It’s the time of the year again, when we indulge in new year goodies and angpaos. Every Lunar New Year, I’d make a trip down to Chinatown to shop for new year goodies. But for a significant period of my life, I would walk past (or walk through) the various buildings without knowing what they were. This time round, I’ll attempt to capture the familiar yet overlooked side of Chinatown. As “Chinatown” is a pretty big district, I’ll focus on the buildings along or near Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road in this post. Most of the buildings lie within the People’s Park area.
Eu Tong Sen Street is a one-way road that connects Kampong Bahru Road to Hill Street. It was originally known as Wayang Street, but was renamed in 1919 after Chinese tycoon Eu Tong Sen, who rebuilt the street and bought over two Chinese opera theatres along the street. The two theatres, Heng Seng Peng and Heng Wai Sun, stood at the current site of People’s Park Complex. Till the 1980s, Eu Tong Sen Street ended at Havelock Road, while Wayang Street still existed as an extension of Eu Tong Sen Street that stretched till Merchant Road. Wayang Street was finally expunged when Eu Tong Sen Street was extended to reach Hill Street.
A giant overhead bridge/garden spans across Eu Tong Sen Street & New Bridge Road
Eu Tong Sen was involved in numerous businesses, such as tin, rubber and traditional Chinese medicine. He also purchased an official title from the Qing Dynasty in 1903, but sold it back 3 years later.
Eu Tong Sen Street was once also known as nan tian qian (南天前; “in front of Nam Tim Hotel” in Mandarin), named after the Great Southern Hotel (see below).
The overhead bridge/garden
New Bridge Road is a one-way road that runs anti-parallel to Eu Tong Sen Street. It was built in 1842 and named after Coleman Bridge, which was the “new” bridge over Singapore River when it was built 2 years earlier. It was also known as tua poh ji beh lor (大坡二马路; “second road of Big Town” in Hokkien) as the area south of Singapore River was referred to as tua poh (“Big Town”) while the area north of the river was sio poh (“Little Town”).
Chinatown’s Chinese name, niu che shui (牛车水; “bull-cart water”), could also refer to New Bridge Road. The name was derived from the bull-operated carts that formed the primary water supply of the area. It is known as gu chia chui in Hokkien, ngau che shui in Cantonese and Kreta Ayer in Malay, all meaning the same thing.
Lunar New Year decorations along Eu Tong Sen Street & New Bridge Road in 2012 & 2013
In the late 1980s, an 8-lane carriageway was constructed to merge Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road into one, although the separate names remained. The two roads are usually where the grandest Lunar New Year decorations are placed each year.
Before the Chinatown NEL MRT Station was built, I would always walk to Chinatown from Outram Park MRT Station, and Pearls Centre would be my first “pit stop” (other than a break at Pearls Hill Terrace right after Pearls Centre and another at Park Crescent right before People’s Park Complex, there is actually a completely sheltered path from Outram Park Station to the main shopping malls in Chinatown). It is most likely named after the nearby Pearl’s Hill, which in turn was named after Lt. James Pearl, who bought the hill in 1822. Before that, it was known as Mount Stamford, named after Sir Stamford Raffles.
Pearls Centre consists of a 10-storey retail and car park podium, and a 12-storey residential tower. In recent years, it is probably most (in)famous for the Yangtze Theatre (长江戏院), which was opened in 1977. It originally specialised in Chinese kungfu movies, but upon facing competition from mainstream cinema chains, shifted its focus to R-rated films.
A shopping street concept was launched in the basement of the centre, but did not take off.
Pearls Centre, just before demolition
In August 2012, it was announced that Pearls Centre stands on one of the 4 full lots of land that will be acquired by the government in lieu of the Thomson MRT Line construction. The tenants were given 2 years to move out. Demolition began in 2016.
