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From Emporium to Singapore City: Mapping the Journey
- Every map has a story to tell...

By Michelle Tay, Assistant Archivist

Maps play a privileged role in documenting the progress and transition of the Singapore landscape at different stages in time. Much like witnesses of history, maps preserve, visually, memories of landmarks, landscapes and interesting details of places that once stood in Singapore. Thus, maps take centre stage in this unique exhibition jointly organised by the National Archives of Singapore (NAS) and the Singapore Land Authority (SLA), revisiting 135 years of Singapore's history (1819-1954) through this seldom-displayed medium. To provide a fuller context of their historical significance, we have further added on other forms of records - oral history interviews, Straits Settlements manuscripts, building plans, aerial photographs, postcards and still photographs. Together, these iconic maps and accompanying records tell compelling stories of different facets of Singapore's transformation from an unknown fishing village to a bustling British Emporium of the Far East and then achieving "City" status in 1951, emerging from the turmoil of the Japanese Occupation.

Looking back, it was during the colonial era that land survey and island mapping was introduced to Singapore. In fact, the first survey of Singapore was of the Singapore Harbour, soon after Stamford Raffles stepped foot on our shores in 1819. A year following the founding of Singapore, the British set up the Survey Department and brought along with it British influence and practices in the survey and production of maps. Topographic mapping introduced in the late 19th century constituted another important milestone of Singapore cartography and it essentially and visibly documented the land transformation through a much more detailed and accurate capturing processes.

Right up to 22 September 1951 when Singapore officially obtained the status of a City, the face of Singapore was a far cry from its early days as a fishing village. Hills were levelled to fill marshes and swamps, while the growing population spread itself outwards from the town centre, bringing about the development of the rest of Singapore. Over the years, while new buildings and key structures such as the Causeway and the railway were built, others such as the Japanese shrines - Syonan Ginja and Chureito, and the aerodrome in Kallang, did not stand the test of time. Between the fine grids and scales of the maps, intricate lines and symbols depict these changing landscapes and form part of the stories that each map conveys.

Man created maps in order to have a good understanding of the environment. It is equally important to know that maps also let us look back, appreciate and study the work and efforts of our predecessors. Every map has a story to tell, and these maps tell the story of Singapore, from one unique perspective, in a time when mapping in Singapore was a British tradition. Indeed, the narrative qualities of these maps would have been hidden or lost without proper care and preservation of the medium itself. Incidentally, this exhibition was a chance to demonstrate NAS' role and expertise in conserving and preserving historically significant archival records of various mediums and format, including maps and survey plans. Many of these paper records have been treated at NAS' Archives Conservation Lab to strengthen their physical properties for handling and to retard their physical deterioration. They are then stored on flatbed shelves in controlled repository conditions, where temperature and relative humidity are monitored and kept constant at optimum levels to enhance the records' shelf life.

Conservation and Preservation of Map Collection at NAS

Anoxic treatment in a fumigation chamber to destroy pests and insects
Old documents restoration
Deacidification to neutralise acids in paper records
Old map reconstruction
Manual repair
Old map reconstructed
Leafcasting using paper fibres to fill holes and strengthen the record's physical property
Map printing
Encapsulation between transparent archival quality polyester films to protect against mishandling
Map construction
Digital imaging and preservation on microfilm for effective long-term storage and access
Singapore Map
Storage on flatbed shelves in temperature-and RH-controlled repositories

Highlights of the Exhibition

The following maps from this exhibition were chosen to reflect upon certain milestones in Singapore's history as well as in mapping techniques.

1819 Plan of Singapore Harbour
A map of many cartographic firsts - the first large-scale map of Singapore; the first map to show Malay villages and settlements on the island; the first map reflecting "Singapore" as it is spelled today. This map shows the harbour and adjacent coast of the Singapore Island, including a few offshore islands, such as the St. John's Island, at the time of Stamford Raffles' first landing on Singapore. Captain Daniel Ross, the hydrographer of the East India Company (EIC) who accompanied Raffles and William Farquhar to Singapore, prepared the map while Raffles was negotiating with the Temenggong to establish a trading post. In a letter he wrote to Singapore's First Resident, Maj. William Farquhar, dated 25 June 1819, Raffles outlined his plans for the development of Singapore town along the Singapore River, giving priority to improving port facilities for ships to dock and unload, and allocating land for the various communities of settlers to form the European, Chinese and Malay Towns.1

