The Seven (or Eight) Roads of Little Town

Back in the colonial days, most of the roads in Singapore were given English (or more colloquially referred to as “ang moh”) names. Most of the locals were not fluent in English and were unable to grasp the road names properly. Hence, they gave variant names to the major roads – names that were much easier to remember. To the north of the Singapore River, known as sio poh (小坡; “Little Town” in Hokkien), were a series of parallel roads. These roads were referred to numerically by the locals, according to their relative distances from the sea.

North Bridge Road 桥北路(小坡大马路)
Designed by George Drumgoole Coleman
Constructed: 1835
Status: Found

North Bridge Road 01
North Bridge Road

The main road in sio poh was known as sio poh tua beh lor (小坡大马路; “main road of Little Town” in Hokkien), and it connects to its counterpart, South Bridge Road, in tua poh via Presentment Bridge (now Elgin Bridge). Its official name was derived from its location, to the north of the oldest bridge across the Singapore River. An alternative Hokkien name for it was sio poh hue chia lor (小坡火车路; “tramway of Little Town”), possibly due to the tramway that used to run along this road. As it passes through the North Boat Quay area, people also referred to the road as chui sien mng jit ke (水仙门一街; “first street of Water Fairy Gate” in Hokkien) or simply chui sien mng (水仙门; “Water Fairy Gate”).

North Bridge Road 02
North Bridge Road

Unlike most roads built in that time, North Bridge Road is not perfectly linear. There is a slight kink near the Sultan Mosque and Malay Heritage Centre, as the area used to be royalty ground, hence the road avoided cutting right through it out of respect.

Victoria Street 维多利亚街(小坡二马路)
Status: Found

Victoria Street 01
Victoria Street

Victoria Street is named after Queen Victoria, and connects Hill Street to Kallang Road. Running parallel to North Bridge Road, it was known as sio poh ji beh lor (小坡二马路; “second road of Little Town”) in Hokkien. Its location also earned it the name au bei chia lor (后马车路), which means “the back of the horse carriage street”, with bei chia lor referring specifically to North Bridge Road.

Cutting through the heart of Kampong Glam and the old Baweanese village, the road was also given alternative names by the Malay and Indian communitites. The Malays called it kampong boyan lama, while the Indians referred to it as boyan kampam or pal kampam. The Tamils, in particular, called the street kammangala puthu kuthu madei sadakku, which means “street of Kampong Glam and the new Hindu theatre”.

Victoria Street 02
Victoria Street, running under the linkbridge between Bugis Junction and Bugis+

In addition, even among the colonial masters, the street was known by different names. It was labelled Rochor Street in the Jacksan Plan of 1823, while G. D. Coleman referred to it as Marbro Street in his version of the town map.

The most well-known venue named after this street is probably Victoria Street Wholesale Centre, which has since been relocated to Kallang Avenue. There was also a Victoria Street Estate located on the area bounded by Victoria Street, Malabar Street, Bugis Street and Rochor Road, where Bugis Junction Tower now stands. I can’t find much information on it other than the fact that there was a Hokkien Buddhist temple known as Sun Thian Keng temple located there since 1821.

Queen Street 奎因街(小坡三马路)
Status: Found

Queen Street 01
Queen Street. Cheng Yan Court is on the left

Similar to Victoria Street, Queen Street is also named after Queen Victoria. The locals called it sio poh sa beh lor (小坡三马路; “third road of Little Town” in Hokkien), but sometimes also referred to it as sek a ni koi (“Eurasian street” in Hokkien). Sek a ni refers to the Malay word serani, which means Eurasian. The area bounded by Bras Basah Road and Middle Road was once a Eurasian enclave. The stretch closer to Dhoby Ghaut was once occupied by the dhobies, which earned the street the Malay name Kampong Dhobi, and the Tamil name vannan teruvu (“street of the dhobies”).

The Queen Street Bus Terminal is located at the end of Queen Street. It is well known for bus services that operate into Johor Bahru, including service 170 and other private bus services. There was also a Queen Street Estate located off Manila Street, complete with its own CC. Bugis+ now stands at its location. Queen Street Post Office used to stand near the junction of Queen Street and Middle Road. The four-storey building was demolished in 1978, and Bylands Building now stands in its place.

