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’





Inuits will paint the town red this weekend

20 08 2015

The highly anticipated Singapore Night Festival is back!

One of the highlights of this year’s festival has to be the appearance of the world’s smallest and perhaps the most lovable Inuits, Anooki (Anook and Nooki). The Inuits, the creation of David Passegand and Moetu Batlle, have come all the way from France to run riot and paint the town, of rather the façade of the National Museum of Singapore. red, green, purple and blue and put a smile on the faces of the the crowds that will descend on the museum’s front lawn on the weekends of 21/22 and 28/29 August.

Annoki Celebrate Singapore on the façade of the National Museum of Singapore.

The Anooki wreaking havoc on the façade of the National Museum of Singapore.

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David Passegand and Moetu Batlle.

David Passegand and Moetu Batlle.

The Inuits, which are said to have taken the animation world by storm, will feature in one of several performances specially commissioned for the jubilee year edition of the Singapore Night Festival. The fun and energetic projection, Anooki Celebrate Singapore, will anchor the festival’s Night Lights – a popular segment that promises to be bigger and better this year. Night Lights also sees several other light installations colour the night in and around the museum. One, Cédric Le Borgne’s le Desir et la Menace brings the huge banyan tree in front of the museum to life with giant illuminated bird wire sculptures. Another, Drawn in Light by Ralf Westerhof, recreates sights typical of Amsterdam using rotating illuminated wire frames suspended above the ground.

Le Desir et la Menace.

Le Desir et la Menace.

Drawn in Light.

Drawn in Light.

Inside the museum, Night Light offerings include And So They Say and A Little Nonya’s Dreams. The former is a documentary project that features interviews with 25 senior citizens that will also be seen at SOTA, DECK (at Prinsep Street) and the National Design Centre. The latter, sees three animators come together to individually interpret a little’s girls’ dreams.

And So They Say.

And So They Say.

From A Little Nonya's Dreams.

From A Little Nonya’s Dreams.

Playing with fire … and light over at the Singapore Art Museum, will be the Starlight Alchemy, an audience favourite and regular feature at the Singapore Night Festival. This year, sees the locally based group perform a specially commissioned Alchemy that tells of the reconciliation between Apollo from the world of Ethereal Light and Nuri from the world of Ethereal Flame, in another must-catch performance.

Fire ....

Fire ….

... and light meet at the SAM.

… and light meet at the SAM.

Other performances to catch include Goldies, who will take us back into Singapore’s musical world from the 50s to the 80s in a ticketed performance; Fields in Bloom, which sees flowers glowing in a spectrum of colours on the steps of SOTA and the Lorong Boys – 5 award winning Singaporean musicians who perform in both the concert hall and on the streets. Another interesting performance to catch is Lost Vegas, which features the giant puppets of Frank Malachi – an award winning puppeteer based in Singapore.

Meet Christine, who will be seen in Lost Vegas.

Meet Christine, who will be seen in Lost Vegas.

3 of the 5 Lorong Boys.

3 of the 5 Lorong Boys.

Flieds in Bloom.

Fields in Bloom.

Goldies.

Goldies.

The Singapore Night Festival 2015 runs over two weekends (Friday and Saturday nights), on 21 and 22 August and on 28 and 29 August, from 7 pm until 2 am. The festival will be held across 5 zones, the National Museum of Singapore, Armenian Street (which will again be closed for the festival), the House of Glamour (at the field across from the Cathay), the Festival Village at SMU and the Singapore Art Museum and Queen Street (including the National Design Centre, DECK at 120A Prinsep Street), Waterloo Street and SOTA). Besides light and music performances, festival goers can also look forward to lots of food offerings. More information on the festival can be found at the Singapore Night Festival Website at which a Festival Guide can also be downloaded.

Singapore Night Festival creative director Christie Chua.

Singapore Night Festival creative director Christie Chua.

 

 





Bold and Beautiful – let’s Harp on it

21 08 2014

Bold and Beautiful – in line with its theme for this year, the ever so magical Singapore Night Festival, is back! This year’s festival, on for two Fridays and Saturdays on 22 and 23 August and 29 and 30 August 2014 across the arts and cultural Bras Basah. Bugis Precinct, sees it being organised around five key zones, that will include for the first time, a Festival Village at Cathay Green – which will not be short of delectable offerings, entertainment and shopping opportunities. Two venues will also feature for the first time at the Night Festival, with the historic Armenian Church seeing two Night Lights installations and the National Design Centre (the former St. Anthony’s Convent), which will see a mini interactive exhibition with a ceiling of white illuminated helium filled balloons as well as two light installations.

The Singapore Night Festival is back - bolder and more beautiful.

The Singapore Night Festival is back – bolder and more beautiful – and sure to pull-in the crowds.

The highlight of this year's Singapore Night Festival has to be The Earth Harp at the National Museum's front lawn.

The highlight of this year’s Singapore Night Festival has to be The Earth Harp at the National Museum’s front lawn.

The highlight of the festival has to be the William Close performing on his Earth Harp at the National Museum’s front lawn – one of several spectacular performances being lined up for the Pretty Arty festival zone based at the museum. The Earth Harp Close creates for the Night Festival, sees the huge harp strung across to the National Museum’s façade – the use of architecture as part of his harp, is inspired by a quote “architecture is frozen music” from Frank Lloyd Wright. Close, who was a second runner-up in the seventh season of America’s Got Talent, will collaborate with several local and international  artists such as Singapore’s drum group ZingO and songstresses in the form of Sound of Sirens as well as the fire and lights of Austrian collective Phoenix over both festival weekends.

