Sign of Times
date19 Nov 2019 - 31 Jul 2020

Albert Street (Fire-walking Field - தீமிதி திடல்)

This street was named after Prince Albert, consort to Queen Victoria, in March 1858 by the Municipal Commissioners. Albert Street in the early days was part of Kampong Bencoolen, an area occupied by Muslims from Bencoolen, Sumatra. In the Chinese vernacular, the street used to be known as kam kong mang kulu (Kampong Bencoolen), or sometimes bo moa iu koi (the street where oil is expressed from sesamum). In the early nineteenth century, Hindus held their fire walking ceremony in Albert Street before it became a regular ritual at the Sri Mariamman Temple on South Bridge Roaad. Tamils thus used to call this street thimiri thidal (the place where people tread on fire).

From a culinary perspective, this street is best remembered for the Chinese restaurant, Wing Seong (184 Albert Street), better known as Fatty’s Restaurant because of the Buddha-like figure of Au Chun Seng, the owner. The restaurant opened in 1918, beginning with Au Yuen, followed by his son Au Chun Seng and now the grandson, Au Kok Weng. In July 1986, Fatty’s Restaurant moved from its shophouse location to the air-conditioned Albert Complex.


Arab Street (Flower Shops Street - பூக்கடை சடக்கு)

Two explanations exist for the name Arab Street. The first is that the whole area used to be owned by an Arab merchant, Syed Ali bin Mohamed Al Junied (Muhammad ibn Harun al-Junayd), and was the site of the Arab kampong, hence the name Arab Street. In 1822 when Raffles formed a committee to map out quarters of potential immigrants, Muhammad Aljunied was the only Arab on the committee. The committee had set aside an Arab quarter next to the Sultan’s palace. The Arab population in Singapore numbered 15 in 1824, 115 in 1860, 465 in 1871, and 919 in 1901. The Chinese traditionally referred to street as jiau a koi (Javanese street), in view of the Javanese who used to be its chief inhabitants. In Tamil, Arab Street is pukadai sadkku (flower shops street), because of the home-grown flowers, lime fruit and other goods sold by the Javanese women. A great fire occurred here in 1889.

The second explanation is tied to the situation already pre-existing at the time of Singapore’s founding by Sir Stamford Raffles. When Raffles was planning the broad outline of areas to be allocated for government, as opposed to commercial and residential use, a small community of Bugis seamen and merchants was already in existence near the Sultan’s compound at Kampong Glam. Raffles therefore allocated this area to them, near where their boats were sheltered in the river, bringing in their annual cargo on a barter basis; hence Bugis Street came into being. The Arab and other Mohamedan traders (Chulias, or natives of Madras) were also allocated areas near Kampong Glam. Arab Street can also trace its name to this arrangement.


Balestier Road (Water Village - தண்ணீர்க் கம்பம்)

This road is named after Joseph Balestier, Singapore’s first American Consul (1837-52) and the owner of a 1,000-acre land called Balestier Plain, of which 200 acres was his sugar plantation, which eventually failed (December 1851) and was put up for sale. He spent 18 years (1834-52) in Singapore and was a keen botanist and agriculturist. The road was named after him as it was where his sugar estate was located. Balestier’s sugar plantation was capable of producing 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of sugar per day. 

Westerners referred to this area as ‘Recreation Road’ because of the number of recreation clubs (Indian sports club, Ceylon sports club) located in the area. The Hokkien Chinese referred to this road as ‘o kio’, meaning “black bridge”, and as ‘go cho tua peh kong’, meaning “Rochor temple” dedicated to the local deity, ‘tua peh kong’. The Malays referred to the area as Kebun Limau or citrus fruit garden. To the Tamils, the area was known as thaneer kampong (or Thannir kampam) or water kampong because in the oloden days, thaneer or water was drawn from there by bullock cart.

Balestier’s wife, Maria Revere, was one of the 16 children of Paul Revere (1735-1818). She presented the Revere Bell to St Andrew’s Church in 1843; the Bell was cast in the Revere foundry in Boston, Massachusetts by the Revere Copper Company. Maria died of malaria on 22 April 1847 after residing 13 years in Singapore.

