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.

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Schools, churches and a candlelight procession: Memories of Queen Street

18 02 2010

As a schoolboy in Saint Joseph’s Institution (SJI), the sections of Queen Street that I was most familiar with were the two sections of the street closest to the school. These were the stretches that ran southwards past the Cathedral towards the Armenian Street end which led to the MPH book store, and the other that ran along the school canteen northwards towards the junction with Middle Road.

The part of the street that I most saw was of course the southern section, the all important route to MPH, the bus stop along Stamford Road to catch bus service number 166 home, the National Library, and the little place by the library where there were a few hawker stalls including a wan ton noodle stall and ice kacang. This ran from the Cathedral, past the Cathedral Rectory, the little garden with stone tables and chairs by the Rectory and grounds of the primary section of Raffles Girls School on the east side of the street, before coming to a little road bridge over the then open Stamford Canal at the junction with Stamford Road. On the west side of the street, was the fence of the SJI school field along which there was a row of trees from which flying foxes were frequently constructed by the scouts. The footpath along the fence would be the route to Fort Canning Hill for the occasional jog or cross country training held during P.E. lessons, which many of us returning from the jogs would use to race in a mad dash to the junction with Bras Basah Road.

The Armenian Street end of Queen Street in 1976 (looking at Armenian Street at the junction with Stamford Road). Notice the bridge over the then open Stamford Canal which you don't see today (Photo source: Ray Tyers Singapore Then and Now).

The view southwards today toward Armenian Street.

The site of the former Raffles Girls School (RGS) on what was Queen Street (now a section of the realigned Stamford Road with the construction of the Fort Canning Tunnel) near the junction with Stamford Road. The building that stands on the site is part of the Singapore Management University (SMU) campus. The wide walkway that can be seen on the bottom right of the photograph runs over what used to be an open Stamford Canal

The Cathedral of the Good Shepherd along Queen Street.

A view of the south end of Queen Street looking North. Buildings belonging to the SMU campus stands where the SJI field was on the left and RGS on the right.

The next section of the street was where the building that housed the Brother’s quarters on the upper floors and the school canteen on the ground floor ran along. On the street side of the building there was a little door which the canteen stall holders would use to enter and exit the canteen. It was through this door that outsiders could make purchases from the canteen, with Char Kway Teow and Mee Siam being a popular choice. The Mee Siam seller also parked his cart next to the door, on which he would load his pot of gravy onto at the end of each day and continue his business along the streets.

The Brothers Quarters of SJI along Queen Street (as seen from the courtyard inside the school). The ground floor of the block housed the school canteen which had a back door to Queen Street from which outsiders make food purchase through. The Mee Siam seller parked his cart next to the door (Photo source: SJI 125th Anniversary Magazine).

Opposite the Brother’s quarters on the east side, there was the Kum Yan Methodist Church (which is still there) and the buildings that housed the Catholic High School, part of which was also housed across the street in the compound of the “Chinese Church”, the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul. Further along the west side there was this tall narrow building which housed Stamford College, a private college which was popular with students sitting for their GCE “A” Level examinations privately, which is now used as the Oxford Hotel. Sited next to this building was the Stamford Community Centre and its compound. With some of my schoolmates, desperate for a place to kick a ball around before school, I had on occasion, climbed over the gate which was opened only in the evenings to have our game of street football on the basketball court.

The former Catholic High School building.

The building that housed Stamford College.

The former Stamford Community Centre. I had climbed over the gate a few times with several of my classmates to play street football on the basketball court.

Close to the junction with Middle Road on the east side of the street is where the back entrance is to the beautiful St. Joseph’s Catholic Church which is also known as the Portuguese church, having been established by the Portuguese missionaries . The church was run by the Diocese of Macau up to 1999 when it was handed over to the Archdiocese of Singapore. Within the compound of the church, were St. Anthony’s Convent and St. Anthony Boys School. My memories of the church deserves mention in another post, but the reason I have brought the church up is that having been run in the Portuguese tradition, many of the practices have endured and on Good Friday every year, a candlelight procession is held in the church compound. Besides the participants within the compound, there would be many others who would gather beyond the wall of the church on Queen Street with tall lighted candles in hand. This evenings on Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday) and Good Friday would probably be the time of the year when these two stretches of Queen Street comes to life. Besides the procession, on Good Friday where many candle vendors and hawkers would line the street, on Maundy Thursday when many local Catholics practice visiting of churches to say prayers, with the concentration of Catholic churches along the street, the street would be bustling with people as well as hawker stalls.

The beautiful Portuguese Church (St. Joseph's Church).

The building on the right housed St. Anthony's Boys School within the compound of the Portuguese Church.

The buildings that housed St. Anthony's Convent within the compound of the Portuguese Church.








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