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From Sago Street to Rotan Lane Where do our Singapore street names come from?
Singapore’s road names tell the story of a rich and sometimes violent history.
The ever-curious team at Budget Direct Insurance shares the highs and lows of some of our favorite street names, their meanings and significance.
The street got its name from the many sago factories that were here in the 1840s. Sago was a big part of the diet and could be made into various dishes from pancakes to puddings.
The street was a part of China Town and was also named sei yan gai -‘Dead People Street’ in Cantonese. It was known for its Chinese Death Houses. People who were thought to have just days to live, the terminally ill and the chronically sick would be deposited at a death house. Typically, the house had a funeral parlour below. The sick would wait out their final days in these death houses whilst listening to the sounds of funerals taking place beneath them! These death houses were banned in 1961 and the houses demolished.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this street was once been lined with lavender flowers. It was, in fact, named by the residents in an ironic nod to what was considered to be the foulest smelling street around during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Where did the smell come from? There are two theories. Firstly, the area was covered with Chinese veggie gardens and there was a strong, pungent smell of plant fertilizer. Another theory blames the old town gasworks, which emitted an odorous, noxious gas. Yuck!
Named after James W Birch, a wealthy plantation owner and the first British resident of Perak in Malaysia. The road is in Little India, Singapore. Birch was said to be a disagreeable and arrogant man who had many enemies. So much so, that he was speared to death in 1875 whilst taking a bath. His killers, who included the local Malay chief, were later held up as heroes.
Rotan is the colloquial name for rattan canes, still used in Singapore to discipline children as well as criminals. A cane-making factory was located at Chander Road, which lay adjacent to Rotan Lane. You can still find a few shops selling rotan or rattan here today.
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The road is named after Georges Clemenceau, twice president of France, who visited Singapore in 1920. The avenue was meant to honor his courage during World War I. Clemenceau hailed the road as a symbol of friendship between England and France.
Kampong Kayu Road
Kayu means wood or dead plank in Malay and refers to the shipbuilders that were once located here. The area was once buzzing with shipbuilding and maritime trade before being moved to the nearby Keppel shipyard. Today, the word kayu is often used at football matches to refer to the referee as a ‘dead plank.’
Although the Jewish community in Singapore is tiny, their presence has been given due recognition in our street names. Frankel Avenue , for example, is named after Abraham Frankel, a Jewish furniture business owner who moved to Singapore in the 1800s from Lithuania. He later bought coconut and rubber plantations in the Siglap area where the street is located.
There aren’t many roads in Singapore named after women. A notable exception is this street in Upper Serangoon which takes its name from Madam Florence Yeo, the wife of wealthy vermicelli manufacturer Lim Ah Pin, who built bungalows in the area. Mr Lim had only one road - Lim Ah Pin Road - named after him, unlike his wife who had two: Florence Road and the adjacent Florence Close.
Given that Singapore used to be a British colony, there are many British road names here. One such is Thomson Road which was named after John Turnbull Thomson, the government surveyor of the Straits Settlements who designed and supervised the construction of several roads and buildings, including Thomson Road. Among the buildings he designed were the Seamen’s hospital (now the Singapore General Hospital) and Horsburgh Lighthouse.
Adam Park and Adam Road were named after Frank Adam, a Scot, in 1922. Adam was a managing director of The Straits Trading Company, which specialised in tin mining and smelting. Adam Park has a significant place in Singapore’s history as it is where the last and fiercest battle was fought during World War II, and where a Prisoner of War camp was subsequently set up.
In case you are wondering about the origins of this popular shopping belt, it was indeed at one time teeming with nutmeg plantations and fruit orchards, hence its name.
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