Smokey’s and a Red House: Memories of Victoria Street from Bras Basah to Middle Road

28 02 2010

For the SJI schoolboy in the late 1970s, Victoria Street offered an appealing escape from the boredom of the classroom. It was not just for the two convent schools that stradled the ends of the stretch of Victoria Street in question (from Bras Basah Road to Middle Road), but also for the other distractions to the classroom that was on offer. The area around the corner of Bras Basah Road was perhaps where we were most familiar with. As we made our way from school or from the bus stop in front of the City Music outlet on Bras Basah Road roughly where the NTUC Income Centre is today, we would come to this corner where the window display of test tubes, beakers and laboratory supplies of the Central Medical Hall which occupied the corner unit of Victoria Building never failed to catch my eye.

A building belonging to the Singapore Management University stands in place of the two storey Victoria Building at the corner of Bras Basah Road and Victoria Street. The Central Medical Hall occupied the corner unit of the Victoria Building.

Around the medical hall, was the row of shops that included a coffee shop that we dubbed as “Smokey’s”, where many of us grabbed a cup of tea in the morning, motivated by the steady stream of convent school girls that dropped in on their way to school. I never found out why we called it Smokey’s and I understand that there were sumptuous beef brisket noodles on offer there, not that I noticed it then. Perhaps we did not have the time to dwell on all that, with the distractions offered by the comings and goings that we observed over the steaming hot cups of tea.

Two rows of steel pillars now lines the row where Smokey's and the Shanghai Bookstore was.

Tea was always served piping hot there, in the thick walled kopi-tiam (coffee shop) cups and saucers of old, complete with green motifs and hairline cracks in the baked porcelain that appeared through the glazing. This offered us the opportunity to observe world within the confines of the white tiled walls of the coffee shop, across the marble table tops and wooden chairs typical of the coffee shops of old.

Further down the row, perhaps at the end of Victoria Building, was the Shanghai bookstore, with its two storeys of Chinese books, smelling as a bookstore of those days did – a smell that I can still recall to this day. The second floor of the shop had a stationery section where many of the white uniformed boys of SJI could be seen, cooling off in the coolest part of the air-conditioned bookshop.

The Shanghai Bookstore was a popular hangout.

A few doors away from the bookstore, the Victoria Hotel stood. Next to the lobby on the ground floor of the hotel, there was another place that offered respite from the heat – one of the few air-conditioned chicken rice restaurants in those days, the Victoria Restaurant, which was quite popular with Singaporeans, seeking an cooler dining alternative from the more popular Swee Kee Restaurant on nearby Middle Road.

The Victoria Restaurant on the ground floor of the Victoria Hotel was popular for its Chicken Rice and Air-conditioned premises.

The Victoria Restaurant was located on the ground floor of the Victoria Hotel.

The stretch where the Shanghai Book Store and the Victoria Restaurant was.

Further along, there was the Hotel New Hong Kong, which became the Hotel Tai-Pan when I went to school. This is where the Allson Hotel now stands. Next door to this is the rectory building of St. Joseph’s Church and the entrance to the compound which holds the Church, St. Anthony’s Boys School and St. Anthony’s Convent, before the junction with Middle Road.

The rectory of St. Joseph's Church along Victoria Street.

St. Joseph's Church as seen from Victoria Street.

St. Anthony's Convent (see here from Middle Road with the National Library in the background) used to look across Victoria Street to the Empress Hotel.

The view of St. Anthony's Convent in the 1950s from a similar vantage point.

My own memories of the area on the other side of the road, where the brand new National Library building now stands, are rather vague and on this I have been helped out by a reader Greg Lim, who lived in the area in the 1950s, as well as by my mother who was a boarder at St. Anthony’s Convent in the late 1940s and the 1950s. There was the Empress Hotel which stood at the corner, which was apparently known for its mooncakes. My mother describes a sign that she remembered, standing out of the hotel building, proclaiming that the “Queen of Mooncakes” was sold there. My mother describes the hotel as being a rather seedy place, to which the nuns at the convent forbade the boarders and orphans whose windows in the boarding house across the street from the hotel faced, to look at. Greg also mentions that the six storey Empress Hotel was also notorious for being a location that was popular with people attempting to commit suicide.

The National Library Building now dominates the area bounded by Middle Road, Victoria Street, North Bridge Road and Bain Street and stands where the Empress Hotel, Lorong Sidin and Holloway Lane once stood.

