Raffles Place

Singapore Infopedia

by Cornelius, Vernon


Raffles Place is a commercial space that includes buildings such as the Arcade, Clifford Centre, Straits Trading, Hong Kong Bank and OCBC Building – all situated within five minutes’ walking distance of one another.1

Raffles Square was Singapore’s earliest commercial centre that bustled with offices of agency houses and department stores. Soon after the founding of modern Singapore in 1819, traders from all over the world began to arrive here.2

Raffles Square was assigned by Sir Stamford Raffles as a commercial square in 1822.3 Raffles had decided to re-locate the business sector across the Singapore River to its southwestern bank. This area, however, was swampy and had to be reclaimed.4 A hill was levelled to form Commercial Square and the earth was in turn used to fill in the swampy ground to form Boat Quay. Indian convicts filled in the swamps and laid out plots for building purposes.5 This area eventually became the commercial heart of the city. Big Asian and European shops, offices and godowns adjoined one another. Naraina Pillai and Tan Che Sang were among the first to move their premises to Commercial Square. Prosperous Asians and Europeans were encouraged to live and trade side-by-side.6

Between 200 to 300 coolies (unskilled labourers) and convicts toiled to level and clear the hill. Its soil was used to fill drains, holes, gaps and the swampy southwestern bank of the river, upon which Fort Fullerton later stood. The soil was also used to raise the ground level of Battery Road and other streets leading up to Commercial Square. Raffles personally supervised this project in 1823.7

Commercial Square was created from the reclamation of the swampy southern bank of the river, with the development of business and commerce along the waterfront. Many of the merchants ran their businesses in Commercial Square and lived above their offices.8 Commercial Square was officially renamed Raffles Place, after Raffles, on 8 March 1858.9

During World War II, on 8 December 1941, Japanese planes made Raffles Place one of their targets of destruction.10 The next major disaster occurred on 20 November 1972, when a fire completely destroyed Robinson’s Department Store, then one of Singapore’s most prominent landmarks.11 At least nine people, including a pregnant woman, were burnt to death inside two elevators.12 Right until then, Robinson’s Department Store, John Little Department Store and Chinese Emporium were the most popular shopping sites in Singapore. On 12 December 1987, Raffles Place Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) station opened.13 On 8 August 1988 (the Chinese believe the number 8 to be auspicious), then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew officially declared the OUB Centre at Raffles Place open. The 60-storey building was then the world’s tallest building outside of the US.14

Key features
Commercial Square
Commercial Square, as Raffles Place was known in the early years, was an open space, 200 yards long and 50 yards wide, with gardens in its centre.15 The economic boom led to the development of many financial institutions and business houses that sprouted along the nearby Singapore River and around Commercial Square.16 Raffles’s plan seemed successful, as a trading community sprang up on the square. This community comprised the earliest banks, trading houses and large department stores. The four earliest banks established in Commercial Square were the Oriental Bank of London, Chartered Mercantile Bank of India and China, Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China, and Asiatic Banking Corporation. Well-known commercial houses included Jose D’Almeida and Sons, the Straits Trading Company, S. M. Puckridge, Syme & Co., Little Cursetjee & Co., Godowns of Mr. Perry, and later Asian stores such as Gian Singh’s, and Naina Mohamed & Sons. The square also housed the most lucrative station of the time for the jinrikisha (man-powered carriage).17

Raffles Place
In the past decades, new buildings have sprouted around Raffles Place. On the old location of the Robinson’s Department Store stands the 60-storey Overseas Union Bank.18 Diagonally across is the 42-storey Chartered Bank Chambers and the 25-storey Hongkong and Shanghai Bank. The 47-storey Raffles Tower/Shell Tower has been home to various banks since Raffles Place gained popularity over Shenton Way in the 1980s as the preferred location for banks and was dubbed the Wall Street of Singapore.19 The Raffles Place MRT station is also a landmark for modern Singaporeans, who often use it as a meeting point. Besides housing shops and eateries, the underground station is also one of several civil defence stations that can hold thousands in the event a bomb shelter is needed. The station’s entrance has detailing reminiscent of John Little’s building façade, dated 1911, that was fashioned in a Spanish style.20

Because of its commercial character and high real estate value, Raffles Place has undergone many changes over more than 180 years, since its formation in the 1820s. However, it has remained the heart of Singapore’s financial district.21 The new downtown skyline includes buildings designed by world famous architects such as I. M. Pei, Kenzo Tange, Philip Johnson, Helmut Jahn, Kevin Roche and Paul Rudolph.22 Raffles Place MRT station, with its three entrances, now occupies Raffles Place.23

Raffles Place was declared a historical site by the National Heritage Board in September 1997.24

Additions and alterations
1823: Begins as Commercial Square with a garden of flowering plants.
1920s: A carpark is added, which also has a jinrikisha station.
1961: An underground carpark is built by the Public Works Department (PWD).25
1972: The area is pedestrianised by the PWD.26
1987: Raffles Place MRT station becomes operational.27

Variant names
English name: Originally called Commercial Square.

