Nankin Street, a one-way street in Chinatown, connects South Bridge Road to China Street. The street is named after the city of Nanking in China.1 It was associated with the Samsui women who lived in Singapore as well as tinsmiths who set up shop on this street during the 19th century.
One of the early streets of Singapore, Nankin Street appears on the original 1822 Raffles Town Plan of Singapore.2 The street runs parallel to Hokien Street and Chin Chew Street on both sides. It is listed in Coleman’s 1836 Map of Singapore as Nankeen Street.3 It is not known when and why this street was named after the Chinese city of Nanking although some streets in the vicinity were named after places in China. The street originally stretched up to New Bridge Road and this portion of the road, from South Bridge Road to New Bridge Road, was called Upper Nankin Street.4 A Hakka secret society named Sung Bai Kun was located on this street in the 19th century giving it a notorious reputation.5
Upper Nankin Street was the original location of what would later become the Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, which was gazetted as a national monument in 1989. The church started in 1889 in a shophouse in Upper Nankin Street where Sunday worship services were led by Dr Benjamin West, an American medical doctor and Methodist missionary. It relocated to 12 Japan Street (now Boon Tat Street) in 1905, but subsequently settled at Telok Ayer Street.6
Upper Nankin Street became the subject of a study, which looked into the living conditions in Chinatown, conducted by Kaye (1960), a Social Research Fellow at the University of Malaya. The shophouses along Nankin Street had been partitioned into many cubicles with no windows or ventilation. Upper Nankin Street was identified as being generally representative of the overcrowded and poor living conditions in Chinatown. It was also scheduled to be demolished by the Singapore Improvement Trust and would provide an opportunity to study the living conditions of the re-settled residents of that street. Samsui women who arrived in Singapore from 1934 to 1949 made Upper Nankin Street and Upper Chin Chew Street their residential quarters. Both Upper Nankin Street and Upper Chin Chew Street were expunged to make way for the construction of Hong Lim complex in 1980.
Nankin Street was remembered for being a food alley in the early 20th century that served up food to its customers late in the evenings.7 Nankin Street has been since turned into a pedestrian mall and is lined with a few conserved 2- to 3-storey shophouses of architectural interest, shops, eating places and residential units. One side of the street is occupied by China Square Complex, an office and residential complex. Nankin Street is under the Chinatown conservation area and was also part of the China Square Concept Plan to revitalise the area.8
Chinese names: Siong Pek Koi (Hokkien) and chhung-phak kai (Cantonese) meaning “the street of Siong Pek”. Siong Pek Kwan was an infamous secret society. It was the Kheh branch of a reputedly dangerous association called Thien Thi Hoi.9
Others: Black cloth street.10 The name came about because of the Samsui women who lived there – they wore black clothes.
Naidu Ratnala Thulaja
1. Norman Edwards and Peter Keys, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 455. (Call no. RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA])
2. Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Toponymics: A Study of Singapore Street Names (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 2003), 265. (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA])
3. Peter K. G. Dunlop, Street Names of Singapore (Singapore: Who’s Who Publishing, 2000), 218. (Call no. RSING 959.57 DUN-[HIS])
4. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 265.
5. Archives and Oral History Department, Singapore, Chinatown: An Album of a Singapore Community (Singapore: Times Books International, 1983), 48, 53–56. (Call no. RSING 779.995957 CHI)
6. Felicia Choo, “Methodist Church a Refuge during WWII,” Straits Times, 8 December 2016, 7 (From NewspaperSG); “Our Heritage,” Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, accessed 10 June 2020.
7. Chan Kwee Sung, “Best Lor Mee in Town,” Straits Times, 28 March 1998, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Agnes Wee, “China Square Project Expected to Be Finished By 2001,” Business Times, 1 June 1995, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 265.
10. Dunlop, Street Names of Singapore, 218.
The information in this article is valid as at May 2020 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.