Look past the neon lights and ‘Sale’ signs to find glimpses of a glorious past. The Orchard Road heritage trail will show you the way...
Don’t you just love Orchard Road? But what if we told you that Orchard is more than just a place where credit cards go to die. If you look away from the bright lights, 50% off signs and super tempting shop windows, you’ll find your shopping haven is actually steeped in history. Next time you’re in the mood for a good story, leave your wallet behind and download the Orchard Road heritage trail.
We looove heritage walks and if you ask us, you don’t have to be a hardcore, date dropping history junkie to appreciate the past. The good guys at National Heritage Board have pieced together a fabulous self-guided trail to let you in on Orchard Road’s many secrets. Grab your friends, this makes for a stellar Instawalk – there are 71 worthy sites (including a few national monuments) stretching from Dhoby Ghaut to Tanglin just waiting to be discovered. Hold the dramatic gasp, you’re not expected to find them all at one go. Pick from three short trails – Historical Gems, Communities and Cemeteries and From Orchard to Garden – and explore the vicinity with fresh eyes.
For starters, did you know…
The hills were alive…
Orchard Road used to be located in a valley. Yup, Emerald Hill, Cairnhill and Claymore Hill were legit hills. Now, they’re names of roads and fleeting reminders of history. Before Sir Raffles decided to grow nutmeg here, it used to be gambier plantation. What’s gambier? Good question – we looked it up too. This crop used to be super important for the leather industry and was also used as herbal medicine.
By the stream
Ever heard of Sunhei Brass Bassa? It was a freshwater rivulet that ran parallel to Orchard Road in the 1800s. Later that century, it was renamed Stamford Canal after certain areas were turned into a canal to control flooding. By 1970s, almost all of it was paved over. Almost. But you can spot a tiny section of the canal open to the air right behind MacDonald House at Dhoby Ghaut.
Walk this way
Orchard Road was home to Singapore’s first escalator at Orchard Theatre in 1965. We totally take them for granted now, but back then a staircase that automatically transported you upstairs and downstairs was a major attraction. Many would show up at Orchard Theatre, now Cathay Cineleisure, just for the ride.
Nuts for these homes
Emerald Hill used to be a nutmeg orchard before it turned into a residential hood in the 1900s. By the ‘30s, there were at least 112 houses and about 45 belonged to Peranakan families. Today, this conserved neighbourhood is one of the most Instagrammable spots on our island.
Ahead of its time
Back in 1899, educating daughters was not the norm.. which makes Singapore Chinese Girls’ School (currently housing Chatsworth International School) rather special. One of the oldest schools in the area, it was built to provide modern education to young Chinese girls. At one point, it was the only girls’ school in the country to have trousers as a part of the uniform.
Escalator aside, Orchard Road was home to Singapore’s many firsts. The first public swimming pool was at YMCA in 1919 and the first McDonald’s was at Liat Towers in 1979. Singapore’s the first skyscraper was The Cathay building at just 16-storeys.
It takes a village
The Botanic Gardens’ staff quarters was located inside the gardens and this little kampong was home to 50 odd households with over 500 residents. Apparently, all the kiddies went to school at Tanglin Besar Malay School which is now Tanglin Mall. In the early ‘80s, the residents were relocated to flats and the plot was converted to the Evolution Garden.
The last of its kind
The sprawling 29,0002 ft House of Tan Yeok Nee is hiding in plain sight. The last surviving Teochew mansion in the country, built in 1885, is a national monument. We got a look inside and it’s downright glorious – the traditional Chinese decorative elements, the two courtyards, the elaborate rooftop figurines and more. Tan Yeok Nee, a big shot gambier merchant, eventually sold his palatial home to return to China and over the years it switched several hands – a railway station master, St Mary’s Home for girls and the Salvation Army.
Today, it houses Ming Yi Guan, a TCM centre. And although you can’t waltz in for a look-see on a regular day, Ming Yi Guan occasionally holds free tours that are announced on their Facebook.