Bugis Street

Singapore Infopedia


Located in the Rochor area of the central region, Bugis Street was originally in an area bounded by Victoria Street, North Bridge Road, Middle Road and Rochor Road.1 It was known for nightlife and transvestite parades.2 In 1991, Bugis street and its adjacent streets – Malay, Hylam and Malabar streets – were removed when construction of Bugis Junction began.3 A new Bugis Street, was recreated opposite its original location, between Victoria Street and Queen Street in the late 1980s.4

Bugis street possibly got its name from the original Bugis kampong (village) settlement. Originally from Celebes (now known as Sulawesi) in Indonesia, the Bugis were maritime traders who travelled and settled down in various parts of Southeast Asia. From the 17th to early 20th centuries, the Bugis rose to power through their extensive trading network and strategic marriages with the Riau-Johor ruling family, and by acting as mercenaries in royal disputes.5 In February 1820, around 500 Bugis people from Riau came to Singapore after armed clashes with the Dutch.6 

The Bugis settlement might have been located where the Kampong Glam district is today. Bugis, whose old spelling was “Buggugs”, appeared as “Buggugs Town extending to Eastern Bay” near the sultan’s palace on the earliest landward map of Singapore drawn between 1819 and 1820.7 In the Raffles Town Plan by surveyor in 1822, the Bugis kampong was drawn in an area further east along the shoreline from the area marked as the European town with an Arab kampong and the sultan’s compound.8 Based on the first topological survey conducted by George D. Coleman in 1829, “Jalan Bugus” first appeared in a map of Singapore drawn in 1836. The map showed that the area was located further east along the west bank of the Rochor River, and not the present area where Bugis Street is today.9 According to 19th century records, the site was first leased to a J. de Almeida by the British East India Company in 1829.10

“Buggis Street”, as well as Malabar Street and Hylam Street, first appeared in J. F. A. McNair’s “Map of the Town and Environs of Singapore” in 1878. Malabar Street and Hylam Street were adjacent to Bugis Street and connected to Malay Street.11 On an older map in 1857 – A General Plan of the Town and Environs of Singapore by S. Narayanen – “Buggis Street” was known as “Charles Street”, which first appeared on this map and was drawn parallel to Malay Street.12

Adjacent to Bugis Street, Hylam Street was named after the Hainanese community, as it had become rooted in the Bugis Street area (“Hylam” is the older spelling for “Hainan”). The living quarters of the Hainanese community spilled over to the Bugis Street area, because of overcrowding in Chinatown.13 Although the Bugis Street area was designated for the Europeans, they never moved into the Bugis Street area as planned.14

The layout of the streets in the area remained about the same after Albert Street was extended to connect with Bugis Street and Tan Quee Lan Street in the early 1930s.15

Red-light district
In the 1860s, the areas surrounding Malay Street, including Bugis Street, and west of North Canal Road were designated as red-light districts.16 European prostitutes occupied the area in such large numbers that a campaign in June 1864 called for their removal.17 After the European prostitutes were removed, two Japanese brothels were set up on Malay Street around 1877. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the vicinity of Bugis Street became known for its Japanese brothels. Bugis Street was also part of “Little Japan”, an area where the pre-war Japanese community in Singapore congregated and which stretched from Sophia Road in the north to Beach Road in the south, and Rochor Road in the east to High Street in the west.18

By the turn of the century, the area of Malay Street, Bugis Street, Hylam Street, Malabar Street, Fraser Street and Tan Quee Lan Street was known as the red-light district in Singapore.19 At the height of the trade between 1904 and 1905, 130 brothels operated in the area. Licensed Japanese prostitution was abolished in 1920.20

Post war

After the war, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, Bugis street became a tourist area popular with British colonial soldiers, seamen on shore leave, and with US troops on rest and recreation during the Vietnam War. Known for nightlife and cabaret performances by drag queens and transwomen, Bugis Street became lively in the evenings. The main highlight was the parade of drag queens and transwomen at 11 pm. The performances were the only available night entertainment from midnight till dawn.21

Food was another draw that attracted even the locals to Bugis Street. The old shophouses, and street stalls served local delicacies such as "the penis of the bull with noodles", an aphrodisiac for men, until the early hours of the morning. From the 1950s to the early 1980s, Bugis Street was a nightspot for both locals and tourists, offering al fresco dining.22

Gang clashes were common on Bugis Street.23 It was reported in 1957 that Bugis street was one of the areas with many gangs vying for territories.24

Current times
In 1984, the government announced its intention to redevelop the prime land.25 After public pleas for the area to be conserved, the Ministry of National Development and the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (now Singapore Tourism Board) undertook a joint study.26

The study concluded that the street would not be preserved, because of development needs, the construction of the Mass Rapid Transit station at Victoria Street, and potential health risks from lack of sewers in the area.27 In October 1985, the shophouses on Bugis Street were demolished, after the hawkers, shopkeepers, cabaret performers and prostitutes relocated their business.28

When construction of Bugis Junction began in 1991, Bugis Street, Malay Street, Hylam Street and Malabar Street were removed.29 These four streets are the site of the Bugis Junction complex, which includes the InterContinental Singapore hotel and an office block.30 Opposite the Bugis Junction on Victoria Street, the new Bugis Street is now a pedestrianised shopping street that was separated from Albert Street.31

Variant names
To the Chinese community, Bugis street was known by other names. It was known as peh sua-pu in Hokkien, which possibly means “white-wash” (Peh means “white”, while sua-pu means is derived from the Malay word sapu for “broom” or sweep”).32 The origin of the name is uncertain. It was believed that the houses on Bugis Street had an extra coat of whitewash.33 The name could also refer to the white sand of the nearby beach, just beyond Beach Road, before land reclamation is subsequent decades pushed the shoreline out.34

