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
Sharing a nice short article from zaobao…
Thanks for the very detailed post about road & place names of S’pore !
You mentioned Pandan Gardens & Teban Gardens. Pandan Gardens is probably named after Sungei Pandan, or Kampung Sungei Pandan (a purported pirate hideout) which was located further downstream (near the Pandan Loop industrial area, on the riverbank opposite the old Yacht Club) than where Pandan Gardens is sited.
Teban Gardens replaced the former Kampung Jawa Teban (also: Kampung Java Teban) at the same site. As you indicated, this area used to be a mangrove until the early/mid-1970s. This very extensive mangrove was also a designated nature reserve during the British Colonial era, & extended westwards to Sungei Jurong & northwards along Sungei Pandan Besar to what is now southern Bukit Batok. In fact, Pandan Reservoir was reclaimed by damming the original meander of Sungei Pandan Besar. (There was a minor & now-defunct river tributary called Sungei Pandan Kechil downstream nearer to the coast.)
West Coast Rd terminated at the Sungei Jurong end of Kg Jawa Teban, & before the Jln Ahmad Ibrahim roadway-bridge was built, one had to take a boat to cross over to Jurong. Up till the late 1960s or early 1970s, this stretch of West Coast Rd (& the adjoining silt-house Kg Jawa Teban) would be flooded during every high tide by waters from Sungei Pandan Besar.
Back to place names … while it is quite clear that ‘Pandan’ originated from its leafy namesake (Pandanus amaryllifolius aka Daun Pandan), it is not so obvious as to how Teban Gardens/ Kg Jawa Teban (& the unrelated Kg Teban in Tampines) obtained their rather unusual names. The village at Teban-West Coast might have initially been populated by Javanese immigrants (hence ‘Jawa/ Java’), but why ‘Teban’ ? This appears to be a somewhat obscure word in Bahasa Malay/ Indonesian, & it supposedly means: “to stake or lay down a bet”. However, given the village’s overwhelmingly Malay/ Javanese-Muslim population, I find it rather curious that their village was named after an aspect of gambling. (‘Teban’ also happens to be a Filipino name, but it’s historically improbable that a Malay-Javanese village in S’pore was named after a Filipino man.) As such, might you have any idea about this ?
Wow.. You are knowledgeable!
I always thought Teban is a Malay word.. Need to find out more about the origin 😉
This is a fascinating entry. I grew up hearing some of the old place names from taxi drivers and my grandparents. I doubt if those younger than I am (early 40ish) would have known these. There is also a bunch of roads named after English places around Serangoon: Cambridge, Kent, Oxford, Hertford, Norfolk, Northumberland, Carlisle, Bristol, Dorset, Gloucester, Worcester, etc. There’s also another bunch at Serangoon Gardens: Farleigh, Tavistock, Bloxhome, Bridport, Portchester, etc.
Two corrections: Gan Eng Seng School, founded as Anglo-Chinese Free School, was founded in 1885 and Ngee Ann Polytechnic is misspelled as Nee Ann Polytechnics.
Keep up the great work!
Thanks for the great list 🙂
so nice to see all these road names.. ironically, I still tell the taxi uncle *chap luck lau or chap lau* whenever I want to go to tanglin halt either sides of the mrt station…
i always thought the name never change.. haha
And yes, I still call SGH to be *si bai bo* & Woodbridge to be *siao nang keng / ban qiao* up till this day.
Chinatown is still *gu qiah zue* to me…
I am 30! 🙂
Yep… the roads you have mentioned was at Interesting Singapore Road Names…
As for the mistakes, I’ll rectify them 😉 Thanks
The founding date of Gan Eng Seng School still reads 1888 on the site when it should be 1885 (this is actually in the school song itself). The Anglo-Chinese School was founded in 1886, not 1889.
Thanks, I’ll do an update..
The 1885 date is still not updated.
Thank you so much Remember Singapore!
My mom used to stay at Singapore River, and she talks to me using the common names: like “water-fairy-door”, but I have no clue where she is refering to… Now I know! Funan!
I also remember she once told a young taxi-driver to go to “Hougang 6 piece of stone”; both me and the taxi-driver have blank looks on our faces… I just tell the taxi-driver to just go to Hougang and hope my mom can direct us to where she wants to go!? LOL!
I so glad now I can offer to bring my mom to the places she used to know.
