Thursday, August 12, 2010

the Little Tokyo that was - a stroll along Middle Road

You have Chinatown, Little India, and well where Little Tokyo is – you may ask – considering the profusion of Japanese restaurants in Singapore lately?

If there is such a place – it was perhaps in Cuppage Center then in the 1970’s and 80's, and now at Mohd Sultan Road, with a concentration of Japanese restaurants, izakaya - 居酒屋 - traditional drinking joints, karaoke lounge, and where the Japanese expatriate would gather.

Well, pre-War Singapore certainly had one – an authentic Little Tokyo – that spread over a much bigger area.

Perhaps cos of political sensitivity & though these sites are not identified with a signboards, as with the historical buildings in the Civic district, Chinatown or in Little India, the Little Tokyo that was - is well documented in Japanese literature. And it was featured in the latest copy of J-Plus magazine.

Middle road – to the pre-war Japanese community was known as Chuo-dori – 中央通りThe Central Thoroughfare. Dotted along this road and its vicinity were shops and establishments – kimono shop, western apparels merchants, Japanese restaurants, eateries, clock shop, photo shop, dentistry, barbershop, hotels, , tour agencies, hospitals, schools, etc, - managed by the Japanese.

Here’s from J-Plus, a map of Middle Road, that identifies the vestiges of Little Tokyo – A stroll that will take you back to the old street scenes interposed against present day photographs. Here’s an abridged translation -

1) Beach Road

The Miyako Hotel, 都ホテル, and many Japanese shops were located in this three-storey building facing Beach Road, and located between Seah Street and Purvis Street (Hainan 2nd Street).

2. Middle Road,

This photograph was taken at the junction of North Bridge Road and looking towards the direction of the sea. With the road widening in the 1990's, it’s a pity that many of the buildings are no longer around. Middle Road was called the Chuo Dori – 中央道り- by the Japanese. Photograph showed road was flooded after a heavy rain.

3. Echigoya. 越後屋

This building was demolished in 1996 during road widening. It was what Mistukoshi Departmental Store is now then – the most popular and pride of pre-war Japanese shops. It was the first building in Singapore with an elevator when it was built in 1937.

4. North Bridge Road –

From 1905 – 1927 tram cars was a means of public transport, and it ran from North Bridge Road to Geylang. Visible in the photograph- the tram car rail track & electric post - next to where the National Library – opened in 2005 – is.

5. Malay Street

At Bugis Junction – next to Intercontinental Hotel - from the beginning of Meiji (1868) – this was the Geylang of the karayuki-san in their sojourn to the tropics. At its peak – there were close to 100 of these Japanese flesh trade joints, and as such - suteretsu – ステレツ - derived from street – became a slang in Japanese.

6. Victoria Street

A 1920 picture of Victoria Street with the stately 3 story building -The Yamamoto Dentist – 山本歯科 posted with signboard written in Japanese, English and Chinese, The Japanese called this road – 本通り -Hon Dori . Though nothing much of the old buildings are left, the St Joseph Cathedral is visible on the same side of the road further down.

Note :
Perhaps because of Japan’s early foray into western medical sciences, the Chinese wording on the signboard on the 3rd floor read -日本西法牙科 – that is literary - Western science Japanese Dentist .

7. Waterloo Street – Singapore Japanese Primary School – 新嘉坂日本小学校

The school started in 1912 from a wing of the Toyo Hotel located in Middle Road. The photograph showed the school hostel which was built in 1921, and was in operation till the end of the Pacific War.

The building has remained almost intact and is now the Stanford Art Center.

8. Middle Road – view towards Selegie Road from the Junction of Bencoolen Street.

The Japanese Consulate was directly on the hill behind the shop houses. The Star of David building built in 1928, still stands, and is occupied by shops selling local food.

9. Singapore Japan Club 新嘉坂 日本人具楽部

This building located at the end of Middle Road was the Japanese Club, which was set up in 1922, and a part of the Japanese Association. Located in the building were restaurants, billiard room, and other facilities, as well as the office of the Japanese Association.

The present site is occupied by the Selegie Shopping Complex.

10. Japanese Consulate 日本領事館

The Japanese Consulate to Singapore was established in 1879, and moved a number of times. After which it moved to this hill location in Wilkinson Road, overlooking Middle Road. Since the end of the War, the building has remained, and is currently used as a art studio and gallery.

Well, the next time you take a stroll along Middle Road – from the junction of Beach Road, to Selegie Road – take this map along to enjoy a flavor of yesteryear Little Tokyo vis-à-vis the Singapore version..



A widely distributed bi-weekly magazine of the Japanese expatriate community in Singapore published on the 1st and 3rd Thursday of the month.

It’s cover printed on glossy paper with a touch of quality runs a caption in English – Total Lifestyle Magazine - has a catch phrase in Japanese – Live life in Singapore with a PLUS -

shingaporuraifu ni purasu wo umidasu

This free magazine is available at Japanese establishments, such as restaurants , departmental store, and supermart.

2 ) Post war Japanese settlers in Singapore –

4) The Japanese Association, Singapore
The photographs in J-PLUS are attributed to JAS.