The pesculiarity of the area in the number of Burmese place names: Ava, Bassein, Bhamo, Irrawaddy, Mandalay, Martabar, Pegu, Prome and Shan. But Rangoon, Mergui and Moulmein roads are some distance away from this group. The idea came from an old and respected Burmese resident who suggested it to the Municipality, which accepted it. Part of the Balestier Plain is now home to the Singapore Indian Association.


Ceylon Road

Ceylon Road is named after the large Ceylonese Tamil community that live around the area. The best testimony of the community’s residence in this area is the site of the Sri Sempaga Vinayagar Temple in Ceylon Road. The temple dates to the 1850s when a stone statue of Lord Vinayagar was washed up on the banks near Sempaga (Chempaka tree) in the area. Ethirnayagam Pillai one of the early Ceylon pioneers built an attap shed under the tree where the statue was installed in a shrine. In 1913, 300 Ceylon Tamil families bought some land in the area and built a larger attap shed to house the shrine. A priest was hired to also conduct daily prayers. The temple has gone through several renovations over the decades, the last renovation being completed between 2000-03. The fifth consecration ceremony of the temple was performed in February 2003.


Chitty Road

Formerly listed as Chetty Road, this road got its named from a chettier who was convicted and thus ostracised by other chettiers. He lived in the swampy Malay kampong of Kampong Kapor, where he reared bullocks and goats.Chitty could also be a reference to the Peranakan Indians, South Indian merchants who have settled in Malacca and Singapore for many centuries and spoke Baba Malay, ate Peranakan food and adopted some local Malay traditions but remained Hindus. The small Chitty community used to be concentrated in Selegie Road, Race Course Road, Chitty Road and Serangoon Road.


Chulia Street (Chulia Village - சூளியா கம்பம்)

Chulia Street was formerly known as Kling Street because of the concentration of Indians from southern India, who were known as “men from Kalinga” or in Malay, orang kling. Kling Street was one of the early streets of Singapore, developed probably in the early 1820s, and appears in Coleman’s 1836 Map of Singapore. It is the only spatial reference to the presence of this Indian community on the modern landscape. When Indian convicts were transported to Singapore, Kling had a derogatory association and hence the name Kling was dropped and formally replaced on 24 December 1921 with Chulia – a reference no doubt to the Chulias from India who were concentrated in this area (the North Indian term for the Kalinga kingdom is Chulia).

The Chulia Street/Market Street area was the earliest locus for the concentration of Indian workers and profiessionals, including petty shopkeepers, watchmen, money lenders, bankers and lawyers. There were many Indian Muslim shops in this area, dealing mainly with stationery in the 1950s to the time the shophouses were demolished in 1982-83. Most of the Indian Muslims were Gujeratis who concentrated their businesses on hardware, textiles, spices, stationery and lived in the shophouses above in the Chula, Market and Malacca Streets area. Originally, Chula Street was lined entirely by two-storey buildings, and until recently it, together with De Souza and Market Streets, bore little change from it mid-nineteenth century origins. However, the landscape has been dramatically altered since the construction of the OCBC Centre in 1976 and the OUB Building in 1974, at its western and eastern ends respectively.

For over a century until the 1970s, the Teochews at Chulia Street dominated the import, export and wholesaling of such dried seafood products as dried shrimps, salted fish, shark’s fin and sea cucumber. At present, most of the leading firms in this trade are concentrated in North Canal Road, mostly in old, pre-war shophouses which are slated for demolition in the process of urban renewal,


Cross Street (Milk Village - பால் கம்பம்)

This is one of the old streets of Singapore and marks the westernmost boundary of the first implementation of Raffles’ Plan of Chinatown. It appears in Coleman’s 1836 Map of Singapore. Prior to the Chinese dominance of this street, it was mainly an Indian residential area. In the 1820s, mainly Indian boatmen lived here and operated shops selling goat’s milk, mutton and herbs. The indigenous place names for this street in the past are indications of the Indian dominance here. The Chinese called street kiat leng kia ko, or “Kling man’s street” (kling is a derogatory local term for Indians). The tamils called it paalkadei sadakku, or “street of the milk shops”, while the Malays called it kampong susu, or “milk village”. Later, as Chinatown expanded beyond Cross Street, the Chinese prevailed. In the 1950s till the late 1970s, Cross Street had numerous Chinese stationery and book shops.