Yeah me too… Was actually talking to some elderly and they mentioned places like oh kio tau and mang ga kar, and it spurred my interest to find out more…
i think mang ga kar is lavender street…
how about orh kio tau? i heard this one before but not sure!
orh kio tau is at Beo Crescent, off Havelock Road, whereas orh kio refers to certain part of Balestier
ang (moh) kio is of cos AMK, while ang kio tau points to Thomson Road, whereas pek kio is Moulmein and tse kio is Ord Bridge… many kio in Singapore 😀
Beo Crescent is known as Beo Han ( Temple lane ) due to the many temples there at that time.
Kiaw koo kio ( Bend bridge-Delta East/Havelook Pri Sch ) is near to Orh Kio Tau too.
hey(: do u know how the names around cedar girls secondary school came about? example: angsana ave, lichi ave. please help(:
Hi, the network of roads there are interesting, where most are named after fruit-trees with beautiful flowers:
Angsana Avenue – Angsana is a common tree found in Singapore with a flat disc-shaped fruit
Kenanga Avenue – Kenanga is the Indonesian name for Ylang-Ylang, a perfume tree with black fruits
Belimbing Avenue – Belimbing is the Indonesian name for starfruit
Cedar Avenue – Cedar trees, native in Southeast Asia and Australia, produce bluish fruits that are poisonous to humans
Chempaka Avenue – Chempaka is an evergreen timber tree in India with fragrant yellow flowers
Lichi Avenue – Lichi is a variant spelling of litchi, or lychee, a bright red fruit-bearing tree commonly found in China
Mulberry Avenue – Mulberry is a grayish-purplish fruit-bearing tree native in subtropical regions of Asia, Africa and Americas
Willow Avenue – Willow is a tree with narrow leaves and strong lightweight wood commonly found in cold regions of the Northern Hemisphere
but do u noe why they are named after these plants?
I’m not too sure about the actual reasons, but given that there are thousands of roads in Singapore, the naming process is quite tedious, yet the roads have to be considerably distinctive (think of Lorong 1, 2, 3 at Toa Payoh or Avenue 4, 5, 6 at Ang Mo Kio).
Usually the categories of the names are inspired from early pioneers of Singapore, countries (eg roads at Sembawang), cities (eg Little India), fruits (Lorong Lew Lian, Lorong Ong Lye) and even famous poets (Teacher’s Estate off Yio Chu Kang Road) and traditional Indonesian dances (at Jalan Kayu). So it’s not surprising to see the roads near Cedar Girls Secondary School to be named after different types of trees.
The National Library is currently having an exhibition on the origins of Singapore street names. You can go take a look if you are interested. 🙂
oh do u also noe how they were named?
I believe there is a committee which names roads and sometimes the roads in a cluster (especially back in the day), were given names according to themes rather than a particular reason. Thus, the cluster of fruit names would have stemmed from a theme, rather than having the actual fruit trees planted there.
Oh yes you are right..
Currently the naming of streets more than 60m long are required to be approved by Street and Building Names Board (SBNB), URA.
Before 1951, it was done by the Municipal Commission (later changed to City Council of Singapore). In the 1960s after independence, the government set up a Street Naming Committee to oversee the task until the 1990s
A great insight on the concerns and difficulties of naming the streets in Singapore, especially the hanyu-pinyin movement in the late 80s/early 90s:
There were long lists of new roads, streets, links, centres etc. that had to be named. The rapid change of the landscape demanded it. We ran out of categories and had to invent new ones beyond the usual: Road, Street, Avenue, Close, Crescent, Place, Lane to Point, to Link, to Boulevard, to Passage, and one wonders what! There were a few “standard” features. All names to be in Latin Script. That was part of the colonial legacy that everyone was used to. Had that not been so, what a clutter of signs there would be on our streets!
There were also to be no names after living persons. This was quite a departure from the practice in many developing countries where personality cults were rampant. I think, Singapore’s leaders in their wisdom decided it was unbecoming and the word came down that the practice is a no-no. But this was not always the case in Singapore. It will be recalled that during the heady days of rapid private housing building in the ‘50s Korean War Boom, Sennett Estate’s roads were named after persons associated with the development either as directors or financiers. Some of these like Yap Peng Gek were prominent in politics. This may have been another reason why there was the prohibition.
As it happened, this fact became an important plank in my argument against the hanyu-pinyin-isation of place names, a move that was gathering momentum amongst the Chinese-educated political leaders in Singapore.
