The Disappearance of the Historic Ellenborough Street

Ellenborough Street was laid as the road to the Ellenborough Market, built in 1845. Both were named after Lord Ellenborough, Edward Law (1790-1871), who served as the Governor-General of India between 1842 and 1844. The early Ellenborough Market, located by the southern side of the Singapore River, soon had a number of structural integrity issues, when cracks appeared on its walls.

In 1899, a cast iron structure from Scotland was purchased and added to Ellenborough Market as a building extension. The new market became known as “pasar bahru” by the Malays, while the local Hokkiens and Teochews called it “sin pa sat” (new market). The Teochews began populated the place, trading and selling fish, seafood and dried products. This gave rise to the naming of Ellenborough Street’s adjacent roads as Tew Chew (Teochew) Street and Fish Street.

The Ellenborough wet market was a bustling focal place of trades and activities for the local community in the vicinity for many decades. The rows of pre-war shophouses and warehouses along the streets were mostly used for small businesses and accommodation.

There was, however, a dark period when Ellenborough Street was plagued by widespread gambling and opium smoking by the Chinese immigrants and coolies. Until the sixties, thefts, robberies and gang fights were also rampant in the area.

Despite the chaotic conditions, businesses flourished at Ellenborough Market and Ellenborough Street. The large variety of goods and items, ranging from fish, rice, fresh produce to different types of household products, attracted huge crowds everyday. The bustling scene lasted until 30 January 1968, when a big fire, happened during the Chinese New Year, swept and destroyed the market. Hundreds of stalls went up in smoke; the total damages were estimated to be around $250,000.

The remnants of the burnt market was demolished soon after the disaster. A smaller market continued to thrive at the junction of Tew Chew Street and Boat Quay.

At the site of the demolished Ellenborough Market, two blocks of flats (Block 1 and 3) and a three-storey podium extension (Block 2) were built by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). Block 1 was a 22-storey point block, whereas Block 3 was a 17-storey slab block sitting on a three-storey podium that was connected to Block 2. Due to this redevelopment project, Fish Street had to make way, becoming the first of the three parallel roads to be expunged.

The “new” Ellenborough Market was housed at the three-storey podium at Block 2. In the late seventies, a building extension, costing $920,000, was added, making it one of Singapore’s largest markets, comprising 235 market stalls, 72 cooked food stalls and two iced water stalls.

At the third floor was the hawker centre well-known for its row of Teochew stalls that sold delicious Teochew-style dishes ranging from braised goose and hay cho (prawn rolls) to steamed pomfret, hee peow (fish maw) and other seafood. The Teochew-Nonya crayfish fried in sambal was also a popular dish among the customers.

The hawker centre became one of the favourite haunts for taxi drivers in the eighties, who would often stop for a break, a cup of kopi and a hot bowl of fish porridge.

In the mid-eighties, to relive traffic congestion and improve the physical environment of the downtown and city areas, the vegetable and preserved food hawkers at Ellenborough Street, Tew Chew Street, Johore Road, Rochor Road, Maxwell Market and Clyde Terrace Market were relocated to the centralised market at the new Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre.

A hot topic among the coffeeshop talks in the eighties was the spectacular collapse of Chop Hoo Thye, one of Singapore’s largest dried seafood wholesalers. At its peak, the firm had shops located at Ellenborough Street, Clarke Street, Jurong and Pasir Panjang.

Established in 1946, Chop Hoo Thye rose to prominence through decades of hard work by the father and son of the Ng family, both famous as the “Abalone King”. The elder Ng was well-known for being a respectable and humble community leader who built his business from scratch. 

But in 1984, the firm racked up a $100 million unsecured debt to some 20 banks in Singapore, possibly caused by a global slowdown in demands as well as the Ng family’s heavy losses in the stock and commodity markets. The Ng father and son later fled the country and left their company bankrupted. The bad debts suffered by the banks caused a plunge in the Singapore stock market, leading to the Monetary Authority of Singapore’s (MAS) involvement in investigating the case.

In 1985, the street hawkers at Wayang Street, in front of Thong Chia Medical Institute, were relocated to Ellenborough Street Hawker Centre and Hill Street Hawker Centre, where additional stalls were added and allocated to them by the HDB.

In 14 years, since 1971, some 17,800 street hawkers had been cleared from the roads and relocated to the new and more hygienic markets and hawker centres. Around 500 hawkers were still plying their trades on the streets in Singapore by the mid-eighties.

Until the early nineties, one could still drive to Boat Quay, via Ellenborough Street and Teo Chew Street, and cruise along the Singapore River. He could then cross over to the northern side of the river using the Read Bridge, and then divert to either Read Street, Clarke Street, Clarke Quay, North Boat Quay or Canning Lane.

However, the safety of these roads became a hot topic when three cars plunged into the river between 1989 and 1993. As there were no barriers along the river, drivers who were unfamiliar with the area or were going too fast and could not anticipate the sharp turns might drive straight into the waters and put themselves in extreme dangers.

Hence, between 1993 and 1995, Boat Quay and Clarke Quay became pedestrianised, and were out of bounds to vehicles. The conserved shophouses were restored and turned into restaurants, cafes and pubs, as the vicinity was rejuvenated and transformed into a new dining enclave and nightspot. A four-star 476-room Merchant Court Hotel (present-day Swissôtel Merchant Court) was opened in 1997, situated along Tew Chew Street. The hotel has a Ellenborough Market Cafe; its name pays homage to the former popular market.

The Ellenborough Street HDB Flats were en-bloc in 1995 and, together with the Ellenborough Street shophouses and warehouses, were subsequently demolished to make way for the tunneling works of the North East Line (NEL) and the construction of Clarke Quay MRT Station (opened in 2003).

Ellenborough Street, a road of 150 years’ history, was expunged in the early 2000s, when a new shopping mall called Clarke Quay The Central (opened in 2007) was built. Out of the three parallel roads of the former Ellenborough Market, only Tew Chew Road remains today.

Published: 15 June 2020

This entry was posted in Historic and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Disappearance of the Historic Ellenborough Street

  1. William R says:

    Wow! Fantastic read, and very interesting with the pictures. I wonder what is there now where the three streets are, going to check my maps now. Thanks.

  2. Tew Chew Street is now an access road to The Central, sandwiched between The Central and Hotel Swissotel Merchant Court…


    (Map credit: Google Map)

  3. Jon C says:

    Interesting to note that almost all the chaps in the fish vendors pic wore hats in the 1950s. Wonder when did headwears went off fashion in sg.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s