River Valley

Singapore Infopedia


River Valley in central Singapore is a mixed-use area comprising residential, commercial and leisure developments. It was so named because the area lay in a valley between Fort Canning Hill and Pearl’s Hill. In the 1840s, there were two River Valley roads that ran along either side of the Singapore River. The one to the south of the river is now known as Havelock Road.1 The present River Valley Road runs from the junction of Eu Tong Sen Street and Hill Street to Delta Road.2

Early history
When the British arrived in 1819, the River Valley area was largely covered by marsh and forest.3 By the 1830s, gambier plantations had been established in the area.4 It is not known when exactly River Valley Road was constructed and named, but according to a newspaper report published in 1842, the road was in existence from as early as 1841.5 By 1843, the area was still predominantly made up of jungle and gambier plantations.6

Early residential developments
Oxley Estate

One of the biggest nutmeg estates in River Valley belonged to Thomas Oxley, then the senior surgeon of the Straits Settlements. Oxley had bought around 173 ac of land, possibly in 1837, from the East India Company for 2,342 rupees. The area, bounded by River Valley Road, Tank Road, Orchard Road and Grange Road, was known as Oxley Estate. The estate comprised a nutmeg plantation and two villas – the Pavilion (built around 1846 to 1847) and Killiney House (built around 1842). Both villas served as Oxley’s residences until he retired and left for England in 1857.7

The Pavilion served as the Government House until the transfer of the Straits Settlements to the Colonial Office in London in 1867. It was also the residence of Armenian businessman Catchick Moses, who started The Straits Times, and Singapore Journal of Commerce newspaper (later renamed The Straits Times) in the 19th century.8

Jewish businessman Manasseh Meyer bought the Pavilion at an auction in 1919.9 Meyer had also purchased Killiney House in 1890 and renamed it Belle Vue.10 In 1905, Meyer built a private synagogue, the Chesed-El Synagogue, on the grounds of his Oxley Rise residence.11 The synagogue is still there on Oxley Rise and has been gazetted as a national monument, but the Belle Vue was demolished in the 1980s to make way for private development.12

Around the 1850s, Oxley’s estate was divided up and sold off in lots, mainly to Chinese businessmen.13 By the 1880s, the area had become a middle-class residential enclave dotted with bungalows and terraced houses.14

Institution Hill
Other residents of River Valley in the 19th century included Mungo Johnston Martin and Robert Little, medical doctors who ran the Singapore Dispensary.15 The hill was initially given to the Singapore Institution (later Raffles Institution) in the 1820s, and thus derived its name. However, the institution’s trustees decided to sell the land as it was not being used by the school.16 Later, the hill was purchased by Martin, and subsequently Little.17 In 1857, the hill was divided into lots for building purposes.18 Little lived at Institution Hill in a house called Bonnygrass for about 35 years until around 1886.19

Chinese residences
Businessman Tan Kim Seng built his bungalow, Panglima Prang, off River Valley Road in 1860.20 Six generations of the Tan family lived in the house until it was sold to a private developer in 1982 and subsequently demolished to make way for a condominium.21

Other prominent Chinese residents of the River Valley area included Teochew businessmen Tan Yeok Nee and Seah Song Seah, and Peranakan merchant Lee Cheng Yan. Tan built his Chinese-style house (present House of Tan Yeok Nee) off Tank Road between 1882 and 1885.22 Seah, son of businessman Seah Eu Chin, also built a house along River Valley Road. Lee, father of businessman Lee Choon Guan, bought Magenta Cottage to serve as the family holiday home. Situated at the corner of Killiney and River Valley roads, the exact date of the cottage’s construction is unknown but it was in existence by 1862. It was formerly owned by a sea captain and a civil servant. The Lee family moved there permanently around 1890.23

By 1880, besides River Valley Road, other roads had been built in the area, including Somerset Road, Devonshire Road, Exeter Road, St Thomas Walk, Eber Road, Dublin Road, Lloyd Road and Oxley Road.24

In the early 1920s, low-rise apartment blocks began to make an appearance in River Valley. One of the earliest along River Valley Road was St Nicholas Flats, built in 1921.25 It is depicted in the 1958 Master Plan town map as a curved block.26 By the 1930s, there were many houses and flats in the River Valley area available for board and rent.27

Redevelopment: 1960s–1990s
Redevelopment of River Valley began in the 1960s with a clean-up of the polluted Singapore River. In 1969, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew tasked the Public Works Department and the Public Utilities Board to develop a plan to clean up the river and Singapore’s waterways. By 1983, all the lighter companies were moved from the banks of the Singapore River, as were squatters and hawkers. A major clean-up operation was then implemented.28