Chng Jit Koon and several likeminded members of the committee had already hanyu-pinyin-ised several place names before I came onto the scene. “Tekka”, the Hokkien name for Kandang Kerbau Market at the junction of Bukit Timah Road and Serangoon Road, had already been changed to “Zhujiao”, Mandarin literally meaning “Bamboo Base” as what Tekka meant in Hokkien; and “Nee Soon”, the name of Mr. Lim Nee Soon was changed to “Yishun”. No one could say anything because it is presumed to be a Chinese matter. Why this is so is a reflection of the poor understanding of cross-cultural realities within the State-endorsed cultural concept defined exclusively as consisting of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others.
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Wow! I have heard several of the references to the areas in conversations with the elderly folks in my family. I have been looking for information on a Palembang Road located near Beach Road in the 1930s – 1940s – pics, descriptions etc anything will be useful no matter how minute. Anyone who has info on this road (I spelt it according to how it is pronounced so the spelling may be wrong) Need them for granny’s biography 🙂 Any light on this is much appreciated!
Found this excellent old map (dated 1872) at this website (http://sgmaps.blogspot.com/p/historical-maps.html):
It has Sun Li Kang, Wu Kinn Kang, Ta Chu Kang, Bo Ko Kang and Pen Kang listed on it. Are they also the kangchu systems owned by the early Chinese?
I’m sure these are early kangchu settlements. I’ve never heard of them before, but there’s no other explanation for them.
Good map. Notice also on the bottom center, “Blakan Mati” another name which has been erased from present day Singapore.
Pek Kio (white bridge) refers to Moulmein but where is the “white bridge”?
May I add a few more. I can remember…..
Cheh Kio (Green Brdge) was Clemenceau Bridge
Chew Long Khow (outside the wine factory) is the area around the junction of Chin Swee Road and Havelock Road
Tai Gin Gay (meaning the Court House of the Tai Gin – Chinese Protector) Old Social Welfare Dept. MInistry of Labor Bldg in Havelock Road.
Po Lay Long….(Glass Factory) Henderson Road.,
Ang Sai (Red Lion) River Valley Road – the old F & N factories.
Ong Kay Suah kha ( the Royal Family Hill/foothills) The park opposite the Chettiar’s Temple where the national Theatre was built and later demolished
Not: Names are transliterations, of/in the Hokkien dialect.
Anyone know where is the ‘Tau Kee Long’ (Bean curd Factory)
Thanks for the site. Under Demolished, Van Kleff Aquarium was left out. It is one of our tourist site in the 70/80s. Including the National Theatre.
Hi, I started this blog in late 2010, having procrastinated this little project of mine for years… Filled with regrets not to start it earlier, and missed out many landmarks that were demolished in recent years, such as the Gay World (2001), National Library (2004), Sentosa Monorail (2005) and Tang Dynasty City (2009):
Nevertheless, I’m glad to have captured the likes of the National Stadium, Yan Kit Swimming Pool and the railway. 🙂
Does anyone know where “Ong Lai Sua” is? I’m hearing two different things. The first is that it’s the nickname for Bukit Timah, when there used to be pineapple cash crops planted between rubber. The second thing i’m hearing is that it’s Nee Soon or Sembawang…
Butterworth Lane was left out. Thought it was named after a British Governor by that name. Am I right?
This article is undoubtedly very useful and enlightening to Singaporeans! I have posted a link to this article in an article which I shared about the old maps of Singapore here: Drafts From My Coffee Table – Old Maps of Singapore
Any explanation why the road in near Changi Airport called Tanah Merah?
tanah merah means red road. I was born in Singapore but as a child I occasionally grew up in Malaysia. back then, and even now, some rural roads were not tarred and only given the stone treatment . these roads were red in colour. I presume, in changi were a lot of such untarred roads that were strewn with stones that would have made any travel bone jarring. I could be wrong.
one amendment, tanah merah means red soil. I can only assume the material used to make roads at that time was typically red in colour.
“Tanah” means “earth/ ground/ land/ soil” in Malay. Tanah Merah was purportedly named after the exposed lateritic cliffs visible along the coast in the early days. Laterite rocks & soils are reddish/rusty brown in colour, & commonly found in the tropics.
In the old maps of Sg, you can see the term “Red Cliff” (or similar) denoted along the southeastern coastline towards Changi.
* Tanah Merah: Etymology (Wikipedia)
* Early Tanah Merah Kechil (Yeo Eng Hong – 30 Jul 2011) — includes a circa 1828 Sg map (“Little Red Cliffs”, “Red Cliffs”) & 1890 map of southeast Sg (“Small Red Cliffs”)
* In and Around Tanah Merah Kechil. 1946- 1963 (by Yeo Hong Eng) (Sg Memory Project – 05 Aug 2013)
As for laterite roads … up to the early 1980s, it was quite common to improve mud tracks with laterite stones.
