Memory Makers: The day McDonald's opened in Singapore to much fanfare

Boy Scouts form a guard of honour at the grand opening of Singapore's first McDonald's at Liat Towers on 20 October, 1979. (PHOTO: McDonald's)
Boy Scouts form a guard of honour at the grand opening of Singapore's first McDonald's at Liat Towers on 20 October, 1979. Note the use of "hamburger restaurant" in the sign, as many Singaporeans had not heard of McDonald's. (PHOTO: McDonald's Singapore)

Are you nostalgic for the old days? In Memory Makers, Yahoo News Singapore takes a trip down memory lane with people and places, and revisits oft-forgotten parts of Singapore’s history.

SINGAPORE — Back in October 1979, most Singaporeans ate their meals at roadside stalls or hawker centres. Table service was the norm even at KFC and A&W, and few had ever heard of an American fast food chain called McDonald's, where you were expected to queue up for and collect your food.

Jeffrey Tan, who was just 21 and working as a lock salesman, can still remember the newspaper recruitment advertisement: "Join us as a crew. McDonald's world famous hamburger restaurant."

The pay on offer: a not insignificant sum of $1 an hour.

Joanne Khoo, aged 19 at the time and working as a secretary, told Yahoo News Singapore, "There was no such thing as part-time work then, so I was very curious." Khoo and Tan turned up with their respective friends for the job interview and were among some 80-100 people hired to staff McDonald's first Singapore outlet.

It was the brainchild of former national water polo player Robert Kwan, who first stepped into a McDonald's in 1975 in Las Vegas and later resolved to bring the experience to Singapore. He then set up McDonald's Restaurants Pte Ltd, a joint venture with McDonald's parent company.

Liat Towers, a brand new shopping mall and mixed use complex in Orchard Road, was chosen as the venue for the first outlet. Wheelock Place did not yet exist, and the giant red, yellow and white banner which hung above the restaurant, located next to the now defunct Galeries Lafayette, said it all, "Opening soon".

There was just one small problem: the product had not arrived in time, but dozens of crew members were waiting to be trained. So the trainers improvised with 'lettuce', 'chopped onions', 'patties' and 'buns'.

"All the ingredients were mocked up. So for lettuce, they used green raffia string. For onions, they used chads from hole punchers, and then the burger and patties, we used cardboard," said Tan.

There were no Happy Meals, and only six burgers on the menu: Quarter Pounder, Quarter Pounder with Cheese, Fillet-O-Fish, Big Mac, Hamburger and Cheeseburger. They were served in colourful foam boxes or wrapping paper, and the cost ranged from 75 cents to $1.70.

Opening day

Social media did not exist then, so everything about the McDonald's launch in Singapore was spread by word of mouth and traditional media. Mazlina Bachman, a 17-year-old schoolgirl at the time, had read newspaper reports about the opening and was "very hyped up".

"I was captivated by what the founder had envisioned. He wanted McDonald's to be efficient, of good quality and value for money," said Bachman. So she arranged to meet her then boyfriend for a date at Liat Towers on opening day: Saturday, 20 October 1979. "I remember we had to wait very long. It was very crowded and very exciting, because it was something American and new, and an alternative to hawker centre food."

Tan, who was initially scheduled to work at night, took leave from his full-time job and turned up at 8am. Hours before the opening, a crowd of around 200-300 gradually formed, even though the restaurant only had a capacity of about 100. "The queue went around Liat Towers to Angullia Park and all the way up to where Wheelock Place is now."

There was a mix of young people, families, tourists and of course, Americans, perhaps drawn by the promise of a red cap for every purchase. A brass band had been roped in for the occasion, as well as Boy Scouts, Girl Guides and the Boy's Brigade. And of course, the ubiquitous mascot Ronald McDonald, who would be escorted in with a bunch of balloons by Tan and another employee.

There was a party atmosphere, said Tan, who was tasked with clearing tables, and the restaurant was decked out in a cowboy theme. Subsequent McDonald's outlets would each have a specific theme, with the second outlet at People's Park Complex, which opened in November 1979, given an aquarium motif.

But Tan did have to soothe a few ruffled feathers when he explained to customers, who were used to table service, that McDonald's was a self-service restaurant. "That day, I probably worked 10 hours. You are really perspiring, because the air con didn't work as the door was open. You can't even breathe because the bins were filling up so fast."

But there was some good news too, "Halfway through the shift, because it was so successful, assistant manager Tony Yau pasted a note on the cupboard that said, 'With immediate effect, your hourly rate will be $1.50 an hour.' Everyone was so happy."

