Old, Common Names of Places in Singapore, and their Origins

Singapore was once known as 石叻坡, where 石叻 is “Selat” (Malay term for straits) and 坡 is an old Chinese way of addressing a place. Within the country, many places in Singapore have colourful histories and some are better known by their old names. In this post, I shall attempt to compile as many old names as possible, including the origins of the names of some of the places.

City

The City or Downtown Core spans from Chinatown and Hong Lim to Tanjong Pagar and Ayer Rajah. Since 1956, there were more than 150 roads and streets built in the City. Among these, 25 roads were named after 22 prominent Chinese of the past, who had made massive contributions in the development of Singapore.

Chinatown

In the early days, majority of the Chinese community, largely the Hokkiens, Teochews and Cantonese, lived and worked at the southwestern part of the Singapore River, which came to be known as Chinatown. The existence of Singapore’s Chinatown was recorded as early as 1330 by a Yuan Dynasty explorer Wang Da Yuan (汪大渊). He also referred Singapore as Temasek (淡马锡).

Tiong Bahru

Tiong Bahru is one of the oldest estates in Singapore, being built in the thirties, and still possesses many pre-WWII buildings. There still exists an air-raid shelter at Moh Guan Terrace. It is the only estate in Singapore to have all its streets named after local Chinese pioneers.

Villages

At the peak of the plantations in the mid-19th century, Chinese settlers expanded to other parts of Singapore, growing in-demand commodities such as gambier and pepper. The head of the clan in the kangchu (lord of the river) system usually became associated with the land they owned, such as Lim Chu Kang, Choa Chu Kang and Yio Chu Kang. Chan Chu Kang (曾厝港) became Nee Soon Village after Lim Nee Soon set up rubber plantation in that region. Another village known as Low Chu Kang (刘厝港) had long vanished in the history of Singapore.

Many villages had also disappeared while the names of some villages are lucky enough to be retained to this day. Chong Pang Village, closed in 1989, was originally located closer to present-day Sembawang than Yishun, whereas Yew Tew Village lasted until 1991. Others such as Chye Kay Village and the Teochew-dominated Chia Keng Village were perhaps only remembered by the older generations.

An interesting local Chinese way of naming a place was by “milestone” 石, which means li 里, a Chinese measurement of distance that is approximately equaled to half a kilometer.  However, there were confusions over li and mile, thus over time, 石 refers to mile 英里 too. Several early residential areas were named this way, such as Hougang lark kok jio (sixth milestone) 后港六条石 (now Kovan), Jurong qiek kok jio (seventh milestone) 裕廊七条石 and Changi zhap kok jio (tenth milestone) 樟宜十条石.

Bukit Panjang was commonly referred to Bukit Timah zhap kok jio (tenth milestone) 武吉知马十条石 or 武吉知马十英里, where the former Ten Mile Junction (十里广场) was situated.

New Towns/Estates/Districts

After independence, when Singaporeans started to move into the estates, different ethnicity tended to live close among themselves. This created a display of different culture at different places, such as the Malay-dominated Geylang Serai, Teochew-controlled Yio Chu Kang, Queenstown which was nicknamed “Little Hainan” and Tanjong Pagar known as “Little India”. These features slowly vanished in the late eighties after the government implemented the race quota system in the new HDB towns. Segregation of dialect groups among the Chinese also weakened due to the Speak Mandarin campaign launched in 1979 by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

During the peak of the Mandarin campaign in the eighties and nineties, there were attempts to change the name of some places from its local or dialect versions to hanyu pinyin names. Such examples were Zheng Hua 正华 (Bukit Panjang), Zhu Jiao 竹脚 (Tekka) and Yishun 义顺 (Nee Soon). The move proved unsuccessful due to the unpopularity of the new Chinese names, thus some were reverted back to their old names.

Roads

Roads played important roles in the early development of other parts of Singapore, other than the City. Bukit Timah Road, the longest road in Singapore at 25km, was constructed in 1845, while Thomson Road and Mandai Road were laid in the 1850s.