Demolition of Pearls Centre
Conserved: Since 2008
Former CID Building
The 5-storey simplified Neo-Classical building was known as the Lower Barracks when it was built to house the unmarried policemen from the Sikh Contingent of the Straits Settlement Police. The building further up Pearl’s Hill Terrace, now known as the former Police Operation Headquarters, was known as the Upper Barracks and housed the married policemen. After independence, it housed the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the Singapore Police Force (SPF), and the Ministry of Interior and Defence (the predecessor of the Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Home Affairs). The Ministry moved out in the later 1970s, while the CID moved to the Police Cantonment Complex when it was completed. The building has been left vacant since.
Former CID Building
A long sheltered walkway runs along Eu Tong Sen Street, in front of this building. It starts from the junction of Pearl’s Hill Terrace and connects to the overhead bridge just before Park Crescent, crossing Eu Tong Sen Street and New Bridge Road before ending at New Bridge Centre. This sheltered walkway is an essential path to reach Chinatown from Outram Park Station before North East Line was completed.
Former CID Building
The plot of land where the building stands on is approximately where the KTM railway ran through when it ran from Tank Road to Tanjong Pagar. There was supposedly a People’s Park Railway Station as well, and it could be within its vicinity.
The former CID Building was gazetted for conservation in 2008, along with the former Police Operation Headquarters building and a black-and-white bungalow along Pearl’s Hill Terrace. Today, the building is used as a student hostel known as The Straits Student Hostel.
Designed by William Lim, Tay Kheng Soon and Koh Seow Chuan of Design Partnership
Constructed: 1970 (Podium); 1973 (Residential Block)
People’s Park Complex
Originally the Heng Seng Peng and Heng Wai Sun Chinese opera theatres owned by Eu Tong Sen, this plot of land later became an open public park, and then the People’s Park Market. The outdoor market was destroyed in a fire in 1966, and a year later, the land was sold under the URD’s first Sale of Sites programme.
The complex started off as a pure 6-storey shopping mall when it was completed in 1970. 3 years later, the 25-storey residential block was added, making it one of the first mixed-use developments in Singapore alongside Golden Mile Complex, also by Design Partnership. It was the largest shopping complex in Singapore upon its completion, and was the first to feature an atrium.
People’s Park Complex podium rooftop
Like the Golden Mile Complex, its high-rise feature was in accordance to Le Corbusier’s high density living concept, while the atrium (also known as “city room”) was derived from Fumihiko Maki’s Metabolism. In addition, its exposed raw concrete (prior to its repainting jobs in 1989 and subsequent years) resonated with the Brutalist style.
Today, the Chinese name of the complex, zhen zhu fang (珍珠坊) can be clearly seen on the narrow façade facing Eu Tong Sen Street.
People’s Park Complex podium rooftop
People’s Park Complex is part of a cluster of shopping malls and buildings in Chinatown that are connected to one another or linked via linkbridges. It is connected to the People’s Park Food Centre at the back and the overhead garden/bridge in front.
Designed by Tan Wee Lee and Peter B. K. Soo of Urban Renewal Department, HDB
People’s Park Food Centre
Behind the People’s Park Complex is the People’s Park Food Centre, a 3-storey hawker centre connected to a 9-storey block. The food centre was renovated in 2005. Other than cooked food, the centre also houses a variety of shops, and is famous for its apparel shops. Above the commercial podium is an open deck, serving as the de facto “void deck” of the residential block. When it was first built, facilities on the deck included a wading pool for toddlers and a landscaped play area.
The residential block stands above the food centre
The food centre (Blk 32) is connected to the multi-storey car park (Blk 33) and the HDB flat (Blk 34) via overhead bridges across Park Crescent at the rear, and to People’s Park Complex and the OG Building at the front. There is a small open plaza in front of the food centre. A short road known as Park Road use to run from Eu Tong Sen Street towards this plaza, between People’s Park Complex and the Majestic Theatre. Exit C of the Chinatown MRT Station now stands at this spot.
New Market Road used to run along this block, but it has since been shortened
OG People’s Park is one of the 3 OG stores in Singapore. It was the first building to be developed by OG Department Store itself, after operating stores at Coleman Street, North Bridge Road and Market Street. In 2000, the building was demolished and rebuilt, and the new OG People’s Park reopened in 2002.
