Serangoon Road

Serangoon Road is one of the earliest roads built in Singapore.1 It passes through Singapore's Little India, which is the commercial, cultural and religious centre for both the local and foreign Indian community in Singapore. It also served as a highway between town and the Serangoon harbour in the northeast.

Little India was not planned as a designated area for the Indian community, unlike Chinatown and Kampong Glam that had been set aside for the Chinese and Malay communities respectively. However, the life around Serangoon Road eventually led to the development of the Indian community there. Serangoon Road was described in an 1828 map of Singapore as "the road leading across the island". It was built as a link between the settlements in town and the Serangoon harbour, an important harbour on the Johor Straits. The harbour provided access to the once-lucrative lumber and quarry trades in Pulau Ubin and Johor.

During the 1820s, the area became an industrial area for the brick kiln trade and cattle farming, which were carried out mostly by Indians. By 1826, thousands of Indians had come to Serangoon Road to work as construction workers and farmers. The majority of Indians who came to Singapore were either South Indian Muslims or middle caste Hindus. The first recorded brick kiln business in Singapore was said to have been established by Narayana Pillai, an Indian who arrived in Singapore in 1819. Cattle farmers were attracted to the area due to the presence of abundant water and grassland, which made it suitable for cattle farming.

Subsequently, kiln businesses and cattle farming were discontinued in the 1860s and in 1936 respectively by the government. Despite the closure of these industries, most of the Indians who had gone to work at Serangoon Road continued to reside there. By 1880, the Indian population had grown to a large number, making the area recognisable as an enclave for the Indian community in Singapore.5

Key features
One of the unique features along Serangoon Road is the architecture of the terrace shophouses with highly decorative facades. They have features that reflect the periods they were built, ranging from the early 1840s to 1960s. Another unique feature of some of these buildings is its smooth surfaces. These were created using a traditional technique of external plasterwork: the Madras chunam, which was made of egg white, shells, lime and sugar. These were mixed together with coconut husks and water and plastered onto the surface of buildings. Upon hardening, the surface was polished with crystal stones, creating a smooth finish.6

One of Singapore's earliest Hindu temples, the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple, is located at 397 Serangoon Road. The temple was built in 1885 by Narasingham, who purchased the plot of land from the East India Company.7

Serangoon Road today
Serangoon Road is now part of the conserved Little India area, which was gazetted on 7 July 1989 by the Urban Redevelopment Authority. The area continues to be a hub of activity for the Indian community. It becomes livelier on weekends and during religious festivals such as Thaipusam and Deepavali, when both tourists and locals throng the street.8

Accessibility to Serangoon Road was enhanced with the opening of the Mass Rapid Transit’s North East Line on 20 June 2003.9

Other facts
The road’s name was used as the title of a 2013 television series. Co-produced by Singapore-based Infinite Studios, HBO Asia, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Great Western Entertainment, Serangoon Road was a 10-episode detective series set in Singapore during the 1960s.10

Variant names
The Chinese refer to Serangoon Road as hou gang lu, meaning "back of the port road".11 It is referred to as au-kang in Hokkien and hau-kong in Cantonese, meaning "back creek".12

The road is said to be named after "Ranggong", a Malay name for a bird of the stork species called the adjutant bird or small marsh bird. Others suggest that the name was derived from the Malay phrase di-serang dengan gong, meaning "to attack with gongs or drums", a possible reference to gongs used to scare away animals from the forested area of Serangoon.13

Heirwin Mohd Nasir

1. Sharon Siddique and Nirmala Shotam-Gore, Serangoon Road: A Pictorial History (Singapore: Educational Publications Bureau, 1983), (Call no. RSING 779.995957 SER)
2. Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Little India: Historic District (Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, 1995), 15. (Call no. RSING 363.69095957 LIT)
3. Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Little India, 19, 21.
4. Norman Edwards and Keys Peter, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 111–15. (Call no. RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA])
5. Edwards and Peter, Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, 111–15.
6. Edwards and Peter, Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, 111–15.
7. Preservation of Monuments Board, Singapore, National Monuments (Singapore: Preservation of Monuments Board Singapore, 1985), 18. (Call no. RCLOS 722.4095957 NAT)
8. Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Little India, 21.
9. Christopher Tan, “16 MRT Stations Planned for NE Line,” Business Times, 5 March 1996, 1; Leonard Lim, “NEL Gets Off to a Promising Start,” Business Times, 21 June 2003, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Lau, Joon-Nie, “Singapore TV: From Local to Global,” BiblioAsia, (April-June 2016); “Drama Set in 1964 Singapore's Vibrant Serangoon Road,” ABC Radio Australia, accessed 31 May 2013.
11. Victor R. Savage and Brenda S.A. Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics, 3rd ed. (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 343.
12. Edwards and Peter,
Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, 111–15.
13. Edwards and Peter, Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, 111.

Further resources
Caldecott Productions International, Restoring the Singapore Shophouse: The 'Top-Down' Approach, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Singapore, 1994, videocassette. (Call no. RSING 711.4095957 RES)

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): 128–29. (Call no. RQUIK 959.5 JMBRAS)

J. R. Kamble, Serangoon Road, J. R. Kamble, 1984, videocassette. (Call no. RSING 959.57 KAM-[HIS])

Ray Tyers and Siow Jin Hua, Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then & Now (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1993). (Call no. RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS])

S. Durai Raja-Singam, Malayan Street Names: What They Mean and Whom They Commemorate (Ipoh: The Mercantile Press, 1939). (Call no. RRARE 959.5 RAJ; microfilm NL18265)

Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, Changing Landscapes: Serangoon, Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, 1988, videocassette. (Call no. RSING 959.57 CHA-[HIS])

Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, Changing Times: Serangoon, Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, 1992, videocassette. (Call no. RSING 959.57 CHA-[HIS])

The information in this article is valid as at 2017 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.


Serangoon Road (Singapore)
Historic sites--Singapore
Street names--Singapore
Streets and Places