Mention Jalan Kayu, and most will think of the delicious roti prata. Indeed, there are two large roti prata shops here that are as popular and famous as the ones at Upper Thomson Road and Clementi Road.
Jalan Kayu literally means “Road Wood” in Malay. A road made of wood, or was the road named after a person called Wood? Nobody knows for sure. In the past, stacks of firewood could be found along the road, whereas a credible historical source indicates the name was probably named after British planner C.E. Wood, who was the supervisor for the building of Seletar Airbase in 1927. The road leading to the camp was suggested by the British Royal Air Force (RAF) to the Singapore Rural Board in 1937 to be named as Jalan Kayu, with respect to the Malay-majority community in this region.
The other end of the narrow 1.2-km dual-lane Jalan Kayu Road is bounded by Yio Chu Kang Road, the Seletar Hills private estate and the cluster of fish farms at Seletar West Farmway. Seletar East Farmway has been developed into the new neighbourhood of Fernvale (Sengkang) in the early 2000s. The popular Seletar Hills market and hawker centre, built in 1975 and demolished in 2004, used to be the focal point for food and grocery for the residents in the area.
The old two-storey concrete shophouses along Jalan Kayu, decorated with spiral stairs and metal gates and more than 50 years old, add a captivating nostalgic charm to the area. Walking in the calm and peaceful alley, one may mistaken himself in an old Malaysian town.
At Jalan Kayu, there are rows of private terrace houses situated in a small network of roads named after traditional Indonesian dances. The roads are Jalan Tari Piring, Jalan Tari Lilin, Jalan Tari Payong, Jalan Tari Dulang, Jalan Tari Zapin and Jalan Tari Serimpi.
- Tari Piring – Known as Plate or Saucer Dance in Indonesian, it is one of the most enchanting traditional dances of Indonesia, originated from a place called Solok, West Sumatra.
- Tari Lilin – It is the Candle Dance, and was traditional dance of the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra.
- Tari Payong – Known as Umbrella Dance in Indonesian.
- Tari Dulang – Dulang is an exploration of movement that is taken from the vocabulary of Tari Piring, the Saucer Dance.
- Tari Zapin – The “Zapin” dance was probably introduced to Malaya and Sumatra around the early fifteenth century by Arab traders and missionaries during the spread of Islam.
- Tari Serimpi – A traditional Indonesian dance of 4 dancers in the late nineteen century, served as entertainment during the negotiation with the Dutch colonial government.
Interestingly, two minor roads, Lorong Tanggam and Lorong Samak, located on the opposite side of the main road of Jalan Kayu were given Tamil names instead. Tanggam (Thanggam) means gold in Tamil.
The Abundant Grace Presbyterian Church is a Chinese speaking presbytery at Lorong Samak, one of the 40 Presbyterian churches in Singapore. The origin of the Presbyterian Church in Singapore could be traced back to as early as 1829, when Rev Benjamin Keasberry arrived in Singapore to start the Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church.
Arguably one of the most famous names at Jalan Kayu, Thasevi Food Prata Resturant is more than half a century old and was selling their doughs at Tong Lee Road 500m away before moving to their current location at one of the shop houses. Despite fierce competition and spike in their prices, the roti prata business continues to thrive in recent years.
During the early days, rural farming and rearing of pigs and poultry were common in Jalan Kayu. The Chinese and Indians lived in harmony with the Malays, and some of the British would live in the terrace houses although majority of them had the luxury of staying in the black and white colonial houses at Seletar. Pasar malams, wayangs, even a small cinema provided the entertainment for the people of that era.
The sleepy neighbourhood of Jalan Kayu has yet to be affected by the major changes at nearby Fernvale, where new blocks of flats spring up like mushrooms in the last five years. There are talks of widening the road of Jalan Kayu or turning the place into a food and drink haven similar to Siglap or Dempsey, but I believe most will like the laid-back place to remain as it is.
Check out more old photos of Jalan Kayu here.
Published: 17 November 2011
Updated: 08 September 2013