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Look Back In Hunger: An Interview with Glen Goei

To this director, the disappearance of a childhood haunt signifies an erosion of identity.

To say Glen Goei visited Magnolia Snack Bar at Capitol Theatre hundreds of times is not hyperbolic. It used to be the theatre director’s stamping ground, having been born into a devout Anglican family whose church, St Andrew’s Cathedral, is just across the street.

Says the 52-year-old from a booth seat at a Japanese coffee joint mere metres away from the former Magnolia: “From a young age until I left to study in England at 20, I would pass this area weekly. During my teens, Magnolia Snack Bar became the hangout for my church friends and me.”

According to Goei, the diner was a cosy 50-seat affair, sporting then-fashionable Formica furniture in a one-floor, elongated shophouse. Crowds would flock to the Singaporean-run snack bar for post-movie bites or social gatherings. In an age before homogeneous fast-food joints like McDonald’s, and physical estrangement brought about by Internet connectivity, the allure of the bar was irresistible, Goei says.

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Magnolia Snack Bar at Capitol Theatre (1965)

“It was a great place to gather. We were big on floats, milkshakes and, of course, the banana split and chocolate sundaes. For us, it was an American diner. But it wasn’t, really,” he says with a chuckle. The notion of being served by English-speaking waitresses was especially thrilling, he says. “Even the youngest children were attended to by the wait staff . We felt very grown up.”

The snack bar’s demise was not so much due to urban redevelopment plans for Capitol Theatre in 1984, but to what Goei dubs the “beginning of an invasion of Western influences” – the arrival of McDonald’s and Swensen’s on local shores in 1979. They heralded the Westernisation of Singaporean culture, and a nationwide obsession with the new and the novel. Home-grown Magnolia Snack Bar folded in 1988, after having expanded to 20 branches in its heyday.

“Much of what was charming about Singapore moved over for Western trends or in the name of redevelopment,” says Goei. “But at what cost?”

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Capitol Piazza (photo credit: ordinarypatrons.com)

The current refurbished Capitol Theatre complex, now Capitol Piazza, is the perfect metaphor of this sentiment. Prior to its facelift this year, the Capitol Theatre had been home to a large number of local-run indie design shops. Goei, too, had spent much of the second quarter of his life doing theatre there. But the hourglass turned on the theatre again, and it has been repackaged into a retail haven for upmarket watch boutiques and foreign-based restaurants.

“This is all very nice,” he says, gesturing to the gleaming marble floor and glitzy clothing boutiques. “But where is the iconic billboard outside that used to display hand-painted movie posters? Our local painters would even add their touches. There was so much character everywhere, back then, and we’re losing these pockets of identity.” Some of these themes – of losing cultural uniqueness – are explored in Goei’s films, the ground-breaking Forever Fever among them.

“This place means nothing to me anymore. There is no more soul,” says Goei.

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