Holloway Lane in 1958 (Source: Ray Tyers Singapore Then & Now).

Moving on this side of the street back towards Bras Basah Road, there were two streets there which have since disappeared, Lorong Sidin and Holloway Lane, still within the parcel of land on which the National Library is built on. Both were lined with rows of shophouses. The area is described by Greg as being referred to as the Hylam streets, a reference to the Hainanese families and businesses that dominated the area. The area also featured many furniture shops, and my mother says that an uncle of mine had bought his first set of furniture from the area.

Bain Street today - devoid of the vibrancy that the area was once know for.

Bain Street on which Greg lived, which is still there, running along Bras Basah Complex, as Greg describes was dominated by a four storey building named Victoria Court, at the junction with Victoria Street. On the ground floor, there was a furniture shop called Comfort Furniture and on the opposite corner, there was a shop that made mattresses. Bras Basah complex, which was built in 1980, was built in the area between the once vibrant Bain, Cashin, Carver and Miller Streets that were known for bookshops and hawker food. The complex itself housed many of the bookshops and watch dealers that were moved out of Bras Basah Road and North Bridge Road areas. Greg mentions that most shops along Victoria Street were furniture shops. Bain St as Greg notes was famous for Hainanese coconut pastry and beef noodles in black sauce. Miller Street is dominated by the Siakson building and with Carver Street, served as the main access for many of us heading to Odeon Cinema which was along North Bridge Road – that was where I watched Star Wars in 1977.

Bras Basah complex, which was built in 1980, was built in the area between the once vibrant Bain, Cashin, Carver and Miller Streets that were known for bookshops and hawker food.

The Siakson Building dominates Miller Street.

The spiral staircase of the Siakson Building.

Past Miller Street, right at the end of this stretch of Victoria Street at the junction with Bras Basah Road, where the Carlton Hotel now stands, was the well known red painted shophouse that housed the popular Red House Bakery and Cafe which was popular which many students for the reasonably priced set meals on offer.

The corner where the Red House was.

Added on 14 April 2010:

Victoria Street c.1981. The four storey building would be Victoria Court which was at the corner of Victoria and Bain Streets. The HDB block of flats in the background is Bras Basah complex (Photo courtesy of Peter Chan).




15 responses

28 02 2010
greg LIM

I remembered Carver St n Miller St, which I think lead to North Bridge Road.. close by was a cinema ( called Jubilee ) showing Chinese movies…there was a coffee shop there selling Soya Beans ( tow Fu )
I wondered whether your Mum remembers the ‘ oily man ‘ saga…the ‘ oily man ‘ apparently was roaming in the St Joseph’s Church compound.. those days, there were also constant ‘ black outs ‘ due to shortage of electricity… we all had stocks of kerosene lamps / candles for these ‘ unpredicted ‘ blackouts.. I left Spore in 1962..

28 02 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks for your information Greg, much appreciated! Jubilee would have been across North Bridge Road – where the Raffles Hotel Arcade is today, opposite where Odeon was. I think the Jubilee Hall in the arcade is named after Jubilee Cinema. I’ll check with my mum if she remembered the story of the “oily man” – suppose that would have been the “orang minyak” that my grandmother mentioned in her many tales of the supernatural which she carried with her from Indonesia … that included characters such as Ponitanak and Hantu Gala … as well as the orang minyak ….

Blackouts were quite frequent as well when I was growing up in the late 1960s and in the 1970s and we had candles, gas lamps, and torches handy for when the blackouts happened. I lived on the 19th floor of a block of flats in Toa Payoh and there was always a fear of getting stuck in the lift when a blackout happened. Fortunately no one in my family had that experience, but we did on more than one occasion, have to walk up 19 floors!

14 03 2010
The wondering wanderer

Greg, on the oily man saga … my mum remembers that there was a rumour that existed about the presence of an “orang minyak” on one of the staircases of the convent.

3 03 2010
The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Daily SG: 3 Mar 2010

[…] the universe and everything – The Long and Winding Road: Smokey’s and a Red House: Memories of Victoria Street from Bras Basah to Middle Road – Dee Kay Dot As Gee: Sony BRAVIA Full HD 3D TV coming to Singapore this summer – Small steps for […]

8 03 2010

thanks for sharing! interesting that the link to the picture of the empress hotel shows bras basah complex at the background.

here’s another picture of the area looking from north bridge road, showing the shophouses where the national library currently stands getting demolished…

9 03 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks for your comments rem. Glad to know you lived in the area as well… Yes it is interesting to see the Bras Basah Complex in the background – I didn’t realise that the Empress Hotel was still standing in 1985 until I saw the picture.

