10 Common Misconceptions of the Names of Places in Singapore

Is Ang Mo Kio “ang mo kio” (tomato)? Or is Holland Village named after the Dutch community in Singapore? Are there any links between the new Chong Pang estate and the old Chong Pang Village? Let’s find out more…

1. Ang Mo Kio

Tomatoes are called “ang mo kio” (Caucasian’s brinjal) in Hokkien, which probably led to the misconception that the name of Ang Mo Kio New Town was named after the fruit. However, no tomato farms were ever recorded growing in the old Ang Mo Kio vicinity.

tomato sculpture at ang mo kio

A more likely explanation of the name Ang Mo Kio was the bridge purportedly built by the British Government Surveyor John Turnbull Thomson (1821–1884), where the locals referred it as the “Caucasian’s bridge”. It was also said that there was not one but a total of nine bridges built along Thomson and Upper Thomson Roads, starting from the “red bridge” at Cavenagh Road  and ending at the junction of Upper Thomson Road and Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1.

But for the time being, the tomato sculptures near the Ang Mo Kio Town Centre shall stay on.

2. Holland Road & Holland Village

Holland Village has one of the most common misnomers in Singapore, mistakenly thought to be named after the Low Country of Europe. Started off as a humble plantation village located at the junction of Holland Road and Buona Vista Road, the name Holland Village was proposed by the Singapore Rural Board in 1929. Holland Road, on the other hand, has been in existence since the late 19th century, and was named after Hugh Holland, an early resident, architect and amateur actor in Singapore in the early 1900s.

Holland Village gradually became a vibrant private residential estate for the Europeans since the fifties, and remained so until the British military withdrew from Singapore in the early seventies. More arterial roads of Holland namesake (Holland Drive, Holland Avenue, Holland Close) were added in 1972, paving way for the construction of the first batch of public housing flats in the vicinity.

holland village

Another interesting trivia is that the local Chinese used to associate the name Holland with some of the day-to-day stuffs, such as soft drinks (荷兰水, “hor lan zhui“, Holland water) and peas (荷兰豆, “hor lan dao“, Holland beans). This may be derived from the facts that they were imported from Holland (or by the Dutch East India Company in the past). There is also a crude Hokkien phrase “dua ker hor lan” (弹去荷兰), which literally means “being sprung to Holland” but it refers to sabotage instead. The origin of the phrase is unknown today, though there are some sayings that “hor lan” refers to the genitals of a tiger instead of Holland!

3. Tampines

The pronunciation of the name Tampines may sound embarrassing to some, but it has really nothing to do with the male reproductive organ.

Tampines was originally named after a highly-valued timber tree tempinis, or “strebulus elongata“, once abundant in this area. In the early days, however, there were several variations of the name appearing in maps and newspapers, such as Tampinis, Tempines, Tampenis and Tampenes. The name tampenis, in particular, was commonly used in Kedah as a reference to the tree.

In 1939, after consulting the Malay Union in an effort to standardize the spelling, the Singapore Rural Board began erecting new street signs bearing the name Tampines. Tampenis Road, the oldest road in the vicinity built in 1864, therefore became officially known as Tampines Road. There were concerns, though, that the new name might be confusing to the newly arrived Europeans, who might pronounce the name as “tam-pynes” and mistakenly linked the history of the vicinity to pine trees instead of tempinis tree.

tampines 1980s

Although the spelling had changed, the pronunciation of the name remained the same. Tampenis was also casually used in books and newspapers until the early eighties, when the construction of Tampines New Town started. Perhaps by then people realised the old name was not very appropriate for the new upcoming housing estate.

Interesting Trivia: Due to the non-standardisation of street names in the 19th century, it was not uncommon to have two different streets bearing the same name. There was, in fact, another Tampenis Road located between present-day Robertson Quay and River Valley Road. In 1907, local rubber tycoon Tan Chay Yan (1871-1916) made a request to the Municipal Commissioners to rename the street as Teck Guan Street, in honour of his father Tan Teck Guan who once owned the land in the area. Teck Guan Street later became home of the Singapore Cold Storage complex before it was expunged in the late nineties.

4. Hong Kah

The residential district of Hong Kah used to cover the region between part of Bukit Batok and Jurong West. Today, the name refers to a small housing estate after its vicinity was splitted up and renamed respectively as Jurong Green, Nanyang and Gek Poh Ville.