Still bustling at night

Ronald McDonald presides over the opening of Singapore's first McDonald's at Liat Towers on 20 October 1979. Female staff wore yellow uniforms then, while the money tied to the red ribbon was donated to charity (PHOTO: McDonald's Singapore)
Ronald McDonald presides over the opening of Singapore's first McDonald's at Liat Towers on 20 October 1979. Female staff wore yellow uniforms then, while the money tied to the red ribbon was donated to charity (PHOTO: McDonald's Singapore)

"It was fully packed when I got there," said Khoo, who worked the evening shift from 6pm. "We had to quickly go in and change and punch in. I was very surprised, but we were all very excited."

Around 40 to 60 crew manned the restaurant at any one time, with about 80 deployed throughout the opening day. There were 12 clunky Sweda cash registers, which were operated by manual input and filled the restaurant with the clackety-clack of whirs and dings.

There were also two positions at the counter: cashiers, and runners to collect the product and serve it to customers. "The pace was very fast. We had to serve the customer within one minute of saying 'eating here or takeaway?' Sometimes, the manager would time us," said Khoo. "We wore black kung fu shoes, so we were practically sliding when we worked at the counter."

But the buzz of Singapore's first McDonald's continued well past the opening day. "From the first day it opened, it was crowded until like forever," said Khoo with a laugh.

"We would close at midnight and closed the door on the dot, because there were still a lot of people outside. The queue was from the counter to the door, so my colleagues would serve them till 1am or 2am."

Tan said, "But we still can't close the door sometimes. We just have to stop people from coming in."

Kelly Leong, who joined McDonald's at the age of 16, had a week-long training stint at Liat Towers in 1979 and remembered the constant buzz around the place. "We were shocked and happy at the same time. We had never seen this kind of crowd before in any place."

But McDonald's was expanding rapidly, and pioneer staff like Tan and Khoo were quickly promoted. About six weeks later, Tan was transferred to the People's Park Complex outlet, where Khoo and Leong also ended up, as a crew trainer. By January 1980, he had been promoted to crew chief and became a manager in June.

"We all took pride in our work. In our staff room, there was a poster that said 'This is your home away from home'", said Khoo.

She also recalled Kwan, who occupied an office above the Liat Towers branch, going down to different outlets to check up on things and being "very strict" about the quality of the product. "Even though there is a long queue, if the meat is not properly cooked, he will discard the whole tray of 12 burgers."

A popular hangout

Given the proximity of many schools in the area, the Liat Towers McDonald's became a popular hangout for teenagers. Bachman, now 58 and living in Las Vegas, told her three adult daughters, "It was the paktor (dating) place where I went on dates with their father. We liked hanging out there, as it was the centre of attention at Orchard Road."

She fondly recalled movies at Shaw Centre and birthday celebrations and meals at McDonald’s. The venue became a focal point for former students of Anderson Secondary and Raffles Girls School, while Anglo-Chinese Secondary and St Joseph's Institution boys also hung out there. She added with a laugh, "It was something affordable. We were teenagers and so broke."

Sales professional Daniel Goh, 58, spent many weekends at Liat Towers with friends as a youth. "As the disco and breakdance culture caught on in Singapore at that time, we often saw some young boys doing their breakdance routine there."

On Saturday nights, different groups of motorcycle 'gangs', differentiated by their helmet designs, would gather there before attending midnight screenings at Lido and then loudly racing away. Liat Towers was also a gateway for people walking into Orchard Road, said Goh. "Every Christmas or New Year's Eve, we would meet there to start our long stroll along Orchard Rd to enjoy the lightings till Dhoby Ghaut or Marina, and later do our countdown."

Eventually, youths were drawn to other venues in Orchard Road such as Centrepoint and ironically, another McDonald's outlet at Far East Plaza. The Liat Towers McDonald's closed in October 1989, with the property handed back to the landlord. In time, it was replaced by a Burger King outlet, and then a Wendy's.

Today, Shake Shack occupies the spot where Singapore's first McDonald's once stood.

Tan, Khoo and Leong ended up staying with the company for decades. Tan and Leong are still with McDonald's – the former is now senior director of operations, while Leong serves as a business consultant. Kwan stepped down as managing director in 2002, while the franchise rights in Singapore and Malaysia were sold to Saudi Arabia's Lionhorn in 2016.

McDonald's now employs more than 10,000 people across its 132 outlets islandwide. But Liat Towers will always be special to Tan and Khoo. "I've never seen in my life, a company open(ing) with such a big bang," said Tan.

Asked what he misses about McDonald's practices of the past, he replied, "I don't think the cowboy theme will work today, but it will be nice to have a rock and roll McDonald's."

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