The store extends across Upper Cross Street to connect to People’s Park Centre.
Designed by Swan & Maclaren
Constructed: 1927 to 1928
Conserved: Since 1989
The Majestic started off as the Tien Yien Moh Toi Theatre (天演舞台) when it was constructed in 1928. It was built by Eu Tong Sen, apparently for his wife after she was denied entry to another theatre. It was a venue for Cantonese opera until 1938, when it was converted into a cinema and rented by the Shaw Brothers. It then became known as the Queen’s Theatre, and screened Cantonese films.
During the Japanese Occupation, it was given a new Japanese name, like most other major landmarks. The name “Tai Hwa Opera House” was used until the surrender of the Japanese. Soon after, the Shaw Brothers’ lease ended, and the cinema was rented to The Majestic Film Company. The building then became known as the Majestic Theatre.
In 1956, Cathay Organisation bought over the building from the Eu family, along with two partners, Wong Siew Leng and Teo Cheng Hay. The theatre then reached its peak in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1983, Cathay bought out the partnership, and became the sole owner of the cinema until its closure in 1998.
In 2003, the building was re-opened as “The Majestic”, a shopping mall with Popular bookstore as its anchor tenant. The shopping mall only lasted 4 years and closed in 2007.
The building is now occupied by a Singpoare Turf Club off-course betting centre and a Cash Converters store.
Designed by Swan & Maclaren
Conserved: Since 1989
Yue Hwa Building
Next to The Majestic is the Yue Hwa Building. It was known as Nam Tin Building (南天大厦; “Nam Tin” is Cantonese for “Southern Sky”) when it was completed in 1936, and the 6-storey building was the tallest in Chinatown. The building was owned by Lum Chang Holdings, and functioned as the Great Southern Hotel. The hotel was known as the “Raffles Hotel of Chinatown”, but unlike Raffles Hotel which catered to mostly Europeans, this Cantonese-owned hotel attracted mainly Chinese travellers. In addition to hotel rooms, the building also housed offices, shops, a tea house and a cabaret.
Nam Tin Building before being bought over by Yue Hwa
In 1993, Yu Kwok Chun, head of Hong Kong-based department store Yue Hwa Chinese Products Emporium Limited, bought over the building. A year later, the hotel ended its operations, and the building was renovated. The regular gridded façade was conserved, but the interior was revamped to create an open layout. A 3-storey extension was also constructed at the rear. This first Yue Hwa Chinese Products store in Singapore was finally opened in 1995.
Along with The Majestic, the Yue Hwa Building was gazetted for conservation within the Kreta Ayer conservation area in 1989.
People’s Park Centre – office tower
Further up north stands People’s Park Centre, another mixed-use development in Chinatown. The shopping complex is located in the 4-storey podium block, while 2 towers stand above it. The main 13-storey tower houses offices, including numerous law firms, while the shorter tower is mainly residential space.
People’s Park Centre – residential tower
In addition to the connection to the OG Building, People’s Park Centre is also connected via linkbridges to Furama City Centre and Chinatown Point.
Chinatown Point, after renovations
Across the road from People’s Park Centre stands Chinatown Point, yet another podium-and-tower mixed use development. Its retail mail in the two podiums was closed for renovations from 2011 to 2012. The spiral podium interior has been retained, but was given a glass domed roof for more natural lighting. The other podium underwent more significant changes, and an atrium space was opened up to give it a more spacious feel. The basement car park was also relocated to higher levels to give more retail space to the basements. I’ve noticed that McDonald’s is still located at the exact same spot at the bottom of the spiral podium.
Chinatown Point in the 1990s
One of the key highlights of the new mall is the library located at the foruth level of the spiral podium. It is the first community-supported library in Singapore. 10 years worth of rental has been waived by the management of the mall, while generous donations from Kwan Im Thong Hod Cho Temple were used to support its daily operations. The librarians are also volunteers. Located in Chinatown, the library focuses on materials related to Chinese arts and culture.
