Orchard Road, half a century ago

14 06 2021

Glitzy and glamourous, Singapore’s Orchard Road is sold today as a fashionable destination to find a hotel in, to shop and to have a meal. With much of its two kilometres lined with modern malls, it is no wonder. It however, wasn’t this way when I first got to know the street as a child. This was in the second half of the 1960s, when Orchard Road still wore a rather sleepy aura, lined with shophouses, a multitude of car showrooms, among which two supermarkets were nestled.

 A view down Orchard Road in 1971.
A view down Orchard Road in 1971.

Two of the motor showrooms that would often catch my attention were Champion Motors – a VW dealer, located where Lucky Plaza is today, and Orchard Motors – which sold Vauxhalls and Chevrolets on the site of the older section of Paragon. The latter, stood right next to one of the supermarkets, Fitzpatrick’s, which was the younger of the two supermarkets, having opened in August 1958.

1958 was also the year that the rather famous Orchard Road outlet of C K Tang – housed in a Chinese-styled building that would become quite an Orchard Road icon – opened. The rags to riches tale of C K Tang or Tang Choon Keng, who came as a poor immigrant from China in 1923 is one that has frequently been told. His bold decision, to move from River Valley Road to the more centrally located Orchard Road might be thought of as a stroke of genius. To the superstitious, the site of the new store might have been thought of as being inauspicious, with it facing the former Teochew burial site, Tai Swa Teng, just across the road. Tang’s move, with a view to catching the growing tourist crowd, eventually paid off and was possibly the spark that lit the fire. By 1965, Metro – another household name today – found its way to the street, opening its Metrotex store at Liat Towers, and in 1967, Chinese Emporium opened its outlet at International Building.

By the early 1970s, what could be thought of as the first modern mall – fashioned out of the former Orchard Motors showroom, The Orchard, opened. The mall, housed some upmarket shops such as Charles Jourdan, The Elizabeth Arden Salon, Diethelm Furniture, Jade Palace Restaurant and Thong Sia, a branch of Robina Department Store and was perhaps best known for Tivoli Coffee House. Several large scale mall developments were to follow with Tanglin Shopping Centre at nearby Tanglin Road being completed in 1972 and Plaza Singapura, at which Yaohan became an instant hit, in 1974. The conversion of the former Orchard Motors car showroom may also have spelt the beginning of the end for the motorcar trade on Orchard Road. Orchard Motors’ companion, Champion Motors, soon also gave way to Lucky Plaza, which opened in 1978.