For instance, at Jurong (Lake) Park, the track from the carpark (near to Jalan Ahmad Ibrahim & Superbowl Jurong) leading into the park was laid with laterite stones. Not sure about now though.
In the present day, one can still see old laterite trails at some of the forested parts of Bukit Brown.
Also, the plant-holding area of HortPark is surfaced with laterite stones. This reddish expanse is large enough to be visible in Google Earth — satellite image.
bedok is not necessarily a musical instrument. in rural villages in Malaysia,where I am familiar, we use the bedo’ to signify prayer times before reciting the azan or prayer call . and it is still in use now.
Wonderful, educational site. I’m looking for someone who can tell me more about Lorong Low Koon. Doing a trail for our students, Holy Innocents’ Primary School. Welcome anyone who can give us more info or join us in creating a meaningful trail.
Thanks for the detailed history of the roads. Any idea who Boon Tiong Road is named after? It’s blank in your table.
Maybe I may have missed this, or it’s not recorded..六斗巷 Hokkien Luck Tow Hung, some pronounced as Nah Tow Humg which will make it “blue”. Cantonese as we call it is Luk Tow Hong which is similar to the Hokkien refers to the Rangoon Road area.
I was directed to this post by San Choo in Nostalgic Singapore. Very detailed. I am 73 yrs old and lived in Rangoon Road till I was 35. I remember well that it was called in Hokkien ‘na tow hung’. Quite obviously I searched through the list for Rangoon Road. Found it but only the root of the name without the Chinese name.
Bukit Timah (Beauty World) was known in Hokkien as Chit-Ko (7-Mile), Bee Sei Kai (Beauty World) came later and Bukit Panjang was Chup-Ko (10-Mile). Hillview (where the Standard Chartered Bank is) was known as Gao-Ko (9-Mile).
The “miles” or milestones (7, 9 and 10) were a reference to the Central Post Office, now the Fullerton Hotel.
Hillview was known as Dian-Tao-Long (Battery Factory), in reference to the Eveready Factory that was there (near the Hume Factory and the Brands Factory).
There were 3 religious places that was not listed. i) Kampong Java Road Christian Cemetery that was exhumed in the late 50 early 60’s where the Woman Hospital is presently. ii) Ma Kou Tiong (Cantonese people cemetery)- exhumed around the time of the Bukit Ho Swee fire. It is the HDB housing estate known as Taman Ho Swee in the 1960. iii) The cemetery bounded by Stirling Road that were exhumed to make way for what is Mei Ling Street HDB estate now. I don’t know the names, perhaps people who once lives in those area maybe able to recall.
Who names a road in a private residential estate in the 1950s if it were a Crown Reserve for roads?
Is it the land developer or the colonial government?
does anyone here know about Palembang road
Asfia, I am also looking for info on that! I think it is where Golden Mile Complex is now, but have no way to confirm since the roads have changed.
it ran between Jalan Sultan and Sumbawa Rd and more or less paralleled Beach Rd.If you were walking up Sumbawa Rd from Beach Rd. you would first pass Java Rd on your left, and then Palembang Rd , also on the left, then Minto Rd and then you would come to the intersection of North Bridge Rd. I suspect that most of these no longer exist. Source: Singapore Guide and Street Directory, Ninth Ed. 1969.Map#4.
No i mean what palembang road history
and also what is jalan ishak road’s history
i need all of this for my history project pls help
Anyone remembers Recorder Road next to Wishart Road
Is it Wishart Road off Telok Blangah Road? I checked through the maps of the 1950s-1990s but could not find any Recorder Road
Yes. If you google Morse Rd Wishart Rd Recorder Rd you will see a1939 survey map showing Recorder Rd joining Wishart Rd.
The Recorder Rd I remember in 1960s runs from Telok Blangah Rd all the way up hill
In between the rows of workers housing. (See 1939 survey map)To day only Blk 16 remains.
Hi, does anyone know the reason for the naming of Westlake Avenue, when the estate is actually situated on the east side of the Macritchie Reservoir? Thanks!
cross the street and South bridge road junction area and Hong Lim complex site around world war 2 time its called Kampong SUSU my parents always referred to this area as kg susu. and the mosque at south bridge road, Masjid Jamae Chulia also called masjid kampong susu.