Whiteaway Laidlaw

by Chia, Joshua Yeong Jia

Founded in Calcutta, India by Robert Laidlaw in 1882, Whiteaway Laidlaw was a department store that opened a premier branch in Singapore in 1900.1 Offering products that appealed to the Europeans and wealthy locals, the outlet in Singapore was located on D’Almeida Street, then Oranje (sometimes spelt Oranjie) Building, before moving into its own building on Battery Road.Whiteaway’s building was occupied by a Japanese retailer during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942–45). It resumed business thereafter until 1962, when Maybank took over the building.3 The site is currently occupied by Maybank Tower.

Early history
Born on 15 January 1856, Laidlaw’s early career was in the wholesale textile trade in London. He went to India in 1877 and resided in Calcutta for about 20 years. He also travelled extensively in Asia, Africa and America, and was made a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.4

Laidlaw established Whiteaway, Laidlaw & Co. in Calcutta in 1882.5 Soon, Whiteaway opened branches in about 20 cities in India and the Straits Settlements, as well as Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, Taiping, Seremban, Klang and Telok Anson. Whiteaway was as much into tailoring as it was into importing and selling household goods.6 Besides operating Whiteaway, Laidlaw was also a proprietor of tea estates in Darjeeling and rubber estates in the Federated Malay States.7

Whiteaway’s store in Singapore opened in 1900 on D’Almeida Street, selling household goods, shoes and crockery.8 At the time, John Little and Robinsons were the other two department stores in Singapore that offered luxury items and catered to the well-heeled.9

Completed in 1904, architects from Swan and MacLaren designed the Oranje Building (renamed Stamford House in 1963), with Whiteaway and Seth Paul’s requirements in mind as they were to be the building’s main tenants. Whiteaway operated from the building until 1915.10

In 1910, Whiteaway acquired the land occupied by Flint’s Building before it burnt down. The land had belonged to the Flint family – William Flint was Singapore’s first master attendant and Stamford Raffles’s brother-in-law. Whiteaway constructed the Whiteaway Laidlaw Building on the site, which became its signature department store in Singapore. Located on Battery Road, the four-storey building was constructed with vaulted concrete slabs spanning steel girders with corrugated iron permanent shuttering.11

Japanese Occupation
During the Japanese Occupation of Singapore, Whiteaway’s building on Battery Road was taken over by the Japanese army, and the military administration permitted three large department stores – Daimaru, Matsuzakaya and Shirakiya (later renamed Tokyu Department Store) – to commence retail businesses in the former premises of John Little, Robinsons and Whiteaway respectively. The department stores were also ordered to run dormitories for Japanese soldiers and supply military goods to the army.12 The stores aimed to attract primarily the Japanese. For example, they displayed Japanese soap rather than English smelling salt.13

In 1962, Maybank took over Whiteaway’s building and renamed it Malayan Bank Chambers.14 The building was demolished in 1998 to make way for the present 32-storey Maybank Tower.15


Joshua Chia Yeong Jia

1. Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, vol. 1 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 234. (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])
2. Margaret Shennan, Out in the Midday Sun: The British in Malaya, 1880–1960 (London: John Murray, 2000), 55. (Call no. RSING 959.500421 SHE)
3. Ray Tyers and Siow Jin Hua, Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then & Now (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1993), 11. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS])
4. “Obituary,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 5 November 1915, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “Page 2 Advertisements Column 1,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 10 June 1908, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 116.
7. “Sir Robert Laidlaw,” Malaya Tribune, 15 December 1915, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Shennan, Out in the Midday Sun, 55.
9. Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 128.
10. “Singapore Improvements,” Straits Times, 4 April 1905, 3; “Death of Mr. Seth Paul,” Straits Times, 25 August 1921, 9 (From NewspaperSG); Dhoraisingam S. Samuely, Singapore’s Heritage: Through Places of Historic Interest ( Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service, 1991), 229 (Call no. RSING 959.57 SAM-[HIS]);
Whiteaway’s,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 31 May 1915, 10; “Untitled,” Straits Times, 1 May 1915, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 11.
12. Hiroshi Shimizu, Isetan Department Store in Singapore since the Early 1970s (Japan: Faculty of Studies on Contemporary Society, Aichi Shukutoku University, 1999), 32–33. (Call no. RSING 658.871095957 SHI)
13. Nilanjana Sengupta, Singapore, My Country: Biography of M. Bala Subramanion (Singapore: WS Professional, 2016), 82. (Call no. RSING 383.492 SEN)
14. Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 11.
15. “SingLand Is Project Manager for Maybank's HQ Redevelopment,” Straits Times, 5 February 1998, 45. (From NewspaperSG)

Further resource
Edna Koh, “Back to the Future,” Straits Times, 31 August 2001, 24. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at May 2020 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.

Commercial buildings
Trade and industry
Business enterprises--Singapore
Department stores--Singapore--History--20th century
Stores, Retail--Singapore--History--20th century