The Chinese name of Hong Kah has been interpreted as 丰加 (or 丰嘉). It literally means “abundance and bountiful (or praises)”, an auspicious description of the new town established in the eighties. However, the actual origin of the name Hong Kah was derived from 奉教 (“to serve the religion”), the Teochew term for Christianity.

Established in 1876, the St. John Church at Jurong Road had been preaching to the Chinese farmers in the vicinity for decades. Most of the families were Teochews and Hokkiens, with a minority being Hakkas and Cantonese. By the late forties, the kampongs became collectively known as “Hong Kah Choon” (“Christian Village” in Teochew).

old jurong road and hong kah village 1986

A series of minor roads existed between the sixties and eighties bore the name Hong Kah. Mostly muddy trails without street lamps, Hong Kah Road, Hong Kah Drive, Hong Kah Lane and Hong Kah Circus were located off the main Jurong Road, which was the first road in Jurong built as early as the mid-1800s.

Due to the development of Jurong New Town in the early eighties, Hong Kah Village was later demolished, with many of its former residents resettled at the new flats at Jurong West. The name Hong Kah was retained but its Chinese characters were modified, probably in a bid to remove the religious context.

5. Lavender Street

As mentioned in the previous article, the Lavender Street has a misnomer name as it was not a place of pleasant smell in the old days. It was, in fact, filled with foul smells of night soil, urine and fertilizers used for the plantations in the vicinity. To make things worse, the pungent odour of gases produced by the nearby Kallang Gasworks could also be detected.

lavender street old building

Another misconception of Lavender Street was its colloquial name “mang kah kar“. Similar in its Hokkien pronunciation, it could mean “foot of the jackfruit [tree]” or “mosquitoes bite leg”. Although mosquitoes were abundant in the plantations, it was widely accepted that “mang kah kar” actually referred Lavender Street as a road located at “the end of the jackfruit plantations”.

6. Jalan Kayu

We often hear screams of “referee kayu!” during local football matches, whenever the referee puts in a poor performance, commits perceived errors or makes some decisions that are unflavourable to the fans’ team.

The word kayu refers to wood in Malay, thus the popular football phrase can be interpreted as “referee you blockhead!”. Some, though, argue that kayu was derived from the Chinese word “jiayou” (加油), which means “buck up!” or “put in more efforts!”. That can be considered an encouragement offered to the poor verbally-abused man in black.

jalan kayu

Jalan Kayu, on the other hand, has no links to petrol or referees. It was built in the 1930s by the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a link to the newly completed Seletar Airbase. When the airbase’s chief designer and engineer C.E.O. Wood returned to London with glory in 1937, RAF made a proposal to the Singapore Rural Board for the road to be named after him.

7. ABC Market

Built in 1974, the popular ABC Market (its full name is ABC Brickworks Market and Food Centre) along Jalan Bukit Merah was not randomly named, nor was it named after some nursery rhymes. It has also nothing to do with the now-defunct Alexandra Brickworks Company.

The market was actually named after Archipelago Brewery Company, the first commercial brewery in Singapore, established by a group of German investors in 1931. The factory was located at where Anchorpoint is standing right now, at the junction of Jalan Bukit Merah and Queensway. During its peak between 1930s and 1960s, its star product Anchor Beer was one of the favourite alcoholic drinks in Singapore.

archipelago brewer company 1960s

Archipelago Brewery Company was seized by the British government in 1941, at the onset of the Second World War, with its assets taken over by Fraser and Neave (F&N). The German brewery, however, was soon captured by the Japanese Army during the occupation for their own production of Japanese beer.

8. Chong Pang

Although Chong Pang Garden, a residential district within Yishun New Town, shares the same name with the vanished Chong Pang Village, both have little in common in their histories.

In recognition to his contributions in the public service, the former Chong Pang Village was named after Lim Chong Pang (1904-1956), the second son of prominent Teochew rubber magnate and “pineapple king” Lim Nee Soon (1879-1936). In the 1930s, Lim Chong Pang, as a member of the Singapore Rural Board (1929-1938), built a village at a rubber estate near the 12th milestone of Sembawang Road. Originally known as Westhill Estate, it was then renamed as Chong Pang Village in 1956 upon his death. There was also a Chong Pang Road (originally Westhill Road), branching off Sembawang Road and linking to Sultan Theatre, one of the many cinemas in Singapore set up by Lim Chong Pang.

chong pang village 1980s

chong pang road 1980s

The bustling Chong Pang Village was demolished in March 1989, becoming part of Sembawang New Town, although its exact location is still an undeveloped piece of forested land today. Chong Pang Garden, on the other hand, was built in 1981 between Sembawang Road and Yishun Avenue 2, approximately 1.2km away from the village.

