The changing face of Middle Road

9 04 2010

In looking up on the background of the areas around Middle Road and based on feedback received from a reader, Greg Lim, and my mother who was familar with the area having lived in St. Anthony’s Convent as a boarder, I have a better impression of the colourful history that the area around of which that I was only familiar with going to school at nearby Bras Basah Road in late 1970s has had. Over the years, the various parts around the road had played host to various immigrant communities, communities that have provided us living in modern Singapore with the unique blend of cultures and cuisines that we have today. In roughly a century, it has played host to a thriving Jewish quarter inhabited by many Jews of the Iraqi diaspora; a Japanese community, within which homes, businesses, brothels and even a hospital that catered to the Japanese, were set up, and of course the Hainanese or Hylam community which gave us wonderfully aromatic coffee, the many coffee shops which has become a national institution, and of course Hainanese Chicken Rice, made famous by an outlet that was right on Middle Road.

Middle Road looking northwest from the National Library Building facing Victoria Street. Most of the area has been rebuilt, with taller commercial buildings replacing the mostly two and three storey houses with shop on the lower floor and residential units on the upper floor.

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.

Incidentally, the streets running perpendicular to Middle Road had local names as well, with North and South Bridge Roads being referred to as “Main Street” or “1st Street”, being the main thoroughfare between what was known to the Chinese community as the “Bigger Town” where the main settlement of Chinese immigrants was across the Singapore River, and the “Smaller Town”, which was initially planned as a European district, where some of the later Chinese immigrants settled in. The other streets running parallel to North Bridge Road, west of North Bridge Road were numbered in sequence, with Victoria Street being “2nd Street”, Queen Street “3rd Street”, Waterloo Street “Fourth Street”, Bencoolen Street “Fifth Street”, Prinsep Street “Sixth Street” and Selegie Road “Seventh Street”.

I have a few photographs that I have taken on a recent walk through the area as well as some scans of old postcards which would perhaps provide a little glimpse of how the area has transformed over the years …

The face of Middle Road has changed over the last century.

The new has overtaken the old ... very little is left to remind us of the colourful history of Middle Road.

The former Bras Basah Community Centre close to the end of Middle Road near where the well known Swee Kee Chicken Rice (which was started by Mok Fu Swee who pioneered the commercialisation of the dish invented by Wong Yi Guan under whom Mok was an apprentice).

The Kiung Chow Hwee Kuan (Hainanese Clan Association) on Beach Road - evidence of the Hainanese community settling in the area.

A figure on the roof of the temple of the Kiung Chow Hwee Kuan (Hainanese Association) on Beach Road watches over the community.

Shaw Tower on Beach Road stands where the Alhambra and Marlborough Theatres stood on Beach Road at the end of Middle Road.

The view northwest down Middle Road from the area where the National Library building stands where the Empress Hotel once stood on the left and where Bugis Junction stands in place of a row of shops that included the Daguerre Photo Studio.

The same area of Middle Road in the 1970s.

The Empress Hotel at the corner of Middle Road and Victoria Street which was demolished in 1985.

The Empress Restaurant at the Empress Hotel was well known for the "Queen of the Mooncakes".

The National Library seen from the Hainanese area by Middle Road.

Bugis Junction was built over an area which was part of a Japanese enclave.

The transformation has seen an area of dilapidated shop houses which were once in an area of brothels is now a air-conditioned shopping mall within which some attempt has been made to recreate the former streets that has been incorporated into the complex.

Malay Street today - part of a shopping mall.

The corner of Hylam and Malay Streets from an old postcard (c. 1930s), when it was part of the Japanese enclave.

The corner of Hylam and Malay Streets today - within the area rebuilt as Bugis Junction.

The buildings that used to be St. Anthony's Convent at the corner of Middle Road and Victoria Street, from which my mother as a boarder had a view of the seedier parts of the Middle Road area.

St. Anthony's Convent in the 1950s.

Another view of the former St. Anthony's Convent building today.




19 responses

10 04 2010

I recognize a couple of places in your photos.

1. The photo with Yashica signboard was a shop called Tithes Dental Supplies, agent for Yashica cameras.

2.Kiung Chow Hwee Kuan – has a small temple inside the building.

3. Former Bras Basah Community Centre was on the opposite sifr of the road to Swee Kee. A small lane from Middle Road lead into the CC. I used to partake steam-boat at this place. There were many choo-char stalls on this street lane.

4. The extended Middle Road in the direction of Nicoll Highway was where Alhambra Cinema was. Satay Club was the extended Middle Road in the direction of Beach Road.

11 04 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks for your comments Peter. Yeah, I remember that Tithes was the agent for Yashica. There certainly was a lot of good makan around the area – besides Swee Kee, and as you mention (this I can’t quite remember), the food stalls in the lane around the former Bras Basah Community Centre, as well as the famous Satay Club, that was you mention was where the extension to Middle Road is – what was called Hoi How Road – with the bus terminal. My mother mentioned that there was a popular steamboat outlet at the area where there is a gap in the buildings on the left of the photo with the Yashica signboard, where there was a courtyard where tables and chairs would be laid out …

11 04 2010

at the corner of Beach Road and Middle Road (diagnonally facing Shaw Tower toda) was a 2 storey building. On the ground floor was the ticketing office of Tay Koh Yat Bus Company. i used to see ticket conductors handling in their trip collections and getting new bus tickets.

