Mention Jalan Kayu, and most Singaporeans will think of the delicious crispy roti prata. Indeed, the two large roti prata shops at Jalan Kayu, perhaps more popular and famous than the ones at Upper Thomson Road and Clementi Road, have become the representative names for this old road and neighbourhood.
Jalan Kayu literally means “Road Wood” in Malay. Was it a road formerly made of wood, or was the road named after a person called Wood? The latter is more likely, although in the olden days, stacks of firewood could be found along the road.
Historical sources did indicate that the name of Jalan Kayu was probably named after British planner C.E. Wood, who was the supervisor for the building of Seletar Airbase in 1927. The road leading to the camp was suggested by the British Royal Air Force (RAF) to the Singapore Rural Board in 1937 to be named as Jalan Kayu, with respect to the Malay-majority community in this region. The original name was supposed to be Air Base Road.
The other end of the narrow 1.2-km dual-lane Jalan Kayu Road is bounded by Yio Chu Kang Road, the Seletar Hills private estate and the cluster of fish farms at Seletar West Farmway. Seletar East Farmway has been developed into the new neighbourhood of Fernvale (Sengkang) in the early 2000s. The popular Seletar Hills market and hawker centre, built in 1975 and demolished in 2004, used to be the focal point for food and grocery for the residents in the area.
The old two-storey concrete shophouses along Jalan Kayu, designed with basements, spiral stairs and metal gates, add a captivating nostalgic charm to the area. Walking in the calm and peaceful alley, one may mistaken himself in an old Malaysian town.
The shophouses were built in the fifties by property developer Ang Oon Hue (1917-1998), whose company also built the shophouses at Sembawang Road. The early zinc-roof wooden houses at Jalan Kayu were also Ang Oon Hue’s accomplishments at Jalan Kayu, but they were demolished in the eighties. The shophouses survive till this day, and have become an identity node of Jalan Kayu.
At Jalan Kayu, there are rows of private terrace houses, also developed by Ang Oon Hue, situated in a small network of roads interestingly named after traditional Indonesian dances. The roads are Jalan Tari Piring, Jalan Tari Lilin, Jalan Tari Payong, Jalan Tari Dulang, Jalan Tari Zapin and Jalan Tari Serimpi.
- Tari Piring – Known as “Plate or Saucer Dance” in Indonesian, it is one of the most enchanting traditional dances of Indonesia, originated from a place called Solok, West Sumatra.
- Tari Lilin – It is the “Candle Dance”, and was traditional dance of the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra.
- Tari Payong – Known as “Umbrella Dance” in Indonesian.
- Tari Dulang – Dulang is an exploration of movement that is taken from the vocabulary of Tari Piring, the “Saucer Dance”.
- Tari Zapin – The “Zapin” dance was probably introduced to Malaya and Sumatra around the early fifteenth century by Arab traders and missionaries during the spread of Islam.
- Tari Serimpi – A traditional Indonesian dance of 4 dancers in the late nineteen century, served as entertainment during the negotiation with the Dutch colonial government.
The road, off Jalan Kayu, that leads to the terrace houses is called Tong Lee Road, and not surprisingly was named after Ang Oon Hue’s property company.
Interestingly, two minor roads, Lorong Tanggam and Lorong Samak, located on the opposite side of the main road of Jalan Kayu were given Tamil names, where Tanggam (Thanggam) means gold in Tamil.
The Abundant Grace Presbyterian Church is a Chinese-speaking presbytery at Lorong Samak, one of the 40 Presbyterian churches in Singapore. The origin of the Presbyterian Church in Singapore could be traced back to as early as 1829, when Rev Benjamin Keasberry arrived in Singapore to start the Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church.
Arguably one of the most famous names at Jalan Kayu, Thasevi Food Prata Restaurant is more than half a century old and was selling their doughs at Tong Lee Road 500m away before moving to their current location at one of the shophouses. Despite fierce competition and spike in their prices, the roti prata business continues to thrive in recent years.
During the early days, rural farming and rearing of pigs and poultry were common in Jalan Kayu. The Chinese and Indians lived in harmony with the Malays, and some of the British would live in the terrace houses although majority of them had the luxury of staying in the black and white colonial houses at Seletar.
Pasar malams (night markets), wayangs (street theatres) and a small cinema provided the entertainment for the Jalan Kayu residents in the early days. It was said that one of the earliest roadside pasar malams in Singapore started at Jalan Kayu.
The sleepy neighbourhood of Jalan Kayu has yet to be affected by the major changes at nearby Fernvale, where new blocks of flats have sprung up like mushrooms in the last five years. There are proposals of widening the main road of Jalan Kayu or converting the place into a food and drink haven similar to that of Siglap or Dempsey, but most Singaporeans will probably hope the laid-back place to remain as it is.
Check out more old photos of Jalan Kayu here.
Published: 17 November 2011
Updated: 02 January 2016