Some of the roads vanished in history, but those that remained after decades, allowed unique tree-scape along the roads to be preserved. National Parks (NParks) has identified these roads as the Heritage Roads. The main ones are Arcadia Road, Mandai Road, Lim Chu Kang Road, Mount Pleasant Road and South Buona Vista Road.

As mentioned, major roads helped to link various undeveloped parts of Singapore in the early days. As time passed by, due to poor accessibility, low traffic volume or affected by land development, some of the roads were replaced by newer versions.

A number of old major roads managed to live till this day, even though most are of little importance now. There is an Old Middle Road at the Sembawang shipyard but it has no relationship to the Middle Road in the City.

Bridges

There are at least 15 pedestrian and vehicular bridges spanning over the Singapore River, the largest being the Benjamin Sheares Bridge (part of East Coast Parkway), extending over the Marina Bay. As the City area was developed the earliest by the British colonial government, the bridges built in those days were mostly named after governors, officials or other prominent Western figures. The elegant Elgin Bridge (picture below) was the first bridge to span across Singapore River.

The locals, typically the Chinese, tend to have difficulties pronouncing the names of the bridges, so they named in their own ways, usually by the colours of the bridges. The names also referred to the roads and areas around the bridges, such as Tse Kio (Green Bridge) refers to Ord Bridge, Oh Kio (Black Bridge) refers to Balestier, Pek Kio (White Bridge) refers to Moulmein and Ang Kio (Red Bridge) refers to area between Ang Mo Kio and Thomson Road.


Hospitals/Schools/Places of Worship

Recently there were debates on whether a general hospital should be named after a person, even though he had donated a large sum of money. Many suggested that a school, a road or a public structure should be named after someone who had contributed massively to the development of Singapore, and not just donated a large sum.

The Teochew community in Singapore, spearheaded by Ngee Ann Kongsi, was arguably the most successful Chinese community in the early days. Their burial grounds, owned by the Kongsi, covered large pieces of lands all over Singapore, but most had been acquired by the government for redevelopment purposes.



Others


For a more in-depth compilation of colloquial names with map references, read Compassvale Ancilla and Mang Kah Kar.

Published: 04 April 2011

Updated: 29 May 2013

This entry was posted in Cultural. Bookmark the permalink.

40 Responses to Old, Common Names of Places in Singapore, and their Origins

  1. Sharing a nice short article from zaobao…

    旧街道俗称将随风而逝
    (2011-07-15) 陈启良

    “旧街道俗称”逐渐被遗忘,与方言及环境改变有重大的牵连,虽然感到可惜,但时势所趋也是无可奈何之事。
      笔者退休前,工作地点于“小坡”一带凡五十多年,对于道路及地方上的俗称,略有印象,现自记忆所及列出一些与老辈们分享,若如有错漏须请指正。
      大人街、五丛树脚、水仙门、吊桥头、皇家山、死景、三角埔、单边街、海山街、水廊内、乌桥头、山仔顶、十八溪墘、五代天宫、老爷宫口、大门内、吉宁街、四排埔、河水山、白沙浮、铁巴刹、二十间、陈嘉庚廊口、水池顶、电车关、结霜桥、红桥头、乌桥、梧槽大伯公、面干间、那投巷、香蕉脚、蚊咬脚、南盛花园、火城等等。
      其实,所谓的旧街道或地标的俗称,很多时候并不能明确地说出其由来,比如,“水仙门”根本看不到“水仙花”,“五丛树脚”当时也不只“五棵树”,“吉宁街”也不是“印度人的聚集处”,“吊桥头”更不像是“吊桥”。
      以上这些旧道路或地方俗称,在几十年前的日常生活中,常常都能听到。今时今日,年轻人对方言认识不多,也不感兴趣,老年人又渐渐离去,富有地方色彩的俗称,相信也将随风而逝。

  2. Pat says:

    Thanks for the very detailed post about road & place names of S’pore !