1846 Thomson Survey Plan & Map
Produced by the first Government Surveyor, John Turnbull Thomson, to establish boundaries of land lots, this plan shows the demarcation and development of the town and the land use of its immediate adjoining districts. The map reflects the earliest spellings of district names such as Gaylang, Pyah Laebar, Toah Pyoh Chul Kow, Toah Pyoh Lye and Tulloh Blangan. Buildings such as Fort Fullerton, Court House and the Government House atop Government Hill (now Fort Canning) were already in existence, while plantations of gambier, pepper, nutmegs, mace, sugar, coconuts and cloves were located in districts away from the town. Evident too were some of the earliest land reclamation projects at Boat Quay, Battery Road and Circular Road, where swampland was filled in 1822 with earth from a low hill near the mouth of the Singapore River. The Telok Ayer Market (now Lau Pa Sat) located at the junction of Market Street and Robinson Road is one of the oldest surviving markets in Singapore, first constructed in wood in 1822 and extending out on piles over Telok Ayer Bay. It was rebuilt in 1834 in a brick octagonal shape with a tiled roof, as designed by G.D. Coleman, and transformed again in 1894 to having a cast iron frame following Municipal Engineer James MacRitchie's design, which we still see today.

Birdeye view of city
Aerial view of Telok Ayer Market, c. 1967
Source: National Archives of Singapore

1898 Map of Singapore Island and its Dependencies
Do you know that Tampines, Tuas, Sembawang, Punggol, Jurong and other districts in Singapore had already been named more than a century ago? Possibly the last Singapore map published in the 19th century, this map reveals how the interior of Singapore Island had already been fully mapped and divided into municipal districts. This map is unusually detailed in locating landmarks in and around Singapore's central district, such as People's Park, Government House, Raffles Institution, Raffles Hotel, Hotel de l'Europe, Botanical Gardens, Race Course and Tan Tock Seng Hospital, as well as tracts of protected forest reserves from Singapore's first forest conservancy efforts.

Old Singapore Map
Detail of Map, showing the Singapore Town area
Source: National Archives of Singapore

Old building

Old state building Old Singapore building

View of Raffles Institution (c.1912), Raffles Hotel (c. 1926) and Hotel de l'Europe (c. 1929)
Source: National Archives of Singapore

Painting of Singapore in Olden Days
A street scene of South Bridge road in 1898 showing the Criminal District Court and the Central Police Station
Source: National Archives of Singapore

1938 Singapore Police Map
This highly detailed map reflected the re-zoning of police jurisdictions under the Fairburn Building Scheme in the late 1930s. There were seven police headquarters stations and 32 divisional stations. Among them, the Old Hill Street Police Station built in 1934 was used by the Kempeitai (Japanese Military Police) to hold and interrogate suspects during the Japanese Occupation. It now houses the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) and statutory boards under its charge. Interestingly, traces of blue point markings and red circular markings can be seen around the southern parts of Singapore, probably made by the British as strategic points of defence against a possible Japanese invasion. An epic battle was fought by the Malay Regiment on 13-14 February 1942 within the circumference of one of the red lines in defence of the Pasir Panjang Ridge. The story of their last significant battle atop Bukit Chandu is retold today at NAS' WWII Interpretative Centre - "Reflections at Bukit Chandu", within an old colonial bungalow that witnessed the stout and relentless defence put up by the Malay Regiment.

Old Clarke Quay area
Hill Street Police Station, c. 1940
Source: J. A. Bennett Collection

Reflections at Bukit Chandu, 31K Pepys Road
Source: National Archives of Singapore

1943 Map of Syonan si
Telling signs of changes in the leadership of Singapore during the Japanese Occupation include the adoption of the Japanese calendar system and changes in naming conventions. Singapore was named "Syonan", famous cinemas, government buildings and hospitals were renamed in Japanese and new structures such as the Syonan Ginja (Shinto shrine) were added by the Japanese. The Japanese also added a concrete runway (yet to be captured on the map) across the circular grass landing field at Kallang Airport, which extended beyond Grove Road, probably with the use of POW labour. The map also shows large tracts of Chinese-owned rubber plantations which were eventually taken over by the Japanese and converted to growing food crops. In particular, Lee Rubber Company along Kallang Road was declared "enemy property" and taken over by Japanese because of the family's active contribution to the China Relief fund during the Sino-Japanese war in the late 1930s.

