Chulia Street

by _People:Cornelius, Vernon

Chulia Street is located in the central region of Singapore, within the downtown core. Its former name, Kling Street, was regarded as derogatory, hence it was renamed Chulia Street on 1 January 1922, after the Chulias who migrated to Singapore from the Coromandel Coast of southern India.1

Chulia Street was known as Kling Street for a very long time. The term “kling” is a corruption of “Kalinga”, the name of an ancient empire in southern India that traded with the Malay Peninsula, Java and Sumatra in the early centuries of the Christian era. After World War I, the Indian community in Singapore felt strongly that the word “kling” had taken on a derogatory connotation.2 It had become a socially undesirable term referring exclusively to Indian coolies (unskilled labourers) who were considered the lowest social class. It was not the case before this.3

In 19th-century Singapore, Hindus from Madras (now Chennai) and elsewhere in southern India were known as Klings in bazaar Malay. Over time, the term “kling” became known among English-speaking residents to refer to the Tamil or Telegu coolie class. The Malays in the Malay Peninsula, however, still referred to Indians of all classes from the Coromandel Coast in southern India as Orang Kling, and the Madras presidency as Negri Kling.4

Despite the above associations, it was not clear why Kling Street was named as such. When Singapore was founded in 1819, the earliest immigrants from southern India were known to the first European merchants and officials as the Chulias.5 During the administration of William Farquhar, a Chulia kampong (“village” in Malay) was marked out and this site, according to Charles Burton Buckley, was probably Cross Street in Chinatown.6 The Chulias, who were mainly Muslims, had their own mosque at South Bridge Road called the Masjid Chulia or Jamae Mosque.7 Presumably, the later European residents and Chinese settlers heard local Malays referring to the Hindus as klings and followed suit. Hence the name Kling Street.8

From Kling Street to Chulia Street

In the early 1920s, the Indian Association of Singapore, in objection to the use of the derogatory word “kling”, proposed a change to the street’s name. They were represented by H. S. Moonshi, a municipal commissioner who was himself an Indian Muslim.At an ordinary meeting of the municipal commissioners held on 24 June 1921, Moonshi moved to change the name of Kling Street to King Street. However, another commissioner, Dr Clarke, proposed that the street be renamed Chulia Street, adding, “... considering that southern Indians form a large proportion of the population of Singapore and the word kling is objected to by them...”. It was also agreed at the meeting that the name change would take place in six months.10 

On 1 August 1921, The Straits Times carried a notice announcing that “from January 1, 1922, the name of the street extending from Raffles Square to South and North Canal Roads, at present known as Kling Street, will be changed to Chulia Street”. The notice was issued by the Municipal Office on 4 July 1921.11

Under its new name, Chulia Street was still very much an Indian enclave. It was dominated by the Chettiars, a subgroup of Tamils from the Chettinad region in southern India. They were mostly associated with the money-lending profession in Singapore, and provided a crucial source of credit for both the man in the street and European bankers.12 The busy Chulia Street remained unchanged until the mid-1970s, when UOB Building and OCBC Centre were constructed in 1974 and 1976 respectively.13 The street was originally lined with two-storey buildings, and was famous for the Indian shops that were eventually torn down between 1982 and 1983.14

Variant names
Chinese names: Shan-taai teng (Cantonese) and Sua-kia teng or Sua-a teng (Hokkien), which mean “small hill top”; Thi thiau (Hokkien), which means “iron pillars” (many iron pillars were used in the construction of houses along this street).15
Malay name: Jalan Kedei Pisau, which means “knife shop street”.16
Tamil name: Kathi Kadei Sadakku, which means “knife shop street”.17

Nor-Afidah Abd Rahman & Vernon Cornelius

1. S. Durai-Raja Singam, Malayan Street Names: What They Mean and Whom They Commemorate (Ipoh: Mercantile Press, 1939), 93. (Call no. RQUIK 959.5 RAJ); George L. Peet, Rickshaw Reporter (Singapore: Eastern University Press, 1985), 110. (Call no. RSING 070.924 PEE)
2. Singam, Malayan Street Names, 93.
3. Norman Edwards and Keys Peter, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 451. (Call no. RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA]); Peet, Rickshaw Reporter, 111.
4. Peet, Rickshaw Reporter, 111.
5. Peet, Rickshaw Reporter, 111.
6. Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 73. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])
7. “About Us,” Masjid Jamae (Chulia, accessed 31 August 2016.
8. Peet, Rickshaw Reporter, 112.
9. Peet, Rickshaw Reporter, 112.
10. Straits Settlements, Government Gazette, 60, 1921, 8. (Call no. RRARE 959.51 SGG; microfilm NL1203)
11. “Municipal Notice: Kling Street – Change of Name,” Straits Times, 1 August 1921, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Peet, Rickshaw Reporter, 112.
13. Edwards and Peter, Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, 416, 418.
14. Edwards and Peter, Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, 451.
15. H. W. Firmstone, “Chinese Names of Streets and Places in Singapore and the Malay Peninsula,” Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 42 (February 1905): 102–03 (Call no. RQUIK 959.5 JMBRAS); Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 217. (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA])
16. Mubin Sheppard, ed., Singapore 150 Years (Singapore: Times Books International, 1982), 218. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS])
17. Sheppard, Singapore 150 Years, 218.

The information in this article is valid as at 2017 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
Street names--Singapore
Streets and Places