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The Norris Brothers

From swamp to city: The story of Jalan Besar

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Richard Owen Norris and George Norris were the sons of an East India Company army officer. George Norris joined the government service and became an Assistant Treasurer in Penang. Richard Owen Norris remained in Singapore where he lived in a bungalow with his 10 children on the family estate. Norris Road, which was built in front of the brothers’ estate in the 1890s, was named after the family at their request.


More than four generations later, the Norris family is still active in Singapore. The Norris Block at the Singapore General Hospital commemorates Dr. Victor Norris (d. 1942), grandson of Richard, who was killed by bombs dropped on Kandang Kerbau Hospital during the Second World War. Dr. Norris’ daughter, Noel Evelyn Norris (b. 1918), was principal of Raffles Girls’ School from 1961 to 1977.


THE NIPAH AND BETEL PALMS


Native to Southeast Asia, the nipah (Nypa fruticans) is a species of palm that grows in sheltered tidal swamps alongside mangroves. Unlike other palm trees, the nipah's main trunk runs horizontally under the mud and sends out shoots that bear long leaves. Nipah leaves are used to thatch the roofs of attap huts. The immature seed is the source of attap-chee, a jellylike component of popular local desserts such as ice kachang. Sap from the flowers is extracted to produce toddy, a strong alcoholic beverage.


The seeds of the areca or betel palm (Areca catechu) have been used for centuries throughout South and East Asia as a spice and stimulant. Thinly sliced and wrapped in daun sireh (betel leaves, which are obtained from a vine known scientifically as Piper betle) with a dash of lime (chalk, not the fruit), betel is chewed to produce a soothing, slightly narcotic sensation. Spices such as cloves, cardamom, turmeric, dry coconut, saffron and sugar are sometimes added for flavour. The habit also causes the saliva and gums to turn red. In India, paan, which combines ground areca nuts and spices, is chewed as a post-meal digestive. Betel palm fibres were once made into beige sheets called opeh, which people used as food wrappers in the days before styrofoam and plastic containers.


KAMPONG KAPOR


Kampong Kapor was a village off Jalan Besar, formerly located around the present day Desker and Veerasamy Roads, named after the lime or kapor that accompanied betel consumption. The Tamil name of the area was Sunnambu Kampam or ‘Lime Village’. Lime was also an important component of Madras Chunam, a durable building plaster that originated from India and was manufactured in nearby kilns. Made from lime, egg white, sand, shell and sugar, Madras Chunam was used to create the glossy white exterior of buildings such as St Andrew’s Cathedral.


A TREE-LINED AVENUE


An avenue of kapok trees (Ceiba pentandra) once lined the northern outskirts of Jalan Besar. These trees have tiny flowers but can reach a height of 60 metres with a trunk girth of 10 metres. They are also called silk-cotton trees as the fruit consists of a water-resistant fibre that can be used to stuff pillows, mattresses and life-jackets. The trees were chopped down in the 1920s, but surviving examples of this majestic tree can be seen in the Singapore Botanic Gardens.


THIEVES MARKET


Don’t miss the Sungei Road Market located in the lanes between Weld Road and Sim Lim Tower at the lower end of Jalan Besar. Popularly known as the Thieves’ Market or Robinson Petang (‘Evening Robinson’ after a major department store), this street bazaar began in the late 19th century as a marketplace for mobile hawkers. The common nickname stems from the perception that many of the goods on sale were acquired through illegitimate means. The present market, though a far cry from its heydays in size and splendour, is still a place to go for steals such as vintage cameras, old photographs, books and trinkets.


Did you know?


Paying little heed to official nomenclature, the Chinese who lived or worked in the area during the late 19th century had their own names for Jalan Besar, calling it 'Kam-kong ka-poh thai-tu long' in Hokkien and 'Kam-pong ka-pok thong-chu fong' in Cantonese. Both phrases meant the same thing: ‘The slaughter-pig depot in Kampong Kapor’, referring to prominent abattoirs between Desker and Rowell Roads (the site of the present Rowell Court).


The Jalan Besar Heritage Trail is part of the National Heritage Board’s ongoing efforts to document and present the history and social memories of places in Singapore that many may not be aware of. Jointly presented by the National Heritage Board (NHB) and Moulmein-Kallang Citizens' Consultative Committee, NHB hope this trail will bring back fond memories for those who have worked, lived or played in the area and serve as a useful source of information for new residents and visitors.

 

PUBLISHED BY NATIONAL HERITAGE BOARD IN AUGUST 2012.

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