    You mentioned Pandan Gardens & Teban Gardens. Pandan Gardens is probably named after Sungei Pandan, or Kampung Sungei Pandan (a purported pirate hideout) which was located further downstream (near the Pandan Loop industrial area, on the riverbank opposite the old Yacht Club) than where Pandan Gardens is sited.

    Teban Gardens replaced the former Kampung Jawa Teban (also: Kampung Java Teban) at the same site. As you indicated, this area used to be a mangrove until the early/mid-1970s. This very extensive mangrove was also a designated nature reserve during the British Colonial era, & extended westwards to Sungei Jurong & northwards along Sungei Pandan Besar to what is now southern Bukit Batok. In fact, Pandan Reservoir was reclaimed by damming the original meander of Sungei Pandan Besar. (There was a minor & now-defunct river tributary called Sungei Pandan Kechil downstream nearer to the coast.)

    West Coast Rd terminated at the Sungei Jurong end of Kg Jawa Teban, & before the Jln Ahmad Ibrahim roadway-bridge was built, one had to take a boat to cross over to Jurong. Up till the late 1960s or early 1970s, this stretch of West Coast Rd (& the adjoining silt-house Kg Jawa Teban) would be flooded during every high tide by waters from Sungei Pandan Besar.

    Back to place names … while it is quite clear that ‘Pandan’ originated from its leafy namesake (Pandanus amaryllifolius aka Daun Pandan), it is not so obvious as to how Teban Gardens/ Kg Jawa Teban (& the unrelated Kg Teban in Tampines) obtained their rather unusual names. The village at Teban-West Coast might have initially been populated by Javanese immigrants (hence ‘Jawa/ Java’), but why ‘Teban’ ? This appears to be a somewhat obscure word in Bahasa Malay/ Indonesian, & it supposedly means: “to stake or lay down a bet”. However, given the village’s overwhelmingly Malay/ Javanese-Muslim population, I find it rather curious that their village was named after an aspect of gambling. (‘Teban’ also happens to be a Filipino name, but it’s historically improbable that a Malay-Javanese village in S’pore was named after a Filipino man.) As such, might you have any idea about this ?

  3. Melvin Sim says:

    This is a fascinating entry. I grew up hearing some of the old place names from taxi drivers and my grandparents. I doubt if those younger than I am (early 40ish) would have known these. There is also a bunch of roads named after English places around Serangoon: Cambridge, Kent, Oxford, Hertford, Norfolk, Northumberland, Carlisle, Bristol, Dorset, Gloucester, Worcester, etc. There’s also another bunch at Serangoon Gardens: Farleigh, Tavistock, Bloxhome, Bridport, Portchester, etc.

    Two corrections: Gan Eng Seng School, founded as Anglo-Chinese Free School, was founded in 1885 and Ngee Ann Polytechnic is misspelled as Nee Ann Polytechnics.

    Keep up the great work!

    • petrina says:

      Thanks for the great list :)
      so nice to see all these road names.. ironically, I still tell the taxi uncle *chap luck lau or chap lau* whenever I want to go to tanglin halt either sides of the mrt station…
      i always thought the name never change.. haha
      And yes, I still call SGH to be *si bai bo* & Woodbridge to be *siao nang keng / ban qiao* up till this day.
      Chinatown is still *gu qiah zue* to me…
      I am 30! :)

  4. Yep… the roads you have mentioned was at Interesting Singapore Road Names
    As for the mistakes, I’ll rectify them ;) Thanks

  5. Thank you so much Remember Singapore!

    My mom used to stay at Singapore River, and she talks to me using the common names: like “water-fairy-door”, but I have no clue where she is refering to… Now I know! Funan!

    I also remember she once told a young taxi-driver to go to “Hougang 6 piece of stone”; both me and the taxi-driver have blank looks on our faces… I just tell the taxi-driver to just go to Hougang and hope my mom can direct us to where she wants to go!? LOL!

