Middle Road and the (un)European Town

26 04 2021

Street names, especially ones in common use, often tell an interesting tale. Such is the case with Middle Road. Constructed late in the first decade that followed British Singapore’s 1819 founding by Sir Stamford Raffles, parts of Middle Road have become known by a mix of names in the various vernaculars. Each provide a glimpse into the streets fascinating past, the communities it played host to and the trades and institutions that marked it. It is its official name, Middle Road, that seems to have less to reveal and what Middle Road the middle, is a question that has not been quite as adequately answered.


The Jackson Plan of 1822. Middle Road is not marked on it. Its location on this map correspond to the road passing through ‘Rocher Square’ right smack in the middle of the European quarter.

Often the resource of choice in seeking a better understanding of a Singapore street name and its origins is the book ‘Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics’, authored by Victor Savage and Brenda Yeoh. The book however, does not quite provide the answer to the question of what made Middle Road the middle in explaining that the street was (or may have been) a line of demarcation between the trading post’s European Town and a designated ‘native’ settlement to its east. Reference has to be made to the 1822 Town Plan, for which Raffles’ provided a specific set of instructions, in the allocation of areas of settlement along ethnic lines with the civic and mercantile districts at the town’s centre. A set of written instructions was also provided by Raffles to members of the Town Committee. Based on the plan and the written instructions, the European Town was to have extended eastwards from the cantonment for “as far generally as the Sultan’s (settlement)”, with an ‘Arab Campong’ in between. This meant that the line demarcating the two districts was not Middle Road, but would have been Rochor Road or a parallel line to its northeast.


Middle Road is shown in the 1836 Map drawn by J B Tassin based on an 1829 survey by G D Coleman. On this I have superimposed the boundaries of the various districts based on the 1822 Town Plan. On this map, Middle Road seems to be a street that no only ran through the middle of the European Town, but was quite literally the middle road of the European Town three parallel roads.

There is an older attempt to explain what the ‘middle’ in Middle Road might have been. This was made in 1886 by T J Keaughran, a one-time employee of the Government printing office and resident of Singapore in the late 1800s. In a Straits Times article, ‘Picturesque and busy Singapore’, Keaughran described Middle Road as being “perhaps more appropriately, the central division or section of the city”. There may be some merit in this suggestion based on the 1822 Town Plan. What seems however to be more obvious is that Middle Road ran right down the middle of the European quarter. Middle Road was also, quite literally, the middle road of three parallel roads running northwest to southeast through the European Town.  

The Portuguese tradition is kept very much alive at St. Joseph’s Church (which is now under renovation).

It would appear that the European Town, or at least the section that was allocated to it, never quite developed as Raffles had envisaged. Middle Road would turn out to be the centre of many communities, none of which was quite European. Hints of European influences do however exist in the Portuguese Church and in the former St Anthony’s Convent. The Portuguese Church — as it was once commonly referred to, or St Joseph’s Church, long a focal point of Singapore’s Portuguese Eurasian community, traces it roots to the Portuguese Mission’s Father Francisco da Silva Pinto e Maia, a one time Rector of St Joseph’s Seminary in Macau and owes much to the generosity of Portuguese physician turned settler, merchant and plantation owner, Dr Jose D’Almeida. It was in D’Almeida’s exclusive beach front house in the area that Liang Seah Street is today, that the mission’s first masses were held in 1825 – a year in which both Father Maia and Dr D’Almeida set foot on a permanent basis in Singapore.

An old letter box and signboard for the church.

The land on which the Beach Road house stood, had been procured by Dr D’Almeida during a stopover whilst on a voyage to Macau in 1819 with the help of Francis James Bernard, acting Master Attendant, son-in-law of Singapore’s first resident William Farquhar, and perhaps more famously, the great, great, great, great grandfather of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. D’Almeida also had a house built on the plot, which Bernard occupied whilst the physician was based in Macau. Political events in Portugal, and its delayed spread to Macau, would bring both Father Maia and D’Almeida to Singapore via Calcutta. D’Almeida’s Beach Road house was used to celebrate masses until 1833. A permanent church building for the Church of São José (St Joseph) would eventually be established at the corner of Victoria Street and Middle Road in the mid-1800s. What stands on the site today is a 1912 rebuild of this church. Initially administered by the Diocese of Goa and later, by the Diocese of Macau, the church’s links with Portugal were only broken in 1981, although parish priest appointments continued to be made by the Diocese of Macau until 1999 when Macau reverted to Chinese rule and the Portuguese Mission was dissolved. The church has since 1981, come under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore.

