Jalan Besar

Officially named in the 1880s, “Jalan Besar” literally means “big or wide road” in Malay. The road began as a track through a betel nut and nipah plantation. It was subsequently developed into a major road, along which communities resided and worked. Jalan Besar has been gazetted as a conserved area to preserve and enhance its heritage character.1

Initially a betel nut and nipah orchard, the Jalan Besar area was bought over by brothers Richard Owen Norris and George Norris, sons of an East India Company army officer. They paid 113 rupees to the East India Company for the land in the 1830s. Upon their acquisition of the land, the brothers added mangosteens and other fruit trees to the orchard.2 The road was partially completed by 1836, but the area around it remained swampy for some time after.3

During the 1880s, the municipality built a road through the plantation and named it Jalan Besar. A decade later, this road was widened to enable smooth traffic for carriages and bullock carts. The remaining land was sold as building lots, marking the first phase of urban development plans. The residents around Jalan Besar were a colourful mix from various communities including Indians, Chinese, Peranakans (Straits Chinese), Boyanese, Europeans, Eurasians and Malays.4

The shophouses and other buildings that used to lined this street had architectural characteristics typical of the late 19th-century and early 20th-century architecture. The colours that dominated the buildings were favourites with the general Malay and Straits Chinese population predominant in the area. The soft pastel shades of pink, blue, yellowish-beige and green were considered pleasant and harmonious colours.5 Many of these buildings lasted several decades until the development of the Housing and Development Board flats in the area resulted in their demolition. The remaining shophouses, however, continue to give this street an old world charm.6

Singapore’s first refuse incinerator was built at Jalan Besar in 1889. Famous former landmarks included New World Park, which was established in 1923, and Grand Theatre, which was housed within the amusement park and opened in 1958.7 The Jalan Besar Stadium, opened in 1929,8 was the main football arena before the National Stadium was built in 1973.9


Renuka M.

1. “Conservation: Jalan Besar,” Urban Redevelopment Authority, accessed 26 September 2016.
2. Peter K. G. Dunlop, Street Names of Singapore (Singapore: Who’s Who Publishing, 2000), 117–8. (Call no. RSING 959.57 DUN-[HIS])
3. Rohaini Saini, “Stroll Open Windows to S’pore’s Colourful Past,” Straits Times, 9 February 1990, 29. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Norman Edwards and Peter Keys, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 137. (Call no. RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA])
5. Edwards and Keys, Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, 142–3.
6. Urban Redevelopment Authority, “Conservation: Jalan Besar.”
7. Edwards and Keys, Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, xx; “New Cinema,” Straits Times, 25 December 1958, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
8. “Football: Opening of Jalan Besar Stadium,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 27 December 1929, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “Jalan Besar Satdium to Have Facelift,” Straits Times, 31 July 1997, 42; Lee Kuan Yew, “The Official Opening of the National Stadium,” speech, 21 July 1973, transcript, Ministry of Culture. (From National Archives of Singapore document no.  lky19730721)

Further resources
Jalan Besar Town Council, Jalan Besar Town Council News (1990). (Call no. RSING 307.095957 JBTCN)

S. Ramachandra, “When Jalan Besar Was a Swamp,” Straits Times, 6 July 1950, 8. (From NewspaperSG)

Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Conservation Guidelines: Our Heritage Is in Our Hands (Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, 1995). (Call no. RSING 363.69095957 CON)

Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Secondary Settlements: Conservation Guidelines for Jalan Besar Conservation Area (Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, 1991). (Call no. RCLOS 363.69095957 SEC)

The information in this article is valid as of 2016 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.


Historic sites--Singapore
Street names--Singapore
Streets and Places