Chong Pang Road was expunged when Chong Pang Village was torn down. Ironically, Chong Kuo Road, located some 5km away, managed to survive till this day. The road was named after Lim Nee Soon’s eldest son Lim Chong Kuo (1902-1938) in 1955.

9. Newton Road & Newton Circus

For every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction

The famous Newton’s third law of motion has been taught in Singapore’s secondary school science classes for decades. The name Issac Newton (1642-1727) is so well-known in Singapore that people tends to associate the English physicist and mathematician with Newton Circus, Newton Road and the Newton vicinity located in the central part of the country.

newton circus 1977

Newton Circus and Newton Road, however, were named after Howard Newton (1852-1897), a capable British engineer who arrived at Singapore in his early twenties. Howard Newton spent twenty years as the Deputy Executive Engineer in the Water Department of the Singapore Municipality, working hand in hand with James MacRitchie (1848-1895) to improve the waterworks of Singapore.

When MacRitchie (the MacRitchie Reservoir was named after him in 1922) passed away in 1895, Newton was expected to take over his position as the chief Municipal Engineer. The Municipal Commissioners unexpectedly appointed S. Tomlinson from Bombay of British India instead, while the vacated post of the Executive Engineer of Waterworks of Bombay Municipality was given to Newton.

It turned out to be a misfortune for Howard Newton, as he died of cholera shortly after taking up his new position in India. In 1914, Syed Ali Road was renamed as Newton Road as a tribute to him.

10. Orchard Road

Orchard Road, the bustling famous shopping belt of Singapore, underwent many major transformation since it started as a simple lane in the early 19th century. Nutmeg plantations first flourished at the hillocks by the road, before pepper farms and fruit tree orchards took over. It was not until the collapse of nutmeg prices in the mid-19th century before private residences and bungalows appeared around Orchard, Scotts and Tanglin Roads. A portion of the lands near Orchard Road was also acquired by Ngee Ann Kongsi as their Teochew private cemetery.

Shophouses began to dot along Orchard Road during the 1890s. The popular Orchard Road Market and Singapore Cold Storage, opened in 1891 and 1905 respectively, brought crowds to the vicinity. The definition of Orchard Road as a shopping haven was finally established in the late 1950s when C.K. Tang opened their flagship departmental store.

It has been widely accepted that Orchard Road was named after the fruit orchards in the 19th century. However, the prominent existence of nutmeg, gambier and pepper plantations led to suggestions that the road was actually named after a certain Mr Orchard, who supposedly owned some of the plantations in the vicinity. It might be a similar case to the streets near Orchard Road, where Scotts Road, Cuppage Road and Koek Road were named after major plantation owners William G. Scotts (1786-1861), William Cuppage (1807-1872) and Edwin Koek (unknown-1891) respectively.

However, little is known of the plantation owner. Even his existence is debatable. That will be left to the historians to verify.

Published: 16 June 2013

Updated: 19 June 2013

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19 Responses to 10 Common Misconceptions of the Names of Places in Singapore

  1. kygoh2013 says:

    http://everythingalsocomplain.com/2011/07/19/there-were-no-tomatoes-in-ang-mo-kio/ gives an interesting take about Ang Mo Kio. Its incredible that he unearthed a publication from 1854 where the name Ang Mo Kio was mentioned.

  2. See Toh Yew Wai says:

    I believed Balestier Road is named after Joseph Balestier who in 1836 became the first US Consul-general at the US Consulate In Singappre.

    Also, do you any idea why are there so many streets at Balestier area named after places in Burma (example Irrawaddy, Moulmein, Bhamo, Minbu, Pegu, Mandalay, Martaban, Shan, Ava, Akyab, Bassein, Sinaran, Rangoon, Pergui)despite the fact that the area was not a Burmese enclaves in Singapore. There were no sizeable Burmese population residing in Singapore in the early
    colonial days. My guess is the names were given by a British Administrator who had came over from Burma.

    • Pat says:

      @ See Toh Yew Wai: “why are there so many streets at Balestier area named after places in Burma […] despite the fact that the area was not a Burmese enclaves in Singapore. […] My guess is the names were given by a British Administrator who had came over from Burma.”

