Smith Street



Smith Street lies between South Bridge Road and New Bridge Road, and is located at the centre of Chinatown.1 The street is believed to be named after Cecil Clementi Smith, governor and high commissioner of the Straits Settlements between 1887 and 1893.2 Smith Street is also said to be the birthplace of Cantonese opera in Singapore.3

History
In the early days, Smith Street was popularly referred to as hei yuen kai (theatre street) in Cantonese,4 a reference to the 834-seat Chinese theatre Lai Chun Yuen that used to be at 36 Smith Street. The theatre was built in 1887 and was very popular among the Cantonese community in Chinatown for its Cantonese opera. The popularity of the theatre gave rise to colloquial names for the streets surrounding it: Temple Street was known as hei yuen hau kai (theatre backstreet), and Trengganu Street was hei yuen wang kai, or “side street”.5 Between the 1910s and 1920s, performances at the theatre attracted packed audiences. Cantonese stars who performed at the theatre included Ma Shi Chan, Leong Seng Poh, Hong Xiannu and Luo Pin-chao.6


After World War II, street hawkers and traders selling household goods occupied the street. They were later relocated to Kreta Ayer Complex in 1983 after the building was completed.7

Smith Street also had a darker side – it was known as a red-light area with at least 25 brothels located there in 1901. It was only in 1930, after the Women and Girl’s Protection Ordinance had been enacted in the Straits Settlements, that prostitution was brought under control.8

The street was a popular venue for job seekers, who would congregate here in search of prospective employment.9

Recent developments
A 100-metre stretch along Smith Street was converted into an outdoor eating area known as Chinatown Food Street, which officially opened on 13 November 2001.10 This was part of the Chinatown redevelopment project spearheaded by the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (now Singapore Tourism Board) and supported by various government and grassroots agencies.11 Attractions on this food street are hawker kiosks, shophouses restaurants and ad hoc street kiosks that offer speciality dishes from the main Chinese dialects.12 This section of the street used to be closed to traffic in the evening.13


On 1 May 2013, Chinatown Food Street was closed to make way for renovations.14 It was officially reopened on 22 February 2014.15 The revamped Food Street has more than 20 hawker stalls and six shophouses restaurants operating under a new glass shelter with special fans to keep the atmosphere cool. The entire 100-metre stretch is now closed to road traffic permanently.16

Variant names
Hei yuen kai (theatre street) and ngau che shui hey yun kai in Cantonese, or gu chia chwi hi hng koi in Hokkien, the latter two meaning “theatre street in Kreta Ayer”.17



Author

Heirwin Mohd Nasir



References
1. Singapore Land Authority. (n.d.). OneMap. Retrieved from OneMap website: http://www.onemap.sg/index.html
2. Dunlop, P. K. G. (2000). Street names of Singapore. Singapore: Who’s Who Publications, p. 284. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 DUN-[IS])
3. Leong, W. K. (2001, November 24). Return to Lai Chun Yuen. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Firmstone, H. W. (1905, February). Chinese names of streets and places in Singapore and the Malay Peninsula. Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 42, 53–208, pp. 128–129. (Call no.: RQUIK 959.5 JMBRAS) 
5. Archives and Oral History Department. (1983). Chinatown: An album of a Singapore community. Singapore: Times Books International, pp. 88, 90. (Call no.: RSING 779.995957 CHI)
6. Leong, W. K. (2001, November 24). Return to Lai Chun Yuen. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Smith Street’s colourful history. (2001, December 9). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Archives and Oral History Department. (1983). Chinatown: An album of a Singapore community. Singapore: Times Books International, p. 88. (Call no.: RSING 779.995957 CHI)
9. Smith Street’s colourful history. (2001, December 9). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Chinatown Food Street expected to open by end of the month. (2014, February 6). The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/; Food Street to be closed to traffic. (2001, December 1). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Boo, K. (2001, November 14). Food Street gets off to a good start. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Chinatown Food Street. (2014). About us. Retrieved 2016, November 22 from Chinatown Food Street website: http://chinatownfoodstreet.sg/
13. Food Street to be closed to traffic. (2001, December 1). The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Singapore Tourism Board. (2013). Closure of Chinatown Food Street on 1 May 2013. Retrieved 2016, November 22 from Singapore Tourism Board website: https://www.stb.gov.sg/news-and-publications/lists/newsroom/dispform.aspx?ID=410
15. Chinatown Food Street reopens after two-month delay. (2014. February 22). The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
16. Chinatown Food Street reopens with more variety – and it’s cool. (2014. February 23). The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/

17. Firmstone, H. W. (1905, February). Chinese names of streets and places in Singapore and the Malay Peninsula. Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 42, 53–208, pp. 128–129. (Call no.: RQUIK 959.57 JMBRAS)




The information in this article is valid as at 2005 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.

 

Subject
Heritage and Culture
Streets and Places
Ethnic Communities
Urbanization--Singapore
Architecture and Landscape>>Streets and Places
Street names--Singapore
Arts>>Architecture>>Public and commercial buildings
People and communities>>Social groups and communities