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Singapore: Modern Skyscrapers Meet Old World Charm
Travel
Singapore: Modern Skyscrapers Meet Old World Charm
WRITER: Elwin Chan PHOTOS BY: Alvin Toh, National Archives of Singapore
Singapore: Modern Skyscrapers Meet Old World Charm 13. December 2017, by Elwin Chan, Photos by Alvin Toh, National Archives of Singapore
Orchard Road. Today, the name brings to mind glitz and
excitement.

Like Ginza in Tokyo, Fifth Avenue in New York City, and Champs-Élysées in Paris, Singapore’s Orchard Road is lined with top designer boutiques, popular department stores, and specialty shops selling everything from high fashion to the latest streetwear. A visit to Singapore would not be complete without a trip down world-famous Orchard Road.

Yet, Orchard Road in the past presented a very different charm. The road got its name from nutmeg, pepper and fruit orchards that used to line the street in the 1800s. The plantations only started to disappear in the 1860s because of falling nutmeg prices.

As the plantations gave way, one of the first department stores to make its retail presence there was CK Tang (better known as Tangs today), set up by Mr Tang Choon Keng. Then, in 1958, Orchard Road was still relatively quiet. People used to think that old Mr Tang was crazy to set up shop there, and right across a graveyard that is today’s Ngee Ann City, but Mr Tang believed that one day Orchard Road will boom.

Killiney Road Post Office, then.
Picture: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy
of National Archives of Singapore
Killiney Road Post Office, now.
Orchard Road near the Dhoby Ghaut junction, then.
Picture: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy
of National Archives of Singapore
Orchard Road near the Dhoby Ghaut junction, now.

And boom it did. Over time, other stores sprouted, making Orchard Road a thriving shopping destination for locals, expatriates, and tourists alike. Back then, a visit to Orchard Road was like an outing. It was a popular dating spot too. Young couples would dress up, men in their bell-bottom pants and ladies with their beehive hairdos. A romantic date at Cathay Building, Singapore’s first air-conditioned cinema, might end with a local supper at Glutton’s Square, a daytime carpark that transformed into an atmospheric open-air hawker centre by night. There, late-night revellers could feast on under-a-dollar oyster omelette, fried carrot cake, or char kway teow.

Even as Orchard Road changes with the rest of Singapore, there are still places off the main street that exude old-world charm. Away from the soaring and glassy skyscrapers, Emerald Hill, for one, is a conservation area that continues to be lined with old Peranakan houses showcasing ornate Chinese Baroque architecture. Today, some of these heritage buildings have been converted into trendy restaurants and bars, giving modern day visitors a chance to soak in the unique charm of the leafy enclave while reminiscing the early days of Orchard Road.

On the right are Malayan Motors and MacDonald House. Amber Mansions, on the left, was demolished in 1984 to make way for Dhoby Ghaut MRT station.
Picture: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy
of National Archives of Singapore
The Malayan Motors building and MacDonald House still stand today.
Glutton’s Square was a daytime carpark that transformed into an open-air hawker centre at night.
Picture: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy
of National Archives of Singapore
Today, modern malls take the place of the old Glutton’s Square.

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