Dhoby Ghaut

Dhoby Ghaut is derived from the Indian words dhoby meaning “laundry” and ghaut meaning “the steps along the bank of a river”. The name stems from the laundry activities used to take place here from the 1830s onwards. Indian dhobies (Bengali and Madrasi) used to wash their clothes using the water from the Stamford Canal (formerly Sungei Bras Basah or Freshwater Stream). The clothes were dried on empty land subsequently occupied by the Ladies Lawn Tennis Club, now occupied by the triangular-shaped park opposite Cathay cinema. About five acres large, this used to be called Dhoby Green. In the past, the whole area was associated with laundry activities. Hence, Queen Street in Tamil was vannan teruvu or “street of the dhobies” and the Malays called it “kampong dhobi”.


Hindoo Road

This road was first named Hindu Lane in 1906. The road got its name because of its distinctive Indian character of Tamil workers.This was the road where Indian labourers working for the municipality were picked up. Some of these Tamil labourers lived at Hindoo Road. The rents for a whole house in the 1930s were only $10 to $15 a month.


Kadayanallur Street

This street is named after the Tamil Muslims who migrated to Singapore from Kadayanallur, a town in South India. Settling in the Tanjong Pagar area (where this street is located), the Kadayanallur Tamil Muslims were a small community. Community members were mainly small-scale shopkeepers, retailers and office peons. Attempts to start a school to educate their children in their mother tongue, Tamil, and to promote cultural values began early and by 1936, a class of 26 pupils was started in a school in Tras Street in Tanjong Pagar. In 1946, the Umar Pulavar Tamil School (named after a famous seventeenth century Tamil poet) was established in a shophouse at 72 Tanjong Pagar Road. Through the years the school expanded its premises but was finally closed down in 1982 due to declining enrolment.


Lavender Street (Potter’s Street - கோச தெரு)

Lavender Street, a road leading from Rochor Bridge to Serangoon Road, was officially named in the Municipal Minutes of 8 March 1858. At this time, the area was covered by Chinese vegetable gardens. The smells emanating from these gardens were unbearable because of the use of nightsoil as fertiliser for the plants. According to one story, it was out of sarcasm that residents referred to the area as Lavender Street. Eventually the Municipality appropriated the suggestion and formalised the name.

A similar story is told by van Cuylenburg, although he got his dates wrong by about 60 years: he notes that in the 1910s the area consisted of a cart track road and on either side were gigantic market gardens. The smells arising from these gardens led to the area being jocularly named Lavendar Street. The reputation of this street as being one of the foulest smelling roads in the city persisted through the early twentieth century; in 1929, amidst much laughter, Municipal Commissioner J. Laycock suggested that roads in the neighbourhood of Lavender Street “might appropriately be named after flowers, such as Rosemary Road and Thyme Road”.

The Tamil name for Lavender Street is kosa theruvu (potter’s street), while the Chinese name for this street, chai hng lai, meaning “inside vegetable gardens”, endorses its past land use. Another Chinese name, go cho tua kong si, meaning “big brother Rochor kongsi,” referes to the Thien Thi Hoi meeting house that was located here. This area is also known to the Chinese as nangka kar, meaning “under the jackfruit tree”, or sometimes pronounced as mangkar kar, meaning “mosquitoes biting human legs” in the vernacular. The last two names probably reflect the rustic, undeveloped nature of this area in the past.  


Malabar Street

Since the opening of Bugis Junction in 1995, this street, along with Hylam Street and Malay Street, has been incorporated within the new shopping mall as an air-conditioned “indoor” street. Known as hai lam hue kuan hang in Hokkien, it means “Hylam kongsi house lane”.


