Places Practices Photo Essays

The Sights & Sounds of Dragon World

by Singapore Heritage Society

Dongnan Zheng (Dayneson), a former sound technician at the 1990s Haw Par Villa Dragon World theme park, ignited our interest and imagination and gave us a window into a long-gone world held together by an ensemble of dancers, actors, painters, and other crew members, through his soundscape of memories.

The-Sights-and-Sounds-of-Dragon-World

Dongnan Zheng (Dayneson) was a sound technician at Haw Par Villa from 1991 to 1994. In this time, Haw Par Villa was a key tourist attraction, Dragon World theme park, one of the most popular tourists attractions in Singapore in the 90s. It was such a sensation that 20,000 advance tickets were sold before its opening day. Dragon World was impressive in scale: it could hold a capacity of 12,000 visitors on each day.

“Eager beavers snapped up 20,000 tickets for the new Haw Par Villa theme park even before the park made any announcement.

- The New Paper 18 September 1990 ”

During his time there, Dongnan forged many good, long-standing friendships. He even created a photo montage to help his Dragon World buddies reminisce about the good ol’ days. We chanced upon his montage on YouTube and got curious about what it was like to work at Dragon World. We asked him for an interview and he agreed, jovially taking us on a site walkthrough and a journey down memory lane one evening on 18 February 2022.

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Still from photo montage video produced by Dongnan for Dragon World’s 30th anniversary celebration virtual gathering, 2020 (Image Credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4syewadER50&ab_channel=dayneson via Dongnan Zheng)

Our day with Dongnan started with music. The sound technician had brought along a small, portable speaker in his satchel, treating us to a whimsical playlist of music composed by the Cultural Medallion recipient, the late Iskandar Ismail. He explained to us that this was the music for the dramatic daily opening ceremony that would happen at Dragon World at the start of each working day, which Dongnan had helped to choreograph. Dongnan’s workday used to start at 8am. His first duty was to turn on the music for the park’s opening ceremony via a control room. Then, at 8.30am, an ensemble of performers dressed like celestial warriors would station themselves at the entrance, under the park’s main signboard. At 9am, the celestial warriors actors would sound a gong. Staff on standby would then swing open the park’s gates to welcome the day’s eager visitors.

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Dongnan brings us around his former workplace, where he is standing in the former Four Seasons Theatre, 2022 (Image credit: Nurfalah Sha’aban)

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‘Celestial Warriors’ positioned at the entrance, ready to hit the gong beside the ‘Haw Par Villa’ sign, 1991 (Image credit: Dongnan Zheng)

After the opening ceremony, Dongnan would go to the South China Sea Amphitheatre 30mins before the first scheduled show at 10am. Dongnan would be manning the control room, setting up the sound effects keyboard and checking on the music cassette tapes needed for the show. Through these experiences in this amphitheatre, he honed the craft of executing choreographed, dramatic sound work. A fire’s crackling, the burst of a thunderstorm, the woosh of an arrow - these were the sounds that Dongnan played on cue, to generate an electrifying experience that would leave a mark on the audience. On stage, performers were busy wow-ing the audience with acrobatics, mascot performances, Chinese opera, and traditional Chinese music. These performances at the 2,000-seat amphitheatre were part of the tourist attraction offering at Dragon World.

Dongnan inside the control room of the South China Sea Amphitheatre, where he coordinated sound effects for performances, 1991 (Image credit: Dongnan Zheng)
Dongnan inside the control room of the South China Sea Amphitheatre, where he coordinated sound effects for performances, 1991 (Image credit: Dongnan Zheng)
View from the South China Sea Amphitheatre control room. For Dongnan, the control room boasted beautiful sea views from Pasir Panjang too, 1991 (Image credit: Dongnan Zheng)
View from the South China Sea Amphitheatre control room. For Dongnan, the control room boasted beautiful sea views from Pasir Panjang too, 1991 (Image credit: Dongnan Zheng)

After completing work at the amphitheatre, Dongnan would take a walk around Haw Par Villa where he lapped up the sometimes off-the-cuff performances at Dragon World’s five other theatres. One of his favorites was the Four Seasons Theatre located at the site of the Aw brothers’ former mansion (if you’re visiting today it is the area with the red terrazzo steps). Performances at the Four Season Theatre typically involved a skit with four characters dressed as the Four Seasons, but visitors were sometimes also given costumes and invited to join the actors. Dongnan’s day was filled with other enjoyable and memorable moments including break time where he’d retire to a rehearsal room at the back of Haw Par Villa, where Zehnder Road is. Here, he fondly recalled playing video games with cast member Gurmit Singh, and growing deep ties with the rest of the Dragon World community.

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The comedian Kumar (left) performs as Snow White in “Snow White But Not So White” - another performance that Dongnan enjoyed, 1992 (Image credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Med1-Ay3VU&ab_channel=dayneson via Dongnan Zheng)

Sometimes, like in the movie ‘Night at the Museum’, after the park shuts its gates to visitors at 6pm, the Dragon World cast members would stay behind to revel in after-hour parties, where they would unwind and enjoy themselves after a long day. According to Dongnan, “We work[ed] hard. We play[ed] hard.” Apart from music concerts, there were also memorable themed parties.

Dongnan (centre) with mascots Lee Ming (right) and Da Long (left). Cast members often visited the park even during their off-days, 1991 (Image Credit: Dongnan Zheng)
Dongnan (centre) with mascots Lee Ming (right) and Da Long (left). Cast members often visited the park even during their off-days, 1991 (Image Credit: Dongnan Zheng)
Cast members enthusiastically dressed in colourful garbs for after-hour parties, like this pirate’s night, 1993 (Image Credit: Dongnan Zheng)
Cast members enthusiastically dressed in colourful garbs for after-hour parties, like this pirate’s night, 1993 (Image Credit: Dongnan Zheng)

Dongnan worked at Dragon World from 1991 to 1994. Haw Par Villa continues to have a special place in the memories of Dongnan and numerous other former cast members. They have often met to reminisce about those days. One way they continue to relive the past is via the music of the late Iskandar Ismail which was salvaged by Dongnan. It became a tradition for them to play this music during gatherings.

Dongnan himself returns to Haw Par Villa from time to time. Each time he does so, he brings along a portable speaker to play the soundtrack of Dragon World, matching each tune to their former performance venue. Although the theme park no longer exists, he is relieved that Haw Par Villa still stands, for it represents a season in his life where he forged close relationships with those he worked, danced, joked, and sang with. “[If they] tear down this place, I will be sad,” Dongnan said.

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Cast member reunions often comprise visits to Haw Par Villa. They even met during the pandemic in 2020 via Zoom, 2020 (Image Credit: Dongnan Zheng)

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Gurmit & Kumar are just two of the famous names that have passed through Dragon World, 1991 (Image Credit: Dongnan Zheng)

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Singapore Heritage Society

We are a group of students from various universities and disciplines - Kitson Yap, Lee Si Ping, Nurfalah Sha’aban, Joshua Ong - that have an interest in helping others to appreciate Haw Par Villa after interning at Singapore Heritage Society (SHS). During the stint, we worked on a social media campaign for Haw Par Villa on SHS’ Instagram and Facebook, #myhawparvilla, in the hopes of increasing public awareness of the site’s heritage. After which, we had decided to continue our efforts in making Haw Par Villa more accessible so that others could appreciate Haw Par Villa.

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