      That’s a reasonable guess, since Burma was a British colony. The British were known to name S’pore streets after localities (current or ancient extinct cities) that they ruled over, as well as after their human subjects. For instance, Shan Road (off Balestier) was named after the (non-Burmese) ethnic Shan people living in Burma.

      And Hyderabad Road (off Alexandra Road) was named after the southern Indian city, even though it appears that there wasn’t any Indian enclave amongst the British/ European enclaves in that area during the colonial period. It is only since 2005 onwards that Hyderabad Road has become more representative of its namesake, after the SP Jain School of Global Management set up its campus there.

      • cydonian says:

        Remember reading somewhere that the erstwhile ruler of Hyderabad, the Nizam, owned property there, specifically the building which SP Jain occupies now. I haven’t been able to confirm this, perhaps someone more resourceful can look into this.

    • Paul Ridgway says:

      Wolcott Balestier, an American writer, was a friend of Rudyard Kipling. He dedicated his
      ‘ Barrack Room Ballads ‘ published in 1892 to Balestier.
      Kipling married Balestier’s eldest sister, Caroline (Carrie).

      Maybe the S’pore Municipality’s street names’ clerk had a sense of the literary.

  3. Teochew says:

    Hong Kah should be 奉教 in Teochew, meaning to serve the religion, which is Christianity in this case…

    that’s why the Teochews/Hokkiens refer Christians as “jiak hong kah” 吃奉教

  4. jerome says:

    Hey, “The road was named after Lim Chong Pang’s eldest son Lim Chong Kuo (1902-1938) in 1955.”

    Did you mean “Lim Nee Soon’s eldest son” instead?

  5. hap says:

    In 1989, I took a Singapore city tour, and was told by the guide that Lavender Street was named after the lavender flowers they brought in to try and mask the foul smells produced by the businesses in the vicinity.

  6. Pat says:

    From post: “Tampines was originally named after a highly-valued timber tree tempinis […] several variations of the name appearing in maps and newspapers, such as Tampinis, Tempines, Tampenis and Tampenes. The name tampenis, in particular, was commonly used in Kedah as a reference to the tree. In 1939, after consulting the Malay Union in an effort to standardize the spelling, the Singapore Rural Board began erecting new street signs bearing the name Tampines.”

    Kedah Malays refer to the tree as “Tempenis”, & the S’pore Malay Union recommended “Tampines” ? This is rather strange …. Is there actually any Bahasa Malay or Bahasa Indonesia word that ends with “~penis” or “~pines” ?

    The vernacular name for Streblus elongatus is consistently depicted in Bahasa Malay & Indonesia: Pokok/ Kayu Tempinis. (Before the Malay Spelling Reform in 1972, Tampinis was the other spelling variant commonly used.) In Indonesia, the tree is also variously known as: Tenipi, Kempini, Kepingis, Kamaria, etc. — depending on the geographical region & tribe.

    On the other hand, “Tempenis”, Tampenis” & “Tampenes” appear to be orthographic errors arising from non-native Malay speakers trying to anglicize what they heard being verbally described.

    Another Malay place name that is frequently misspelt (& its meaning misunderstood) would be Berlayar/ Belayar vs. “Berlayer” — as in the defunct granite Batu Berlayar that used exist at the Labrador Park seafront.

    * Layar (n): sail, curtain
    * Berlayar (adj): having sail(s), with sail(s)
    * Belayar (v): to go by boat/ship, to sail, to travel by water

    So the famous (blown-up) Batu Berlayar in olden S’pore means “rock with a sail” (implying that the rock looks like it has an attached sail) — rather than “sailing rock” (as in the rock is sailing, ie. moving in water due to wind power).

    Although there is no such word or root-word as “layer” in Malay or Indonesian, the misspelling “berlayer” is however extremely common amongst non-native Malay speakers past & present. So much so that URA installed a big signage called “Berlayer Creek” [sic — photo] at the entrance of Labrador Coastal Walk in 2011, while SLA uses “Berlayer” & “Berlaya” (missing r) on the same page in OneMap.

    In contrast, the correct spelling (ie. “Berlayar”) has thus far been very consistently used in all of S’pore’s statures where the locale is mentioned by various other state organizations (eg. MPA, BCA, LTA, Election Dept, Attorney-General´s Chambers) over the decades.

