The Story of Telok Ayer  

Urban Redevelopment Authority

By Urban Redevelopment Authority, Singapore

There was a small Chinese community living in this area long before the British colonial administration designated it as the living quarters for Chinese immigrants. It is part of the largest conserved historic district in Singapore – ‘Chinatown’, comprising distinct precincts that were developed at different times, of which four precincts which are now under conservation: Telok Ayer (developed from the 1820s), Kreta Ayer (1830s), Tanjong Pagar (late 1880s) and Bukit Pasoh (early 1920s). These 4 districts are in-between other precincts that make up the ‘Greater Town’ south of Singapore River, the local Chinese term for the urban district that stretched from Boat Quay to the Tanjong Pagar docks.

The commercial heart of the Chinatown area is known as Gu Chia Chwi (in Hokkien), Ngau-che-shui (in Cantonese), and Niu Che Shui (in Mandarin), which mean "bullock water-cart". These names are in reference to the Malay name of the area, and actually refer to the district around Kreta Ayer Road. In Malay, the then lingua franca of the island and the region, Kreta Ayer means "Water cart".

Telok Ayer
The Telok Ayer sub-district is bounded by South Bridge Road, Cross Street, Boon Tat Street, Stanley Street, McCallum Street, Amoy Street, Ann Siang Road and Erskine Road. In between South Bridge road and Amoy Street is the historic Ann Siang Hill, one of the few remaining hillocks of old Singapore. The area features shophouses of the Early, Transitional, Late and Art Deco Shophouse styles. This area is traditionally associated with the Chinese Hokkien and also the South Indian community, who settled along the original water front that ran along today’s Telok Ayer Street. 

In the past, Telok Ayer was situated along the old shoreline of Singapore and was a landing ground for immigrants, hence giving its name Telok Ayer in Malay which translates to “bay” and “water” . Given the congregation of Chinese immigrants, it led to a concentration of temples and clan associations in the area . Some of these clan associations include Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan, the Ying Fo Fui Kuan- a Hakka clan association, and Keng Teck Whay – a welfare association set up by 36 Hokkien families who came down from Malacca. Raffles also recognised the benefit of the different Chinese communities settling into different areas of town, based on precedence and numbers. Hokkiens, being the first and the most numerous of the Chinese to arrive on the island, dominated the ‘landing’ area around Telok Ayer . This is also evident in the names of the streets in the area, for example Amoy Street was named after Amoy, now known as Xiamen, the major trading port-city of Hokkien (Fujian) Province.

Today, there are still several active Chinese clans found in the Telok Ayer area.

One such clan is the Lee Clan Association at 25 Ann Siang Road.

Telok Ayer is also home to two of the oldest Chinese temples; Fuk Tak Chi Temple built by the Hakka and Cantonese communities, and the Thian Hock Keng Temple set up the Hokkien community. Thian Hock Keng Temple has been carefully restored and has received the Architecture Heritage Award in 2014. In the past, these temples were built along the shoreline and were one of the first stops for Chinese immigrants to offer their thanksgiving for the safe journey to Singapore. Temples also doubled as offices and meeting venues for the clan associations, and Chong-Wen Ge (Institute for the Veneration of Literature), one of Singapore oldest private schools, was once situated within Thian Hock Keng’s temple complex. Apart from the Chinese community, the Indian-Muslim community who travelled to Singapore from South India also built their religious places along Telok Ayer Street. Two of these, which are now National Monuments, are the Al-Abrar Mosque and the Nagore Durgha Shrine, now a Indian-Muslim Heritage Centre. Later in 1913, Telok Ayer also became home to the Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, and built on reclaimed land. This, the oldest Chinese speaking Methodist Church, was set up by a Methodist missionary, Dr. Benjamin West, who wanted to reach out to the Chinese community .

Today, these places of worship remain as part of our daily lives.

Reclamation of Telok Ayer Basin
In 1822, Sir Stamford Raffles inaugurated Singapore’s first land reclamation project along the south bank of the Singapore River in order to move the commercial centre there. The New Harbour (now Keppel Harbour) was later established at Telok Blangah and cargo was transported between the New Harbour to the warehouses along the Singapore River mostly using bullock carts. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 led to an even greater increase in cargo being shipped through Singapore, and gave rise to a congestion issue at the wharves and road. Eventually, this led to the reclamation of the Telok Ayer Bay in 1887 which created the land where Cecil Street and Robinson Road are now, and in the early 1900s, the reclamation of the Telok Ayer Basin created what we know now as Shenton Way. The former Telok Ayer Market (a National Monument, and now known as Lau Pa Sat – or Old Pasar), Singapore’s first market, was once located along the Telok Ayer Basin before the reclamation resulted in its move to its current location. 
Conservation of Telok Ayer Area
1989 marked a milestone in Singapore, when 10 conservation areas in the historic districts of Chinatown (Telok Ayer, Kreta Ayer, Tanjong Pagar and Bukit Pasoh), Little India, Kampong Glam, Singapore River (Boat Quay and Clarke Quay), Cairnhill and Emerald Hill, with a total of over 3200 buildings, were gazetted for conservation. 
These were early efforts to conserve our buildings of architectural, historical and cultural significance in Singapore. Telok Ayer Conservation Area received conservation status on 7 July 1989.

Many have been restored to their former glory. One such building is Siang Cho Keong 仙祖宫 at 66 Amoy Street.

Found in Telok Ayer!
Architectural Features

Traditional signboard of Nam Cheong Pawnshop.

175 Telok Ayer Street.

This shophouse has a residential front facade with original timber windows with Chinese characters carvings.

20 Ann Siang Road is another example of a shophouse with a residential front facade. This shophouse also features original decorative tiles.

The restoration work on 175 Telok Ayer Street was awarded the Architectural Heritage Award in 2003. Read more about the restoration process here.

This shophouse, the former premises of Chuan Thye Paper Merchant, was built on what used to be the waterfront as land on this side of the street was reclaimed in the late 19th century.

The decorative plaster works were carefully restored in 2002.

Moulded panels with original Chinese characters

Timber framed casement windows with timber lourves with half round transom with glass infill.

Original 1950s metal window grilles

Original 1950s metal window grilles

Moulded panels with traditional Chinese frescos on plastered relief

Moulded panels with traditional Chinese frescos on plastered relief

There are also modern buildings conserved in the area.

Today, there are multi-cultural events on the streets of Telok Ayer conservation area.
The Story of Telok Ayer
Credits: Story

Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA)

Learn more about Telok Ayer Conservation Area and other conservation areas at URA's My Conservation Portal.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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