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’





Lost in Space

16 10 2012

The Bencoolen Street that I am familiar with is the one that I became acquainted with over the many trips on the bus to school at the end of the 1970s. The street today bears little resemblance to that street I knew. Much has since changed with many modern façades replacing the rows of what primarily were rather old pre-war shophouses that had populated much of the area around the street.

Lost in Space – the ceiling of the fire escape of The Villa at 81 Bencoolen Street. A magical new world set in an old.

Even if not for the ongoing work on the Downtown Line MRT which has closed the section of the street from Middle Road to Bras Basah Road, there seems little that is left to identify the street with the one I had been familiar with, including that Thai restaurant that could not be missed. A figurine on the face of its second level – that of a traditional Thai dancer, made it an instantly recognisable landmark in the area. That along with other landmarks including the old Bengkali Mosque on the other side; the shophouses where the Camera Hospital and K Ratna Sports were; and the Soon Chong Leong Building, have long since made way for the new.

Reflections of the old in the new.

Among the few that did survive, some, such as the former Asia Radio Building now reincarnated as a budget hotel (which has achieved notoriety with its association with a scandal of sorts that has recently been played out in the Courts), bear little resemblance to their former selves. One survivor is one that is immediately recognisable – a large two storey house closed to the junction of Bencoolen Street with Middle Road, No. 81 Bencoolen Street.

A 1982 photo of 81 Bencoolen Street – then the Kian Hua Hotel. From the Lee Kip Lin Collection. All rights reserved. Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore 2009.

The new world that is today’s 81 Bencoolen Street.

It was a house which rather intrigued me. What did look like a very spacious two storey house, it was certainly one that must have seen better days. I imagined it to once have been the home of a rich merchant. Many similar houses in the area had been, including the ones found at nearby Waterloo Street which runs parallel to Bencoolen Street. Like a similar house next to the former Middle Road Church, the house was one which a hotel had occupied, the Kian Hua Hotel. On the hotel, I have found little information. Other than several newspaper advertisements in the National Library’s wonderful archives of newspapers that told me only that told me that the hotel had occupied the building at least as far back as 1953, the isn’t much on it except of an apparent suicide – a 26 year old ex-journalist had been found hanging from a ceiling fan in one of the hotel’s rooms one morning in early 1988, with a nylon rope around her neck.

A much grander looking 81 Bencoolen Street today – restored perhaps to its original glory.

The house is now in what has to be its fourth incarnation, having for a while after the hotel’s closure, masqueraded as the gaily decorated Cleopatra Karaoke Lounge. A lot more sober looking today, it does seem to have its former glory I imagined it to have been in, restored, having as part of a S$50 million makeover which involved extensive work on the cluster of old buildings at the corner of Prinsep Link and Bencoolen Street it is a part of to, to restore it as well as transform the house and the adjacent buildings – a more modern commercial building at No. 77, and two units of conservation shophouses at No. 71 and No. 73, into what is today the SPACE Asia Hub, a huge 40,000 sq. foot gallery for premium furniture.

The building at No. 81, as well as two sets of buildings: two storey conservation shophouses at Nos. 71 and 73; and also a modern building at No. 77 has been transformed into the 40,000 sq. ft. Space Asia Hub.

The work, undertaken by local architectural firm WOHA Architects Pte Ltd, is one that has won it an award in the 2012 edition of the URA Architectural Heritage Awards. It was because of this that I had a chance to join a very informative guided tour that was organised by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) as part of a series of tours which also include guided tours of the other 2012 Architectural Heritage Awards winners.

A glass cube – the Glass Block has been created around the existing frame of No. 77 which is next to No. 81 and serves as the focal point of the spacious showroom.

While the tour did not provide me with the information I had hoped to obtain on the original owner or when the house at 81 Bencoolen Street was built, it did give me a chance to take a look at the interiors of the beautifully restored heritage buildings: No. 81 which is now called ‘The Villa’; and Nos. 71 and 73, the ‘Heritage Houses’, as well as the transformation of No. 77 into what is called the ‘Glass Block’ – the focal point of the gallery.

Inside the Glass Block – the existing frame can be seen with floors and walls removed to create a sense of space.

The tour started off at the Glass Block, laid bare by the replacement of its exterior walls to create a beautiful space around its existing frame of concrete columns and beams. What was really interesting was the spaces and access routes that were created, which included a joyous courtyard at the rear with a glass ceiling and a glorious wall of green, an open terrace on its third level and the addition of a wide staircase and a glass encased lift shaft. What was nice to see was in the midst of all the glass, there is the warmth of the colour of bricks to be found – the original bricks of the wall that separates the Heritage Houses from the adjoining Glass Block.

The exposed bricks of the original wall separating No. 77 from No. 73.

The vertical garden at the glass topped courtyard of the Glass Block.

The reverse view of the courtyard.

The open terrace of the Glass Block.

The guide showing the interior of no. 77 prior to the work done on it.

The staircase added into No. 77.

What is notable on the work done on the Heritage Houses is the replacement of a concrete column and beam structure that held its roof up, with two sets of steel trusses which carry the weight of the roof’s now wooden structure over to the walls strengthened for the purpose. This not only frees the spaces below from the previous mess of supporting columns below, but also enables the creation of two very interesting and very usable spaces between each set of trusses, which were referred to as ‘hanging attics’.

The new timber roof supporting structure of the Heritage House at Nos. 71 and 73.

A view through one of the new trusses which free the space below of the numerous columns that had previously been used to support the roof.

One of the hanging attic created between a set of the new steel trusses.

The freed up space below the steel trusses.

The Villa was the last of the three buildings we visited, and the one that interested me the most. Now an exclusive showroom, access to which is only by appointment, the visit provided the opportunity not just to step inside the showroom, but also to have a view of its restored interior. There were a few details on the restoration that were of note, including that of the house’s roof in which the attic was removed to allow the newly installed timber trusses and original masonry structures to be seen. Another design feature of note is one that was added – that of a hollow column of rusted steel – à la Richard Serra I suppose, only thinner guage and supported by internal steel angles, which serves as a fire escape required by the building code. This was added to a glass extension to The Villa which also serves to connect it with the Glass Block next door. More information on the awards and on SPACE Asia Hub, which opened in November 2011, can be found at the SPACE website and also at the URA 2012 Architectural Heritage Awards website.

The upper level of The Villa.

Sliding shades are used for the upper level windows.

The lower level of The Villa.

The fire escape is built into a hollow rusted steel column.

The rusted steel column as seen from the outside.