Bras Basah Road

Singapore Infopedia

by Cornelius, Vernon


Bras Basah Road is a one-way road that starts from Orchard Road and ends at Raffles Boulevard. It intersects several streets and roads, such as Bencoolen Street, Waterloo Street and North Bridge Road.1 Some of Singapore’s oldest landmarks were built along Bras Basah Road, many of which still stand today.

Bras Basah Road was constructed by convict labour. The first mention of the road is found in George D. Coleman’s Map of the Town and Environs of Singapore from 1836, where it was labelled as “Brass Bassa Road”.2 In the early 1820s, the road had two different street names. Between Beach Road and North Bridge Road, it was called Church Street, due to the presence of the London Missionary Society’s chapel at the junction of North Bridge Road and Bras Basah Road.3 The other stretch, from North Bridge Road towards Dhoby Ghaut and Selegie Road, was known as “Selegy Street”.4 Bras Basah Road was once also known as College Street because Singapore’s first educational institution (today’s Raffles Institution) was located along it.5

Today, Bras Basah Road is part of the Bras Basah Bugis Precinct, the arts, culture, learning and entertainment district in the city’s centre.6 In 2010, accessibility to the road was enhanced with the opening of the Mass Rapid Transit’s (MRT) Circle Line. The MRT station, Bras Basah, was named after the road.7

Key features
From 1833 to 1847, the first Roman Catholic chapel in Singapore was located on the site of former St Joseph’s Institution (now Singapore Art Museum).8 It was also during the 19th century when Catholic  priest Father Jean-Marie Beurel built three landmarks along Bras Basah Road. These landmarks, which still exist today, are the Church of the Good Shepherd, which opened in 1847 and became the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in 1888;St Joseph’s Institution (foundation stone laid on 19 March 1855);10 and the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus buildings, now known as Chijmes. The history of Chijmes began in 1852 with the purchase of land on Victoria Street, followed by Caldwell House at the corner of Bras Basah Road and Victoria Street in 1853. Subsequently the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus Chapel was constructed in 1890.11

Other landmarks on Bras Basah Road during the 19th century included Raffles Institution, at the site of the present Raffles City complex;12 the convict jail complex that once occupied the sports field of St Joseph’s Institution;13 and the former campus of Raffles Girls’ School.14 The Ladies Lawn Tennis Club, which opened in 1884, was also located along the road and later taken over by the Young Men’s Christian Associations (YMCA) tennis club in 1932.15

In the 1950s and 1960s, Bras Basah Road was home to the Catholic Centre, which also housed the headquarters of the Catholic Young Men’s Association (site of the current National Trades Union Congress Trade Union House);16 and the former Bethesda Church.17 There were also stretches of two-storey shophouses18 and many second-hand bookshops that sold school textbooks and popular fiction.19 Another notable spot was the former red shophouse of Baker’s Bakery and Confectionery at the corner of Victoria Street and Bras Basah Road,20 where the Carlton Hotel now stands.21 The bakery, better known as Red House, was a popular gathering place for students.22

In the 1970s, the YMCA’s tennis grounds were converted into Bras Basah Park.23 The park gave way to the Singapore Management University in 2005, which is now one of Bras Basah Road’s newest landmarks in the 20th century.24

Variant names
“Bras Basah” is a misspelling of beras basah, which means “wet rice” in Malay. Before the land was filled, the lagoon had served as a gateway for boats with cargo-loads of rice. These were dried on the banks of Sungei Brass Bassa but often made wet by the rising tide.25

Lau kha ku keng khau in Hokkien, and adapted in Cantonese as kau ka-ku hau, which means “mouth of the old jail”. Kha ku refers to “fetters” or “ankle chains”.26

Ho-lan-se le-pai-tng pi in Hokkien and fat-lan-sai lai-pai-thong pin in Cantonese, which means “beside the French church”, a reference to the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd.27

Hai-ki ang-neo toa-oh pi in Hokkien, which means “beside the seaside English big school”, referring to Raffles Institution.28