Under the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s 1991 Concept Plan, the Clarke Quay and Robertson Quay areas along River Valley Road were zoned for entertainment, residential and hotel accommodation purposes.29 During the 1990s, numerous private condominiums were also built along River Valley Road.30

Modern commercial and residential developments
Liang Court

Liang Court was conceived of as a complex comprising twin towers for a hotel and apartment block as well as a podium block for housing shops, offices, restaurants and carparks.31 The project, a joint venture between the Goh Cheng Liang Group and Daimaru Inc of Japan, was announced in 1979.32 The complex’s first anchor tenant, Japanese superstore Daimaru, opened for business in November 1983, while the complex itself was officially opened in January 1984.33

UE Square

UE Square, a mixed-use development located at 81 and 83 Clemenceau Avenue, is the flagship property of United Engineers’ Limited. It houses commercial offices, retail shops and serviced apartments.34 The former River Valley headquarters of United Engineers, built in 1929, used to be on the same site.35 The old headquarters building, which initially comprised showrooms, offices and accommodation for employees, was torn down in 1993.36 In 2002, the National Heritage Board marked the location as a historical site.37

Valley Park Condominium
This condominium development stands on the site of the former Fraser and Neave (F&N) cordial factory located near the junction of River Valley and Jervois roads.38 F&N was formed in 1898 to replace the Singapore Straits and Aerated Water Company, a partnership between John Fraser and David Neave that had been established in 1883.39 In 1989, F&N moved its soft-drinks facility to Tuas and the old factory site was subsequently redeveloped into the Valley Park Condominium, which was launched in 1994.40

Fort Canning Hill
Known variously as Bukit Larangan (Malay for “Forbidden Hill”) and Government Hill, Fort Canning Hill was believed to have been the place of residence and burial site of the legendary Malay kings of Temasek ( “sea town” or “sea port” in Javanese; the name for ancient Singapore) in the 14th century.41 When the British came, they cleared the hill and established the first government house there.42 The hill is also home to the first European cemetery and botanical garden in Singapore.43

In the 1950s and ’60s, the Municipal Council constructed two places of interest at the foot of Fort Canning Hill: the Van Kleef Aquarium and the National Theatre. The Van Kleef Aquarium, opened in 1955, was Singapore’s first public aquarium.44 After several revamps, the popular attraction was closed in 1996 and the building demolished in 1998.45

Situated at the corner of Clemenceau Avenue and River Valley Road near the aquarium was the National Theatre, which was built to commemorate Singapore’s attainment of self-government in 1959.46 The theatre was completed in 1964 at a cost of $2.2 million, and about $856,000 of this amount came from public contributions.47 Structural concerns and the construction of a flyover nearby as part of the Central Expressway led to the theatre’s closure and subsequent demolition in 1986.48

Singapore River
The Singapore River has a long history as Singapore’s lifeline and hub of commercial activities. In the early 19th century, the bulk of commercial activities was concentrated in the lower reaches of the river, near its mouth.49 By the second half of the 19th century, numerous godowns and warehouses had been built by European firms and Chinese merchants in the area now known as Clarke Quay.50

Chinese businessman Hoo Ah Kay (also known as Whampoa) was one of the merchants who owned godowns along the river. His famous Ice House godown for storing ice was built in 1854, near Coleman Bridge on Boat Quay.51

At the upper reaches of the Singapore River were sago-processing plants. Boat-building yards were also found there and in the river’s feeder creeks such as Pulau Saigon Creek, Kim Seng Road Creek and Robertson Creek.52

Sri Thendayuthapani Temple

The original building of the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple on Tank Road was built around 1859 by the Chettiars – originally from Chettinad in Tamil Nadu, India – in Singapore for the worship of the Hindu deity, Lord Muruga. The Chettiars had bought the land from Oxley’s estate. The temple was rebuilt in 1983 and renovated in 2009.53

Old Hill Street Police Station
The Old Hill Street Police Station was completed in 1934 on the site of Singapore’s first jail at the corner of Hill Street and River Valley Road.54 The six-storey building was used as a police station and barracks for families until 1980, when the police force moved out. Following renovations, the building was occupied by various government departments and ministries.55 The building was gazetted as a national monument in 1998 and currently houses the offices of the Ministry of Communications and Information as well as the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.56

