Amber Road

Amber Road is an “L”-shaped road that connects the junction of Haig Road and Mountbatten Road to Tanjong Katong Road.1 The road name was linked to the family of Joseph Aaron Elias, a successful Jewish businessman in early 20th-century Singapore.2 A popular landmark on the road is the Chinese Swimming Club.

Road name
In 1921, a stretch of road running between Grove Road (now expunged) and Tanjong Katong Road was named Amber Road. Elias and his family once held property in the area, and there are differing accounts on how the name “Amber” was linked to the Elias family. According to the authors of Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics, Amber Road was named after the Amber Trust Fund established by Elias’s mother, Serena Elias, to further the education of poor Jewish youths in Singapore. Elias’s mother was also referred to as Mrs Sarina Elias Amber in the local newspapers in the 1910s. However, the author of The Jews of Singapore stated that the Amber Trust Fund was named after the family of Elias’s mother.3

On 29 January 1921, The Singapore Free Press reported on the proceedings of an ordinary meeting of the municipal commissioners, which of which Elias had also been present as a member: “The President announced… the opening of a new road, running from East Coast Road to Mandalay Villa in continuation of Haig Road which was named ‘Amber Road’. There was some laughter on the mention of the word ‘Amber’, evidently as the road was named after Mr A. J. Elias, who time after time had urged its construction, the word amber being reminiscent of Mr Elias’ telegraphic address and his racehorses.” It is not known if there was a typographical error on the part of the reporter, as “Mr A. J. Elias” would in fact refer to Elias’s father, Aaron Joseph Elias, who had passed away in 1902.4

Kampong Amber
Kampong Amber, a Malay kampong (village), used to exist in the area between East Coast and Amber roads. It was a place where multiculturalism thrived in the 1940s and ’50s, as the villagers comprised Chinese, Indians and Malays who mingled freely with one another.5

Kampong Amber was demolished in the 1970s and ’80s to make way for high-rise flats.6

Tragic events
Amber Road was the scene of two tragic events in Singapore’s history. During the Japanese Occupation (1942–45), the beach opposite 27 Amber Road was the site of Operation Sook Ching, which was carried out to purge suspected anti-Japanese elements. Many Chinese men were killed by Japanese soldiers during the operation. Amber Road was also one of the worst-hit areas during the Maria Hertogh riots that took place in 1950.7

Of the four luxurious homes owned by the Elias family in Singapore, the mansion on Amber Road was the most palatial. Built next to the sea in the early 1900s before land reclamation took place, it was named “The Big House” by the family. The estate was sold in the mid-1960s, following which Sea View Hotel (also spelt “Seaview”) and departmental store, Yaohan, came to be built on its grounds in 1969 and 1977 respectively.

By the 1990s, the only surviving structure of The Big House was the annexe to the main mansion – a stately two-storey Neo-classical bungalow used as a storeroom by the Seaview Hotel. In 2002, the bungalow was acquired by Mer Vue Developments/Wheelock Properties, together with the surrounding land, for the development of 546 units of freehold apartments. The developer felt that the bungalow was worth preserving as “the architecture of the house is seen as key to the charming character of the Amber Road/Katong area”, and conserved the bungalow by converting and retrofitting it into the clubhouse of the condominium development known as The Sea View. The conservation work was officially completed in April 2008.8

The aforementioned Mandalay Villa, a house that was once prominent on Amber Road, had links with several prominent Singaporeans. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding prime minister, mentioned in his memoirs that he had proposed to his wife, Kwa Geok Choo, at Mandalay Villa after attending a party there. Built in 1902 by Lee Cheng Yan, a prominent businessman from the Peranakan (Straits Chinese) community, the two-storey bungalow with its fanciful facade and 53,000 sq ft of grounds was later inherited by his son, Lee Choon Guan, also a prominent businessman. After Lee Choon Guan died in 1924, his wife Tan Teck Neo (daughter of prominent businessman Tan Keong Saik) became the property’s sole owner. Tan was known for the grand parties she threw at the villa, which served as a platform for the Chinese and British high society to mingle during a period when there was minimal social interaction between the two communities. In the 1970s, the government acquired 20,000 sq ft of the villa’s land for the construction of the Amber Road roundabout. After Tan’s death in 1978, the bungalow was left vacant as many of its occupants married and moved into their own homes. Mandalay Villa was sold and demolished in 1983.9