A touch of Iberia can be found in the Portuguese Church, especially during festival days.

The Portuguese Mission would also establish St Anna’s School in 1879. The school for children of poor parishioners, is the predecessor to St Anthony’s Boys’ School (now St Anthony’s Primary School) and St Anthony’s Convent (now St. Anthony’s Canossian Primary School). A spilt into a boys’ and a girls’ school in 1893 saw the two sections going their separate ways. The setting up of the girls’ school would see to an Italian flavour being added to Middle Road, when four nuns of the Italian-based Canossian order came over from Macau in 1894 to run the girls’ section. Two of the nuns were Italian and another two Portuguese and in the course of its time in Middle Road, many more nuns of Italian origin would arrive. Those who were boarders or schoolgirls from the old convent days in Middle Road will remember how old-fashioned methods of discipline that the nuns brought with them were administered in heavily accented English with a certain degree of fondness.

The first Canossians. Top – M. Giustina Sequeira, M. Matilde Rodriguez, M. Marietta Porroni, and bottom extreme right –  M. Teresa Rossi. Two others were the superiors M. Teresa Lucian and M. Maria Stella, who accompanied the four.

While the convent may have moved in 1995, the buildings that were put up over the course of the 20th century along Middle Road to serve it are still there and stands as a reminder of the work of the Canossian nuns. Now occupied by the National Design Centre, its former chapel building is also where the legacy of another Italian, Cav Rodolfo Nolli has quite literally been cast in stone. In the former convent’s chapel, now the centre’s auditorium, watchful angels in the form of cast stone reliefs made by Nolli — Nolli’s angels as I refer to them — count among the the last works that the sculptor executed here before his retirement. The angels have watched over the nuns, boarders, orphans and schoolgirls since the early 1950s and are among several lasting reminders of Cav Nolli. The Italian craftsman spent a good part of his life in Singapore, having first arrived from Bangkok in 1921. Except for a period of internment in Australia during the Second World War, Nolli was based in Singapore until 1956. His best known work in Singapore is the magnificent set of sculptures, the Allegory of Justice, found in the tympanum of the Old Supreme Court.

St. Anthony’s Convent in the 1950s.

Among the common names associated with Middle Road is a now a rather obscure one in the Hokkien vernacular, 小坡红毛打铁 (Sio Po Ang Mo Pah Thi). This is another that could be thought of as providing a hint of another of the street’s possible ‘ang mo’ (红毛) or European connections. The Sio Po (小坡) in the name is a reference to the ‘lesser town’ or the secondary Chinese settlement that developed on the north side of the Singapore River (as opposed to 大坡 tua po — the ‘greater town’ or Chinatown). A literal translation of Pah Thi (打铁) would be “hit iron” — a reference to an iron-working establishment, which in this case was the J M Cazalas et Fils’ (J M Cazalas and Sons’) iron and brass foundry. Established in 1856 by Mauritius born Frenchman Jean-Marie Cazalas, the foundary occupied an area bounded by Middle Road, Victoria Street, the since expunged Holloway Lane, and North Bridge Road, a site on which part of the National Library now stands.

Central Engine Works, the successor to the lesser town’s European ironworks.

The business survived in one form or another in the area right up to 1920. J M’s son, Joseph, who inherited the business, renamed it Cazalas and Fils. In 1887, Chop Bun Hup Guan bought the foundry over and had it renamed Victoria Engine Works. The last name that the business was known by was Central Engine Works, a name it acquired when it again changed hands in the 1900s. Central Engine Works’ move in 1920 to new and “more commodious” premises in Geylang, paved the way for the site’s redevelopment and saw to the removal of all traces of the foundry.  The name Central Engine Works would itself fade into oblivion when it became a victim of the poor economic conditions that persisted through much of the 1920s. The firm went into voluntary liquidation in the early 1930s. The Empress Hotel, which opened in 1928, was erected on part of the former foundry’s site and became a landmark in the area. It was known for its restaurant which produced a popular brand of mooncakes, the ‘Queen of the Mooncakes’. Looking tired and worn, the Empress Hotel came down in 1985, when the wave of urban redevelopment swept through the area.