Vernon Cornelius

1. Mighty Minds Street Directory (Singapore: Angel Publishing Pte Ltd., 2017), maps 110D, 111C, 133A. (Call no. RSING 912.5957 MMSD)
2. Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 47 (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA]); Survey Department, Singapore, Map of the Town and Environs of Singapore, 1836, survey map, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. TM000037)
3. “History at Your Feet,” Straits Times, 23 November 1982, 12; Jackie Sam, “Bras Basah: Convicts, Converts,” Singapore Monitor, 19 August 1984, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 47.
4. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 47, 337; Philip Jackson, Plan of the Town of Singapore by Lieut Jackson, 1828, survey map, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. SP002981]
5. “Raffles Institution,” New Nation, 8 October 1971, 9; “Raffles College – Old and New!” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 21 June 1928, 1; Nancy Koh, “A Stroll In to Bygone Time,” New Nation, 17 August 1979, 26. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “Precint Map,” Bras Basah Bugis, accessed 3 April 2018.
7. “Next Stop, Dakota,” Straits Times, 7 July 2005, 5; “11 Circle Line Stations Open,” Straits Times, 17 April 2010, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
8. “Local Institutions,” Malaya Tribune, 8 April 1921, 2; “Former St Joseph’s to Be Converted to Art Gallery,” Business Times, 18 August 1990, 2; Lim Jun Yi, “From SJI to SAM,” Straits Times, 3 March 2009, 83 (From NewspaperSG); “The Mission and First Catholic Converts (1832–1880),” accessed 4 May 2017.
9. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore, “Mission and First Catholic Converts (1832–1880)”; “Cathedral of the Good Shepherd,” The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore, accessed 4 May 2017.  
10. “SJI Milestones,” St Joseph’s Institution, accessed 4 May 2017.
11. Peter Keys, “Haven-ly Quiet,” Straits Times, 11 December 1982, 9; “The Founder,” Straits Times, 14 May 2002, 4 (From NewspaperSG); Sam, “Bras Basah: Convicts, Converts”; Marjorie Doggett, Characters of Light: A Guide to the Buildings of Singapore (Singapore: Donald Moore, 1957), 40 (Call no. RCLOS 725.4095957 DOG); “Heritage Trail,” CHIJMES, accessed 4 May 2017.
12. “Hon: A Unique Development for S’pore,” Straits Times, 15 August 1980, 8; “Raffles City Opens in a Flurry of Colour and Sound,” Business Times, 4 October 1986, 1; Eisen Teo, “A Lesson in History,” Straits Times, 27 September 2011, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Sam, “Bras Basah: Convicts, Converts.”
14. “Historical Milestones,” Raffles Girls’ School, accessed 4 May 2017.
15. “‘Ladies’ Lawn’ to Close,” Straits Times, 29 July 1932, 13; Ow Wei Mei, “No More Tennis on the Courts Worth $150 a Sq. Foot,” New Nation, 21 May 1971, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “Women’s Help at Catholic Centre,” Straits Times, 7 April 1948, 3; “S’pore C.Y.M.A. Central H.Q.,” Singapore Free Press, 21 June 1948, 5; “New NTUC HQ a One-Stop Centre,” Straits Times, 21 July 2000, 49. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Jackie Sam, “Pioneers Sow Seeds for Future Glory,” Singapore Monitor, 19 August 1984, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
18. “Hotel with the Spicy Taste,” Business Times, 22 October 1999, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Yvonne Quahe, “Bras Basah Road in Transition,” Straits Times, 15 October 1982, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Singapore Press Holdings, Bras Basah Road Near St Joseph’s Institution, 22 April 1975, photograph, National Archives of Singapore (media-image no. PCD0469-0041)
21. “$110 M Hotel to Open in July,” Straits Times, 24 December 1987, 15; Jaime Lye, “The Hotel with a History of Names,” Business Times, 14 December 1985, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Gillian Pow Chong, “An Anchor Tenant Moves Out,” Straits Times, 1 July 1984, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
23. “Early Take-Over of Field by Govt Puzzles YMCA Members,” Straits Times, 28 April 1971, 9 (From NewspaperSG); Ow, “No More Tennis on the Courts”; Tan Chung Lee, “100-Acre Park to Take Shape on Fort Canning,” New Nation, 16 November 1971, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Sandra Davie, “Campus at Bras Basah,” Straits Times, 6 December 1998, 2 (From NewspaperSG); “History,” Singapore Management University, accessed 3 April 2018.
25. Koh, “Stroll In to Bygone Time.” 
26. Sam, “Bras Basah: Convicts, Converts”; Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 47; Norman Edwards and Keys Peter, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 284. (Call no. RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA]).
27. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 47.
28. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 47.

The information in this article is valid as of May 2018 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.


Rights Statement

The information on this page and any images that appear here may be used for private research and study purposes only. They may not be copied, altered or amended in any way without first gaining the permission of the copyright holder.

More to Explore

Pickering Street


Pickering Street is located in the Downtown Core, within the Central Region. It was named after William Alexander Pickering, the first Protector of the Chinese, and head of the Chinese Protectorate. He was popular amongst the Chinese population for his ability to speak four Chinese dialects plus Mandarin. Pickering Street...

Outram Road


Outram Road begins at the junction of Kim Seng Road and Havelock Road, and ends at the junction of Cantonment Road and New Bridge Road. It was named in 1858 after James Outram (Sir), in honour of his heroic role in the 1857 Indian mutiny....

Minden Road


Minden Road connects Harding Road and Napier Road. Once a nutmeg estate, Minden Road is now home to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and St George’s Church, while several high commissions and embassies are also located in the vicinity....

Kampong Java Road


Kampong Java Road connects Bukit Timah Road to Newton Circus. ...

Old Admiralty House


Old Admiralty House, located at Old Nelson Road, was built in 1939 and served as the residence for the Commodore Superintendent of the Royal Navy Dockyard. It was gazetted as a national monument in 2002 and currently houses a private school. ...

Bullock carts


Bullock carts were one of the earliest and most popular modes of transport in 19th- and early-20th-century Singapore. They served a variety of purposes such as travelling and transportation of goods. From 1867 onwards, such carts were slowly phased out with rising levels of traffic and the advent of mechanised...

MacRitchie Reservoir


Situated off Lornie Road and completed in the late 1860s, MacRitchie Reservoir was the first water supply system implemented in Singapore. The Impounding Reservoir or Thomson Road Reservoir, as it was originally called, came about through the donation of S$13,000 by philanthropist Tan Kim Seng in 1857. The reservoir...

Singapore Institution Library (1837–1844)


The Singapore Institution Library grew from a vision, by Sir Stamford Raffles, for an educated Singapore. Upon the founding of Singapore, one of Raffles’s early initiatives was the setting up of an institution of learning and along with it, the means to collect and preserve the treasures of the region....

Amoy Street


Amoy Street in Chinatown begins at the junction of McCallum Street, and Telok Ayer Street and ends at Pekin Street. Developed in the 1830s, the street was probably named after the migrants who came from Amoy in China. ...

Whiteaway Laidlaw


Founded in Calcutta, India by Robert Laidlaw in 1882, Whiteaway Laidlaw was a department store that opened a premier branch in Singapore in 1900. Offering products that appealed to the Europeans and wealthy locals, the outlet in Singapore was located on D’Almeida Street, then Oranje (sometimes spelt Oranjie) Building, before...