    I so glad now I can offer to bring my mom to the places she used to know.

    Cheers!
    Jared Seah

  6. Alvin says:

    i think mang ga kar is lavender street…
    how about orh kio tau? i heard this one before but not sure!

    • orh kio tau is at Beo Crescent, off Havelock Road, whereas orh kio refers to certain part of Balestier
      ang (moh) kio is of cos AMK, while ang kio tau points to Thomson Road, whereas pek kio is Moulmein and tse kio is Ord Bridge… many kio in Singapore :D

      • Alan Goh says:

        Beo Crescent is known as Beo Han ( Temple lane ) due to the many temples there at that time.
        Kiaw koo kio ( Bend bridge-Delta East/Havelook Pri Sch ) is near to Orh Kio Tau too.

  7. rachel says:

    hey(: do u know how the names around cedar girls secondary school came about? example: angsana ave, lichi ave. please help(:

    • Hi, the network of roads there are interesting, where most are named after fruit-trees with beautiful flowers:

      Angsana Avenue – Angsana is a common tree found in Singapore with a flat disc-shaped fruit
      Kenanga Avenue – Kenanga is the Indonesian name for Ylang-Ylang, a perfume tree with black fruits
      Belimbing Avenue – Belimbing is the Indonesian name for starfruit
      Cedar Avenue – Cedar trees, native in Southeast Asia and Australia, produce bluish fruits that are poisonous to humans
      Chempaka Avenue – Chempaka is an evergreen timber tree in India with fragrant yellow flowers
      Lichi Avenue – Lichi is a variant spelling of litchi, or lychee, a bright red fruit-bearing tree commonly found in China
      Mulberry Avenue – Mulberry is a grayish-purplish fruit-bearing tree native in subtropical regions of Asia, Africa and Americas
      Willow Avenue – Willow is a tree with narrow leaves and strong lightweight wood commonly found in cold regions of the Northern Hemisphere

      • rachel says:

        but do u noe why they are named after these plants?

      • I’m not too sure about the actual reasons, but given that there are thousands of roads in Singapore, the naming process is quite tedious, yet the roads have to be considerably distinctive (think of Lorong 1, 2, 3 at Toa Payoh or Avenue 4, 5, 6 at Ang Mo Kio).

        Usually the categories of the names are inspired from early pioneers of Singapore, countries (eg roads at Sembawang), cities (eg Little India), fruits (Lorong Lew Lian, Lorong Ong Lye) and even famous poets (Teacher’s Estate off Yio Chu Kang Road) and traditional Indonesian dances (at Jalan Kayu). So it’s not surprising to see the roads near Cedar Girls Secondary School to be named after different types of trees.

        The National Library is currently having an exhibition on the origins of Singapore street names. You can go take a look if you are interested. :)

  8. rachel says:

    oh do u also noe how they were named?

    • Melvin Sim says:

      I believe there is a committee which names roads and sometimes the roads in a cluster (especially back in the day), were given names according to themes rather than a particular reason. Thus, the cluster of fruit names would have stemmed from a theme, rather than having the actual fruit trees planted there.

      • Oh yes you are right..
        Currently the naming of streets more than 60m long are required to be approved by Street and Building Names Board (SBNB), URA.
        Before 1951, it was done by the Municipal Commission (later changed to City Council of Singapore). In the 1960s after independence, the government set up a Street Naming Committee to oversee the task until the 1990s

  9. A great insight on the concerns and difficulties of naming the streets in Singapore, especially the hanyu-pinyin movement in the late 80s/early 90s:

    There were long lists of new roads, streets, links, centres etc. that had to be named. The rapid change of the landscape demanded it. We ran out of categories and had to invent new ones beyond the usual: Road, Street, Avenue, Close, Crescent, Place, Lane to Point, to Link, to Boulevard, to Passage, and one wonders what! There were a few “standard” features. All names to be in Latin Script. That was part of the colonial legacy that everyone was used to. Had that not been so, what a clutter of signs there would be on our streets!