Another prominent landmark on Amber Road is the Chinese Swimming Club, which still stands today. Its history began in 1905 with a group of Straits Chinese men who called themselves the “Tanjong Katong Swimming Party”, as a counterpart to the Singapore Swimming Club set up by the British for European members. The Tanjong Katong Swimming Party registered as a club in 1909, and was renamed Chinese Swimming Club in 1910. It was an institution for Straits Chinese members and a gathering place for many Katong residents. The club is also reputed for having produced many of Singapore’s swimming bests, such as Patricia Chan, David Lim, Desmond Koh and Mark Chay.10

Naidu Ratnala Thulaja & Chris Tang

1. ”Amber Road,” Streetdirectory Pte Ltd., accessed 1 September 2017; Lily Kong and T.C. Chang, Joo Chiat: A Living Legacy (Singapore: Joo Chiat Citizens’ Consultative Committee; National Archives of Singapore, 2001), 123. (Call no. RSING 959.57 KON-[HIS])
2. Joan Bieder, The Jews of Singapore (Singapore: Suntree Media, 2007), 54–57. (Call no. RSING 959.57004924 BIE-[HIS])
3. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 54–57; Eze Nathan, History of Jews in Singapore, 1830–1945 (Singapore: Herbilu Editorial & Marketing Services, 1986), 77–78. (Call no. RSING 301.45192405957 NAT); Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 17, 111. (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA]); “War Relief Funds,” Straits Times, 29 August 1916, 8; “Page 12 Advertisements Column 2: Notice,” Straits Times, 22 February 1923, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 56; “Municipal Commission,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 29 January 1921, 14; “Municipal Matters,” Malaya Tribune, 29 January 1921, 5; “Municipal Commission,” Straits Times, 29 January 1921, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Kong and Chang, Joo Chiat, 33; Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 17.
6. Kong and Chang, Joo Chiat, 33; Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 17.
7. Genevieve Jiang, “It Was Absolute Madness,” Straits Times, 14 July 1998, 28 (From NewspaperSG); Tan Tik Loong Stanley and Tay Huiwen Michelle, Syonan Years, 1942–1945: Living Beneath the Rising Sun (Singapore: National Archives of Singapore, 2009), 14–15. (Call no. RSING 940.530745957 TAN-[WAR]); Kevin Blackburn, “The Sook Ching Massacre,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 73, no. 2 (279) (2000): 71–90. (Call no. RSING 959.5 JMBRAS); Tan Beng Luan and Irene Quah, The Japanese Occupation 1942–1945: A Pictorial Record of Singapore during the War (Singapore: Times Editions, 1996), 68. (Call no. RSING 940.5425 TAN-[WAR])
8. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 54–57; Lesley Koh, “Hidden Treasure,” Straits Times, 4 December 1992, 1; Geraldine Tan, “Joe Grimberg’s Reason to Smile,” Straits Times, 5 January 2006, 10; Vincent Wee, “Sea View Condo Comes with a Piece of Local History,” Business Times, 21 April 2008, 7; Foo Mey Kian, “From Yaohan Katong, It’s Goodbye Till December,” Singapore Monitor, 11 August 1983, 4; “Barker Opens $20M. Luxury Hotel,” Straits Times, 17 December 1969, 31. (From NewspaperSG); “No.43 Amber Road (The Sea View Clubhouse),” Urban Redevelopment Authority Singapore, accessed 1 September 2017.
9. Kong and Chang, Joo Chiat, 122–25; Peter Lee and Jennifer Chen, Rumah Baba: Life in a Peranakan House (Singapore: National Heritage Board, 1998), 27, 31 (Call no. RSING 305.89510595 LEE); Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions: Straits Times Press, 2015), 92–93 (Call no. YRSING 959.5705092 LEE); Lee Kip Lin, The Singapore House 1819–1942 (Singapore: Times Editions [for] Preservation of Monuments Board, 1988), 193. (Call no. RSING 728.095957 LEE)
10. Kong and Chang, Joo Chiat, 111; Ginnie Teo, “It All Began 90 Years Ago with 6 Pals,” Straits Times, 1 June 1998, 31; “Chinese Swimming Club,” Sunday Tribune (Singapore), 17 February 1935, 2; “$45M Facelift for Chinese Swimming Club,” Straits Times, 24 January 2002, 6. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at May 2021 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.


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