The history of Middle Road dates back to early Singapore. It was among the first roads to feature in the map of Singapore in 1836 by George Drumgoole Coleman. The neighbouring area around Middle Road became the first settlement of people from the Hainanese community. Hainanese is an immigrant community reputable for their contribution in Singaporean cuisine, Hainanese chicken rice, which is a famous dish. The dish is made up of rice cooked using chicken fat then served with boiled chicken and some chilli sauce.
Towards the end of the 19th century to the 2nd world war, the areas next to Middle Road around Malay Street and Hylam Street became busy Japanese enclaves. The enclaves were known for their traditional shops operated by the Japanese immigrants and the brothels of Karayuki-san.
The increase of Chinese immigrants and their settlement next to the European Towns made the Europeans to vacate the area and move inland from the developing urban centres. The Hainanese community forms the largest Chinese dialect group to settle in the area around Middle Road. This area was surrounded by Raffles Hotel, army camps, European churches and extending towards from the west to the North Bridge Road from Beach Roads and well known district Bugis.
Lim Chong Jin recorded the original Hainanese settlers in the area who arrived in 1841. Within 40 years, the Hainanese community made up to 10% of the Chinese population in the area totalling to 8,319. The settlers majorly worked in service-related industries like coffee shops, hotels, remittance services ship-candling and more.
In 1857, the Kheng Chiu Hwee Kuanand the Hainanese Association of Singapore now situated in Middle Road after being moved here in 1878 were created. The temple has a collection of artefacts like couplet scrolls from famous personalities, stone tablets, rare bronze guard of honour and inscribed boards.
Apart from the temple complex and the main association, up to 21 additional sub-clan associations are present along the connecting streets with most of them around Seah Street. The associations are differentiated using their clan names and their original district. As a result, Hylam Street, which means Hainan derived its name from the early Hainanese settles who resided along Malabar Street. The Hainanese community later moved to the Beach Road during the early 1990s to capitalise the pier facilities and the sea frontage. The area was later renamed Japan Street following its occupation by the nearby Japanese community.
Japanese Community and Enclave
Yamamoto Otokichi was the first Japanese resident to move to Singapore in 1862. The Japanese occupant died in 1867. In honour of his achievements, his remains were reburied in the Japanese Cemetery Park found in Hougang. Jinrickshaw, a Japanese invention consisting of a two-wheeled passenger cart, was introduced in 1894. The invention contributed to the development of Jinricksha Station, in Tanjong Pagar during the early 1990s. The Japanese built various companies and shops in the area, and by the 20th century, the population had already hit 6,950.
The rise of Japanese enclave in Singapore was related to the establishment of brothels; Bugis, Malay, Malabar, and Hylam streets in the late 1890s along with the eastern parts of the Singapore River. The river runs parallel to Alexandra Road feeding Marina Reservoir which is in the southern region of Singapore.
The boom of brothels in this part was followed by the migration of bankers, doctors, and merchants to strengthen the country’s economy, which will enable it to compete globally. The brothel business was later replaced by Nanyo Sgimp, a community newspaper in 1908, a cemetery built in 1911, a school was established in 1912 and a clubhouse opened in 1917.
By 1926, the Japanese had already grown and took over the area bordered by Middle Road, North Bridge Road, Rochor Road, Prinsep Street and established a presence in other Hainanese enclaves. The Japanese community referred Middle Road as Chuo Dori, which means Central Street.
In this period of Japanese ruling in the area, the region was synonymous with a Japanese draper shop known as Echigoya. Draper is an original term that was used to refer to a wholesaler or a retailer dealing with textiles mainly for making clothes. The shops offered high-quality textiles to their fellow Japanese and non-Japanese customers. The clothing and textiles were kept in high timber cabinets. A platform, Koagari, was later constructed allowing customers to sit as they examine the merchandise.
After the end of the 2nd World War, the Japanese were banned from Singapore. Most of the shophouses that used to be occupied by the Japanese were demolished as Singapore went to independence. Some sites were left untouched for the memory of the Japanese occupation. Singapore’s Japanese Association formed in the pre-war period by the Japanese community along Middle Road is often referred to as ‘Little Japan’. It is an important historic site that displays the Japanese heritage in Singapore and has been used as a Japanese Cemetery of Singapore, a war memorial.