Home - T Singapore

Orchard Road: How A Quiet, Hilly Valley Became An Epicenter of Luxury Retail

By Guan Tan

An image of the district now known as Orchard Road, circa 1900.
 
Collection of Singapore Philatelic Museum
An image of the district now known as Orchard Road, circa 1900.

"Orchard Road was a valley itself, between Emerald Hill, Mount Sophia, and Mount Elizabeth — all the hills around," explains Ruchi Mittal, assistant manager of the education and community outreach arm of the National Heritage Board. For the past year and a half, Mittal spent her days uncovering the history of Singapore's famed shopping belt, Orchard Road, and the neighbouring district of Dhoby Ghaut. "I got the information from lots of places, but mainly old newspapers, interviews with former residents and the national archives." 

Mittal's research brought her back to the late 1700s, when a group of Chinese farmers ran plantations in the district now known as Dhoby Ghaut, growing gambier — a plant traditionally used to make cakes. "Gambier depletes the soil quickly, and they started moving down to Orchard and Tanglin." 

"By the time the British arrived in 1819, they had kind of spanned the whole area," Mittal continues. The British then followed suit and tried their hand at planting cash crops in the Orchard vicinity as well. They decided on nutmeg. "They thought Singapore's climate was suitable for nutmegs because it was similar to the islands of Indonesia, where nutmegs originated." The British then sold these nutmegs back to Europe as spices. 

Yet, their money-making endeavours came to a halt in the 1840s when "there was a beetle infestation and all the nutmegs were destroyed." While some of these British land-owners turned their land into fruit orchards — where the name Orchard Road came from — others quickly sold these infested plots of land. "They started selling off smaller plots of land, where wealthier residents started building their homes, and some big companies like banks bought the land and built homes for their senior management." 

"So the expats lived there?" I ask Mittal.

"That term didn't exist at that time," she replies, explaining that the term foreigners would be more suitable. The bulk of these initial residents were indeed Westerners, although there were some wealthy Peranakans amongst them. 

Urban Redevelopment AuthorityA row of terrace houses built on postmaster William Cuppage's nutmeg orchard.
A row of terrace houses built on postmaster William Cuppage's nutmeg orchard.

They moved into the residential estates of Cairnhill, Emerald Hill and Cuppage Terrace, the latter being a former nutmeg orchard owned by a postmaster named William Cuppage. "He sold the land in the early 1900s and a lot of Peranakan families bought up the land — around 40 percent Peranakans," Mittal explains.

By Peranakans, she is referring to the traditional definitions of the community. "Peranakans are people who came to Singapore, like the Chinese or Indians, and they married local Malay women or local Chinese women who had lived here for generations. They were largely Chinese men who came and married local Malay women, and their children would have been Peranakans... The Indian Peranakans would be called Chetti Melaka." They shared the row of Cuppage terrace houses with Europeans. 

Urban Redevelopment AuthorityA 1969 image of shophouses located along Emerald Hill.
A 1969 image of shophouses located along Emerald Hill.

Located along the neighbouring Emerald Hill and Cairhill were similar residential estates, although the former was mostly bought up by Chinese Peranakans "who had made a lot of money from their previous businesses and they could get their houses here. Those who had large families would often have two houses." 

National Museum of SingaporeAn undated image of Cairnhill. It was formerly home to an orchard and residential estate of Scotland-born Charles Carnie.
An undated image of Cairnhill. It was formerly home to an orchard and residential estate of Scotland-born Charles Carnie.

As these plots of land were sold to wealthy families and a pool of residents started moving in, retail shops starting popping up in the 1850s onwards. "Once you had homes, you had shops," quips Mittal. These were wealthy residents, so "you had higher-end shopping and motor car showrooms. Dhoby Ghaut was known for this row of car showrooms."

National Museum of SingaporeAn image of migrant Indian washermen (or dhobies) washing laundry in a stream in the vicinity of Dhoby Ghaut, now Stamford Canal, by the current YMCA.
An image of migrant Indian washermen (or dhobies) washing laundry in a stream in the vicinity of Dhoby Ghaut, now Stamford Canal, by the current YMCA.

In fact, the Dhoby Ghaut neighbourhood was first home to migrant Indian laundrymen — called dhobies in Tamil — that the British military brought along with them to establish their settlement in Singapore. "They washed the clothes of soldiers, and other people — whoever would pay them," Mittal explains. Along with these laundrymen were Indian convicts who were here as labourers for the British. The latter community occupied the Bras Basah vicinity. 