River Valley High School
River Valley High School was the first Chinese secondary school set up by the government.57 It was originally known as the Singapore Government Chinese Middle School when it was founded in 1956, and renamed Queenstown Government Chinese Middle School when it moved to Queenstown in 1957. The school relocated to River Valley in 1958 and became known as the River Valley Government Chinese Middle School.58 The school changed its name to River Valley High School in 1980 to make it clear to parents who were reluctant to send their children there that it was no longer a Chinese-medium school.59 The school moved to Pandan Gardens in West Coast in 1987. It then shifted to temporary sites in Queensway and Malan Road in 2005 and 2006 respectively, before settling into its new campus at Boon Lay Avenue in 2010.60

Electoral boundaries
In the first city election held in 1954, River Valley was part of the Cairnhill constituency.61 River Valley made its debut as an electoral constituency in the 1959 general election.62 It remained a single-member electoral constituency until 1988 when the ward was scrapped.63 The voters in the area were subsequently divided between the Cairnhill and Tanglin constituencies.64


Jaime Koh

1. Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 324–5. (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA])
2. “Planning Boundaries,” Urban Redevelopment Authority, accessed 16 May 2016. 3. Stephen Dobbs, The Singapore River: A Social History, 1819–2002 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003), xii. (Call no. RSING 959.57 DOB)
4. Survey Department, Singapore, Map of the Town and Environs of Singapore, 1836, map, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. TM000037)
5. “Untitled,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 20 January 1842, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “The Free Press,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 29 June 1843, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 405 (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); Norman Edwards, The Singapore House and Residential Life, 1819–1939 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991), 43–45 (Call no. RSING 728.095957 EDW); T.H.H. Hancock and C.A. Gibson-Hill, Architecture in Singapore (Singapore: Singapore Art Society, 1954), captions for photos nos. 35–38. (Call no. RDLKL 722.4095957 SIN)
8. “Late Mr. M. Catchick Moses,” Straits Times, 20 July 1920, 10 (From NewspaperSG); Tommy Koh et al., eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Heritage Board, 2006), 358. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
9. “Late Mr. M. Catchick Moses.”
10. Joan Bieder, The Jews of Singapore (Singapore: Suntree Media Pte Ltd, 2007), 37. (Call no. RSING 959.57004924 BIE-[HIS])
11. Koh et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 98–99.
12. Bieder, Jews of Singapore, 46.
13. Edwards, Singapore House and Residential Life, 48, 63.
14. Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore: Power Relations and the Urban Built Environment (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003), 37. (Call no. RSING 307.76095957 YEO); Lee Kip Lin, The Singapore House, 1819–1943 (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2015), 27, 53 (Call no. RSING 728.095957 LEE); Survey Department, Singapore, Plan of Singapore Town Showing Topographical Detail and Municipal Numbers (Sheet 3), 1893, survey map, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. SP002988)  
15. “Page 1 Advertisements Column 2,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835–1869), 2 November 1848, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Buckley,  Anecdotal History of Old Times, 125, 348.
16. Buckley,  Anecdotal History of Old Times, 124.
17. Buckley,  Anecdotal History of Old Times, 125.
18. “Page 3 Advertisements Column 1,” Singapore Free Press, 21 May 1857, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Buckley,  Anecdotal History of Old Times, 124–5, 348, 377; Page 2 Advertisements Column 2,” Straits Times, 15 March 1886, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Edwards, Singapore House and Residential Life, 48.
21. Lee, Singapore House, 1819–1943, 157.
22. Edwards, Singapore House and Residential Life, 63; Lee, Singapore House, 1819–1943, 79.
23. Lee, Singapore House, 1819–1943, 80, 176–7.
24. Lee, Singapore House, 1819–1943, 27.
25. Lee, Singapore House, 1819–1943, 137.
26. Ministry of National Development, Singapore, 1958 Master Plan – Town Map Sheet 2/210, 1966, survey map, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. SP002274)
27. “Page 2 Advertisements Column 3,” Straits Times, 20 June 1936, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Dobbs, Singapore River, 103–4, 108–11, 117.
29. Dobbs, Singapore River, 118–9.
