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At the time of the completion of its main tower in 1941, The Cathay stood as the tallest building (87m from the street level to the top) in Singapore. IMAGE: NG KAI

National Monuments Of Singapore: The Cathay

What is a National Monument? Who gazettes them? How many national monuments are there in Singapore? To date, the Preservation of Sites and Monuments, a division of National Heritage Board, has identified and gazetted 75 buildings, structures and sites of national significance as an integral part of Singapore’s built heritage.

And we're here to tell you all about them - one National Monument at a time!

You've probably passed by or stepped into more than a few of them without realising they were National Monuments: Al-Abrar Mosque, Asian Civilisations Museum, the Civilian War Memorial, Saint Andrew's Cathedral, the Esplanade Park Memorials, Fort Siloso on Sentosa - no need to plan an itinerary for friends visiting from overseas; just show them this article ✌️

In this edition, we zoom in on Singapore's first skyscraper and first air-conditioned cinema, The Cathay.

📍 Location

The Cathay was the 48th building to be gazetted as a National Monument, and is located near other National Monuments such as MacDonald House, National Museum and Maghain Aboth Synagogue. The MRT stations nearest to it are Dhoby Ghaut, Bencoolen and Bras Basah.

📅 Significant dates

Dates built:

  • 1937-1941: Cathay Building was built
  • 3 Oct 1939: Cathay Cinema, located in the front block of Cathay Building, was completed
  • 1940: Cathay Restaurant, situated on the fourth floor of Cathay Building, was opened
  • Aug 1941: The main tower of Cathay Building, the residential block, was constructed atop the cinema and restaurant
  • 9 Jan 1954: Cathay Hotel began operations
  • 30 Jun 2000-2006: The cinemas in Cathay Building closed for redevelopment, reopening as a shopping mall with an eight-hall multiplex


  • 3 Oct 1939: Cathay Cinema screened its opening film, Four Feathers by Zoltan Korda
  • 1941: Cathay Building was leased to the colonial government and the Malayan Broadcasting Corporation
  • 1942: The Japanese took over Cathay Building and renamed it Daitoa Gekijo (Greater Eastern Asian Theatre)
  • Nov 1945-Nov 1946: Cathay Building became the headquarters for Admiral Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander of Southeast Asia (SACSEA)
  • Feb 1949: Cathay Organisation regained control of Cathay Building
  • 9 Jan 1954: Cathay Hotel began operations
  • 30 Dec 1970: Cathay Hotel closed
  • Jul 1974: The hotel space was turned into office premises
  • 1991: Cathay Cinema expanded from a single-screen to a multiplex
  • 24 Mar 2006: Cathay Building was reopened as The Cathay
  • 26 Jun 2022: Cathay Cineplex ceased operations

Date gazetted:

  • 10 Feb 2003

Cathay Building circa 1945. | IMAGE: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

📜 History

The Cathay was formerly known as Cathay Building. The founders of Cathay Organisation, Loke Yew (a successful businesswoman and philanthropist) and her son, Loke Wan Tho, spearheaded and funded the construction of Cathay Building. In 1937, land was cleared at the foot of Mount Sophia located in Dhoby Ghaut for the project. On 3 Oct 1939, the first part of Cathay Building was completed – Cathay Cinema.

The 1,321-seater Cathay Cinema not only boasted opulent settings (black marble pillars, green-tiled floors, and gold ceilings), but was also the first fully air-conditioned cinema in Singapore.

Soon after, Cathay Restaurant (located on the fourth floor) followed in 1940, as well as the final main tower (a 10-storey residential block that featured 80 apartments) in Aug 1941.

When the full 16-storey Cathay Building was completed in 1941, it became British Malaya’s inaugural skyscraper at a height of 87m (from street level to the highest point), towering over the finished Supreme Court by almost 15m.

The building’s top level also featured a magnificent double-storey penthouse with a view of the Straits of Johor, and served as the private residence of the Lokes.

When the Second World War erupted in Europe in 1939, Cathay Cinema began screening films to raise funds for British war efforts. As the conflict neared Singapore, Cathay Building was commandeered by the British Administration and military.

Apart from being home to Cathay Cinema, the main building accommodated various offices and agencies of the British Administration, including the Malayan Broadcasting Corporation. A top-secret radar system was also installed to coordinate radar traffic from different air bases around Singapore.

Renowned for its sturdy construction, Cathay Building served as a refuge for civilians during Japanese air raids. On 15 Feb 1942, as part of the terms of surrender, the British were instructed to raise both a Japanese flag and a white flag atop Cathay Building for 10 minutes.

Throughout the Japanese Occupation from 1942 to 1945, the building housed the Japanese Military Administration's broadcast station and propaganda office known as Sendenhan. Cathay Building was also renamed Daitoa Gejiko (Greater East Asian Theatre), where the cinema continued to screen Japanese and pro-Japanese propaganda films.

Cathay Building, comprising a hotel and a cinema, circa 1954. | IMAGE: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/@POWERHOUSE MUSEUM

Following the war, the British Administration reclaimed Cathay Building, which then served as the headquarters for Supreme Allied Commander of Southeast Asia, Lord Louis Mountbatten. Later on, he officially accepted the Japanese surrender at the Municipal Building. Eventually, the property ownership reverted to Loke Wan Tho, and underwent a conversion into a hotel and a cinema.

Cathay Building saw various developments throughout the 1960s to the 1990s, before closing on 30 Jun 2000 for a multimillion redevelopment.


On 24 Mar 2006, Cathay Building reopened its doors as The Cathay. The well-known Japanese architect Paul Tange of Tange Associates was in-charge of the new design. Most notably, it incorporated the original brown-tiled facade into the modern glass exterior.

The complex now boasted a vibrant shopping mall alongside a multiplex featuring the Grand Cathay (the largest hall) and Picturehouse theatres. Additionally, the second floor hosted the Cathay Gallery, which offered insights into the rich history of the building and the esteemed Loke family. The rest of the building was a residential block.


📐 Design and architecture

Cathay Building was designed by Frank W. Brewer in the Art Deco style (short for the French Arts décoratifs), a popular design style of the 1920s and 30s. The style was also widespread in Singapore at the time - buildings like the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station and the former Ford Factory were also designed in the Art Deco style.

Fun fact: Although Cathay Building measured 87m from street level to its peak (and was deemed the tallest building in the Lion City when it was completed), the actual height of the building was 70m after discounting the height of the slope at the back of the building 🤭

Today, only the front of the original building remains. It clearly displays characteristics of the Art Deco style, such as the geometric forms and patterns seen in the rounded and stepped walls. One notable and iconic feature of the former Cathay Building is its large vertical signage bearing the name "Cathay". The rest of the building has been replaced by a contemporary glass-clad structure. 

🕖 Opening hours

The Cathay is temporarily closed for renovations and its reopening is slated for late 2024. Find out more here.

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