Theatre in olden days
The Palace Theatre was renamed the Yamato Gekijo during the Japanese Occupation
Source: The Mainichi Newspapersi>

Shinto ceremonies and rituals were held at the Syonan Ginja during the Japanese Occupation, a shrine built to worship the Sun Goddess Amaterasu O-mikami
Source: Photo News Weekly

1954 Map of Singapore City
Published by the Survey Department of the Federation of Malaya, the title of this map is particularly significant as it acknowledges the "City" status of Singapore conferred by King George VI on 22 September 1951.2  The early 1950s was a milestone in the mapping history of Singapore as it saw the application in Singapore of photogrammetrical mapping (using aerial photographs), the technique used to produce this map. The method allowed rich details to be captured on a scale of ten inches to a mile and this map was used to produce street directories in subsequent years. Look out for now-vanished sago processing factories along the Singapore River, a long-established trade which turned raw sago pitch into sago flour and pearl for export to countries such as Great Britain, China and India. The map also captured a significant development in public housing in Queenstown, Singapore's first satellite town built by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) after World War II. It was a self-contained suburb with full amenities such as markets, shops, schools, clinics, playgrounds and amusement centres. Compare between the layout of Queenstown estate and the first pre-war low-rise housing estate - Tiong Bahru. During the war, residents at Tiong Bahru benefited from the close proximity of cluster dwelling, as neighbours pooled resources, exchanged recipes and looked out for one another.3 4

Old Parliament House
An archway proclaiming "Let Singapore City Flourish" erected across St. Andrews Road, to commemorate Singapore's status as a "City"
Source: Wong Kwan Collection

Street hawker in olden days
Sago processing factories along the Singapore River, where raw sago pitch was subjected to numerous rounds of washing in large wooden troughs to remove all the earth and fibres. The pitch was then strained and heated in iron pans until it became granulated and achieved a pearl-like \ appearance, to produce pearl sago
Source: National Archives of Singapore

Do you know...

  1. Windmills were used to draw water out from the swampy land of Kalang Basin during land reclamation works? (1954 Map of Singapore City)

  2. Windmill
    Source: National Archives of Singapore

  3. There was once an "island" in the middle of Kalang Basin called "Pulau Geylang"? In his speech at the opening of the Kallang Airport on 12 June 1937, Director of Public Works, Major R.L. Nunn, revealed that the "island" was found to be composed almost entirely of sawdust, possibly waste material from the many sawmills dotting the length of the river, and was consequently removed and the area reclaimed to construct the Kallang Airport. (1954 Map of Singapore City) 5

  4. The beginnings of aviation development in Changi could be traced back to the Japanese Occupation years when POW labour was used to build two crossing landing strips? (1926 Map of Singapore Changi & Tampines)

  5. The "Five Foot Way" as we still see today had its beginnings as early as 1828? During town planning, it was decided that a mandatory verandah of standard depth would be built to form a continued and covered passage on both sides of the street, to allow town dwellers to maximise their allotted space without compromising the uniformity of the streets. (1828 Jackson Town Plan)

  6. The roof of the Empress Place Building (now the Asian Civilisations Museum) was once the centre of the cartographic coordinates of Singapore? (1924, 1929, 1931 Pocket Maps from Singapore & Malayan Directory)
  7. Old building
    The Empress Place Building, c. 1909
    Source: Arshak Catchatoor Galstaun Collection

  8. The area around Kallang Gasworks was known as "Huocheng" ("Fire Town") as flames from the burning of waste gas could be seen from the Gasworks' discharge stack day in, day out? (1924, 1929, 1931 Pocket Maps from Singapore & Malayan Directory)

  9. Both Queenstown and Queen Elizabeth Walk were named in 1953 to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II that year? (1954 Map of Singapore City)

  10. Bukit Timah Nature Reserve was one of the first forest reserves in Singapore demarcated as early as 1884? (1938 Map of Singapore Bukit Timah)

  11. Air raid shelters were built into some of the earliest housing estates at Tiong Bahru in the late 1930s by the Singapore Improvement Trust as war loomed on the horizon? (1954 Map of Singapore City) Nicholas Tang, whose family moved to Tiong Bahru in 1942, recalled his memory of the air raid shelters at Blocks 79 and 80 at Chay Yan Street:
    "This is a horseshoe-shaped block. At one end there was actually an underground cellar, used as an air raid shelter. ... It is 90 degrees attached to the wall of the block and it just curved down 90 degrees, with a passage. The passage is about 2 to 3 feet wide with a slant. This wall is a fully bricked wall, I think it is about four layers of bricks. And in those days they believed that bricks would be able to prevent the shrapnel from coming inside. Perhaps if a bomb were to drop inside it may not help. Ironically, this whole wall was never used. Later on (the shelter) was used as a residence. All the air raid shelters between Block 79 and Block 80 were used by people living in the attap houses nearby. Some of them were also workers from the General Hospital living in Tiong Poh Avenue. There was a big block of flats for them. The Japanese drove them out and occupied the Tiong Poh Avenue flats. So these people had no choice but to stay in the air raid shelters below our house."

1 See Raffles' instructions to Singapore's First Resident, Maj. William Farquhar, dated 25 June 1819, outlining his plans for the development of Singapore town along the Singapore River. Priority was given to improving port facilities for ships to dock and unload, while land was allotted for the various communities of settlers, forming the European, Chinese and Malay Towns.