Five Foot Ways and Glass Displays: Memories of High Street

2 01 2010

Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s when most of Orchard Road was a relatively sleepy street on which car showrooms seemed to dominate and shopping there would was confined to the likes of CK Tang and the two large supermarkets, Cold Storage and Fitzpatrick’s, shopping trips to “town”, as my parents would say, meant going to what was considered the fashionable place to shop – the High Street area. Shopping malls that now dominate the Orchard Road area and where we would think of doing our shopping these days were unheard of, and a shopping trip would involve navigating the five-foot ways of the shophouses that stood on High Street and North Bridge Road.

The High Street of Old - Postcard showing High Street in 1925, in the days before I got to know it, looking towards the south end. The tower in the background is the clock tower of the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall (Source: Mr Low Kam Hoong)

A Five-Foot Way

I somehow always enjoyed accompanying my mother on her regular shopping trips to the area. I suppose the draw of my favourite beef ball soup at nearby Hock Lam Street served as sufficient motivation, as my mother would usually take me there for lunch whenever she was in the area. The one shop I was particularly fond of visiting was the Crane Shoe Store (which was just actually off High Street – along South Bridge Road) as I enjoyed watching how shoes were moved from the store on the upper level to the shop floor on the ground level. There were of course the many other shops that my parents frequented, including Metro, which operated its first store on northern branch of High Street near the junction with North Bridge Road. There were also the shops owned by the northern Indian merchants: textile shops with rows of colourful textiles being displayed along the sides of the shop, as well as the several menswear and sportswear and swimwear shops with glass display cabinets of shirts and dressed pale looking male mannequins at the shop fronts, with names such as Chotirmall’s and Excelsior.

Shop glass display reminiscent of menswear shops in the High Street area

Textile Shop reminiscent of a Textile Shop on High Street in the 1970s

At the junction of North Bridge Road and High Street across from where Metro was, there was also one of the popular Chinese Emporiums which once featured  in the local retail scene, the Eastern Emporium, housed in Satnam House. I remember the very prominent signboard of of the Emporium dominating the junction.

The once busy junction of High Street and North Bridge Road - looking at the corner where Satnam House which housed the Eastern Emporium once was and where the EFG Bank Building now stands.

Polar Café, well known for its curry puffs which are still popular these days, was located at the south branch of High Street.

Polar Cafe on High Street

The emergence of the large shopping centres such as Plaza Singapura and Lucky Plaza and subsequently large department stores such as Yaohan along Orchard Road in the mid 1970s and early 1980s saw the retail scene gravitate towards Orchard Road. Much of High Street has since been redeveloped. The Treasury building stands where Metro once was. The southern branch has since been renamed Parliament Place, the new Supreme Court and the new Parliament House stand quietly where shops and café used to draw in the crowds. What we see of what was the very first street constructed in what was to become modern Singapore today, hides its glorious past as the heart of Singapore’s retail scene.





11 responses

24 01 2010

Your accounts of the Waterloo, Bras Basah Rd area evokes a lot of nostlagia for this CHIJ girl who attended masses in St P& P Church, had Sunday breakfast with my late father at Red House Bakery and hung out at the Catholic Centre where NTUC building now stands. Thanks for the memories! BTW, where was Beng Swee Place?

24 01 2010
The wondering wanderer

Juliana, thanks for your comments. It’s nice to know there is another soul who has the experience of the very same streets from a forgotten era. Somehow I don’t quite remember the Catholic Centre, but the Red House was certainly a nice place to grab a bite. There was also this coffee shop some of my friends and frequented on Victoria Street, which I think would have been close to the Shanghai Bookstore – we called it Smokey for some reason, that was popular with IJ girls (that would have probably been the reason we went there) – not sure if you remember that. Glad to share the memories. And, oh yes, until you mentioned it, I’d almost forgotten about this little lane opposite SJI off Waterloo Street, Beng Swee Place, very close to the junction with Bras Basah Road. I don’t remember much of it though. It would have been where the Plaza by the Park is now. I have an aerial photo in one of our SJI year books on which you can see where it was – I can send you a scan of it.

26 01 2010
The wondering wanderer

Juliana, I realised that I have the photo at the end of my post “Seeing the former SJI in a different light … “: If you look the the photo with the caption “A Landmark in Our Lion City”, you can see a little lane to the left of the school building – just a short distance from the junction of Bras Basah Road and Waterloo Street. That would be Beng Swee Place.

22 02 2010
greg LIM

Beng Swee Place is the little lane off Waterloo st..opp SJI… friends in Melb…all ex SJI /CHIJ /SAC lived there…. e mail me… you may know them.. we have a SJI club in Melb !!! a small world ???

9 03 2010
10 03 2010
7 02 2010

I think Satnam House used to be the Oriental Emporium. Not Eastern.
Yup, I remember the Red House, and the whole row of furniture shops along Victoria St. On the other side was North Bridge Road with shops selling watches, school uniforms, chinese bookshops like Union and Popular, the famous CYC shirts, a famous Chicken rice store and Jubilee Cinema and Odeon.

8 02 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks for your comments Erik. I wasn’t too sure myself, thought it might have been Oriental at first but somehow I seemed to remember it as Eastern … this advertisement for Inter-Asia Travel might shed some light: Guess the Red House was quite popular … and yes the shops along North Bridge Road … my father used to get his specs done up in one of them. Odeon was where I watch Star Wars all those years back!

28 03 2010
Philip Fong

I need help to locate the story of the collapse of Singapore Emporium or Oriental Emporium in the late 1970s

The owner Mr Lim went bankrupt with a debt of S100million and came back a millionaire at the age of 82 years. Very inspiring,

The Straits times cover this story of his comeback

Can you help?

29 03 2010
The wondering wanderer

Hi Philip,

You may want to look at the following Straits Times articles:
17 Feb 1985
28 Sep 1986
31 Oct 1986
11 Dec 1986
13 Jan 1987
20 May 1987
8 Aug 1987
5 Mar 1988
19 Apr 1988

Hope this helps!

20 03 2012

I thought for sometime Oriental Emporium was bought over by Bestway in the late 90s but eventually was forced to close also in 2004?

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