Smith Street lies between South Bridge Road and New Bridge Road, and is located at the centre of Chinatown.1 The street may have been named after J.C. Smith who offered to defray cost of improving the road in 1853 to facilitate access for the inhabitants of that district.2 Smith Street is also said to be the birthplace of Cantonese opera in Singapore.3
In the early days, Smith Street was popularly referred to as hei yuen kai (theatre street) in Cantonese,4 a reference to the 834-seat Chinese theatre Lai Chun Yuen that used to be at 36 Smith Street. The theatre was built in 1887 and was very popular among the Cantonese community in Chinatown for its Cantonese opera. The popularity of the theatre gave rise to colloquial names for the streets surrounding it: Temple Street was known as hei yuen hau kai (theatre backstreet), and Trengganu Street was hei yuen wang kai, or “side street”.5 Between the 1910s and 1920s, performances at the theatre attracted packed audiences. Cantonese stars who performed at the theatre included Ma Shi Chan, Leong Seng Poh, Hong Xiannu and Luo Pin-chao.6
After World War II, street hawkers and traders selling household goods occupied the street. They were later relocated to Kreta Ayer Complex in 1983 after the building was completed.7
Smith Street also had a darker side – it was known as a red-light area with at least 25 brothels located there in 1901. It was only in 1930, after the Women and Girl’s Protection Ordinance had been enacted in the Straits Settlements, that prostitution was brought under control.8
The street was a popular venue for job seekers, who would congregate here in search of prospective employment.9
A 100-metre stretch along Smith Street was converted into an outdoor eating area known as Chinatown Food Street, which officially opened on 13 November 2001.10 This was part of the Chinatown redevelopment project spearheaded by the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (now Singapore Tourism Board) and supported by various government and grassroots agencies.11 Attractions on this food street are hawker kiosks, shophouses restaurants and ad hoc street kiosks that offer speciality dishes from the main Chinese dialects.12 This section of the street used to be closed to traffic in the evening.13
On 1 May 2013, Chinatown Food Street was closed to make way for renovations.14 It was officially reopened on 22 February 2014.15 The revamped Food Street has more than 20 hawker stalls and six shophouses restaurants operating under a new glass shelter with special fans to keep the atmosphere cool. The entire 100-metre stretch is now closed to road traffic permanently.16
Hei yuen kai (theatre street) and ngau che shui hey yun kai in Cantonese, or gu chia chwi hi hng koi in Hokkien, the latter two meaning “theatre street in Kreta Ayer”.17
Heirwin Mohd Nasir
1. Singapore Land Authority, OneMap, n.d., map.
2. J. C. Smith, "Untitled," Straits Times, 27 September 1853, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Leong Weng Kam, “Return to Lai Chun Yuen,” Straits Times, 24 November 2001, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
4. 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): 128–29. (Call no. RQUIK 959.5 JMBRAS)
5. Archives and Oral History Department Singapore, Chinatown: An Album of a Singapore Community (Singapore: Times Books International, 1983), 88, 90. (Call no. RSING 779.995957 CHI)
6. Leong, “Return to Lai Chun Yuen.”
7. “Smith Street’s Colourful History,” Straits Times, 9 December 2001, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Archives and Oral History Department Singapore, Chinatown, 88.
9. “Smith Street’s Colourful History.”
10. Jermyn Chow, “Chinatown Food Street Expected to Open by End of the Month,” Straits Times, 6 February 2014. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website);
“Food Street to Be Closed to Traffic,” Straits Times, 1 December 2001, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Krist Boo, “Food Street Gets Off to a Good Start,” Straits Times, 14 November 2001, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
12. “About Us,” Chinatown Food Street, 22 November 2016.
13. “Food Street to Be Closed to Traffic.”
14. “Part of Chinatown Food Street to Close for Renovations,” New Paper, 26 April 2013, 8–9. (From NewspaperSG)
15 Rachel Au-Yong, “Chinatown Food Street Reopens after Two-Month Delay,” (2014. February 22). Straits Times, 22 February 2014. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
16. Rachel Au-Yong, “Chinatown Food Street Reopens with More Variety – and It’s Cool,” Straits Times, 23 February 2014, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Firmstone, “Chinese Names of Streets and Places, 128–29.
The information in this article is valid as at 2016 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.