Chapter 14: The Changing Landscape of Jalan Besar
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259 14 The Changing Landscape of Jalan Besar Pui Leng Woo Jalan Besar literally means “big and wide street” in the Malay language. It began as a 19th-century path into mangrove swamps, and later transformed into a busy road in the city. Jalan Besar is also a district—a triangular area bounded by Rochor Canal, Serangoon Road and Lavender Street. Located on the edge of town between the two ethnic communities of Kampong Glam and Little India, Jalan Besar attracted different users and became a multicultural melting pot. In the midst of bustling Singapore, Jalan Besar gives the impression of an old district and conveys a sense of casual urban life. Standing at the confluence of two rivers, early Jalan Besar was a shifting landscape of land and water. With the reclamation of swamps starting in the late 19th century, the district developed rapidly through the construction of streets and shophouses in the first half of the 20th century. Easy access and a peripheral location had made Jalan Besar the city’s “playground” as well as its “dumping ground”. It attracted several important city landmarks, including a football stadium and amusement park, slaughterhouses and incinerators. Jalan Besar symbolised the modernisation of Singapore at a time of growth and uncertainty. Its fringe location and diverse nature turned out to be blessings in disguise. The district evaded urban renewal in the 14 C-Landscapes.indd 259 7/26/13 6:04:01 PM Pui Leng Woo 260 1970s, and has been identified as one of the secondary settlements for historic conservation in 1991. Between the 1950s and 1980s, I lived in a shophouse on Hamilton Road in Jalan Besar built by my grandfather. Our family moved out in 1995 to make way for the conservation of buildings on the street. To-date, the Urban Redevelopment Authority has given conservation status to more than 7,000 buildings in 100 areas. The reason is that old buildings project a sense of history and their conservation can be an integral part of urban planning. Clearly, old buildings are the foci of Singapore’s conservation movement yet relatively little is known about their role as physical construction in the historical making of the areas. Physical planning is more than just buildings; it includes streets and infrastructure, open spaces and planting. Drawing upon studies in history, geography and architecture, this chapter examines the urbanisation of Jalan Besar between 1822 and 1969. Using maps, building plans and photographs, it tries to demonstrate a method of studying the changing landscape of an old district. Transformation of the Land Picture a time when Singapore was an island of jungles and mangrove swamps and Jalan Besar was mostly a swampland. Transformation of the land began with agricultural development in the 1830s. Sirih plants, and later on fruit and nutmeg trees were planted on drier land along Serangoon Road. By the 1840s, Chinese vegetable gardens sprouted in the low-lying area between Serangoon Road and Lavender Street. With the growth of cattle trade in the 1880s, the area evolved into open fields for animal grazing and was named kandang kurbau, meaning “the animal pan”. Lavender Street, cynically named after the odour of the vegetable farms in 1858, is a reminder of this farming past of the district. Coexisting with the farms in the 1830s and 1840s were some of the earliest brick kilns of Singapore. With the expansion of entrepôt trade in the late 19th century, the area of Kallang River and Rochor Canal became a hub for the processing of raw materials as factories and mills dotted the riverbanks. The kilns disappeared by the 1850s but sawmills and oil mills continued well into the 1970s. With increased urbanisation and motorised transportation in the 20th century, workshops and shophouses of reinforced concrete construction were built. The area 14 C-Landscapes.indd 260 7/26/13 6:04:02 PM The Changing Landscape of Jalan Besar 261 around the Jalan Besar Stadium became a hub for car repairs. The factories and workshops are mostly gone but the industrial background of Jalan Besar is still visible in the form of the industrial structures and the shophouses. The Rochor Canal attracted two villages. Kampong Kapur, named after the lime (calcium) used in betel nut chewing, was a Malay village in the vicinity of Desker Road and Veerasamy Road during the 19th century. Kampong Boyan, named after the Boyanese from Pulau Bawean, was an early 20th-century mixed community at the juncture of Syed...


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