Waterloo Street 滑铁卢街(小坡四马路)
Status: Found

Waterloo Street 01
Waterloo Street

This street was named as such by the Municipal Council in 1858, to commemorate the famous Battle of Waterloo against the French. Before that, it was known as Church Street, named by J. T. Thomson, after Resident Councillor Thomans Church in 1837. Other than the “numerical” colloquial name of sio poh si beh lor (小坡四马路; “fourth road of Little Town” in Hokkien), it was also known as mang ku lu chai tng koi (望旧鲁菜堂街; “the street in Bencoolen where the vegetarians’ hall is”) in Hokkien and kun yam miu chai thong (观音庙菜堂; “the vegetarians’ hall at the Kwan Im Temple”) in Cantonese. This was due to the presence of a Chinese vegetarian guild meeting house near the Kwan Im Temple. The Tamils referred to another religious building along the street, calling it krishnen kovil sadakku (“the street of the Krishnen Temple”). Both the Kwan Im Thong Hod Cho Temple and the Sri Krishnan Temple are located along the pedestrianized stretch of Waterloo Street.

Waterloo Street used to extend to Stamford Road, connecting to the entrance of the old National Library. The stretch from Stamford Road and Bras Basah Road has since been expunged due to the construction of the Singapore Management University. A number of small roads used to branch out from Waterloo Street, but have since been expunged. These include Beng Swee Place (where Manulife Centre now stands) and Lorong Krishna (where Fortune Centre now stands). Beng Swee Place was named after Chinese merchant and philantropist Tan Beng Swee (陈明水), son of Tan Kim Seng. The road was originally named Kim Seng Place, before being renamed in 1928. Lorong Krishna was most likely named after the nearby Sri Krishnan Temple.

Waterloo Street is similar to Telok Ayer Street in the sense that various communities have set up places of worship along it, and most of them are still present today. These include the Maghain Aboth Synagogue (Judaism), Church of St Peter & St Paul (Roman Catholic), Sri Krishnan Temple (Hinduism) and Kwan Im Thong Hod Cho Temple (Buddhism). The Kampong Kapor Methodist Church used to be located along Waterloo Street as well, while the Central Sikh Temple was just one street away, along Queen Street.

Other existing landmarks along Waterloo Street include Waterloo Centre and Stamford Arts Centre.

Bencoolen Street明古连街(小坡五马路)
Status: Found

Bencoolen Street 01
Bencoolen Street

Before Sir Stamford Raffles founded Singapore, he was the Lieutenant Governor of Bencoolen (now known as Bengkulu), Sumatra. A number of Bencoolen Muslims followed Raffles to Singapore, and the numbers grew after the signing of the Anglu Dutch Treaty of 1824, which saw the British giving up Bencoolen and the rest of Sumatra to the Dutch. The Bencoolen Muslims congregated in Kampong Bencoolen, and the road cutting through it was named Bencoolen Street, both in respect for the kampong and in honour of Raffles’ previous position. To the locals, it was the sio poh gor beh lor (小坡五马路; “fifth road of Little Town” in Hokkien). Some also referred to it as the chai tng au in Hokkien or chai thong hau in Cantonese (菜堂后; “behind the Vegetarians’ hall”), referring to the same vegetarian guild house mentioned above.

Landmarks along the street that refer to its name (or the original Kampong Bencoolen) include The Bencoolen, Masjid Bencoolen and the upcoming Bencoolen MRT Station of the Downtown Line. Masjid Bencoolen was built by the Bencoolen Muslims around 1825 as an attap building, and has since been rebuilt a few times.

Bencoolen Street 02
This was spotted near the construction site for the new MRT station

Like Waterloo Street, a number of shorter streets used to branch out from Bencoolen Street. These include Lorong Sakai (now BIG Hotel), Lorong Pantai (now Hotel Ibis Singapore on Bencoolen, behind South East Asia Hotel) and Lorong Serai (now Burlington Square). Pantai means “beach” while serai means lemon grass. Sakai, however, is a derogatory term for aboriginal tribes, and despite complains by the residents in 1955, the name stayed. At the current location of The Bencoolen, Noordin Lane used to connect Bencoolen Street to Waterloo Street. Noordin Lane was also known as lo lam kai in Cantonese, which literally means “Lo Lam’s Street”, although it could have been derived from a corrupted Hokkien pronunciation of Noordin (lo lim). All these roads have since been expunged.

