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All in a name

In the course of my research, I stumbled upon this set of reflections by retired rubber plantation company manager Douglas Hiorns, which he shared with the National Archives of Singapore in 1999. According to him, the origins of old place names were more from the ground up than top down:

So this crown reserve was what was known as Jalan or Lorong Puah Bak Tiong. So when houses were built on the roadside, it was natural to happen that the road was also known as this Jalan Puah Bak Tiong. But nobody wanted to have this name. So after some time, it was renamed and became Plantation Avenue. And to this day it is known as Plantation Avenue. So I think that one has to realise that in naming of roads, the government doesn’t come along and say, “Oh, we are going to call this Jalan Kayu or we are going to call this Lorong Buangkok.” The name would obviously grow from the inhabitants.

Plantation Avenue in the 1960s. Credit: RAFSA Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.

(Puah Bak Tiong is Hokkien for “Cemetery of Burst Stomachs”. The area which later became Plantation Avenue off Yio Chu Kang Road once had a cemetery for victims of infectious diseases, hence the graphic name.)

For instance there is one named the Tongkang Pecah, Lorong Tongkang Pecah and I can imagine that many years ago, you might have one Malay who lived around there meeting another Malay he’d not seen for many years and he’d say, “Oh, where do you live at present? I haven’t seen you for a long time.” He said, “Oh, I live along the road there.” “But where do you mean, where?” “Well, you know there’s just by my house there is a ‘tongkang pecah’, a broken barge, well I live there.” So, he’d probably call him Ahmad “tongkang pecah”. The Ahmad who lives in “tongkang pecah”. So gradually the area will become known as Tongkang Pecah. Then when the government goes around with their signboards up goes Tongkang Pecah.

(The area called Tongkang Pechah used to be by the Sungei Punggol. Of course, it has long disappeared, and it is now part of Sengkang town, served by Sengkang West Avenue.)

Broken barges no more - the area once known as Tongkang Pechah is now filled with the towering blocks of Sengkang West Avenue. Credit: Google Maps.

So that is how many of these names come into being, just by local usage. And it’s not that the name is given to it by the government, not at all. The names grow up with the people and they grow out of the locality and this is the interesting thing about it. Even Bras Basah Road, wet rice road. Obviously why, because the rice coming to Singapore, the grains would be spread out along the road to dry, so hence the name. And this is part of the history, the very names themselves suggest the trades, the people, the buildings, the activities that take place.

Hiorns was born in 1925, so he’s probably passed on by now - if so, may he rest in peace.


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