Empress Hotel (roots.SG).

The setting up of the Cazalas foundry up came at a time when the European Town was already on its way to becoming the ‘Lesser Town’. One of the reasons contributing to the change in status of the designated European area and its choice beachfront plots may have been the preference amongst the settlement’s European ‘gentry’ for the more pleasant inland area of the island as places of residence as the interior opened up. Among the larger groups contributing to the influx of non-European settlers in the area were the Hainanese — who could be thought of as ‘latecomers’ to the Chinese Nanyang diaspora. The Hainanese established clan or bang boarding houses in the area and by 1857, a temple dedicated to Mazu was erected at Malabar Street. Middle Road became the Hainanese 海南一街 or Hylam Yet Goi. The area is today still thought of as a spiritual home to the community, who today form the fifth largest of the various Chinese dialect groups in Singapore. The Singapore Hainan Hwee Kuan and the Tin Hou Kong (the since relocated Mazu temple) is also present in the area at Beach Road. The area can also be thought of as the home of the Singapore brand of Hainanese Chicken Rice having been were it was conceived and for many years served by its inventor.

The house of the rising sun (take not of the pediment) — a reminder of the Japanese Community, which made Middle Road home from the end of the 1800s to 1941. At its height, the community numbered several thousands.

Among other names associated with Middle Road was 中央通り(Chuo Dori), Japanese for ‘Central Street’ and the محلة (Mahallah) — an Arabic term meaning ‘place’ and used by the Sephardic Jewish community who came through Baghdad to describe the Jewish neighbourhood that formed at the end of the 19th century in and around the northwest end of Middle Road. There were also a host of names in Hokkien that refer to Mangkulu 望久鲁 or Bencoolen — a reference to the Kampong Bencoolen, which was established in the area.

A marker of the Mahallah, the David Elias Building with its star of David.

One name that includes the name is 望久鲁车馆 or Mangkulu Chia Kuan — the jinrikisha registration station in the area that later became the Registry of Vehicles (where Sunshine Plaza is today. As with the station at Neil Road, a station was established in the Middle Road area due to the proliferation rickshaw coolie kengs or quarters and rickshaw operators in the area, many of which were run by other groups of late arrivals among the Chinese migrants, the Hokchia and the Henghwa. Also mixed into the area around the Lesser Town as the years went by were other migrant communities, who included Hakkas, the people of Sam Kiang (the three ‘kiangs‘ or ‘jiangs‘ — Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Jiangxi) who are sometimes described as Shanghainese, South Indians and Sikhs. The people of Sam Kiang were quite prominent and featured in the furniture making and piano trading businesses, books and publishing, and tailoring — Chiang Yick Ching, who founded CYC Shirts at Selegie Road was an immigrant from Ningbo in Zhejiang as was Chou Sing Chu, the founder of Popular Book Store at North Bridge Road. The Hakkas were involved in the canvas trade, and were opticians and watch dealers. They were also the shoe making and shoe last making factories around Middle Road, which was once a street known for it Chinese shoe shops.

Right next to the David Elias Building is the former Dojin Hospital, which was erected before the war to serve the Japanese Community.

Various communities and institutions populating the post-1850s ‘European Town’





Calling an end to one cycle of time for the Ellison Building

3 09 2016

As if to foretell the end in a cycle of time for the Ellison Building, and the beginning of another, the mayura, a peacock – a mythological representation of the cycle of time, has made an appearance just across Bukit Timah Road from it. In the peacock’s view is the side the building whose time is at it end; an end that is being brought about by the intended construction of the North-South Expressway right under it.

JeromeLim-1390

That a decision was taken to demolish a portion of a building that has been gazetted for conservation is hard to fathom. Protection through conservation, so it seems, counts for very little when the development of national infrastructure is a justification. Constraints of space due to what already exists underground has forced the authorities concerned to take this unfortunate decision. The section that will be demolished, which contains three units along Bukit Timah Road, will be reconstructed and reinstated to the building original design after the expressway is completed in 2026.

The decision caught the public unawares, first coming to light on 7 August 2016. The Chinese language daily Lianhe Zaobao, in an article on the construction of the expressway, made mention that part of the building’s “façade” was to be demolished and reinstated. Further information was then provided by a Straits Times 18 August 2016 report and much shock and disappointment has been expressed [see: Rebuilding parts of heritage building not the answer (Letter to the Straits Times, 18 August 2016), the Singapore Heritage Society’s 18 August 2016 Statement on Ellison Building, and ICOMOS Singapore’s 2 September Statement on the Proposed Demolition and Reconstruction of Part of Ellison Building].

