Trengganu Street

by Thulaja, Naidu Ratnala

Named after the Malaysian state of Trengganu, Trengganu Street is located in Chinatown in Singapore. It connects Sago Street and Pagoda Street.1 Together with the latter, it was converted into a pedestrian mall in 1997.2

Trengganu Street connects four streets in Chinatown: Pagoda Street, Temple Street, Smith Street and Sago Street.3 Trengganu Street was well-known as the famous Lai Chun Yuen opera house was located at the junction of Smith Street and Trengganu Street. Built in 1887, the opera house occupied a three-storey shophouse, and featured an 834-seat theatre. It was considered the Broadway or West End of Cantonese opera, and also hosted famous opera stars from China and Hong Kong.

By the late 1920s, the theatre experienced a decline in popularity due to the introduction of motion pictures.5 A few months before World War II broke out, the theatre was rented to Shaw Brothers, which screened movies there. During the war, a bomb blast badly damaged the theatre. Post-war renovations were carried out, but by then, the building had become a merchandise shop and later a warehouse for street hawkers.6 During the Japanese Occupation, the block of flats that lined Trengganu Street, from Smith Street to Sago Street became home to Malay families who sought shelter and protection.

The building which housed the opera house was restored to its Victorian splendour in 1998 and was acquired by a Taiwanese businessman for $50 million. He later donated it to the Singapore branch of the Taiwan-based Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation, which occupied the premises until 2005.The conversion of this shophouse into a commercial complex earned it an entry to the 2002 UNESCO’s Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation.9

Trengganu Street was also famous for hawkers serving exotic fare. Their specialties were brewed tonic soups made from a concoction of tortoise, turtle, snake, lizard, or fruit bat served in thick ceramic urns.10

Trengganu Street is situated within the Kreta Ayer subdistrict of the Chinatown Conservation Area.11 Part of Trengganu Street, the area between Temple Street and Pagoda Street, was converted into a pedestrian mall in 1997.12 The remaining part of the street and Sago Street were also closed in 2003 to form a network of street markets comprising stalls selling a plethora of goods such as antiques, books, toys and jewellery, so as to revive the atmosphere of the old Chinatown. Traditional trades such as watch repairing, fan-making and fortune-telling were also reintroduced on this street.13 Located at 25 Trengganu Street is a refurbished and restored 80-room hotel, Santa Grand Hotel Lai Chun Yuen, which once housed the famous Chinese opera theatre.14 

Variant names
Chinese names:  Gu-chhia-chui hue-koi (Hokkien), Ngau-chhe-shui hei yun wang kai (Cantonese), which all mean “the cross street of Kreta Ayer”. The street was so called because it was used as a “cross over” between Smith Street and Sago Street.15 Hei yuen wang kai (Cantonese), meaning “theatre side street”, is a reference to its location as the street located next to the Lai Chun Yuen theatre.16

Naidu Ratnala Thulaja

1. Peter K. G. Dunlop, Street Names of Singapore (Singapore: Who’s Who Publishing, 2000), 313 (Call no. RSING 959.57 DUN-[HIS]); Mighty Minds Street Directory, 24th ed (Singapore: Angel Publishing Pte Ltd., 2014), 49. (Call no. RSING 912.5957 MMSD)
2. “Street Closed to Make Way for Pedestrian Mall,” Straits Times, 27 June 1997, 57. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Mighty Minds Street Directory, 49.
4. Leong Weng Kam, “Return to Lai Chun Yuen,” Straits Times, 24 November 2001, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
5. “Lai Chun Yuen an Opera Theatre in Its Heyday,” Straits Times, 16 July 1994, 4 (From NewspaperSG); Archives and Oral History Department, Singapore, Chinatown: An Album of a Singapore Community (Singapore: Times Books International, 1983), 90. (Call no. RSING 779.995957 CHI)
6. Leong, “Return to Lai Chun Yuen”; Archives and Oral History Department, Singapore, Chinatown, 90.
7. “Chinatown’s Non-Chinese Legacy,” Straits Times, 21 May 2001. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website) 
8. Leong, “Return to Lai Chun Yuen”; “About Tzu Chi Singapore,” Tzu Chi Singapore, accessed 30 October 2019.
9. “UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Cultural Conservation,” UNESCO Bangkok, accessed 20 October 2016.
10. Chan Kwee Sung, “No Love Lost for the Old ‘Street of the Dead’,” Straits Times, 13 March 1999, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
11. “Chinatown,” Urban Redevelopment Authority, accessed 31 October 2019.
12. “Street Closed to Make Way for Pedestrian Mall.”
13. Dawn Wong, “Plans for a Chinatown Street Market Area, Minus Cars,” Straits Times, 3 January 2003, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Clara Chow, “City & Country: Royal Group in Hotel-Building Mode,” Edge Singapore, 31 October 2011 (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website); Huang Lijie, “First, Shoebox Condos; Now… Shoebox Hotel Rooms,” Straits Times, 4 December 2011, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
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): 138–39. (Call no. RQUIK 959.5 JMBRAS)
16. Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 388. (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA])

Further resource
Chan Kwee Sung, “No Love Lost for the Old ‘Street of the Dead’,” Straits Times, 13 March 1999, 7. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article as valid as at October 2019 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.

Heritage and Culture
Historic buildings--Singapore
Street names--Singapore
Streets and Places