30. Abdul Hadhi, “7,735 Private Housing Units Coming up in River Valley Area,” Business Times, 30 July 1994, 2; A. J. Leow, “Centrepoint to Launch River Valley Condo Project Within Two Months,” Business Times, 31 May 1884, 21; Tan, Su Yen, “River Valley: No Oversupply Effect,” Business Times, 7 March 1996, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
31. Irene Ngoo, “A $250 M Project Between River and Park,” Straits Times, 26 September 1980, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
32. “River Valley to Get a Shop Complex,” New Nation, 1 February 1979, 5; Tsang, Sau Yin, “Daimaru Puts Its Formula to the Test,” Business Times, 19 November 1983, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
33. “Liang Court Goes Japanese,” Straits Times, 21 January 1984, 25 (From NewspaperSG); Tsang, “Daimaru Puts Its Formula to the Test.” 
34. “Integrated Property Services,” United Engineers Limited, accessed 21 June 2016.
35. “Building Activities in Singapore,” Singapore Free Press (1884–1942), 21 July 1930, 18; “Builder of Landmarks Made a Historic Site,” Straits Times, 31 July 2002, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
36. “United Engineers, Ltd,” Singapore Free Press (1884–1942), 22 October 1929, 7; “Going, Going...,” Business Times, 17 November 1993, 21. (From NewspaperSG)
37. “Builder of Landmarks.”
38. Survey Department, Singapore, Street Directory and Guide to Singapore with Sectional Maps (Singapore: Survey Department Singapore, 1957), map 70. (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 SIN-[RFL])
39. Fraser & Neave, 1883–1983: The Great Years (Singapore: Fraser & Neave, 1983), 4, 9 (Call no. RSING 338.7663 EIG); Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, eds., One Hundred Years of Singapore (London: J. Murray, 1921), 458. (Call no. RCLOS 959.51 MAK-[RFL])
40. Amy Balan, “F & N’s Interim Operating Profit Up 14.7PC to $75.6M,” Business Times, 24 June 1989, 7 (From NewspaperSG); Leow, “Centrepoint to Launch River Valley Condo Project.”
41. Kwa Chong Guan, Derek Heng and Tan Tai Yong, Singapore, a 700-Year History: From Early Emporium to World City (Singapore: National Archives of Singapore, 2009), 19. (Call no. RSING 959.5703 KWA-[HIS])
42. Buckley,  Anecdotal History of Old Times, 53, 95.
43. Buckley,  Anecdotal History of Old Times, 96; Kwa, Heng and Tan, From Early Emporium to World City, 89.
44. “Another Fine Landmark for Singapore,” Singapore Free Press, 8 September 1955, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
45. K. Khoo, Remembering Karl Van Kleef and the Van Kleef Aquarium, n.d., (From National Archives of Singapore)
46. Koh et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 374.
47. “National Theatre a Success: Raja,” Straits Times, 16 May 1964, 6; “$393,720 Approved Towards Theatre Cost,” Straits Times, 4 November 1964, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
48. Koh et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 374; Chan Eng Cheng, “Curtains to Fall on National Theatre Soon,” Straits Times, 4 January 1984, 1; Siva Arasu, “Interval or the end?” Straits Times, 8 January 1984, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
49. Dobbs, Singapore River, 22–25, 35.
50. Timothy Auger, A River Transformed: Singapore River and Marina Bay (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2015), 20 (Call no. RSING 711.4095957 AUG); Chan Kwee Sung, K. S. (2000, November 13). “Remembering a River’s Heyday,” Straits Times, 13 November 2000. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
51. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 325.
52. Dobbs, Singapore River, 35, 105.
53. “About Us,” Chettiars’ Temple Society, accessed 9 June 2016.
54. Norman Edwards and Peter Keys, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 370 (Call no. RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA]); Makepeace, Brooke and Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore, 282.
55. Edwards and Keys, Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, 370.
56. “Old Hill Street Police Station,” Ministry of Communications and Information, accessed 21 June 2016.
57. “School History,” River Valley High School, accessed 20 June 2016.
58. “Confusion over River Valley School in West Coast,” Straits Times, 10 June 1987, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
59. “A School By Any Other Name...,” New Nation, 18 January 1980, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
60. Confusion over River Valley School”; River Valley High School, “School History.”
61. Electoral Boundaries Delimitation Committee, Singapore,
Report (Singapore: Govt. Print. Off., 1954), 5. (Call no. RCLOS 324.2105957 SIN-[RFL])
62. “1959 Parliamentary Election Results,” Elections Department, Singapore, accessed 9 June 2016.
63. “Dr Tay to Contest in Tanglin,” Straits Times, 24 August 1988, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
64. “Scrapping of 7 Wards Unavoidable – Committee,” Straits Times, 15 June 1988, 19. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as of 2 August 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. 

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