The old style Hup Chiang kopitiam at the Ellison Building, now occupied by a Teochew porridge restaurant.

The news is also upsetting considering that the Ellison is one of the last survivors of the landmarks that once provided the area with its identity. Old Tekka Market, an focal point for many heading to the area in its day, has long since left us. Its replacement, housed at the bottom of a HDB built podium development built across the road from the old market, lacks the presence of the old  – even if the complex towers over the area. The complex sits on the site of another missing landmark, the Kandang Kerbau Police Station. One still there but now well hidden from sight is the Rochor Canal. Flavoursome in more ways than one, the canal would often mentioned in the same breath as any reference that was made to the area. Looking a little worse for war and dwarfed by much of what now surrounds it, the Ellison building with its distinctive façade, still makes its presence felt.

The Ellison Building as interpreted by the Urban Sketchers of Singapore.

The Ellison Building as interpreted by the Urban Sketchers Singapore.

The Ellison building is one of three structures found in the area on which the Star of David proudly displayed, the others being the David Elias building and the Maghain Aboth synagogue at Waterloo Street. Placed between the 19 and 24 on its Selegie Road façade that gives the year of its completion, it tells of a time we have forgotten when the area  was the Mahallah to the sizeable Arab speaking Baghdadi Jewish community. Described as having a feel of old Baghdad, the Mahallah was where the likes of Jacob Ballas and Harry Elias, just two of the communities many illustrious children, spend their early years in. Another link to its origins is an “I. Ellison” one finds over the entrance to No. 237 – one of the units that will be demolished. This serves to remind us of Isaac Ellison who had the building erected, apparently, for his wife Flora. 

The building seems also to have a long association with one of Singapore’s biggest obsessions, food. One food outlet that goes back as far as the building is Singapore’s oldest Indian Vegetarian restaurant, Ananda Bhavan (which still operates there). It was one of two vegetarian places that I remember seeing from my days passing the building on my daily rides home on the bus as a schoolboy. I would look out for the eye-catching displays of brightly coloured milk candy, neatly arranged on the shelves of wooden framed glass cabinets and also the restaurants’ old fashioned counters. Another sight that I never failed to notice was the mama shop along the five-foot-way and its stalk of bananas on display from which bananas would be plucked and purchased individually.

JeromeLim-1242

A lost reminder of the past, an old fashioned Indian Vegetarian restaurant that has since been replaced by a popular nasi lemak shop.

The units that housed the vegetarian restaurants are fortunately on the side along Selegie Road. This will not be affected by the expressway construction and is housed within a larger part of the building that is not being demolished. This is something that should perhaps be looked at positively as unlike the regretful loss of whole places and structures that we have become accustomed to – so that they can keep our world moving,  the Ellison, because of it conservation status will not totally be lost.

Previous instance of moving our world too far and too fast, and in a direction not everyone is comfortable with, we have bid farewell to well loved structures such as the people’s National Theatre, the much-loved National Library, and what probably counts as Singapore’s first purpose built hawker centre – the Esplanade Food Centre.

We have also parted company in more recent times with places such as the remnants of the historic Mount Palmer and  a part of the Singapore’s first polytechnic. Both were flattened earlier this year to allow the final phase of the Circle Line MRT to be completed. Another historic site, Bukit Brown cemetery, has also lost some of its inhabitants to a highway that is being built through it. There is also the case of the proposed Cross Island Line’s proposed alignment that will take it under what should rightfully be an untouchable part of Singapore – the Central Catchment Nature. Of concern is the site  investigation work that will be carried out and its potential for long term damage to the flora and fauna of the nature reserve.

The regret of allowing places such as the National Library and National Theatre to pass into history is still felt. Whatever is intended for the Ellison is something we similarly will regret. Let us hope that the regret is not also one of setting a precedent in the resolution of conflicts to come between conservation and the need for development.


Other views of the Ellison Building over the years found online:

Part of the Selegie Road face of Ellison Building, possibly in the 1980s (snowstorm snowflake on Panoramio).

The Ellison Building, seen from across the then opened Rochor Canal in 1969 (Bill Strong on Flickr).






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.