"You had this entire row of car showrooms," says Mittal. The first automobile company to enter the market was Cycle & Carriage in 1916. Chevrolet, Cadillac, and Chrysler occupied the location now known as Plaza Singapura. General Motors was located at the current Paragon, while Audi and Volkswagen retailed at the current Lucky Plaza, and Malayan Motors was located at the SMA building that now houses the higher education institute, MDIS

National Library BoardA 1982 image of the Malayan Motors building, which was later taken over by the Singapore Manufacturers' Association. Today, it's home to MDIS, Singapore's first non-profit higher education institute.
A 1982 image of the Malayan Motors building, which was later taken over by the Singapore Manufacturers' Association. Today, it's home to MDIS, Singapore's first non-profit higher education institute.

All these while, the vicinity was still considerably quiet. It was a peripheral neighbourhood which paled in comparison to the hustle and bustle of the city centre — the Singapore river. "Town would have been Singapore river and Raffles Place," Mittal continues. 

On their way to the Singapore river, people had to pass by "Orchard Road, especially where CK Tang was established." The late Singaporean entrepreneur, Tang Choon Keng opened his first retail store in the River Valley district but decided to relocate to Orchard Road, where the departmental store still stands today. 

It triggered the rise of the upmarket shopping belt that Orchard Road is today. "He set up his shop there, and it was the first departmental store in Orchard Road. In the past, people saw that Orchard Road was quiet, and not a place where businesses would thrive," Mittal explains. "Because his store became so popular, then you started to have Metro, Robinsons, John Little follow suit to open outlets at Orchard Road."

C.K. Tang LtdThe former CK Tang departmental store pictured in the early 1980s.
The former CK Tang departmental store pictured in the early 1980s.

One of these commercial developments included the Ngee Ann building, and the Wisma Indonesia (now Wisma Atria) building, which were both built on the grounds of a Teochew cemetery called Tai Shan Ting. "The Chinese considered hilly areas to be auspicious, so they used it for burials, and there was a Teochew kampong nearby, just across the road," Mittal continues. 

The land belonged to the Ngee Ann Kongsi, founded by a Teochew man called Seah Eu Chin, who was one of the early gambier plantation owners. Later, "in 1953, its chairman Lien Ying Chow sought to develop the land to raise funds for charitable work, and started to exhume it." Lien built the Ngee Ann building, back then a space for apartments and retail shops, and leased out a plot of land, where a mixed-used building, Wisma Indonesia was constructed. 

Urban Redevelopment AuthorityIn the middle of this 1957 image is the Ngee Ann building. To its right sat the Wisma Indonesia building. Both were built on Teochew cemetery grounds, which was exhumed and cleared to pave way for commercial redevelopment.
In the middle of this 1957 image is the Ngee Ann building. To its right sat the Wisma Indonesia building. Both were built on Teochew cemetery grounds, which was exhumed and cleared to pave way for commercial redevelopment.

Down the road was another similar commercial building called Heeren, founded by a Malaccan businessman named Chee Swee Cheng. "He named the building after Heeren Street in Malacca, and "Heeren" means "gentleman" in Dutch," explains Mittal. In the original building, Chee had two large torches built on the rooftop as decorative elements. The same pair of torches now sit by the entrance to the Heeren's office building.

National Library BoardThe Heeren building pictured in 1982.
The Heeren building pictured in 1982.

By the '60s and '70s, there were still traces of old Singaporean life in the Orchard precinct. Yet, when the first Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) train service was put in place, these early settlers' families dispersed. "When you had the construction of the MRT, the whole landscape changed. That was in the '80s. They disappeared," continues Mittal.

"Where did they go?" I ask her.

Mittal believes that the British troops were unlikely to have brought the dhobies or labourers back home with them. And it's likely that a portion of the Indian and Chinese residents here are descendants of these early migrants.

For decades, Orchard Road was one of Singapore's stronghold for tourist and retail activities. Yet, in 2016, a wave of news reports cited that Orchard Road was losing its lustre. A year later, the Singapore Tourism Board announced plans to develop the shopping belt further in a bid to woo tourists back. And in this city, change does happen in the blink of an eye.

Visit the Orchard Heritage Trail here