    There were also to be no names after living persons. This was quite a departure from the practice in many developing countries where personality cults were rampant. I think, Singapore’s leaders in their wisdom decided it was unbecoming and the word came down that the practice is a no-no. But this was not always the case in Singapore. It will be recalled that during the heady days of rapid private housing building in the ‘50s Korean War Boom, Sennett Estate’s roads were named after persons associated with the development either as directors or financiers. Some of these like Yap Peng Gek were prominent in politics. This may have been another reason why there was the prohibition.

    As it happened, this fact became an important plank in my argument against the hanyu-pinyin-isation of place names, a move that was gathering momentum amongst the Chinese-educated political leaders in Singapore.

    Chng Jit Koon and several likeminded members of the committee had already hanyu-pinyin-ised several place names before I came onto the scene. “Tekka”, the Hokkien name for Kandang Kerbau Market at the junction of Bukit Timah Road and Serangoon Road, had already been changed to “Zhujiao”, Mandarin literally meaning “Bamboo Base” as what Tekka meant in Hokkien; and “Nee Soon”, the name of Mr. Lim Nee Soon was changed to “Yishun”. No one could say anything because it is presumed to be a Chinese matter. Why this is so is a reflection of the poor understanding of cross-cultural realities within the State-endorsed cultural concept defined exclusively as consisting of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others.

  10. Pingback: Petain Road named after fallen French Marshal « Everything Also Complain

  11. shayne says:

    Wow! I have heard several of the references to the areas in conversations with the elderly folks in my family. I have been looking for information on a Palembang Road located near Beach Road in the 1930s – 1940s – pics, descriptions etc anything will be useful no matter how minute. Anyone who has info on this road (I spelt it according to how it is pronounced so the spelling may be wrong) Need them for granny’s biography :) Any light on this is much appreciated!

  12. Found this excellent old map (dated 1872) at this website (http://sgmaps.blogspot.com/p/historical-maps.html):

    It has Sun Li Kang, Wu Kinn Kang, Ta Chu Kang, Bo Ko Kang and Pen Kang listed on it. Are they also the kangchu systems owned by the early Chinese?

    • Carl A. Trocki says:

      I’m sure these are early kangchu settlements. I’ve never heard of them before, but there’s no other explanation for them.
      Good map. Notice also on the bottom center, “Blakan Mati” another name which has been erased from present day Singapore.

  13. Winnie Wong says:

    Pek Kio (white bridge) refers to Moulmein but where is the “white bridge”?

  14. Hokkien Sian says:

    May I add a few more. I can remember…..

    Cheh Kio (Green Brdge) was Clemenceau Bridge
    Chew Long Khow (outside the wine factory) is the area around the junction of Chin Swee Road and Havelock Road
    Tai Gin Gay (meaning the Court House of the Tai Gin – Chinese Protector) Old Social Welfare Dept. MInistry of Labor Bldg in Havelock Road.
    Po Lay Long….(Glass Factory) Henderson Road.,
    Ang Sai (Red Lion) River Valley Road – the old F & N factories.
    Ong Kay Suah kha ( the Royal Family Hill/foothills) The park opposite the Chettiar’s Temple where the national Theatre was built and later demolished

    Not: Names are transliterations, of/in the Hokkien dialect.

  15. Johnny says:

    Anyone know where is the ‘Tau Kee Long’ (Bean curd Factory)

  16. Gabriel says:

    Thanks for the site. Under Demolished, Van Kleff Aquarium was left out. It is one of our tourist site in the 70/80s. Including the National Theatre.