Market Street (Chettie’s Street - செட்டி தெரு ) This is one of the early streets in colonial Singapore and appears in Coleman’s 1836 Map of Singapore. At the south end of the street stood the Telok Ayer Market, formerly called pasar bisi. The British demolished the old market and built Telok Ayer Market in 1894. The street was famous for its conglomeration of Indian money lenders; hence the Tamils called the street chetty theruvu or “Chettie’s street”, a reference to the Chettiar money lenders. The money lending establishments were often one-man firms, and several firms shared a shophouse. Each of the managers of these firms occupied a seat on a raised wooden platform and had a safe and a small box keeping their records. The shophouses that housed the money lenders were demolished in 1982-3. The street is known in Hokkien as tiong koi, meaning “Central Street”. This refers to the five divisions of the town by the Hokkiens for the purpose of Chingay procession: there were five ko thau. The Hokkiens also refer to it as lau pa sat khau, meaning “old market mouth”. Today, most of the Hokkien importers and exporters and commission agents are still in the Market Street, as well as Telok Ayer Street, lower Boat Quay, Pekin Street and Cheong Hong Lim areas.


Potong Pasir

Potong Pasir referred to a large squatter area that existed off Serangoon Road up to the 1970s. The squatter area has been totally demolished to make way for the Potong Pasir estate of Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats. Potong pasir (literally meaning"cut sand" in Malay) got its name from the sand quarrying activities formerly located here. The hill in the area was cut down to supply sand and earth during the building boom of the 1920s and 1930s An Indian Chettier, Soona Navena Soona Meyappa, owned the sand quarry here which was in operation for about 30 years between the 1910s and 1940s. Bullock carts ferrying the sand from here to various parts of Singapore were a familiar sight along Upper Serangoon Road then.


Queen Street (Laundrymen Street - வண்ணான் தெரு)

This street and another parallel road, Victoria Street, are both named after Queen Victoria. Queen Street forms part of the Chinese sio pob, or "small town". This street is referred to in Tamil as vannan teruvu, or "street of the dhobies", and in Malay as Kampong Dhobi a reference to the laundries that were found in the past around Stamford Canal, Dhoby Ghaut, Selegie and the beginning of Orchard Road. The Chinese refer to it as san ma lu or "the third horseway", or se zai nian jie or “Eurasian Street” (a Hokkien corruption of the Malay word serani for “Eurasian”).The reference to Eurasian Street stems from the fact that a Eurasian enclave used to be found in the area around Waterloo, Queen and Bencoolen Streets, bounded by Bras Basah and Middle Roads. The Eurasians moved in this area in the 1930s in two blocks of shophouses. Some Eurasian families that lived here were the Tessensohns, the de Souzas and the Mosbergens. Given that many Eurasians were Catholics, this area suited them well with Catholic churches in the vicinity – Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, St Joseph’s and St Peter’s and Paul’s church. In 1825, Father Maia obtained 12 lots of land from Samuel Bonham between Victoria and Queen streets and built the St Joseph’s Chapel. The first Catholic chapel in Singapore was St Joseph’s. St Peter’s and St Paul’s Church, erected in 1871, was a Chinese church. When the Chinese community outgrew the accommodation of the church, the Church of the Sacred Heart (on Tank Road) was completed in 1910 for the Cantonese congregation.


Rochor Canal Road (Street of Kampong Glam Old Theatre - கம்மாங்கல பழைய கூத்து மேடை)

There are two versions concerning the origin of the name Rochor. Chinese folklore claims that it was derived from Wu Zhu alluding to the Five Ancestors who sailed up the Rochor River and settled on its banks. A second version links the name to Cho Ah Chi, who was said to have been a carpenter who had settled in Penang and who was on board The Indiana and part of Raffles' expedition that led to the founding of modern Singapore in 1819. Wu Zhu was the founder of the Heaven and Earth society, a secret society comprising Ming loyalists who plotted to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. Cho Ah Chi was said to be a prominent member of the triad in Penang, and the Cho Clan records indicate that he had set up a branch of the society in the Rochor area, thus giving the district its name. Another interpretation is that the word Rochor is from rochoh, meaning to make marks in a line or row with a pointed stick or other weapon on the ground. Lots were pegged in this manner before boundary stones were laid. The Indian name for this road is kammangala paleia kuthu madei sadakku meaning "the street of Kampong Glam old Hindu theatre”. Rochor Canal Road was originally simply Canal road. It was renamed in 1858 to avoid duplication with the other Canal Road the Dalhousie Canal off Havelock Road. Rochor Canal Road is known as mang ku lu kang a ki in Hokkien, meaning "beside the canal in the Bencoolen district". Rochor Road is known as gu cho lu in Hokkien, which is phonetic but commonly used. The Rochor River runs up to the Kandang Kerbau Bridge, after which is becomes the Bukit Timah Canal (which runs alongside Kampong Java Road). Many bridges span the canal, of which the outstanding one is peh kio (Chinese for “white bridge”) which in Malay is jamatan merah (because the bridge was painted red and at times painted white) and in Tamil, segapu phalam (red bridge). The electoral division and community centre took the Chinese name.