Prinsep Street布连拾街(小坡六马路)
Status: Found

Prinsep Street 01
Prinsep Street, with LASELLE on the right

This street first appeared in the survey map drawn by G. D. Coleman in 1836, but was labelled Flint Street. It was named after Captain William Flint, brother-in-law of Sir Stamford Raffles, and shares the same name as another street located off Fullerton Square. In 1858, it was renamed Prinsep Street after lawyer C. H. Prinsep, the owner of a nutmeg plantation that this street cut through. The locals called it sio poh lak beh lor (小坡六马路; “sixth road of Little Town” in Hokkien).

The Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church is located along its namesake street, and its history can be traced back to 1843. It was also the founding place of the Singapore Boys’ Brigade. There was once a Prinsep Court that connected this street to Short Street. It was named in 1957, but has since been expunged, along with the adjacent Stamford Estate. LASALLE College of the Arts now stands at its location.

Prinsep Street 02
An abandoned empty lot along Prinsep Street

At approximately the area opposite the junction of Prinsep Street and Kirk Terrace, there used to be a Cheang Jim Chwan Place that branched out towards Bencoolen Street. Cheang Jim Chwan (章壬全) was the son of philanthropist Cheang Hong Lim. The road no longer exists, but the area is still labelled as Cheang Jim Chwan Place in URA’s conservation maps. A number of shophouses bounded by Prinsep Street, Bencoolen Street, Bras Basah Road and Prinsep Link are being conserved.

Short Street肃街(小坡六马路)
Status: Found

Short Street 01
Short Street

Despite being the next in the series of parallel roads, it was not labelled as the “seventh road” by the locals. Instead, it was also known as sio poh lak beh lor. Its other Hokkien variant name was tek kha so si tek hang, with tek kha (竹脚) referring to the nearby Tekka district and so si tek meaning “short”. In full, the phrase means “the short road that leads to Tekka”.

Some suggested that the street was named as such due to its length, but it might also have been named after a Septimus Short.

David Elias Building and the Tamil Methodist Church are a few of the more prominent buildings found along the road.

Selegie Road实里基路(小坡七马路)
Status: Found

Selegie Road 01
Selegie Road, with Selegie House on the right

Interestingly, the last of the series of 7 roads is not exactly parallel to the rest. It is believed to have existed as a dirt track since the 14th century. The road was probably laid out in response to the existing contours, rather than forcefully overlaying a rectangular grid as we have seen in the other roads. It branches out from Prinsep Street, and connects to Serangoon Road, at the junction with Bukit Timah Road, Sungei Road and Rochor Canal Road.

In Coleman’s map drawn in 1836, the road name was spelt as “Seligie Road”. Prior to that, part of Brash Basah Road was referred to as “Selegy Street” in the Jackson Plan of 1822. The roads are so named as they are located at the foot of Seligi Hill or Bukit Seligie, which has since been renamed Mount Sophia.

How the name Selegie / Seligi / Seligie / Selegy came about, however, is contested. Some believed a Bugis pirate chief called Selegie and his people (referred to as orang selegie or “the Selegie people”) used to occupy the hill. Others have asserted that the word is the Malay name for a wooden spear sharpened and hardened by fire.

Colloquial names for the street include sio poh chit beh lor (小坡七马路; “seventh road of Little Town” in Hokkien), tek kia kha (竹仔脚; “foot of the little bamboos” in Hokkien), tek kha tit koi (竹脚直街; “straight road at the foot of the bamboos” in Hokkien) and nagappan thanki (“Nagappan’s water tank” in Tamil). The names associated with bamboos are a reference to the bamboo plantations that existed near the Rochor Canal, the same reason behind the name Tekka. On the other hand, Nagappan was a man who sold water to the public along the street.

