When visiting Singapore’s Thian Hock Keng Temple, the city’s oldest, I stumbled across a small museum you might not think would be found in Singapore. Housed in a pagoda adjacent to the temple complex is the Singapore Musical Box Museum, opened in 2015.
Inside, 40 or more mostly 19th century wooden musical boxes – a few standing tall like large cabinets or dressers – chime out the distinct melodies created by rotating spiked rolls hitting precisely-tuned teeth of a steel comb, or perforated sheet metal disks using the same concept. Most are European or American made, so the question might be, how did they end up in Singapore? The short answer is because of a yearning the British colony had for music back home.
“Today we carry maybe a smartphone or years ago a Walkman everywhere we go to listen to music. Before this, there were no such devices,” explains Naoto Orui, a Japanese collector who founded the museum. “The people coming from England to Singapore had a very boring time here because they had no music for entertainment. They brought pianos, but there were no European musicians. So they brought musical boxes here to listen to folk songs and classical music.”
Most of the museum’s boxes, spanning from 1860 to about 1910, come from mostly Switzerland, Germany, England and the U.S. Some have cylinders, some need to be wound, and yet others have the large rounded metal disks with punched-out holes. The simple melodies might run anywhere from 30 seconds up to two minutes or more.
Some of the larger, cabinet-sized boxes activate with the drop of a coin. One with several musical “disks” operates like a jukebox of yesteryear with a display of song selections. Once the coin is inserted, mechanisms take one of several two-foot in diameter perforated metal disks up to the player. Selections include Bach/Gounod’s Ave Maria and other classical tunes most likely popular at the time. “These machines were used in restaurants, train stations and on cruise ships,” says museum General Manager Tay Ser Yong, while demonstrating one that both chimes music while hammer mechanisms beat two separate drums within the cabinet. “You have a live band performance with a music box before records were invented.”
The museum also has old gramophones, phonographs and only one box made in Singapore that’s doesn’t play. To hear the music boxes, click on the link below for a short video I shot and edited.