12 04 2010
greg LIM

peter………. It appears that you probably lived in the Area before…… meself… I would like to meet up with you + talk about the past history of this area…. I will be in Spore for 1 month ( off n on )
from Apr 13 to May 12.. My Spore Mobile 9471 5458 would love to hear from you + Jerome… greg LIM ( Melb )

12 04 2010

There was a “British Pharmacy” at the corner of Middle Road and North Bridge Road. A doctor by the name of Tham Ming Kow operated there. I would go to him when I was a child because of persistent cough and asthma. His medicine did the tricks unlike other GPs. However fees could be as much as $20. One thing I remembered about this place was the high ceiling and a counter where the pharmacist prepared the medicine. In those days, all prescriptions had to be manually prepared, by taking liquid from big brown bottles. Sometimes, tablets had to be pounded using a mortar.

Greg I didn’t live there but made frequent visits because my school was around the corner or for some reasons I had to be in that place. Sure can meet. Drop me a note at this email:

12 04 2010
The wondering wanderer

Peter, seems almost as if you lived in the area 🙂 … think that was Mun’s Dispensary you are referring to? Greg, I’ll drop you an email or give you a call one of these days … you should visit the National Library which stands over the area where you used to live – the upper floors provide excellent views of the Middle Road area.

12 04 2010

There were 2 pharmacies on both sides of Middle Road. Mun was one but it was at the junction and before Middle Road. British Pharmacy was at and after Middle Road junction (a small lane separated Swee Kee (had 2 shops, 1/ac and 1 no a/c) from British Pharmacy (now North Bridge Center????). I think there was a row of tailor shops or textile shops on Muun Dispensery side.

After many decades I just realised that Swee Kee’s soup was made from celery. No wonder when I drink celery soup, i got the funny feeling I drank it somewhere before.

13 04 2010
David Leong Seng Chen

QUOTE:- *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.*

This is the very place – I somehow recall & remember – when I was still a little boy – my first visit to Singapore Island was in early 1960 accompanying my beloved late father – from the land below the wind (North Borneo) – now called Sabah – an Eastern State of Malaysia. My father was born in Haninan Island – Jia-Chiang village in Zhong Yuan small town nearby Qinghai perhaps around 1918. We visited our relatives whom we lost touch when my father passed away in 1975 in Singapore TTSH. Our relative – the husband was a carpenter & I still can recall that we had our lunch at the back of a shoplot somewhere in one of the Hainanese streets. I forgot the uncle’s surname/name.

13 04 2010
The wondering wanderer

David, thanks for your comments – great that you remember what it was like from your first visit all those years ago – thanks for sharing! 🙂 You mention that you were from Sabah – which part of Sabah was that? I suppose you might have come to Singapore by ship … I am interested to find out if you have any recollections of the voyage and if you had come over on one of the ships owned by the Straits Steamship Company – the company operated many ships which were running regular liner services bewteen what was then Jesselton and places like Tawau (I met a guy who was travelling from Tawau to Port Klang on a voyage on the MV Kimanis in 1975) for many years.

24 05 2010

i have many fond memories of Middle road, for i was there almost everyday ( sans weekends, school holidays ) for 4 years. I studied in SAC..St Anthony’s 🙂

I remembered fondly of the old shop houses i would used to walk by on the way to school.. and how i was sent to the old middle road hospital for a quick checkup when I was suspected of having chicken pox in school..

i dun even know there was an empress hotel .. i guess it was gone when i started sec. school. which building took it’s place now?

24 05 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks for sharing your memories Eileen. Great that you have fond memories of the shop houses and Middle Road hospital – did you read my post in which the history of the hospital was featured? I am not sure if you got teased about having to visit the hospital …

The Empress Hotel was demolished around 1985 along with many of the shop houses around the area and I guess you must have attended SAC after that. The Central Library building stands in the area which includes the plot where the Empress Hotel stood. 🙂

25 05 2010
Veronica Tan

Reading this brings back tonnes of memories.. This was my childhood… from walking along the rows shop-houses along Middle Road, to Ice Ball stalls at Hylam Street, from Mooncakes at Empress Hotel (with their quaint metal gate elevators) to buying Calamine Lotion from Mun’s Dispensary, the faint memory of a corner Yashica Camera Shop which my late father in law owned to Middle Road hospital where I used to enjoy watching the “queens of Bugis Street” queue up for check ups… Boy, Jerome – I must show this site to my parents!

25 05 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks for your memories Veronica, wow, we have established a link to the Yashica Shop! Does anyone in the family remember the people who ran Daguerre Photo which should have been a few doors away? My mum says she went to school with the daughter of the owner of Daguerre at SAC back in the 1950s.

27 05 2010

I remembered Daguerre Photo studio very well…….we had our family ( + relatives ) photos taken there… they were Hainanese…. I think a lot of their clientel were also Hainanese… they had a lot of business from Weddings at Empress Hotel… there was also another Hainanese Restaurant ( in Vic St )..I think the name was Choy Fatt , separated by a lane from Empress ( opp SAC )

28 05 2010
The wondering wanderer

You did, Greg? Great! I ask my mum if she remembers Choy Fatt on Victoria Street.

4 09 2010
Mike Wolstencroft

Hi, I have just found a bottle on a trip to Malaysia. It is an old chemist bottle and is embossed “THE HAKUAI DISPENSARY SINGAPORE”. I can only find one reference to it in a Straits Times article dated 1919 in which it was fined $500 for not keeping proper records. The same article states that this dispensary was in Middle Road. Does anyone know where?

6 09 2010
The wondering wanderer

hmm … interesting … do you have a photo of the bottle? From the name of the dispensary and the date of the article, it would have been one that served the Japanese community … I’ll try to see what I can dig out …

6 09 2010
Mike Wolstencroft

I’ll try and take a photo tonight. The bottle is clear glass with embossing so I hope I can get it to show up OK.

21 04 2011

Ah Empress Restaurant. I recall that you had to get into an old lift (the kind where you have to physically pull the shutter-gate shut) before it goes up to the restaurant!

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