Orchard Road Refresh: From nutmeg orchards to urban jungle

20 Mar 2020

Straits Times, 20 Mar 2020, Orchard Road Refresh: From nutmeg orchards to urban jungle

Singapore's prime shopping belt during colonial times was far from the fruit-laden Eden-esque tropical thoroughfare that its epithet would have you evoke.

The truth is that Orchard Road was a dusty rural lane that snaked past cemeteries, hills and gambier farms carved into the landscape by gambier merchants before Stamford Raffles hoisted the British flag in Singapore in 1819.

Nutmeg orchards were seen on the map starting from 1844, thanks largely to the meticulous cartography of one John Turnbull Thomson, the colonialists' point man for infrastructure on the island.

Gambier was a prized commodity used in tanning raw animal hides since the 1700s and, at the time when the British staked out Singapore turf, there were already about 20 gambier plantations.

These were owned mostly by Teochew businessmen from Guangdong province in China, according to national archival records.

But there was a big problem with the cash crop.

It leached the soil of nutrients so badly that plantation owners had to relocate to more fertile areas every few years.

By the late 1830s, the gambier plantations around Orchard Road were abandoned.

Historian Julian Davison, who has written several books on Singapore architecture, such as Black And White: The Singapore House, 1898-1941, says even the nutmeg trees that were found around Orchard Road did not last long.

"Orchard Road is one of the oldest thoroughfares in Singapore," says Dr Davison, referring to the earliest maps depicting Orchard Road in the 1800s by Thomson.

"Gambier was later replaced by European-owned nutmeg plantations which, in turn, gave way to orchards of tropical fruit when Singapore's nutmeg industry was wiped out by blight in the 1860s.

"Nutmeg trees are how Orchard Road came by its name, but they weren't around for long either," he says.

The era of the fabled nutmeg orchards was over and Orchard Road began to slowly develop as a residential enclave.

In fact, there were significant urban developments from the Dhoby Ghaut end of Orchard Road, according to Associate Professor Yeo Kang Shua from the architectural history faculty of the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

"Orchard Road stretches from Dhoby Ghaut to Tanglin. The development started largely from the Dhoby Ghaut side, moving inland," says Prof Yeo, who is also president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites Singapore.

According to Dr Davison, Dhoby Ghaut served as the centre of Singapore's marketplace for horses in the mid-to late 1800s.

By the early 1900s, when horse-drawn carriages were replaced by motor cars, Orchard Road became a hub for car showrooms.

"In time, the horses were superseded by motor vehicles, at which point the bottom end of Orchard Road (Dhoby Ghaut) became the locus of Singapore's trade in motor cars," says Dr Davison.

One of the pioneer names to operate in the Orchard Road area was car dealer Cycle & Carriage, which opened a showroom in Dhoby Ghaut in 1916.

Across the road, Borneo Motors opened another showroom in 1925 on the site of the present Plaza Singapura, selling Chevrolet, Cadillac and Chrysler cars.

Dr Davison says: "The final stage in the development of Orchard Road was when Singapore's retail trade, which had traditionally been based in Raffles Place, relocated to the area in the years between the two world wars."

Prof Yeo notes that significant property developments after World War II included the construction of Shaw House and Lido in the late 1950s.

It was also around this time that Singapore's first home-grown department store C.K. Tang relocated to Orchard Road from River Valley.

"In the 1970s and early 1980s, Far East Organization contributed much to the landscape of Orchard Road with a series of iconic landmarks - Hilton Hotel, Far East Shopping Centre, Lucky Plaza, Orchard Plaza, Far East Plaza and Claymore Plaza," says Prof Yeo.

As any retrospective of Orchard Road will show, the true fruit of this sliver of Singapore land lies in its power to feed fertile imaginations throughout history.


Mr Chan Chun Sing, 50, Trade and Industry Minister and co-chair of the Ministerial Steering Committee for Orchard Road

"For many of us, Orchard Road has a special place in our hearts. For me, Orchard Road is the path that I took on my way back from school every day. Tangs was the first upscale department store to open in Orchard Road in 1958. The first McDonald's in Singapore opened at Liat Towers in 1979.

"Swing Singapore, an Orchard Road street party, had the highest turnout for an outdoor party in the 1990s. This has a special place in my heart as I was a part of the SAF then and I remember helping to set up the barricades for the event."

Associate Professor Yeo Kang Shua, 44, who is from the architectural history faculty of the Singapore University of Technology and Design and is also president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites Singapore

"Different stretches of Orchard Road etched different memories for me. As a young boy in the late 1970s, it was Plaza Singapura where I would wait for my sisters to have their piano classes at Yamaha Music School. It was my first encounter with two of (pioneer artist) Ng Eng Teng's sculptures. The curved pedestals of the sculptures were popular with kids who used them as mini-slides.

"As a teenager in the 1980s, it was the area around Scotts Road where I would watch movies with my friends in Lido Theatre.

"I also have memories of the first Swing Singapore in 1988. I don't remember much of the street party, but the long, snaking queue to get into Orchard MRT station for the ride home was unforgettable."

Historian Julian Davison, 64, who has written books on Singapore architecture, such as Black And White: The Singapore House, 1898-1941

"C.K. Tang was a favourite haunt of my mother's. I liked the stone lions on either side of the entrance - they are still there today.

"Cold Storage, halfway along Orchard Road, was the Fortnum & Mason of Singapore, and if I didn't complain too much about being dragged up and down its aisles by my mother, I would be rewarded with a chocolate milkshake at the Magnolia Snack Bar next door."