Chinese names:
(1) In Hokkien, Thor Khor Koei meaning “European firms’ street”, a reflection of the number of Europeans who had opened firms there.28
(2) In Hokkien, Tho Kho Khau meaning “mouth of the godowns”.29
(3) In Hokkien, Hua Hoi Kak or Hua Hooi Kak meaning “flower garden corner”.30
(4) In Hokkien, Hue Hng-kak or Hue-hng kak meaning “flower garden square”.31
(5) In Hokkien, Tho-kha hue-hng, meaning “the flower garden by the godowns”, or in Cantonese, Tho-fu fa-yun pin meaning “beside the godowns’ flower garden”.32
(6) In Cantonese, Thor Khor Koei meaning “European firms’ lane”.33
(7) In Cantonese, Bu Ye Tian meaning “place of ceaseless activity”.34

Tamil name: Kidangu Theruvu meaning “street of the godowns”.35

Vernon Cornelius

1. “Raffles Place 50 Years of Transformation,” Remember Singapore, 29 July 2014; Ang Peng Hwa, “Raffles Place a Banker’s Delight,” Straits Times, 8 February 1984, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Dhoraisingam S. Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage: Through Places of Historical Interest (Singapore: Doraisingam S. Samuel, 2010), 225. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SAM-[HIS])
3. “A Healthy Walk Down Memory Lane,” Straits Times, 24 August 1995, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Edmund Waller, Landscape Planning in Singapore (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2001), 146 (Call no. RSING q307.12095957 WAL); C. M. Turnbull, A History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009), 38. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
5. Anthony R. Walker, et al. ed., New Place, Old Says: Essays on Indian Society and Culture in Modern Singapore (Delhi: Hindustan Pub. Corp., 1994), 7. (Call no. RSING 305.894805957 NEW)
6. Turnbull, History of Modern Singapore, 38.
7. Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 84 (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])
8. Ray Tyers and Siow Jin Hua, Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then & Now (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1993), 96. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS])
9. Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 320. (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA])
10. Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage, 226.
11. Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 124.
12. “Nine Feared Dead,” Straits Times, 22 November 1972, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Long Shih Rome, “A Smooth Ride for Christmas Shoppers Come Dec 12,” Business Times, 3 December 1987, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Geneieve Cua, “Making the Best of 8.8.88,” Straits Times, 8 August 1988, 1; “OUB Centre to Open on Lucky Day,” Straits Times, 30 July 1988, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore, 88; S. Pugalenthi, Singapore Landmarks: Monuments, Memorials, Statues & Historic Sites (Singapore: VJ Times International, 1999), 215. (Call no. RSING 959.57 PUG-[HIS])
16. Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 4.
17. Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage, 226.
18. Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 125.
19. Ang, “Raffles Place a Banker’s Delight.”
20. “Like a Temple Erected to Mammon,” Straits Times, 20 December 1987, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Betty L. Khoo, “No More …Those Hoof-Beats of the Days Gone By,” New Nation, 2 February 1973, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Gretchen Liu, Singapore: A Pictorial History, 1819–2000 (Singapore: Archipelago Press in association with the National Heritage Board, 1999), 353. (Call no. RSING 959.57 LIU-[HIS])
23. Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 126; Rav Dhaliwal, Journey Into the Past at Raffles Place MRT Stop,” Straits Times, 10 April 1987, 32. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Irene Hoe, “Raffles Is the Place To Be,” Straits Times, 28 September 1997, 45. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Norman Edwards and Peter Keys, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 412–13. (Call no. RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA])
26. Edwards and Keys, Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places, 413.
27. “Open Days at 9 MRT Stations,” Straits Times, 13 November 1987, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Chua Beng Huat, The Golden Shoe: Building Singapore’s Financial District (Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority, 1989), 31. (Call no. RSING 711.5522095957 CHU)
29. Mubin Sheppard, ed., Singapore 150 Years (Singapore: Times Books International, 1982), 211. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS])
30. Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers’ Singapore, 124; Sheppard, Singapore 150 Years, 211.
31. H. W. Firmstone, “Chinese Names of Streets and Places in Singapore and the Malay Peninsula,” Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 42 (February 1905): 82–83 (Call no. RQUIK 959.5 JMBRAS); Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 92.
32. Firmstone, “Chinese Names of Streets and Places,” 82–83, 122–23.
33. Tan Bee Choo, Street Names in Selected Areas of Singapore: A Study in Historical Geography (Singapore: University of Singapore, 1976), 14. (Call no. RCLOS 959.57 TAN)
34. Maya Jayapal, Old Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1992), 11. (Call no. RSING 959.57 JAY-[HIS])
35. Peter K. G. Dunlop, Street Names of Singapore (Singapore: Who’s Who Publishing, 2000), 259 (Call no. RSING 959.57 DUN-[HIS]); Jayapal, Old Singapore, 11.

Further resource
Prime Minister to Declare Open OUB Centre on 8-8-88,” Business Times, 29 July 1988, 9. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 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.


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