  7. Li Yong says:

    Hi Remember Singapore,

    Thanks for clarifying with the place names. I didn’t know the origins of some of the names until I read this a few months ago. My name is Li Yong and I am from My Queenstown. We are organising a forum talk for students and residents in Queenstown on 3 August Saturday (2-4pm) and I wonder if you are able to join us to introduce the old place names and the colloquial names. If alright, I would need your help to drop me an email so as to send you more details. Many thanks!

  8. Lorraine says:

    This was a very insightful article. Would you guys happen to know the origins of ‘Ghim Moh Road’? Were there many people with gold hair living in the estate?

    • Pat says:

      @ Lorraine — An earlier article ‘Ghim Moh Bus Terminal’ (Remember S’pore – 23 Jul 2012, updated 23 Oct 2012) provides the following explanation:

      “The origin of the name Ghim Moh is debatable, but the biggest possibility is its Hokkien translation, which means “golden hair“, a reference to the Caucasians, majority of them British soldiers, who once lived at the nearby Holland Village.”

      Note that “golden hair” as translated into Chinese is “金发” (jīn fǎ) or “金毛” (jīn máo) — meaning a person with blonde/ bleached hair.

      However, the local place name Ghim Moh is actually “锦茂” (jǐn mào) when written in Chinese characters. This term is pronounced as kím bō͘ in Hokkien & gam2 mau6 in Cantonese.

      Meaning-wise:
      = [noun] brocade, tapestry, embroidery; [adj] bright/ shiny, elegant, beautiful
      = [adj] luxuriant, flourishing, excellent

      The book ‘Street Names of Singapore’ (Peter K.G. Dunlop, 2000) provides a similar explanation for Ghim Moh Road (pg 93):
      “Ghim Moh translates as luxuriant brocade. This street is part of the big Holland Village West development of the 1970s.”

      Perhaps there were several jewellery/ goldsmith shops at Ghim Moh, along with other traditional Chinese businesses like watch dealers & TCM shops.

      Based on archived newspaper reports, Ghim Moh Road & its housing estate also appear to be quite a hotspot for goldsmith/ jewellery heists & robberies during the 1980s. Below are more recent news articles about this locality.

      * A Changed World at Ghim Moh (Straits Times – 07 Mar 2013)
      [Excerpt] Mr Keh Thiam Hock, 60, owner of Sin Ngee Jeweller and Goldsmith, said: “Yes, people come to eat, especially during lunchtime, but many do not come to shop. He has seen business fall by 70% and he too will be moving out next month, 17 years after he set up shop.”

      * Wine & Dine: Bluespoon (Sunday Times – 14 Jan 2007)
      [Excerpt] Bluespoon, a month-old snack bar in Ghim Moh market, sells frozen Swedish meatballs, has minimalist furnishings and a giant mist-blowing fan. Very Orchard Road. It looks totally out of place among its goldsmith and Chinese medicinal hall neighbours.

      • Thanks Pat. I think when translating the name of a place into Chinese, it’s a norm for the committee to use “auspicious” characters.

        The names of Ghim Moh, Ang Mo Kio, Amoy Quee Camp are all related to the colonial past (the name Amoy Quee is perhaps even more derogatory), but at least their Chinese names have been translated in such a way that the racial elements are being diluted.

        Same goes to Hong Kah (mentioned in the article), but this one is more of a religious thing than racial.

        There was once a Kling Street near present-day Raffles Place. This name was derogatory and offensive to the local Indian community, and was eventually changed to Chulia Street in 1921. For unknown reasons, the names referring to the red-hair or golden-hair remained. Maybe the British in the past thought nothing of it.

  9. mf says:

    Talk about Ghim Moh, I heard that the market will be closed for renovation at the end of May 2014. Quite sad though I’ve been there less than 10 times in the four years since we moved to Holland Village. Auntie at the market told me when I brought my new domestic helper there to get home clothes – better buy now cos we’re closing and when we re-open, cannot sell 3 for $10 anymore, have to raise prices cos of higher rental..

  10. Eric says:

    Thank you, Clive, even for us ex-Singaporeans, this was a treat to read. Your own research ? impressive!

  11. kdcrazie27 says:

    Can you check why was it named Pulo or Pulau Saigon (the defunct island)? Was there a Vietnamese population in that area hence the place was named as Kampong Saigon in the 1900?
    Thank you.

  12. A STC (Singapore Traction Company) bus service between Tampenis Road and Finlayson Green (at Raffles Place)


    (Photo credit: Facebook Group “Nostalgic Singapore”)

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