Bras Basah Road


Bras Basah Road (old spelling Brass Bassa), street, one part in the Museum precinct from Handy Road to Victoria Street, and the other part in the Downtown Core from Victoria Street to Beach Road. The road was constructed by convict labour. Bras Basah Road is steeped in history with some of the most famous and oldest landmarks in Singapore built here, many still standing today.

The road was first mentioned in a G. D. Coleman map dated 1835 as Brass Bassa. The road's former names include Church Street (1823) highlighting the presence of the Church of the London Missionary Society (LMS). The Chapel stood at the junction of North Bridge Road and Bras Basah Road, where the Raffles Hotel complex extension is now. The same stretch (from Beach Road to North Bridge Road) later became College Street because the first local educational institution (today Raffles Institution) was located along here. The Bras Basah stretch from North Bridge Road upwards to where Dhoby Ghaut and Selegie Road now meet, was in the early 1820s called Selegy Street.

Bras Basah Road served as the suburbs to the busy city centre - Commercial Square, later Raffles Place. Dhobies or "Indian laundrymen", loosely referred to as Bengalis or Madrasis, pointing to their origins, once washed the clothes of nearby residents on the banks of the fresh water stream of the Sungei Brass Bassa (now Stamford Canal) that ran by Orchard and Stamford Roads. After which they would dry them on the immediate open waste-land, a five-acre lawn that was subsequently occupied by the Ladies Lawn Tennis Club opened on 10 November 1884 till 1924. The club and its green belt was the recreational spot with regular evening games of tennis. The land was later called Dhoby Green. The area where the laundry work was once carried out is now an open space and a landscaped Bras Basah Park.

Key Features
The first temporary Roman Catholic Church (1833-1847) at No. 3 Bras Basah Road stood on the spot of St. Joseph's Institution, now the Singapore Art Museum. Catholic priest, the Reverend Father Jean Marie Beurel must go down in history as having built three unique landmarks that still stand here today. The Church of the Good Shepherd (1846) which became Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in 1888, St. Joseph's Institution (1 May 1852), and the Convent (Holy Infant Jesus) buildings which started in 18 August 1852, with the purchase of Caldwell's House (1840-41) at the corner of Bras Basah Road and Victoria Street, and built up in 1890, the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus Chapel.

Other important buildings then included:
the prominent Raffles Institution (1837-1841) where Raffles City (1986) now stands, the Convict Jail complex occupied St. Joseph's Institution sports field, the former Raffles Girl's School, now an open field, its location marked with its original gate, the Paupers Hospital (1830-1833) which became the Convict Hospital (1833-1845), and together with the Lunatic Asylum (1841-1860) and the House of Correction, was on the grounds between Bencoolen Street and Waterloo Street, opposite Plaza By The Park (1990).

The quaint charm of Bras Basah in the 1950s and 1960s included: the Y.M.C.A. Tennis Pavilion, the Catholic Young Men's Association (C.Y.M.A.) building, the Catholic Centre (POSB and NTUC here now) and the old Bethesda Church.

Also stretches of low two-storeyed shophouses with Cathay Silk Store, Cathay Photo Store, the famous Johnny "two-thumb" Tattoo Specialist, Rendezvous Nasi Padang, and many second-hand bookshops selling school textbooks and popular fiction. Another spot worthy of mention is the painted red shophouse of (Joseph's) Baker's Bakery at the corner of Victoria Street/Bras Basah Road, where the Carlton Hotel (1988) stands, which was a popular meeting place in the 1960s and 1970s for students and lovers on dates. The old St. Joseph's Institution school field has seen many sporting events, fun-fairs, performances, and other memorable events. On the side of Raffles Hotel were the expensive stores of Doris Geddes for ladies clothes, and Raffles Photographers.

Sometime in the 1970s the Y.M.C.A. Tennis Pavilion was converted into a public park with carpark space. In 1988, the Urban Redevelopment Authority expanded and revamped the park, stretching the green space from Dhoby Ghaut to the grounds of the old St. Joseph's Institution (today's Singapore Art Museum), and it is now part of the Museum Precinct.

Variant Names
Malay name: Its name is a misspelling of the Malay word beras basah, meaning "wet rice". Before the land was filled in, the lagoon served as a gateway for boats with cargo-loads of rice. These were dried at the banks of the Sungei Bras Basah (Stamford Canal) but were often made wet by the rising tide.

Chinese names:
(1) In Hokkien, Lau Kah Ku Keng Khau and adapted in Cantonese Kau ka-ku hau means "Mouth of the Old Jail" and kha ku literally means "fetters" or "ankle chains".
(2) In Hokkien, Ho-lan-se le-pai-tng pi and in Cantonese Fat-lan-sai lai-pai-thong pin means "Beside the French Church", a reference to the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd.
(3) In Hokkien, Hai-ki ang-neo toa-oh pi means "Beside the seaside English big school" which was Raffles Institution.
(4) In Cantonese, Tai shu-kwun-fong pin means "Beside the big school".


Vernon Cornelius

Edwards, N., & Keys, P. (1988). Singapore: A guide to buildings, streets, places (pp. 283-284). Singapore: Times Books International.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 EDW)

Samuel, D. S. (1939). Malayan street names: What they mean and whom they commemorate (p. 87). Ipoh: Mercantile Press
(Call no.: RSING 959.5 RAJ)

Tyers, R. K. (1993). Ray Tyers' Singapore: Then and now (p. 72). Singapore: Landmark Books.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 TYE)

Further Readings
Firmstone, H. W. (1905, February). Chinese names of streets and places in Singapore and the Malay Peninsula. Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 42, 54-207.
(Call no.: *RQUIK 959.5 JMBRAS)

The information in this article is valid as at 1999 and correct as far as we can 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.

Street names--Singapore
Historic districts--Singapore
Streets and Places
Architecture and Landscape>>Streets and Places
Arts>>Architecture>>Architectural structure

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