The Cantonese called the street hak kaai (黑街) or “black street”, perhaps because it was dark at night without streetlights in those days.35 Another possible reason for the name was the unsavory activities that took place there: opium-smoking in old terrace houses and soldiers patronising prostitutes during the Japanese Occupation.36

Seow Peck Ngiam

1. National Archives (Singapore), A General Plan of the Town and Environs of Singapore, 1857, survey map, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. SP004422_1)
2. “A Street Named Bugis,” Goodwood Journal, 2nd Qtr., (1991): 6–11. (Call no. RSING 052 GHCGJ)
3. “Work on $800M Bugis Junction Project to Begin on Tuesday,” Straits Times, 5 December 1991, 40. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Salma Khalik, “New Site Picked for Rebirth of Bugis Street,” Straits Times, 11 December 1986, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Christian Pelras, The Bugis (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), 118–20, 145, 272, 313, 327. (Call no. RSING 959.84 PEL)
6. C. M. Turnbull, A History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009), 33–34. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
7. John Sturgus Bastin and Lim Chen Sian, The Founding of Singapore 1819: Based on the Private Letters of Sir Stamford Raffles to the Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief in India, the Marguess of Hastings, Preserved in the Bute Collection at Mount Stuart, Isle of Bute, Scotland, Together With a Description of the Earliest Landward Map of Singapore Preserved in the Bute Collection at Mount Stuart, Isle of Bute, Scotland (Singapore: National Library Board, 2012), 201, 204, 215. (Call no. RSING 959.5703 BAS-[HIS])
8. Survey Department, Singapore, Plan of the Town of Singapore by Lieut Jackson1828, survey map, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. SP002981).
9. Survey Department, Singapore, Map of the Town and Environs of Singapore, 1836, survey map, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. TM000037).
10. S. K. Chan, “A Study of a Street – Bugis Street: A Street of No Night” (diploma of social science, research paper, University of Singapore, 1964), 7.  
11. Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore), Map of the Town and Environs of Singapore, 1878, survey map, National Archives of Singapore (accession no.  SP006423)
12. National Archives (Singapore), General Plan of the Town and Environs of Singapore.
13. Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 156. (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA])
14. Bastin and Lim, The Founding of Singapore 1819, 209.  
15. Survey Department, Singapore, T. S. XII 3 and 4 Singapore, 1931, survey map, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. SP002177); “Slum Clearance in Singapore,” Straits Times, 28 October 1929, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
16. James Francis Warren, Ah Ku and Karayuki-San: Prostitution in Singapore, 1870–1940 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003), 34, 38, 42 (Call no. RSING 306.74095957 WAR); Shimizu Hiroshi and Hirakawa Hitoshi, Japan and Singapore in the World Economy: Japan’s Economic Advance into Singapore, 1870–1965 (New York: Routledge, 1999), 24. (Call no. RSING 337.5205957 SHI)
17. “The Social Evil,” Straits Times, 18 June 1864, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Shingaporu Nihonjinkai, Prewar Japanese Community in Singapore: Picture and Record (Singapore: Japanese Association, 2004), 30–31. (Call no. RSING 305.895605957 PRE)
19. Nihonjinkai, Prewar Japanese Community in Singapore, 30–31; Warren, Ah Ku and Karayuki-San, 40–41.  
20. Warren, Ah Ku and Karayuki-San, 45.  
21. “A Street Named Bugis,” 6–11.
22. Roy Ferroa, “Raiding the Singapore Ice-Box,” Straits Times, 26 May 1949, 8; “Come and See Malaya,” Singapore Free Press, 9 March 1950, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
23.Ee Boon Lee, “When 100 Gangsters Ruled,” Singapore Monitor, 16 March 1985, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
24. “Wishful Thinking about Vice,” Singapore Free Press, 1 August 1957, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
25. “Bugis St Vendors’ Plea Turned Down,” Straits Times, 13 January 1984, 42. (From NewspaperSG)
26. T. J. W. Gill, “Bugis Street – Multi-Faceted and World Famous,” Straits Times, 8 February 1985, 23; Ilene Aleshire, “Study on Bugis Street Gives Hawkers Reprieve,” Straits Times, 6 February 1985, 44. (From NewspaperSG)
27. Ilene Aleshire, “Bugis Street Stalls Must Go – It's Final,” Straits Times, 13 July 1985, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Aleshire, “Bugis Street Stalls Must Go”; “We Don’t Want Sympathy, We Just Want Understanding,” Straits Times, 11 October 1985, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
29. “Work on $800M Bugis Junction Project.”
30. “Wing On to Take $11M Stake in Bugis Complex,” Straits Times, 10 March 1992, 39 (From NewspaperSG); Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 50.
31. Khalik, “New Site Picked for Rebirth of Bugis Street.”
32. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 49.
33. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 49.
34. “T.F. Hwang Takes You Down Memory Lane,” Straits Times, 19 October 1985, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
35. Chan, “Study of a Street,” 14; “How Should Street Names Be Translated into Chinese?Straits Times, 14 July 1935, 4; Sit Yin Fong, “Collyer Quay Is Its Official Name,” Strait Times, 12 December 1948, 6 (From NewspaperSG); “T.F. Hwang Takes You down Memory Lane.”
36. Ee, “When 100 Gangsters Ruled.”

Further resources
Khun Eng Kuah, “Development and the Reinvention of Bugis Street,” chap. 7 in Social Cultural Engineering and the Singaporean State (Singapore: Springer, 2018).

Lee Meiyu, “Bugis Street: From Sleazy to Sanitised,” BiblioAsia (Oct–Dec 2015)

The information in this article is valid as at July 2021 and correct as far as we can 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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