High Street, located in the Downtown Core of the Central Region, stretches from Hill Street to North Bridge Road.1 Cleared from part of the jungle near the shore in 1819, it was the first street laid out in Singapore.2 The short street is appropriately named as it sits on high ground and thus not prone to flooding, as other areas frequently were.3 From the turn of the century until the 1970s, High Street was a popular shopping haven of the elite.4 The original street was much longer and used to run from Hill Street all the way to St Andrew’s Road. In 1999, the stretch of the street between North Bridge Road and St Andrew’s Road was renamed Parliament Place.5
High Street, together with North Bridge Road and Hill Street, was laid out in 1819 under the direction of Lieutenant Henry Ralfe, Gunnery Officer of one of the escort vessels that accompanied Raffles when he first arrived in Singapore.6 In 1821, it was the first street in Singapore to be “macadamed”. This was a technique of sealing the road, which was named after its inventor, John Loudon McAdam, a Scottish civil engineer. The technique involved a stone hardcore base sealed with laterite.7
Shortly after its construction, many Sindhi and Sikh merchants set up shop in High Street. They were well-known for their imported European textiles and fine tailoring, including fancy laces, embroidered brocade, fine Swiss cotton, and silk.8 In the 1950s and ‘60s, the street continued to be Singapore’s premier shopping belt, with department stores such as Chotirmall and Metro. Many of the shops located there were family-owned, specialising in textiles and electronics.9
One famous shop was TMA Pte Ltd, a very successful business selling musical instruments, music equipment and records. It was owned by Tan Peck Soo, a godfather figure to many of Singapore’s aspiring early “pop musicians” in the 1960s. He gave young musicians access to expensive and high-quality instruments through loans and “painless payment plans”.10
In the 1970s, however, the emergence of shopping complexes and the development of Orchard Road drew away much of the business and glamour from High Street. The government’s acquisition of properties also changed the face of the street.11
Several landmarks lie along a stretch of High Street that was renamed Parliament Place in 1999:12
Old Parliament House: The building was designed by George D. Coleman and constructed between 1826 and 1827 as a private residence for the Scottish merchant John Argyle Maxwell. Maxwell never lived there and leased it to the government to be used as a courthouse. The building is now known as The Arts House, an arts and heritage centre.13
Former Attorney-General's Chambers : It cannot be ascertained when the original building was constructed. The first recorded structure, which opened in 1839, was an annex of the aforementioned residence for Maxwell. The building was occupied by the Public Works Department from the late 1960s until 1976 when it was renovated to house the chambers of the Attorney-General.14 Today, the building serves as the Parliament Secretariat Office block of Parliament House.15
Former Supreme Court Building: Occupying the site where the Grand Hotel de L'Europe once stood, the building was designed by Frank Dorrington Ward and officially opened in 1939. It served as the Supreme Court until the court moved to new premises in 2005. Along with the adjacent City Hall, the building was refurbished and reopened as the National Gallery Singapore in 2015.16
Parliament House: The new Parliament House officially opened in October 1999. It cost S$108 million to build and is five times larger than the old premises. Hence, the stretch of High Street from North Bridge Road to St Andrew’s Road was renamed Parliament Place in 1999.17
(1) In Hokkien, toa-kok koi, and in Cantonese, tai-kot kai, meaning “Supreme Court Street”.
(2) It was also called sang-che lo, which means “two wells road”, with reference to the two wells at the foot of Fort Canning.
1. Mighty Minds Street Directory (Singapore: Angel Publishing Pte Ltd., 2014), 24, map 132B. (Call no. RSING 912.5957 MMSD)
2. Peter K. G. Dunlop, Street Names of Singapore (Singapore: Who’s Who Publishing, 2000), 103 (Call no. RSING 959.57 DUN-[HIS]); Dhoraisingam S. Samuel, Singapore's Heritage: Through Places of Historical Interest (Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service, 1991), 119. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SAM-[HIS])
3. Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 147 (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA]); Ray Tyers and Siow Jin Hua, Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then & Now (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1993), 37 (Call no. RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS]); Sam Ran, “High Street – on the Road to New Life,” Straits Times, 23 April 1985, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Irene Ng, “The Day to Move House,” Straits Times, 29 August 1999, 3 (From NewspaperSG); Samuel, Singapore's Heritage, 119; Ministry of Culture, Singapore, Singapore Street Directory, 19th ed (Singapore: Publicity Division, Ministry of Culture, 1998–1999), 48, map 359. (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 SSD)
6. Dunlop, Street Names of Singapore, 103; Samuel, Singapore's Heritage, 119.
7. Dunlop, Street Names of Singapore, 103; “John Loudon McAdam,” Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., accessed 9 October 2017.
8. Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 37.
9. Nancy Byramji, “The Small Shop That Grew into a Thriving Business Empire,” Straits Times, 27 May 1977, 2; “Ninety Years of Rapid Expansion,” Straits Times, 29 May 1965, 14; Lee Yew Meng, “High St Shops File Appeals,” New Nation, 30 December 1978, 4 (From NewspaperSG); Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 37.
10. Christopher Toh, “Singapore Musicians Remember an Unsung Hero,” Today, 18 January 2016.
11. Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 37.
12. Ng, “Day to Move House.”
13. “Former Parliament House and Annex Building (Now The Arts House),” National Heritage Board, accessed 16 January 2017; Samuel, Singapore's Heritage, 213–14.
14. “Former Attorney-General's Chambers (Now Parliament House Block C),” National Heritage Board, accessed 16 January 2017; Samuel, Singapore's Heritage, 90.
15. “Architecture of the House” Parliament House,” n.d., photograph, Parliament of Singapore collection.
16. “Former Supreme Court,” National Heritage Board, accessed 16 January 2017; Samuel, Singapore's Heritage, 201–02.
17. Ng, “Day to Move House”; Siti Andrianie, “New Parliament House Opens,” Straits Times, 5 October 1999, 34. (From NewspaperSG)
18. 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): 90–93. (Call no. RQUIK 959.5 JMBRAS)
The information in this article is valid as at 2018 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.