“Next station, Tiong Bahru!”
In Singapore, hearing such public transport announcements is a daily occurrence to many of us. We are no strangers to these familiar places and streets, but did you know that some of these names are in Hokkien? Behind each of these street names is a story that we more than often miss. Today, let’s demystify some of them so that they will no longer be just another Singapore’s street name.
Jiak Kim Street
Many youngsters reading this article will be familiar with a famous former tenant of this nightspot by the Singapore River – Zouk at Jiak Kim Street. Before its closure in 2016, this was where many of us went clubbing for the first time and partied the night away. Famous acts like Avicii even made guest DJ appearances at the club. Zouk at Jiak Kim Street holds many fond memories for us, but the name Jiak Kim harks back to an era even further than the heydays of the nightclub.
The name Jiak Kim comes from the prominent 19th century Peranakan Tan Jiak Kim (1859-1917). A merchant and political activist, Tan Jiak Kim was a Hokkien community leader who served on the boards of Chinese temples and as the head of the Tan Clan Association. Like many philanthropists in early Singapore, Tan was also a major advocate of the rights of the underprivileged. He called for water standpipes that provided water to coolies and fought against an increase in taxes that would hurt the livelihoods of rickshaw pullers. In fact, did you know that the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine at the National University of Singapore was birthed out of a petition led by him? Tan even made a personal contribution of $12,000 to the petition, which was a hefty sum back then. So, the next time nostalgia brings you back to Zouk at Jiak Kim Street, remember the story of its namesake Tan Jiak Kim.
One of the earliest housing estates in Singapore, Tiong Bahru is known today for its numerous cafes and wall murals. It has also become a popular weekend hangout with its blending of traditional and modern architecture. Besides being a favorite spot for hipsters, the name Tiong Bahru also testifies to the intermingling of cultures in Singapore.
Strictly speaking, Tiong Bahru is not a purely Hokkien place name. However, it highlights a unique feature in Singapore Hokkien – Malay loanwords which are adopted and combined with Hokkien to form altogether new words. Tiong means cemetery in Hokkien while Bahru is the Malay word for new. In the past, Tiong Bahru referred to the then-new cemetery beside the Old Chinese Burial Ground located on the site of the present-day Singapore General Hospital.
Nowadays, the cemetery is no longer there, but the name Tiong Bahru lives on. In a way, it shows one of the hallmarks of Singapore Hokkien. Apart from the original language brought over from Southern China, new words were borrowed from the Malay language to give it a distinct local flavor. Singapore Hokkien does not live within its own silo in the Chinese community but also evolved organically based on interactions with non-Chinese ethnic groups such as the Malay community. It is a story of Singapore and how different cultures have merged together to give Singapore its multicultural feel.
When one hears the word Tekka, we think of the famous Tekka Centre located in Little India. This multipurpose building houses apparel shops, a wet market, and hawker stalls selling iconic dishes such as biryani and roti prata. Its wet market is also known for its range of fresh seafood and vegetables and is a favorite location for grocery shopping. Tekka Centre has a multilingual side too – Chinese stall owners who can converse in Tamil, and Indian counterparts who are fluent in Chinese vernaculars such as Hokkien and Mandarin.
In fact, the name Tekka is a Hokkien phrase meaning the foot of a bamboo plant. It is a reference to the bamboo plants that once grew on the banks of the nearby Rochor Canal. The name stuck, but not without a struggle of its own. As part of its Speak Mandarin Campaign, the Singapore government initially opened Tekka Centre with the name “Zhujiao Centre”, the Mandarin romanization of Tekka. However, this sparked a controversy as the public felt that it bore no association with the name Tekka and created confusion. Hence, it was eventually renamed Tekka Centre to better reflect its history.
The naming of Tekka Centre shows us that even though Hokkien is not seen as a mainstream language these days, its cultural relevance is not to be underestimated. Hokkien phrases and place names are still commonly used in Singlish today. In a sense, knowing these phrases and places’ names have become equated with being Singaporean. Perhaps it is time to get in touch with our roots and add that little bit of local flavor to our lives.
Contributed by Brandon Goh
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