Singapore was once known as 石叻坡, where 石叻 is “Selat” (Malay term for straits) and 坡 is an old Chinese way of addressing a place. Within the country, many places in Singapore have colourful histories and some are better known by their old names. In this post, I shall attempt to compile as many old names as possible, including the origins of the names of some of the places.
The City or Downtown Core spans from Chinatown and Hong Lim to Tanjong Pagar and Ayer Rajah. Since 1956, there were more than 150 roads and streets built in the City. Among these, 25 roads were named after 22 prominent Chinese of the past, who had made massive contributions in the development of Singapore.
In the early days, majority of the Chinese community, largely the Hokkiens, Teochews and Cantonese, lived and worked at the southwestern part of the Singapore River, which came to be known as Chinatown. The existence of Singapore’s Chinatown was recorded as early as 1330 by a Yuan Dynasty explorer Wang Da Yuan (汪大渊). He also referred Singapore as Temasek (淡马锡).
Tiong Bahru is one of the oldest estates in Singapore, being built in the thirties, and still possesses many pre-WWII buildings. There still exists an air-raid shelter at Moh Guan Terrace. It is the only estate in Singapore to have all its streets named after local Chinese pioneers.
At the peak of the plantations in the mid-19th century, Chinese settlers expanded to other parts of Singapore, growing in-demand commodities such as gambier and pepper. The head of the clan in the kangchu (lord of the river) system usually became associated with the land they owned, such as Lim Chu Kang, Choa Chu Kang and Yio Chu Kang. Chan Chu Kang (曾厝港) became Nee Soon Village after Lim Nee Soon set up rubber plantation in that region. Another village known as Low Chu Kang (刘厝港) had long vanished in the history of Singapore.
Many villages had also disappeared while the names of some villages are lucky enough to be retained to this day. Chong Pang Village, closed in 1989, was originally located closer to present-day Sembawang than Yishun, whereas Yew Tew Village lasted until 1991. Others such as Chye Kay Village and the Teochew-dominated Chia Keng Village were perhaps only remembered by the older generations.
An interesting local Chinese way of naming a place was by “milestone” 石, which means li 里, a Chinese measurement of distance that is approximately equaled to half a kilometer. However, there were confusions over li and mile, thus over time, 石 refers to mile 英里 too. Several early residential areas were named this way, such as Hougang lark kok jio (sixth milestone) 后港六条石 (now Kovan), Jurong qiek kok jio (seventh milestone) 裕廊七条石 and Changi zhap kok jio (tenth milestone) 樟宜十条石.
Bukit Panjang was commonly referred to Bukit Timah zhap kok jio (tenth milestone) 武吉知马十条石 or 武吉知马十英里, where the former Ten Mile Junction (十里广场) was situated.
After independence, when Singaporeans started to move into the estates, different ethnicity tended to live close among themselves. This created a display of different culture at different places, such as the Malay-dominated Geylang Serai, Teochew-controlled Yio Chu Kang, Queenstown which was nicknamed “Little Hainan” and Tanjong Pagar known as “Little India”. These features slowly vanished in the late eighties after the government implemented the race quota system in the new HDB towns. Segregation of dialect groups among the Chinese also weakened due to the Speak Mandarin campaign launched in 1979 by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
During the peak of the Mandarin campaign in the eighties and nineties, there were attempts to change the name of some places from its local or dialect versions to hanyu pinyin names. Such examples were Zheng Hua 正华 (Bukit Panjang), Zhu Jiao 竹脚 (Tekka) and Yishun 义顺 (Nee Soon). The move proved unsuccessful due to the unpopularity of the new Chinese names, thus some were reverted back to their old names.
Roads played important roles in the early development of other parts of Singapore, other than the City. Bukit Timah Road, the longest road in Singapore at 25km, was constructed in 1845, while Thomson Road and Mandai Road were laid in the 1850s.
Some of the roads vanished in history, but those that remained after decades, allowed unique tree-scape along the roads to be preserved. National Parks (NParks) has identified these roads as the Heritage Roads. The main ones are Arcadia Road, Mandai Road, Lim Chu Kang Road, Mount Pleasant Road and South Buona Vista Road.
As mentioned, major roads helped to link various undeveloped parts of Singapore in the early days. As time passed by, due to poor accessibility, low traffic volume or affected by land development, some of the roads were replaced by newer versions.
A number of old major roads managed to live till this day, even though most are of little importance now. There is an Old Middle Road at the Sembawang shipyard but it has no relationship to the Middle Road in the City.
There are at least 15 pedestrian and vehicular bridges spanning over the Singapore River, the largest being the Benjamin Sheares Bridge (part of East Coast Parkway), extending over the Marina Bay. As the City area was developed the earliest by the British colonial government, the bridges built in those days were mostly named after governors, officials or other prominent Western figures. The elegant Elgin Bridge (picture below) was the first bridge to span across Singapore River.
The locals, typically the Chinese, tend to have difficulties pronouncing the names of the bridges, so they named in their own ways, usually by the colours of the bridges. The names also referred to the roads and areas around the bridges, such as Tse Kio (Green Bridge) refers to Ord Bridge, Oh Kio (Black Bridge) refers to Balestier, Pek Kio (White Bridge) refers to Moulmein and Ang Kio (Red Bridge) refers to area between Ang Mo Kio and Thomson Road.
Hospitals/Schools/Places of Worship
Recently there were debates on whether a general hospital should be named after a person, even though he had donated a large sum of money. Many suggested that a school, a road or a public structure should be named after someone who had contributed massively to the development of Singapore, and not just donated a large sum.
The Teochew community in Singapore, spearheaded by Ngee Ann Kongsi, was arguably the most successful Chinese community in the early days. Their burial grounds, owned by the Kongsi, covered large pieces of lands all over Singapore, but most had been acquired by the government for redevelopment purposes.
For a more in-depth compilation of colloquial names with map references, read Compassvale Ancilla and Mang Kah Kar.
Published: 04 April 2011
Updated: 29 May 2013