Willaim Close and his Earth Harp.

Willaim Close and his Earth Harp.

Close close-up.

Close close-up.

ZingO - a local drum group, who are collaborating with William Close.

ZingO – a local drum group, who are collaborating with William Close.

Pretty Arty also sees half human / half birds of Follies for É Birds by the Arts Fission Company in the former Fashion Gallery.

Pretty Arty also sees half human / half birds of Follies for É Birds by the Arts Fission Company in the former Fashion Gallery.

The festival sees the return of Singapore’s very own Starlight Alchemy, playing not so much with fire this time, but with light and acrobatics beside the Singapore Management University (SMU) School of Information Systems in a zone intended to reach out to Young Hearts around SMU Green. The acts will include AcroYogis – an acrobatic partner yoga presentation in which the audience can participate in, as well as Illuminated Playtime in which participants will be invited to play with LED lights.

AcroYogis by Starlight Alchemy.

AcroYogis by Starlight Alchemy.

Another look at AcroYogis by Starlight Alchemy.

Another look at AcroYogis by Starlight Alchemy.

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Watch 10 local DJs spin together on Stage at the SMU Green in the Young Hearts Zone.

Watch 10 local DJs spin together on Stage at the SMU Green in the Young Hearts Zone.

The 10 DJs on stage.

The 10 DJs on stage.

Always a crowd-pleaser, Night Lights, will also return – this time doubling in scale – with installations spread across the festival’s zones. Night Lights never spares the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), a building I always enjoy seeing bathed in light – like outstretched arms its wings are always welcoming as it had been when I went to school there all those years ago. This year the façade of the SAM will be see a nature inspired multi-media presentation, Spirits of Nature, by WeComeInPeace from France.

Spirits of Nature by WeComeInPeace.

Spirits of Nature by WeComeInPeace.

The two Frenchmen coming in Peace.

The two Frenchmen coming in Peace.

One of the students behind Singapore University of Technology and Design's Night Lights installation at SMU, Stop and Smell the Flowers ...

One of the students behind Singapore University of Technology and Design’s Night Lights installation at SMU, Stop and Smell the Flowers …

... the installation requires one to pause - only by pausing to take a long exposure photograph, can the artwork be appreciated.

… the installation requires one to pause – only by pausing to take a long exposure photograph, can the artwork be appreciated.

Greenhouse Effect - another Night Lights installation by Maro Avrabou and Dimitiri Xenakis from France.

Greenhouse Effect – another Night Lights installation by Maro Avrabou and Dimitiri Xenakis from France.

Other eye-catching Night Lights installations I got to see a preview of include Cyanea, inspired by the Cyanea capillata – one of the largest jellyfish in the world, spread across Cathay Green. The installation, illuminated by a set of colour-changing lights, with smoke and sounds for effect, is being put up by Cumulus Collectif also from France.

Night Lights: Cyanea by Cumulus Collectif.

Night Lights: Cyanea by Cumulus Collectif.

Back to the SAM, where the Roundabout Midnight zone is based around, there are several installations to look out for. These include, The Cloud of Unknowing  by Ho Tzu Nyen in the Chapel on 29 and 30 August, 2014 – a cinematic exploration of the cloud as image, metaphor and carrier for divine illumination; a NOISE Weekend @ SAM on 22 and 23 August at 8Q Plaza, SAM at 8Q that will feature emerging bands and musicians from NOISE Singapore’s Music Programme; Darker Than Wax DJs at SAM on 29 August; and The Local People x SAM Night Market on 30 August, 2014 – where visitors can eat, listen and shop at the art market along Queen Street.

Cyanea from its inside.

Cyanea from its inside.

A view of the Orchard Road Presbyterian Church, through Cyanea.

A view of the Orchard Road Presbyterian Church, through Cyanea.

The last zone, Block Party @ Armenian Street, will see a wild and happening Armenian Street where parties to late will be taking place. The parties will include one that will see much excitement with a ring put up on the second weekend right in the middle of Armenian Street (which will be closed to traffic from 8 pm to 2 am on festival nights). The ring will see wrestling bouts that will pit stars of Singapore Pro Wrestling – another first at the Night Festival.

And Tango makes the Singapore Night Festival.

And Tango makes the Singapore Night Festival.

A performance that might be worth catching at Block Party is How Drama ‘s Fat Kids are Harder to Kidnap, in Something Borrowed, Something New at The Substation Theatre, which will probably have you in stitches – not just because of the speed performance of 31 plays in an hour by the Singapore based improvisational performers, but also for their rather amusing take on current happenings. The performance, which will see the audience determine the sequence, has the audience laughing at the funny side of issues such as the much talked about Singapore Tourism Board’s “Honey, Look!” video advertisement as well as the National Library’s tango with the removal of children’s books from the shelves.

Honey, Look!

Honey, Look!

Admission to the Singapore Night Festival (including to the participating museums) is free. More information, including the festival guide, details of the performances, installations and also the artists, can be found at www.sgnightfest.sg. The festival’s happenings can also be followed on twitter at @BrasBasahBugis and on Facebook. There is also a festival guide available on instagram @SNFGUIDE. Hashtags for use during the festival are #SGNightFest and #SNFer.

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