Thanks for the link! There are several other pictures in the archive of the buildings in the area meeting the wreckers ball … at least it is good to know that the area is still relatively alive – compared to the Bras Basah and Stamford Road areas …

10 03 2010

yes – I remember when I was young I would stand in front of the window of my living room and look at the rows and rows of old buildings across Bain St. My parents hardly took me there though, probably cos it was perceived as somewhat seedy. My typical daily routine consisted of going to the PAP kindergarten at the HDB complex beside Blanco Court (now Raffles Hospital), which is now demolished as well. By the time I reached primary school that area was probably evacuated…

its interesting to search for pictures in the archive under “bugis” as well. you can see lots of pics of the area. There are pictures of bugis junction under construction – a massive construction site with a newly widened victoria street beside it. the huge slates of emptiness after all the hustle and bustle, it seemed quite startling on hindsight.

and no – none of what you see in bugis junction shopping complex is preserved – its all the magic of disneyland-esque architecture…

17 03 2010

nice and very informative writeup keep it up.

21 03 2010

I remember the big facade picture of a lady promoting the empress mooncake. The facade is diagonally opposite the st anthony convent, which is now the facade wall of the now hotel intercontinental. I used to take a bus towards macpherson and this facade sticks in my mind as each time i passed this stretch of road.

24 03 2010
The wondering wanderer

Francis, thanks for your comments! Awesome that you remember the picture … I think there is a Queen of Mooncakes paper bag and the box on display at the “THE BAG: Carrier bags in Singapore from the 1950s to the 1980s” exhibition on at the National Museum. Not sure if it is the same picture on the box!

9 04 2010
The changing face of Middle Road « The Long and Winding Road

[…] There are several suggestions as to how Middle Road got its name. One that seems plausible was that Middle Road was the mid-point between what was the civic district of the British colonial administration and the Sultan’s palace in Kampung Glam. Another similar to this has it that it was the mid-point between the Singapore and Rochore (now Rochor) Rivers. Another suggestion was that it served as a demarcation line of sorts between the civic area and the ethnic settlements as planned by the early colonial administration. Whatever it was, it was served as a main street and focal point for least two of the ethnic groups that settled around it:  the Hainanese, for whom it was Street No. 1, which was referred to by the other locals as “Hylam Street No. 1″; and the Japanese as “Chuo Dori” or “Central Street”. The Hainanese community, which occupied the southeast end of Middle Road and some of the streets around (Purvis Street was Hylam Street No. 2 and Seah Street was Hylam Street No. 3), was the longest surviving of the ethnic communities in the area, settling initially around Hylam Street (which is within the Bugis Junction complex today), before moving towards the waterfront area around Beach Road, where there is still some evidence of the community. The Japanese, prior to the Second World War, settled along much of Middle Road, close to the Japanese Consulate which was located on nearby Mount Emily (at the building which became Mount Emily Girl’s Home), and the Doh Jin Hospital (which later became the Middle Road Hospital) was built to serve the community, as well as around the areas vacated by the Hainanese community around where Bugis Junction (Hylam, Malay, Malabar and Bugis Streets). The area comprised many dilapidated two storey shop houses, and much it was part of the Japanese red light district before the war, which were demolished in the early 1980s. Opposite Bugis Junction, on the area where the National Library stands, there were some other streets that were occupied by the  Hainanese and Shanghainese communities  (the Shanghainese operated the furniture shops that the Victoria Street area was well known for), which I had mentioned in a previous post on Victoria Street. […]

17 12 2010
Abdul Aziz Ramli

Is the photo “Holloway Lane in 1958” is also referred as Bussorah Street that I have been couple of weeks ago?

19 12 2010
The wondering wanderer

Holloway Lane was off Victoria Street / North Bridge Road – where the Central Library building is today (next to Bras Basah Complex) ….

26 06 2013

The 1982 image of Victoria Hotel, Smokey’s and Shanghai Bookstore can be found.

16 01 2017
steohanue Tan

I was a convent girl and we used to buy chicken pies, curry puffs and chocolate eclairs from Red House restaurant after Red Cross on Sat. Their pastries were so divine… does Red House restaurant still exist today? Yes I remember Smokey and the shop selling science apparatus where SMU now stands. Thanks for the write up.

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