Selegie Road used to be lined with numerous shophouses built by Indian convicts. However, most of the older buildings have been demolished and replaced by larger developments such as PoMo and Wilkie Edge. The David Elias Building, located at the junction of Selegie Road, Short Street and Middle Road, is one of the few surviving buildings from the pre-independence era. Others include Rex Cinema and the Ellison Building. In front of Peace Centre, you can find a kacang puteh stall, a rare sight these days. Interestingly, it seems that the stallowner is also called Mr Nagappan.

The Selegie House is a cluster of 3 HDB blocks built in 1963, and with Block 9 standing at 20 storeys tall, it was the tallest public housing unde the Urban Renewal Pilot Project. Standing next to it, the 10-storey Selegie Integrated School was the tallest school in Southeast Asia. The school building is now occupied by Beacon International College.

Middle Road密驼路
Status: Found

Middle Road 01
Middle Road. In the middle of the image is the demolition site of Midlink Plaza

A number of roads run perpendicular to the 8 roads mentioned above, including Bras Basah Road, Middle Road and Albert Street. Aptly named, the road rests in the middle of the entire grid, separating the civic area from the ethnic settlements in the Jackson Plan.

There used to be a foundry located along the road, owned by Messrs Cazalas. As such, locals referred to the road as sio poh ang mo pah thi (小坡红毛打铁; “European foundry at the Little Town” in Hokkien). It was also called mang ku lu chia kaun (望旧鲁车口; “Jinrikisha depot at Bencoolen” in Hokkien).

Two ethnic enclaves used to exist along Middle Road. The Hainanese congregated at the area around Purvis Street and Seah Street, two shorter streets that are parallel to Middle Road. As such, the 3 roads were also named “Hainan first street” (海南一街), “Hainan second street” (海南二街) and “Hainan third street” (海南三街) respectively. It was along Middle Road where the Hainanese Chicken Rice was invented.

The Hainanese enclave extended to the other side of Middle Road, towards Malay Street, Malabar Street and Hylam Street (a direct reference to the Hainanese presence). However, that area was soon known as the Japanese enclave, especially with the establishment of Japanese brothels. The prostitutes were known as Karayuki-san. The Japanese enclave and the streets are all no longer present, and Bugis Junction now stands at the location.

Prominent landmarks along Middle Road include Fortune Centre, Midlink Plaza (demolished last year for redevelopment), the new National Library building and Shaw Towers.

Albert Street亚峇街
Status: Found

Albert Street 01
Albert Street

Albert Street stretches from Selegie Road (the pedestrian walkway that runs through Albert Court Village Hotel) to Victoria Street (pedestrian walkway that runs through Bugis Village). It was named after Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, in 1858. Most parts of Albert Street have been pedestrianized, except for the stretch between Albert Court Village Hotel and Short Street. As the street used to cut through Kampong Bencoolen, it was also referred to by that name, or by the Hokkien variant of kam kong mang ku lu (监公望旧鲁). Some also called it bo moa iu koi (磨麻油街; “the street where sesame oil is extracted” in Hokkien), probably due to the presense of a seame oil factory.

Albert Street 02
Albert Court Village Hotel, where Albert Street begins

Before the fire walking ritual was shifted to the Sri Mariamman Temple, it was held on Albert Street, thus earning it the Tamil name of it thimiri thidal (“the place where people tread on fire”).

Albert Street - Albert Mall 01
Markers along Albert Mall demarcating the junctions with the 8 parallel roads

Landmarks along the now-pedestrianised Albert Street include LASELLE College of the Arts, Sim Lim Square, Albert Complex, Fu Lu Shou Complex, Albert Centre Market and Bugis Village. Part of the pedestrianized Albert Street and Waterloo Street has been branded as “Albert Mall” by URA since 1992. Most of the buildings along these stretches have stalls on the ground floor that open out and spill over to the streets, creating a more vibrant streetscape. During the Chinese New Year period especially, the streets will be cluttered with street stalls, street performances and other activities.

File Last Updated: May 26, 2014

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One response to “The Seven (or Eight) Roads of Little Town

  1. Great stuff. Thanks.

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