruly behaviour, including cigarette smoking, later brought the curtains down on these gatherings. Since then, save for a period when some nightspots held tea dances on Sundays for foreign workers, the tea-dance scene has not been revived.

But there is no reason why next year's 50th birthday bashes cannot brew up a tea dance or two for those who patronised these events, fell in love with the music and, maybe, found a life partner too.

From the positive feedback Mr Fernandez has received after the Esplanade gig, he says he is game to round up other old-time bands to go down memory lane again. "Why not? Today's nightspots are too youth-oriented and play a different sort of music, which does not appeal to people who went to tea dances," he adds.

This article was first published on December 7, 2014.
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