Friday, May 01, 2009

Singapore’s Toponymics: Revelations about History and Cultural Change

Talk at the National Museum on 29 April 2009 (Thursday), by Dr Victor Savage
Came across this talk at the National Museum Website while surfing for some arts event in May/June. Didn't expect such a big crowd to turn up... I was early, arrived at 6.30 pm. There were no more than 10 boys in white school uniform, a few 'arty-looking' people. To my surrpise, the entire gallery, that could fill up about 300 people was almost completely filled up when the talk began at 7.15! Wow!
The title, "Singapore’s Toponymics: Revelations about History and Cultural Change" sounds a bit chim. "Toponymics" - what is it? Well, Dr Victor Savage explained, it's about names of places (Topos = place; Onomia = name). Indeed, the slightly more than an hour talk was very captivating! Apart from it's being something that the layman could easily understand (there's no jargon at all!), it's about Singapore, about our History that's brought across in a pretty humorous way! I enjoyed a lot!
Here are some "enlightenments":

Names derived from cartography (historical maps), myths and legends, poems, flok songs, literature, etc
It's the first time I see those 19th century maps with the Singapore island already littered with some familiar names like Changi and Tampines (Tampenus)!

(1a) Indigenous naming processes: Malay names
This includes Pasir Panjang, Serangoon. Ah! But don't know to believe it or not, the name, St John, was actually a Malay name 'misheard' by the British!

(1b) Indigenous names tied to sea gypies, sea nomads (e.g. Tanah Merah) in the 19th century.
From the 19th century map, we find familiar names with lots of Tanjong (e.g. Tanjoing Rhu and Tanjong Changi) - something to do with the sea nomads!
Interesting, Changi was known as Franklin Point. Nevertheless, the location is no longer there as it's 'covered' (er.. extended?) by the reclaimed land!

(2) Impact of Indianisation in the region
Revisited the fact that Singapore’s name was changed from Tumasik Singapura. It started off as Temasek!

(3) Western Colonialism: pin-prick colonisalism, port, forts, cities
- Western names: Batavia (Jakarta)
- Philippines after Philip of Spain
- Local names: Batu Putih to white rocks (Pedra Branca) – because of the waves that brushed against the rock like a white frog – that’s why it’s named after white rocks.

(4) Independent Singapore: Somehow, the way the places were named evolved as Singapore went through 3 historical phases: 1959 Internal self governace; 1963-1965: Malaysia; post 1965: independence as Republic.
- Numbered Streets (street 1, lorong 2) are introduced
- Pinyinised Chinese Street names: Yishun (from Nee Soon); Bishan; Zhujiao (from Tek Kah); Zhenghua (from Bukit Panjang)
- Same names used over again: Ang Mo Kio Town has 46 roads named after it.

Street names in Singapore - What do street names reflect in Singapore
(a) Myths and Legends
1. Sumatran Prince seeing a animal and being told it is a lion. There came "Singapura"
2. Bukit Merah where blood spilled on hill? Bukit Larangan (reverence to Royal area) was red laterite soil said to run with the blood of Javanese raiders;
3. Radin Mas was named after Radin Mas Ayu, a princess of the Javanese Royal Court. Her name literally translates to Princess of Golden Beauty. (Read more here)
4. Others include Sisters’ Islands; Pulau Brani (Island of the Brave); Blakang Mati (now Sentosa) 5. Learnt that prior to become Islamic (i.e. before the arrival the sumatran prince) – Port of Singapura was previously a Buddhist port.
6. “Fusion” religion – Kusu island – Tortoise island – Islamic (karmat) + Chinese’s 九皇爷

(b) Physical Geographical terms/cardinal directions
1. Bt Timah (Tin Hill), North & South Bridge Road
2. Singapore island was known as Alam Melayu as “Pulau Ujong” – island at extreme of Peninsula.
3. Temasek according to Wikinson refers to sea or lake – from tasek (Sungei – river; kang is river) Toa Payoh (Swamp)
4. Singapore river flows along the east-west axis. Therefore what’s above is North (e.g north bridge road). Everything the south is the Asian district; North are the Europeans. Religious temples, etc. are in the north. Chinese, Malay, including Jews.
5. Singapore River is the first port of Singapore

(c) Vegetation
a. Kampong Glam
b. Tampines

How yellow comes about as a royal colour for the malays?
- Introduced by Zhenghe to the Sultan.
- Learn that it's current practice that yellow is avoided among the attendees of any royal functions in Malaysia as only royals will don in yellow.

(e) Ethnic/religious communites
1. Muscat Street (Arab)
2. Sultan Gate
3. Chinatown (Kreta Ayer) 牛车水
4. Water came from the spring (Spring Street)
5. Duckling place – labourers only rent the beds.

(f) Names of People resident in Singapore
1. Europeans: Captain Pearl from Indiana
2. Raffles Place
3. Maxwell house
4. Read bridge
5. Rodyk Street (a lawyer)
6. Keong Saik Road (Chinese businessman)
7. Tan Tye Place
8. Haw Par villa (Burmese Chinese)
9. Dickenson Hill Road (named after the pastor)

(g) Names of Aesthetic landscapes
1. Lavender Street
2. Orchard Road

(h) Names after other people's houses
During the colonial times, houses are named! In some places, the roads/streets are named after these houses too!

Thinking aloud... a History Trail where students look at the street directory of Singapore and look out for names that are related to the characters or events in Singapore. That's all over Singapore island, where they could go to those places to learn the history of those places and trace the changes of these places over time! Of course, they could also surface legendary stories or interview seniors of the stories revolving those places!

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