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Before Jewel: Remembering Changi Airport Terminal 1's debut 38 years ago

When it opened in 1981, one in 10 Singaporeans went to check out its gardens, iconic water feature and food offerings. Some things never change.

Before Jewel: Remembering Changi Airport Terminal 1's debut 38 years ago

Changi Airport Terminal 1 (Photo: Singapore Tourism Board, National Archives of Singapore)

Even before its official opening on Apr 17, Jewel Changi Airport has been enthralling visitors during this weekend's preview, with attractions like a family cinema by Shaw Theatresthe first Pokemon merchandise store outside of Japan, and massive queues greeting returning fast food chain A&W

The S$1.7 billion project boasts more than 280 shops and food and beverage outlets, with 95 per cent of lease space already occupied, said Changi Airport Group (CAG).

Yes, the buzz about Jewel is palpable. Much like the excitement Singaporeans felt when Changi Airport Terminal 1 welcomed its first travellers 38 years ago, in the early morning of Jul 1, 1981.

Immigration hall at Changi Airport Terminal 1. (Photo: Singapore Tourism Board, National Archives of Singapore)

The 140 passengers on Singapore Airlines Flight SQ101, which had left from Kuala Lumpur, were the first travellers served by a massive operation that saw Singapore’s air travel services shift from Paya Lebar to Changi.

READ: The definitive guide on where to eat at Jewel Changi Airport

A total of 200 hectares of swamp land were cleared, 550 buildings were demolished, and 870 hectares of land were reclaimed for the groundbreaking project.

In its first two weeks of operations, 250,000 visitors – or one in 10 Singaporeans back then – visited the airport. Paid tours into the restricted area after immigration were conducted at S$0.50 per person.

The Passenger Terminal Building covered 220,000 sq m and included more than 30 shops. (Photo: Singapore Tourism Board, National Archives of Singapore)

When the airport was officially opened five months later on Dec 29, travellers were treated to 32 shops around the Passenger Terminal Building, including F&B offerings such as McDonald’s, Swensen’s and Church’s Fried Chicken, as well as retail outlets like FJ Benjamin.

READ: The taste of nostalgia lures snaking queues of A&W fans on opening day

Founded in 1952, Church’s Fried Chicken was an American fried chicken brand that began expanding outside of the United States in 1979, making the Terminal 1 outlet one of its earliest international outposts. The brand also established locations in Puerto Rico, Canada, Mexico and Indonesia, operating under a different name in select territories due to the name’s religious connotations.

You may not know the name Church's, but chances are you've sampled the chicken in recent years. The chain is known as Texas Chicken today.  

Two of the restaurants available at Changi Airport Terminal 1. (Photo: Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, National Archives of Singapore)

Not to be outdone by the other F&B establishments in the airport, the Swensen’s outlet in Terminal 1 featured a 70m-long counter that offered 50 to 60 flavours of ice cream every day.

Marketed as “the world’s largest Swensen’s ice cream restaurant”, the ice cream parlour occupied an entire corner of the viewing gallery on the third floor of the terminal, where passengers watched planes take off from the runway.

READ: Pokemon Center Singapore a monster hit at Jewel Changi Airport 

There were also restaurants catering to the more upmarket clientele. Travellers were offered the opportunity to dine at the Mayflower Airport Restaurant, which served Chinese cuisine, including dim sum.

Mayflower Restaurant at Changi Airport Terminal 1. (Photo: Singapore Tourism Board, National Archives of Singapore)

Rounding up the more popular tenants were a French restaurant and cocktail lounge operated by Oberoi Imperial Hotel, and a coffeehouse by Temenggong Airport Catering Services.

There were also two bar counters for departure and transit travellers.

FJ Benjamin store at Changi Airport Terminal 1. (Photo: Singapore Tourism Board, National Archives of Singapore)

A year after the airport opened to the public, shops reported healthy sales, with a news report from October 1982 announcing that average monthly gross sales of the 32 shops was “between S$20 million and S$22 million”.

READ: In pictures: First look inside Jewel Changi Airport

One shop, however, closed within a year from the airport’s official opening. The Gallery Of Fine Arts cited poor sales as the reason for its closure.

READ: Creating a ‘mythical garden’ was inspiration behind Changi Airport's Jewel

Terminal 1 pioneered the concept of transforming an airport into a lifestyle destination in Singapore. In addition to delivering world-class operations and service, the airport boasted attractions like its iconic water feature.

Yes, it was no "rain vortex" but it served as a trusty backdrop for numerous family photos for many years.

The iconic water feature at Changi Airport Terminal 1. (Photo: Singapore Tourism Board, National Archives of Singapore)

Changi Airport was the first to introduce the concept of airport gardens, and the first to allow passengers to make free local telephone calls in transit.

The efforts of the many Singaporeans who worked on the project were rewarded a few years later. In 1988, Changi Airport received its first Best Airport award from Business Traveller UK – the first of many accolades in years to come.

Source: CNA/jv