Selegie Road (Nagappan’s Water Tank - நாகப்பன் தாங்கி) The term Selegie first appears in Jackson’s 1822 Plan of Singapore as Seligi Hill and Selegy Street. The street is part of the current Bras Basah Road from the North Bridge Road junction towards Selegie Hill. The road appears in Coleman’s 1836 Map of Singapore as Seligie Road and is located at the foot of Mount Sophia and Bukit Seligie. Selegie Road in the map joins a “new cut” road, probably Serangoon Road. East of Selegie Road are sirih gardens and padi fields. In the 1850s, this area was covered with spice trees surrounded by bamboo hedges. There are several views of the place name. One view is that it is named after a famous Bugis pirate chief, and that the Bugis residing there were named after him as orang selegie. The second is that Selegie refers to a wooden spear sharpened and hardened by fire, though no one knows why this place is associated with this weapon except that in 1377, with the sacking of Tumasik, the king fled via Selegie overland to Seletar. Another meaning of seligi is “nibong palm used in flooring and fishing stakes”. In the old days, Selegie Road was called nagappan thanki (Nagappan’s water tank) in Tamil. He sold water to the public. It is known as tek kha tit koi in Hokkien. It means “foot of the bamboos, straight street”. Tek kha is the name for a large district. There are no bamboos visible now. Haughton speculates whether “selegie” is the Malay name for a “wooden-dart” (seligi).


Serangoon Road (Village of Lime - சுண்ணாம்பு கம்பம்)

Serangoon Road got its name from the Malay word saranggong, deriving either from a marsh bird called ranggong or the term serang dengan gong which means to beat a gong. It began as an important artery of commerce and transport for all the plantations in the interior of the island that were along the route to Serangoon Harbour. Though never a major port of call for Singapore’s entrepot trade, this northern harbour was a vital loading and unloading point for the Johore gambier and pepper planters. Serangoon Road proper was laid by convicts who had been brought to Singapore by the British for their labour and held at a prison at Bras Basah Road. The presence of a large number of Indian convicts at the prison, inclusive of those who provided supporting trades, formed the genesis of an Indian district. This eventually extended down Selegie Road and into Serangoon Road. In time, as the number of Indian settlers increased, the earliest Indian enclaves such as those at Chulia Street and High Street could no longer accommodate the arrival of more immigrants. As a result, after 1900, many Indian Immigrants gravitated towards Serangoon, the remaining Indian enclave that still had room for them. Those who ventured down Serangoon Road were drawn by economic opportunities. They called the Serangoon area Soonambu Kambam, meaning “Village of Lime” in Tamil. Lime used to be an important element in the manufacture of Madras Chunam, a kind of cement or plaster brick that was introduced from India and used in construction work. By the late 1820s, the British had set up lime pits and brick kilns along Serangoon Road, which were a source of employment for many Indians. South Bridge Road (Caulker Shop Street - கலபத்துக்கடை சடக்கு ) In 1819 the southern bank of the Singapore River formed a headland covered with scrub and surrounded by mangroves. It was the only firm patch of ground close to where Raffles was supposed to have landed. Raffles called it South Point and gave instructions to reserve it for government use. South Bridge Road is the road south of the Singapore River, which was built by convict labour in 1833. It runs south of Thomson Bridge, now Elgin Bridge, hence its name. It is an extension of North Bridge Road and continues on to the Maxwell Market, where it divides into Maxwell Road, Tanjong Pagar Road and Neil Road. This is a very important and busy street, and the location of many goldsmith shops and shoe shops. It is one of the major roads leading into Chinatown. Between 1885 and 1894, the steam tramway linking the town with the New Harbour (now Keppel Harbour) ran the full length of this road. But it could not compete with the jinrikshas and ceased operations in 1894. Between 1905 and 1927, the Singapore Electric Tramways Company had tramway routes on South Bridge Road. In 1929, trolley buses also used South Bridge Road as one of their routes, and they competed with the popular “mosquito bus”, a 5-to7 seater which operated until 1962, when the present-day motor bus system was established. One important business located on this street is the Chinese medicine and herb business of Eu Yan Sang, which belonged to Eu Tong Sen. This business established in 1910, was renovated in 1990 and re-opened in 1992 by Richard Eu, the seventh son of Eu Tong Sen. The Tamils refer to this street as kalapithi kadei sadakku, or “Caulker’s Shop Street”. The Chinese call it ta ma lo, or “great horseway”, and chat bok koi, or “paint wood street”. “Paint wood street” or “Painter’s street” refers to the part between the police court and the river. Also known as gu chia chui tua be chia lo in Hokkien, it means the “big horse (carriage) road in Kreta Ayer”.


