Whiteaway Laidlaw was a premier department store in the early 20th century. Whiteaway brought in products that appealed to the Europeans and wealthy locals. It started in D'Almeida Street before moving into its own building at Battery Road. Its premises was occupied by a Japanese retailer during the Japanese Occupation, thereafter Whiteaway continued its business until 1962 when Maybank took over the building. The site that Whiteaway used to occupy is now home to Maybank Tower.
The founder of Whiteaway was Robert Laidlaw (b. 10 January 1856) whose early career was in wholesale textile trade in London. In 1877, Laidlaw went to India and began a long residence in Calcutta (about 20 years), having travelled extensively in Asia, Africa and America. He was also made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. In 1882, in Calcutta, Laidlaw started what was later to be a great business house, Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co. Soon, Whiteaway opened branches in about 20 cities, in India and the Straits Settlements, including Singapore, Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, Taiping, Seremban, Klang, Malacca and Telok Anson. Whiteaway was as much into tailoring and as they were into importing and selling household goods. Robert Laidlaw was also a proprietor of tea estates in Darjeeling and of rubber estates in the Federated Malay States.
Whiteaway's store in Singapore opened in 1900 in D'Almeida Street, selling household goods, shoes and crockery. The other two great departmental stores in Singapore then that offered luxury items and catered to the well-heeled were John Little's and Robinson's. In 1900, architects from Swan and MacLaren designed the Oranjie Building (renamed Stamford House in 1963) with Whiteaway's requirements in mind as they were the main tenants. In 1904, Whiteaway shifted to the Oranjie Building.
In 1910, Whiteaway bought the land that used to be the site of the Flint's Building before it burnt down. Both land and building belonged to the Flint family; William Flint was Singapore's first Master Attendant and Raffles' brother-in-law. Whiteaway built their own building on the site and the Whiteaway Laidlaw Building became Whiteaway's signature departmental store in Singapore. Located at Battery Road, the building was four storeys high and made of vaulted concrete slabs spanning steel girders with corrugated iron permanent shuttering. During WWI (1914-1918), Whiteaway's business was not affected as the war was mainly fought in Europe. In fact, it reported yearly profit growth during the period.
During the Japanese Occupation, the Whiteaway building was taken over by the Japanese Army. In Syonan (Singapore's name during the Japanese Occupation), the Military Administration permitted three large department stores, Daimaru, Matsuzakaya and Shirakiya (the present Tokyu Department Store), to start retail business in the former premises of John Little, Robinson's and Whiteaway respectively. Although historian Turnbull said that these department stores were exclusively for Japanese customers, a personal reminiscence of a local living in Malaya during the occupation described visiting a Japanese department store in Kuala Lumpur which had previously been the Whiteaway department store. The locals were free to shop in that Japanese department store in Kuala Lumpur, and this could also be the scenario in Syonan. Besides operating a retail store in the Whiteaway building, Shirakiya also opened a canteen for Japanese soldiers and ran soap and leather-good factories.
In 1962, Maybank took over the building and renamed it Malayan Bank Chambers. This building was demolished in 1998 to make way for the 32-storey Maybank Tower that we see today.
Joshua Chia Yeong Jia
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List of Images
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The information in this article is valid as at 2006 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
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Stores, Retail--Singapore--History--20th century
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Department stores--Singapore--History--20th century
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