Chinatown Point, during renovations in 2012
Chinatown Point is connected to People’s Park Centre via an overhead linkbridge, and to Hong Lim Complex housing blocks at its rear.
Chinatown Point once housed the Chinatown Theatres, two cinema halls operated by Shaw Organisation, from 1991 to 1999.
Before Chinatown Point and Hong Lim Complex were built, Upper Nankin Street and Upper Chin Chew Street used to run along this plot of land between New Bridge Road and South Bridge Road. They ran parallel to Upper Cross Street, Upper Hokien Street and Upper Pickering Street, which are still in existence today. On the other side of South Bridge Road are the 5 corresponding streets of these 5 “Upper” streets. However, Hokien Street, Nankin Street and Chin Cew Street are now part of the China Square Central development, and only Pickering Street and Cross Street still function as vehicular traffic streets.
Conserved: Since 1989
Hotel 81 Chinatown
The 4-storey Art Deco building at the junction of Upper Cross Street and New Bridge Road that now houses Hotel 81 was built by the SIT in the 1930s. It contained housing units for the custom workers. The building now falls within the Kreta Ayer conservation area.
The SIT Flats before being taken over by Hotel 81
Pedestrainised Pagoda Street
Pagoda Street and Trengganu Street are two one-way streets that have been pedestrainised. These 2 streets have become the main area for setting up temporary Lunar New Year stalls in recent years.
Pagoda Street is named after the gopuram of the Sri Mariamman Temple. Some Tamils thus refer to the street as Mariamman kovil pakkathu sadakku (“street beside Mariamman temple”). It was a coolie trading centre during the late 19th century, and the most prominent coolie firm was Kwong Hup Yuen, which gave the street the alternative Cantonese name of kwong hup yuen kai (广合源街; “kai” means “street”). The firm was later renamed Kian Seng Heng Bicycle Trader and, as the new name suggests, began dealing with bicycles instead of coolies. Exit A of Chinatown MRT Station is currently located at the start of the street, which was given a glass roof to shelter against the rain.
Trengganu Street was named after the state of Terengganu in Malaysia (which was spelt as “Trengganu” at the time of naming of the street). It was also known as hei yun wang kai (戏院横街; “theatre side street”) in Cantonese, a reference to the Lai Chun Yuen (梨春园) opera house located at the junction of Trengganu Street and Smith Street. The opera house was opened in 1887 and occupied the 3-storey shophouse. After 1940, it was rented out to Shaw Brothers and was renamed Sin Seng Theatre. The shophouse was damaged by bomb raids during WWII, but was restored after the war, and became a merchandise shop and a warehouse. In 1998, the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation moved it, but they relocated in 2005. The building now stands at 36 Smith Street.
Both streets are within the Kreta Ayer conservation area.
Lucky Chinatown is a 7-storey retail mall located along New Bridge Road, between Pagoda Street and Temple Street. Its façade resembles the “Nanyang style”. It houses a McDonald’s on the ground floor and a KBox on the fourth floor.
New Bridge Centre
With its grey façade and double-pitched roof, New Bridge Centre stands out among the shopping malls along New Bridge Road. It houses a CK Department Store on its ground floor. There used to be another CK Department Store across the road at People’s Park Complex.
New Bridge Centre is connected to the Chinatown Complex Market & Food Centre at its rear. It is located in between the Kreta Ayer and Bukit Pasoh conservation areas.
Before the Oriental Plaza was built, Oriental Theatre (东方戏院) stood at its spot. It was originally known as Palacegay, and was the first cinema to show Chinese films with sound when it opened in 1927. It was bought over by Shaw Brothers in 1946, and was renamed Oriental Theatre. Shaw Organisation continued to operate the 2-screen Cineplex in Oriental Plaza when it was completed in 1993. However, the cinema closed in 2000.
Entrance to the plaza. Notice the Shaw Brothers logo on the glass door. The old box office is still located near the entrance
The Oriental Plaza is located within the Bukit Pasoh conservation area, but is not given conservation status.
File Last Updated: March 26, 2017