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Take a trip down memory lane to discover lost worlds and forgotten histories

Mapping Out Early Singapore

As soon as the British arrived, they began constructing roads to facilitate the rapid development of the new trading post. In the early years, place names were highly practical in nature, which gave rise to sites such as Commercial Square, Market Street, and Hospital Road.

A view of Commercial Square during the 1860s. (Image from the National Museum of Singapore)

Irishman G. D. Coleman was assigned by the British to conduct Singapore’s first official topographical survey. Completed in 1829, the survey captures early road infrastructure such as Flint Street, Circular Road and Tanjong Pagar Road.2 (Image from the National Archives of Singapore)

During the early stages of town planning, the city was divided into racial and occupational quarters following Sir Stamford Raffles' instructions. In 1828, a plan was published that comprised zones like Kampong Glam for Bugis and Arab merchants, land upstream of the Singapore River for the Chulias, and space southwest of the Singapore River for the Chinese. As the colony developed, marshes, swamps, and jungles were cleared, and more roads were constructed - such as Queen Street, Coleman Street, and Pickering Street - all named after prominent British figures and officials.

In addition to British names, street signs also bore the names of community leaders like Lim Nee Soon, who has a record 26 streets named after him due to his rubber empire. Lim had acquired and leased large tracts of land along the Seletar River area in present-day Yishun for his business.

Out of 540 road names compiled in the book "Toponymics: A Study of Singapore Street Names," only 40 are named after women. One of them is Jalan Hajijah, named after an heiress who founded a Malay kampung on land she had purchased off Upper East Coast Road. The kampung, which had around 30 houses, was demolished in the 1980s.

Place names also reflected economic activities in the area, such as Geylang Serai, named after the cultivation of lemongrass plants, and Dhoby Ghaut, named after laundrymen who washed garments knee-deep in a freshwater stream now known as the Stamford Canal. The washermen utilized a plot of land nearby to dry the clothes, and "Ghaut" or "ghatin" in Hindi refers to the area along a riverbank used for bathing or washing.

A 2ha plot of land (on the right) where dhobis (washermen) dried their clients’ laundry.

The local population often gave their own names to some of the assigned locations, such as Chinatown's Kreta Ayer (water cart in Malay) being called "goo cia chwee" in Hokkien, which translates to "bullock cart water," referencing the bullock carts that used to supply fresh water to the area.

In British military camps and compounds, roads were named after famous British streets, possibly intended to help servicemen cope with homesickness.

Singapore has also adopted place names from neighboring countries, including Tanjong Katong's Ipoh Lane from Malaysia, Bencoolen Street in the Bras Basah area from Indonesia, Little India's Madras Road from India, and Mandalay Road in Novena from Myanmar.

Post-independence naming conventions

After Singapore gained independence, the decision was made to retain colonial-era road names, as it would have been too disorienting to do a complete overhaul. However, a committee was established in 1967 to modify existing public street names and foster a sense of national identity. Malay place names were recommended, leading to the city's "jalans" and "lorongs." A year later, a committee was set up to standardize street names in Chinese and provide English translations for Chinese and dialect place names.

Over time, Singapore's toponymic policies gave more prominence to local culture and heritage, as well as leaders and public figures who influenced the country's post-independence path. For instance, new structures like the $110 million Benjamin Sheares Bridge, which opened in 1981 as part of the East Coast Parkway, were named after public figures.

Singapore's multicultural makeup was also reflected in the naming of locations, such as Jurong industrial estate, which has roads with names in Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay.

In 2003, the Street and Building Names Board was established to vet and approve the naming and renaming of buildings, estates, and streets proposed by building owners and developers. The board encourages retaining heritage in naming sites to reinforce a sense of history and identity among the community, and prioritizes names that can help emergency services locate places quickly. An example of this is the naming of Zubir Said Drive after the composer of Singapore's national anthem in 2009. The Urban Redevelopment Authority took over as secretariat for the board in 2010.

Old street names, remarkable stories

Lavender Street

A view of Lavender Street in the late 19th to early 20th century. This street reeked due to the liberal use of night soil as fertiliser by the owners of vegetable gardens in the area.20 The name Lavender was picked for the site in 1858 as an ironic nod to the pungent odours it had come to be known for.21 (Image from the National Museum of Singapore)

High Street

This street is considered to be one of the oldest in Singapore and was developed after Sir Stamford Raffles' landing in 1819. It derives its name from the topography of the area. Additionally, the street had also been a popular high-end shopping destination in the past. (Image sourced from the National Museum of Singapore)

Beach Road

Beach Road, which was originally depicted on G.D. Coleman's 1836 map of Singapore, was once a coastal stretch that was primarily reserved for European merchants. (Image sourced from the National Museum of Singapore, circa late 1970s)

Coleman Street

Coleman Street was named after G.D. Coleman, Singapore's first pioneer colonial architect who had a significant impact on shaping early Singapore's architectural landscape. Some of his notable designs include the Old Parliament House (currently known as The Arts House) and the Armenian Church, along with several other landmark buildings. Additionally, he conducted the first topographical survey of the island. His former residence once stood at No. 3 Coleman Street but was later demolished in 1965 to make way for the Peninsula Hotel that stands today. (Image sourced from the National Museum of Singapore)

Syed Alwi Road

Initially named Syed Allie Road after the Arab merchant Syed Allie Bin Mohamed Al Junied, the road was later renamed as Syed Alwi Road. Syed Allie was known for his philanthropy and generosity towards the community, including donating land for community purposes and building large wells. (Image sourced from the National Museum of Singapore)

Pickering Street

Located in the downtown core of Singapore's central region, this road was originally known as Macao Street and Upper Macao Street, and it was also the site of the original Chinese Protectorate. However, the street was renamed to honor William Alexander Pickering's contributions. As head of the Chinese Protectorate, he played an instrumental role in suppressing coolie abuse and reining in Chinese secret societies. He was also fluent in Mandarin and four other Chinese dialects, which helped him earn the respect and admiration of the Chinese community. (Image sourced from the National Museum of Singapore)

North Bridge Road

North Bridge Road is one of the oldest and longest roads in Singapore. It derives its name from its location north of Elgin Bridge, which spans the Singapore River. Its counterpart, South Bridge Road, was included in Sir Stamford Raffles' 1822 Town Plan and also constructed by convicts. (Image sourced from the National Museum of Singapore)

Mosque Street

Mosque Street is a one-way street located in Chinatown, and it derives its name from the Jamae Mosque. The mosque was constructed between 1830 and 1835 by Chulia Muslims, which explains why the street is named as such. (Image sourced from the National Museum of Singapore)

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