  17. anonymous says:

    Does anyone know where “Ong Lai Sua” is? I’m hearing two different things. The first is that it’s the nickname for Bukit Timah, when there used to be pineapple cash crops planted between rubber. The second thing i’m hearing is that it’s Nee Soon or Sembawang…

  18. 翻譯逾3千中文路名‧新加坡街道指南創始人逝世
    2013-08-09

    (新加坡)為新加坡翻譯出三千多條中文路名的街道指南創始人李建才,上週因肺積水去世,享年79歲。46年前,李建才一手包辦,出版新加坡最早的英華雙語街道索引,裡頭就包括三千多條路名,以及上百個大廈、廟宇和鄉村的名稱。

    李建才的長女李慧燕(46歲,講師)說,除了街道指南,父親於同一時期也出版了《新加坡名勝介紹》。

    “父親非常熱衷於翻譯和歷史,因此決定要翻譯新加坡路名,方便大家。”

    李建才曾擔任新加坡全國商聯總會副秘書,在社團工作超過30年。他過去也是華文學生刊物《知識報》的創辦人。為了編寫街道指南,李建才花了4年的時間,走遍新加坡大街小巷,抄下路名,晚上回家後還繼續翻譯工作。

    女兒李慧燕說︰“當時父親做雜工,母親只教補習,家裡相當貧窮,但父親非常堅持,勵志要完成翻譯出書的願望。”

    她也說,父親當時也向報館的記者請教,也到圖書館尋找相關資料。

    “出書後,許多人來請教父親如何做出正確翻譯,以及他如何在短時間內走遍新加坡各個角落。”
    (光明日報)

  19. Antony says:

    Butterworth Lane was left out. Thought it was named after a British Governor by that name. Am I right?

  20. konshoe says:

    This article is undoubtedly very useful and enlightening to Singaporeans! I have posted a link to this article in an article which I shared about the old maps of Singapore here: Drafts From My Coffee Table – Old Maps of Singapore

  21. Teh Tiong Sa says:

    Any explanation why the road in near Changi Airport called Tanah Merah?

    • noer says:

      tanah merah means red road. I was born in Singapore but as a child I occasionally grew up in Malaysia. back then, and even now, some rural roads were not tarred and only given the stone treatment . these roads were red in colour. I presume, in changi were a lot of such untarred roads that were strewn with stones that would have made any travel bone jarring. I could be wrong.

      • noer says:

        one amendment, tanah merah means red soil. I can only assume the material used to make roads at that time was typically red in colour.

    • Pat says:

      “Tanah” means “earth/ ground/ land/ soil” in Malay. Tanah Merah was purportedly named after the exposed lateritic cliffs visible along the coast in the early days. Laterite rocks & soils are reddish/rusty brown in colour, & commonly found in the tropics.

      In the old maps of Sg, you can see the term “Red Cliff” (or similar) denoted along the southeastern coastline towards Changi.

      * Tanah Merah: Etymology (Wikipedia)

      * Early Tanah Merah Kechil (Yeo Eng Hong – 30 Jul 2011) — includes a circa 1828 Sg map (“Little Red Cliffs”, “Red Cliffs”) & 1890 map of southeast Sg (“Small Red Cliffs”)

      * In and Around Tanah Merah Kechil. 1946- 1963 (by Yeo Hong Eng) (Sg Memory Project – 05 Aug 2013)

      As for laterite roads … up to the early 1980s, it was quite common to improve mud tracks with laterite stones.

      For instance, at Jurong (Lake) Park, the track from the carpark (near to Jalan Ahmad Ibrahim & Superbowl Jurong) leading into the park was laid with laterite stones. Not sure about now though.

      In the present day, one can still see old laterite trails at some of the forested parts of Bukit Brown.

      Also, the plant-holding area of HortPark is surfaced with laterite stones. This reddish expanse is large enough to be visible in Google Earth — satellite image.

  22. noer says:

    bedok is not necessarily a musical instrument. in rural villages in Malaysia,where I am familiar, we use the bedo’ to signify prayer times before reciting the azan or prayer call . and it is still in use now.

  23. janet kwek says:

    Wonderful, educational site. I’m looking for someone who can tell me more about Lorong Low Koon. Doing a trail for our students, Holy Innocents’ Primary School. Welcome anyone who can give us more info or join us in creating a meaningful trail.

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