Most people are familiar with the founding of modern Singapore by Sir Stamford Raffles and William Farquhar in 1819. In this tale of geopolitical intrigue and shared foresight, the two men led a fleet of ships to the mouth of the Singapore River, where they bartered for trading rights in this strategic natural harbour. For this privilege, Tengku Long (1776-1835) was installed as Sultan Hussein Mohammed Shah of Singapore, while Temenggong Abdul Rahman (d. 1825), the real power behind the throne, sowed the ground for what would eventually become a new royal dynasty seated in Johor.
Back then, the lower reaches of the Rochor and Kallang Rivers, beyond the swamps that would eventually give rise to Jalan Besar, were already inhabited by native fisher folk who owed allegiance to the Temenggong. This is the story of what took place since then, both in space and time. This is a story of how a road grew, in length as well as in richness, until it connected the city to its eastern outskirts and witnessed the taming of two rivers whose banks now brim with parkways and public housing.
FROM FRUIT TREES TO INDUSTRIAL PLANTS
As late as the 1840s, the area between Serangoon Road and the Rochor River was dominated in part by a swampland of low fields, mangroves and waterways. The place must have resembled Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and Pasir Ris Park, where some of the island’s surviving mangrove habitats can be seen today.
Some of the Europeans who settled in Singapore in the first half of the 19th century took to agriculture in the belief that the hot, humid climate would promote the growth of cash crops.
Joseph Balestier, the first American consul to Singapore, ran a sugar cane estate by the road that now bears his name. Other entrepreneurs planted nutmeg in the suburbs off Orchard Road. Both ventures were destined to fail, however, the first due to tariff barriers and the second to disease.
A rather more successful attempt at agriculture arose when two brothers, Richard Owen Norris (d. 1905) and George Norris, bought three hectares of land from the East India Company in the 1830s. Located north of the Rochor River and costing 113 rupees, the land was turned into an estate for betel nut, nipah palm and fruit trees such as mangosteen. A road was carved through the estate, forming a raised bund over the swampy ground.
Originally, the road led to nowhere, ending in a sea of mangroves that reached Rochor Road to the north. Beyond this marshy flank were some of the earliest brick kilns in Singapore, which are believed to have been set up by Naraina Pillai, a trader of south Indian origin from Penang who arrived with Raffles in 1819. In the 1830s, there were also paddy fields and vegetable gardens run by Chinese farmers, who fertilised their crops using human waste. This foul-smelling practice led to the cynical renaming of Rochor Road as Lavender Street in 1858.
As the town expanded and traffic between its centre and the peripheries grew in the 1880s, the former dirt track was raised and extended until it joined Lavender Street and was given the name Jalan Besar, or ‘Big Road’. Even then, swampland still covered much of the area south of Jalan Besar and penetrated a good part north of it until the 1930s. The transition from wetland to dry plots was a lengthy process that involved the dumping of municipal refuse over decades to form solid ground on which new side streets were laid out and shophouses were built.
Towards the end of the 19th century, sawmills, oil mills and rice mills began to appear along Syed Alwi Road by the Rochor River. Abattoirs also sprang up amid this landscape of industrial edifices with tall, obelisk-like chimneys. The slaughterhouses were impressive buildings, with a tripartite (three-part) design featuring a church-like central aisle, prominent side wings and high clerestories (ventilation windows). Engineering workshops, contractors and factories, along with hotels, lodging houses, churches and temples, emerged in the first half of the 20th century. Complementing these scenes of industry and devotion were leisure facilities in the form of New World and the Jalan Besar Stadium.
The brick kilns vanished by the 1920s, as their source of raw materials and fuel, the mangrove swamps, dwindled to tiny pockets. It was during this time, too, that many shophouses and other landmarks were constructed on the former swampland. Some, such as New World, Guan Guan Hotel and the Framroz Aerated Water Factory, have not survived the changing tides of taste and fortune that swept through the area in the second half of the 20th century. But much of the diverse histories of Jalan Besar, as seen in the built heritage of the neighbourhood, remain evident to visitors, thanks to the granting of conservation status to selected buildings by the Urban Redevelopment Authority since 1991. To date, 540 buildings in the area have been conserved, preserving the character and charm of a big, bold road that has grown with the city and still gives off a sense of nostalgia in its busy five-foot ways and quiet little lanes.
PUBLISHED BY NATIONAL HERITAGE BOARD IN AUGUST 2012.
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