History and Memory of Cultural Spaces – From Waterloo Street to Little India


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An urban landscape can change in the blink of an eye for a globalised city like Singapore, where economic development is imperative. As we applaud the conveniences that a new shopping mall is providing, or say the fast connection that the new Downtown Line 2 is making between Little India and Bugis, we soon forget how life used to be previously.

Many of us may not be old enough to remember seeing, for instance, the old Sri Sivan Temple in Orchard Road, which dated back to around 1850 but had to make way in 1983 for the construction of Dhoby Ghaut MRT station. With the new Indian Heritage Centre in Campbell Lane, one may however see figurines from the old temple, alongside exhibits on how pioneers of Singapore had migrated from India to work as rubber plantation workers, civil servants, guards and so on.

Before the Sivan Temple moved to a transit site next to Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple and finally to Geylang, devotees of the Thaipusam procession used to stop at the temple site in Dhoby Ghaut before proceeding to Sri Thandayuthapani Temple (first built in 1859) at Tank Road. These are memories that are easily lost, unless we talk to older folks or listen to recordings of oral history.

Understanding Past Journeys

There is a common assumption that history belongs to the kings among men, to those who by their heroic deeds may have conquered lands and hence also the hearts of their admirers. The word ‘heritage’ by extension would consist of grand monuments like palaces, hotels and museums which are associated with the glorious past and lifestyle of successful leaders and aristocrats.

But history refers not only to the grand narratives of political history. It also consists of the collective experience of ordinary folks and unsung heroes in the social history. Similarly, heritage refers not only to grand architecture or magnificent gardens that tourists would enjoy exploring, but also to places where people go about their lives from day to day, without any label of being ‘heritage’ attached to them until they are in danger of disappearing.

Heritage places like Kampong Gelam, Kreta Ayer (Chinatown) and Little India would feel like an empty shell, if one were to preserve the elaborate decorations on the facades, without maintaining the old trades and cultural activities. We treasure these places not just for their postcard beauty, but also for the connectedness we want to maintain with past generations, recognising that the experiences of those who came before us, be it suffering or joys, serve to shape our collective identity. All the ups and downs are part of the story of our past.

Living Cultural Spaces

Students of Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society would be most familiar by now with Stamford Arts Centre, first built in the 1920s as the Singapore Japanese Elementary School, and occupied after the war initially by Gan Eng School, then by Stamford Girls’ School, eventually to be restored in 1988 through cooperation of the Society and other groups under National Arts Council’s Arts Housing Scheme. By today’s standards, the building may look simple and rustic, but it does give a solemn impression of an institution and it contains memories of many students and teachers for close to three decades.

As Sri Krishnan Temple (established in 1870) is situated directly right across, the street space outside the centre has also been the venue of festivals such as Krishna Jayanthi, where our music and dance students would also take part in performances. The area around Waterloo Street and Middle Road is well-known by now as a cultural district, with many affordable stage venues available for many years, such as the Young Musicians’ Society (YMS) Auditorium which has since closed down. The location is also a short walk from Little India where one can enjoy a good meal.

Former Japanese School

We have seen many tour groups of Japanese students visiting Stamford Arts Centre, to learn about Indian culture such as classical music and dance. They would be very fascinated whenever they turn their eyes to the gable of the East wing, for the design looks like sunrays emanating from the semicircle of a rising sun. It is a cultural symbol that dates back to the prewar days. The location was not surprising as there used to be a Japanese enclave around Middle Road and North Bridge Road before the war.

Paul Abisheganaden (1914-2011), a pioneer in Singapore’s music scene, would recall in oral history interviews how he used to come to Waterloo Street for Japanese language classes, because he was selected as a music inspector for education. Japanese marching songs, along with folk songs like Sakura, had to be taught to school children to facilitate language learning and to aid propaganda. Students, teachers, nurses and civil servants also had to practise rajio taiso (‘radio exercises’) before school or work every morning by listening to the radio broadcast.

Indian National Army during World War II

The history of nationhood in Asia is never fully appreciated without understanding the two world wars. Was it purely accident that the Indian National Army, which hastened India’s independence from British rule, was first formed here during the Japanese Occupation? Indian soldiers had been used by the British to fight in places as far as China, the Middle East and Europe, long before they had to fight in Malaya and Burma against Japanese forces.

At the National Museum now there is a segment of exhibition on the 1915 ‘Indian mutiny’ in Singapore. That was a side effect of the First World War, during which the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed V as a Caliph declared jihad against the Allies, but the British supported Arabs in a revolt against the Ottoman Empire. More than a million Indian soldiers would serve in that war, with over 74,000 losing their lives.

Hence even before Subhas Chandra Bose came to Singapore, an initial Indian National Army was already formed here under Capt. Mohan Singh who had defected to the Japanese after a losing battle in Kedah with his battalion, the 1/14th Punjab Regiment. On 17 February 1942, speaking to a crowd of 50,000 Indian POWs at Farrer Park, Mohan Singh exhorted compatriots to make use of the opportunity with Japanese victory to fight for liberation from the British. Some would raise their hands and jump to their feet with shouts of Inquilab Zindabad (Long Live Revolution).

The INA headquarters were set up at Bidadari army base, while some battalions were based in Nee Soon. However, Mohan Singh soon fell out with the Japanese and became forgotten. When Bose came to re-establish the INA with a training camp in Seletar in 1943, he opened higher ranks to all Indians regardless of caste, creed, religion and gender. There was no discrimination against marginal groups that the British did not consider the ‘martial races’.

But just as a ‘gift’ of 50 million Straits dollars had to be presented by the Chinese community in Malaya to the Japanese military administration on June 25, 1942 – in a ceremony at Fullerton Building, Indians of Malaya also had no choice but to donate funds. People had to do whatever it took to survive in a war between empires.

Multicultural Society

Singapore has come a long way as a multicultural society. If we just look at a place like Waterloo Street, we see colourful places of worship co-existing side by side, like Sri Krishnan Temple just next to the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple. There have also been churches and mosques not far off, even a synagogue down the road, testifying to the diversity of ethnic groups which have lived in the vicinity.

Before the late K.P. Bhaskar came to Singapore and became one of the pioneers in the arts scene here, he had travelled far beyond the frontiers of India, as part of efforts to entertain soldiers of the British Indian Army. Here, he would be actively performing in kampong areas around the island as part of multicultural shows since 1959 to help promote a national identity. He was involved in the National Theatre Trust since its early years and was conducting dance classes to Indian and non-Indian students at the theatre building before it was torn town in the 1980s. That was how Nrityalaya Aesthetics Society was established three decades ago in Waterloo Street.

History indeed is not something confined to the textbooks. It is living and breathing among us for as long as we consciously keep the memory alive, of all the struggle that our pioneers survived, and the long journey we have shared in our common cultural spaces.



Abisheganade, Paul. 23 Feb 1994. Oral History Interviews. Singapore: National Archives of Singapore, Accession No. 001415.

Balhara, Subhash. 2007. The Indian National Army (1942-1946): Its Activities and the British Attitude. Meerut: Anu Books.

Rai, Rajesh. 2014. Indians in Singapore 1819-1945: Diaspora in the Colonial Port City. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

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