Mr Mark Shaw, 50, chairman of the Orchard Road Business Association and executive vice-president for operations of Shaw Organisation

"Growing up in Singapore, Orchard Road was where I had some of my favourite movie experiences. From James Bond movies at the Lido to Star Wars at the Cathay, lines of people would form for tickets on opening day after months of anticipation.

"In 1979, I remember McDonald's opening its first store in Singapore at Liat Towers to the same sort of queues as a Bond movie. I first experienced McDonald's in the United States and was thrilled that I could get one in Singapore.

"As a teenager, I would go to Rumours, Sparks and Fire, the 'it' discotheques that used to make Orchard Road home before Zouk came along and changed the scene entirely."


Ngee Ann City
The Teochew community had its own cemetery, called Tai Shan Ting, in Orchard Road.

It was established by the Ngee Ann Kongsi in 1845 between Grange Road and Paterson Road. The cemetery was exhumed in the 1950s to make way for Ngee Ann Building, an apartment and shopping complex that opened in 1957.

The exhumed remains from the cemetery were later interred at the Teochew Memorial Park in Yishun, which provides a resting place for about 20,000 cremated remains.

Ngee Ann Building was torn down in 1985 and the area was redeveloped into Ngee Ann City, which opened in 1993.

The retail entity C.K. Tang Limited (known today as Tangs) was founded by Tang Choon Keng, the son of a Presbyterian pastor from Swatow, China (now called Shantou), who arrived in Singapore in 1923.

Initially an itinerant door-to door salesman peddling linen and lace, Mr Tang began operating his first retail outlet in 1932, out of a rented shop in River Valley Road.

In 1939, the store relocated to a new three-storey C.K. Tang Building, built just across the street. The building was later renamed Gianurn Building after Mr Tang's father, Mr Tang Gian Urn.

C.K. Tang expanded further and commissioned architect Ang Keng Leng to design a new store in 1958 on a site in Orchard Road, cementing its first retail presence in the street. The building was eventually torn down to make way for Tang Plaza in 1982, which comprised Dynasty Hotel and the C.K. Tang Department Store.

The hotel was renamed the Marriott Tang Plaza Hotel in 1995, while the flagship store Tangs continues to operate at Tang Plaza.

Cold Storage Supermarket
In 1905, Cold Storage Supermarket started operations at the site of what is now The Centrepoint. It originally operated as a small deli before it grew to become Singapore's first supermarket.

From its earliest days, Cold Storage sold frozen produce imported from Australia and catered mainly to Europeans living in the Orchard Road area.

Fitzpatrick's Supermarket
Fitzpatrick's was established in 1947 by two former butchers from Cold Storage, George Holt and W.F. Fitzpatrick.

It started out as a small grocery store, but by 1958, it had grown significantly and was relaunched as a large, modern supermarket.

Fitzpatrick's Supermarket in Orchard Road opened in August 1958 to great fanfare, as shoppers could buy foodstuffs and household items in air-conditioned comfort for the first time.

The chain was bought over by Cold Storage in 1985. The Paragon mall now stands where Fitzpatrick's used to be before the building was torn down in the 1980s.

Tropicana Nightclub
Tropicana in Scotts Road was opened in 1968 by businessman Shaw Sung Ching and earned a reputation as a cabaret that featured Las Vegas-style live entertainment involving acrobats, magicians, singers and topless dancing girls.

It was highly popular until the late 1970s, when competing cabarets such as Neptune emerged in Shenton Way. It closed in 1989 and Pacific Plaza was built on its site in 1993.

Glutton's Square
Glutton's Square was a popular night-time alfresco dining area located at the open-air carpark in front of Cold Storage building.

Established in 1966, the area was popular with both locals and tourists for the wide variety of local fare sold by pushcart hawkers.

But it was closed down in 1978 due to poor sanitary conditions and the hawkers were relocated to the Newton Circus hawker centre and the nearby Cuppage food centre.

Dhoby Ghaut
In the early 1800s, the Orchard Road area was considered the outskirts of town, as the commercial centre of Singapore was then by the Singapore River.

Dhoby Ghaut had a freshwater stream known as Sungei Brass Bassa that provided a ready supply of fresh, clean water.

Until 1827, there was a garrison of sepoys, Indian soldiers employed by the British. This garrison included Indian washermen who laundered clothes in Sungei Brass Bassa.

The area was subsequently named Dhoby Ghaut after this activity, as dhoby means "washerman" in Hindi, while ghaut or "ghat" in Hindi refers to the area along a riverbank used for bathing or washing.

In the late 1800s, Dhoby Ghaut was also the site of numerous firms offering horse carriages and stables.

One of the first car dealers to operate in the Orchard Road area was Cycle & Carriage, which opened a showroom in Dhoby Ghaut in 1916.

Across the road, Borneo Motors opened a showroom on the site of the present Plaza Singapura in 1925, selling Chevrolet, Cadillac and Chrysler cars.

Another Dhoby Ghaut landmark, Plaza Singapura, opened in 1974 as one of the largest shopping centres in the region at the time.

It was known for its anchor tenant, the Japanese Yaohan Department Store, which had amenities such as an in-store bakery and a children's play area. This flagship Yaohan store closed in 1997.

In 2012, Plaza Singapura was refurbished and linked to Atrium@Orchard, a new commercial building above Dhoby Ghaut MRT station.