Onan Road stretches from Geylang Road to a low-rise residential area around Fowlie Road (near East Coast Road). It runs parallel to Joo Chiat Road and its history is closely linked with that of Joo Chiat and nearby Katong.
The area around Onan Road was once a sandy coastal region with a dense growth of coconut trees, cultivated in plantations owned by the wealthy Arab family of the Alsagoffs. After World War I, Chew Joo Chiat, a well-to-do Chinese, bought over most of these plantations. He built two roads in the 1910s and bequeathed them to the Municipality.1 By 1914, the roads were known as Onan Road and Joo Chiat Road (formerly known as Confederate Estate Road). It is likely that Onan Road was named after Onan bin Rajidin, a migrant from Java who built a mosque in the area called Onan Road Mosque (demolished between the mid-1980s and 1990s due to redevelopment of the area).2 In the 1930s, the Municipal Committee installed electric lighting along Onan Road at a cost of $1,520.3
In the 1920s and 1930s, Chew Joo Chiat carefully planned for the development of shophouses and terraces along Onan Road.4 Since then, the buildings here have also been the gathering place and headquarters for various clubs and associations, including the Union Sporting Association5 and the Singapore Teachers’ Union.6
Architecture and culture
The Katong/Joo Chiat area had established Eurasian and Peranakan communities resulting in diverse and interesting mix of architecture, history and culture. The homes range from distinctive shophouses to kampongs to mansions.7 Within Katong/Joo Chiat, there was a high concentration of Peranakans on Onan Road and its immediate surroundings. While the Peranakan population here has declined as a result of suburbanisation, especially since the 1970s, and the passing on of the older generation, the architecture of the buildings still bears proof of their earlier presence.8
The Urban Redevelopment Authority placed parts of Onan Road under the conservation area of Joo Chiat in July 1993. Since then, the facades of many buildings have been conserved, as they represent a significant stage in the urban redevelopment of Singapore from the 1900s to 1940s. On 1 October 2007, more buildings along Onan Road were given conservation status.9
Shophouses, budget hotel, a food centre and several private residential developments lined Onan Road. Catering to the diverse communities in the area, religious buildings that have remained here include Toong Chai Presbyterian Church and Masjid Khalid.10 The Galaxy, formerly a three-storey shopping complex, is now home to the Muslim Converts’ Association of Singapore.11
In August 1995, the Ministry of Environment identified Onan Road as a flood-prone zone. Despite continuous efforts to raise this low-lying area, Onan Road is still prone to flash floods, though residents have reported that the frequency of flooding has declined compared to the 1970s.12
While Onan Road and the wider Joo Chiat/Katong area are known for their rich cultural heritage and good food, they have also been notoriously known as a red light district. Despite numerous police raids since 1965, brothels continued to be in operation until 1989. In 2005, there were many complaints by Joo Chiat residents against the proliferation of massage parlours and bars in the area. Even with grassroots volunteers patrolling the streets, as well as government efforts to light up the area and rules forbidding budget hotels from offering hourly rates, The Straits Times reported in 2009 that scantily-clad women were still plying the area.13
Vincent Koh Qi Rui
1. Norman Edwards and Peter Keys, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 301. (Call no. RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA])
2. “Bina Semula Kawasan Jejas Masjid Onan Road,” Berita Harian, 8 July 1985, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
3. “Municipal Action,” Straits Times, 24 January 1934, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Edwards and Keys, Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, 301.
5. “Around the Clubs,” Straits Times, 3 June 1934, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “Teachers Plan a Dance,” Straits Times, 23 March 1960, 28. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Carol Lim, “Keeping and Rejuvinating Katong and Joo Chiat,” Skyline (September–October 2007). (From BooKSG)
8. Lily Kong and T. C. Chang, Joo Chiat: A Living Legacy (Singapore: Archipelago Press, 2001), 97. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 KON)
9. Kong and Chang, Living legacy, 97, 134.
10. Singapore Street Directory (Singapore: Mighty Minds Publishing, 2015), map 113. (Call. no. RSING 912.5957 SSD-[DIR])
11. “Islamic Building,” Straits Times, 6 June 1997, 52. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Dominic Nathan, “Flood-Prone Areas Identified,” Straits Times, 28 August 1995, 35. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Liaw Wy-Cin, “Lights for Notorious Alley,” Straits Times, 3 April 2009, 42. (From NewspaperSG)
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.