Waterloo Street (Krishnan Temple Street - கிரிஷ்ணன் கோயில் தெரு)

This street was formerly known as Church Street after Thomas Church, who became a Resident Councillor in 1837. A survey of this street was done by J.T. Thomson and it was probably he who used Church’s name for the street because of the close working relationship between them. The street name was changed to Waterloo by the Municipal Council in 1858 to commemorate the Duke of Wellington’s victory over the French in 1815. The Tamils call this street krishnen kovil sadakku, or “Street of the Krishnen Temple” because the Sri Krishna Temple (followers of Sai Baba) is located here next to the famous Chinese Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple. Another historic landmark is the Maghain Aboth Synagogue. Built by the Jewish community in 1878, it is the oldest surviving synagogue in Singapore. This street is known as mang k ulu chai tng koi in Hokkien, which means “the street in Bencoolen where the vegetarians’ hall is”. Tekka Market (Kandang Kerbau Market) Built in 1915, Tekka Market was one of the most prominent landmarks along Serangoon Road during the first half of the 20th century. The area where it was situated was known as tek kia kha to the Hokkiens, shortened to tek kah, meaning “the foot of the small bamboos” as bamboo once grew on both sides of the Rochor Canal. Tekka also means “bamboo clumps” in Mandarin. Tekka Market was also known as Kandang Kerbau Market (“buffalo enclosure market” in Malay) due to the predominance of cattle sheds in the area.


Former House of Tan Teng Niah

Although much of the built heritage of cottage industries here has largely disappeared, there remains a single gem in Serangoon Road that serves a reminder of this forgotten heritage – the former house of Tan Teng Niah. Tan’s exquisitely restored house is the last Chinese villa found in Little India. It is an eight-room house that was built for the Tan family. The second storey overhangs the first to form a five-foot way (five feet wide covered pedestrian walkway), which was once an entrance portico. There are carriage gates leading into courtyards on either side. Over the entrance door, there is a gilded name plate with the calligraphic inscription Siew Song (“elegant pine” or “refined pine” in Mandarin). To the Chinese, pine denotes endurance and serves as an expression of their aspirations. Many believe that Tan built the house for his wife and that the inscription referred to her. The pintu pagar (Malay for “swinging wooden half doors”) is richly carved and the front room of the house is resplendent with wall scrolls. Within the house, another even more lavish pintu pagar can be found, as well as the traditional altar table and shrine complete with photographs of ancestors. This building was restored and conserved in the 1980s for commercial use under the Kerbau Redevelopment II conservation plan, and the restoration project was awarded the Singapore Institute of Architects Honourable Mention in 1991. Once white with green windows, this is now one of the most colourful landmarks in Little India.