Cecil Street begins at Maxwell Road and runs parallel with Robinson Road before merging with it at Collyer Quay. The street is one of the major arteries in the heart of the Central Business District.
Cecil Street runs through reclaimed land. Prior to its development, an old sea front made of granite blocks ran from the junction at Market Street to Stanley Street. It is believed that behind these walls were godowns, some of which were owned by the Borneo Company.
The street was constructed on land reclaimed from the Telok Ayer basin. The reclamation works, which took place between 1879 and1888 and using soil from Mount Palmer and Mount Wallich, were part of expansion works on the docks that were spurred by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the subsequent increase of trade in Southeast Asia via Singapore. The reclamations also resulted in the formation of Robinson Road. The street was named after Governor Sir Cecil Clementi Smith who was Governor of the Straits Settlements between 1887 and 1893. Smith Street and Clementi Road were also named after him.
The street began initially as an extension of the nearby Chinatown. But by the 1930s, it had become part of the commercial centre that radiated out of Raffles Place. In the 1960s and 1970s, urban renewal and deregulation of rent control saw the replacement of shophouses and classical European buildings with spanking new buildings and banks.
In its earliest days, three-storey and four-storey shophouses lined the street. It remained a Chinese enclave with only a few European buildings, unlike its sister street, Robinson Road which had become a European business centre. The shophouses soon deteriorated into slum dwellings that cramped many occupants into single rooms. At the turn of the 20th century, the headquarters of the Opium Farm had located to Cecil Street, thus giving rise to its Chinese name, “鸦片公司” which translates as “opium company”.
By the 1930s, the buildings along the street included the classically designed Medeiros Building, sited near Finlayson Green and D’Almeida. It was constructed by the Portuguese Mission for office and administration purposes. The land was bought at $250,000 with the proceeds of the sale of Le Europe Hotel. Designed by D. S. Petrovitch of Swan and Maclaren, the four-storey block employed modern continental cubist design and its exterior panels carried artworks depicting the commercial industries of the country. Adjacent to the Medeiros Building was the Nunes Building, which was also built by the Portuguese Mission for the purpose of providing office space. Both buildings were named by the Bishop of Macao. Construction was completed around 1937.
The Nederland (Netherlands) Trading Society (Netherlandsche Handel-Maatschappij), a leading Dutch bank, was established in Singapore in 1858. It was first located at Boat Quay, then later at Collyer Quay before it moved to purchased land at the junction of Cecil Street and D’Almeida Street in 1901. The stately structure was considered one of Singapore’s oldest standing buildings at the time of its demolition in 1937. The bank occupied the ground floor of the Medeiros Buildings whilst the Society’s building was being rebuilt. The bank’s new building, which opened on 24 February 1940, was designed by architects D. S. Petrovitch and F. G. Lundon of Swan and Maclaren and constructed by Nanyang Structural Company. The five-storey building housed a vault in the basement, a banking floor on the ground level, and office space that was rented out to other businesses. The top floor served as residence for the Society’s staff. The $500,000 building was completed in 18 months. The main hall had an acoustic ceiling held up by marble columns. Rubber flooring covered most of the building.
The Detective Station, sited between Robinson Road and Cecil Street, was designed by the Government Architect and constructed by Messrs. Stewart, McIntyre & Co. at a cost of $388,000. It was completed in 1931 as part of the government’s million-dollar programme to modernise police buildings. The new building was constructed over the site of the old detective building which had been around since 1900. In 1923, the government had considered relocating the new station to New Bridge Road near People’s Park, since the Robinson Road site was considered a prime location for future commercial ventures. However these plans appeared to have been deferred.
In 1919, the Nestle and Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk Company moved out of Boat Quay to Cecil Street to a building located opposite the Straits Times Press. The new offices also had godowns and the new building soon came to be known as the Nestle House. However, business expansion meant another move in July 1939 to Cantonment Road after 20 years at Cecil Street.
The Straits Times Press
In October 1901, the local daily, the Straits Times acquired a plot of land at Cecil Street for its printing presses. The transfer of operations to the custom-built production house in August 1903 was done without any major lapse in newspaper delivery. In 1931, despite the Great Depression, the Straits Times took the opportunity to expand and purchased the adjacent land. By the end of 1932, Stewart, McIntyre & Co. began work on the Straits Times Press with architects Swan and Maclaren. The piling work was exceptionally deep so as to accommodate the weight of the Press. The rotary press, which was Southeast Asia’s first, was housed on the ground floor of the new four-storey building. The editorial team, though, remained in the original building. In 1958, Swan and Maclaren helped the company move once more, this time to its new location at River Valley Road. The moving-out process required a large hole to be made into the wall so that 16 linotype machines could be taken out.
At the corner of Market Street and Cecil Street was the Gestetner Building, and ahead of it were the Great Eastern Life Assurance and Eastern Agencies which were considered new in the mid-1930s.
In the 1950s, the USIS Building was located along Cecil Street until it shifted to Hill Street in 1961.
With Singapore’s independence, the need to develop land for its economic and social advancement became critical. The fledgling Urban Renewal Department of the Housing and Development Board had identified parcels of land near Raffles Place as potential areas for the development of the city’s financial heart. This area, bounded by parts of Shenton Way, Telok Ayer Street, Stanley Street, Synagogue Street, Boat Quay, Collyer Quay, Raffles Quay, and Cecil Street, became known as the Golden Shoe because it was shaped like an upturned ladies heeled shoe.
For a long time, rent controls deterred landlords from developing their sites. However new legislation introduced in 1969 saw the deregulation of rent controls which provided the incentive for owners to invest and develop new buildings in the Golden Shoe area.
By the 1970s, many of the distinguished buildings and rickety shophouses in Cecil Street had made way for the construction of new financial buildings. Cecil Street, along with Shenton Way and Raffles Place, became the heart of Singapore’s financial hub. Many of the towering buildings which line the street today were built in the late 1970s and early 1980s. By 8 December 1974, Cecil Road had become a one-way street to help ease traffic congestion.
Today, along one length of Cecil Street are key buildings such as the Capital Tower, GB Building, Cecil House, Tung Ann Association Building, Aviva Building, LKN Building, Keck Seng Tower, The Octagon and Tong Eng Building. On the other side are the historical site of the Gan Eng Seng School, the Bangkok Bank building, The Spazio, Far Eastern Bank Building, Wing On Life Building, PIL Building and Cecil Court. The Bangkok Bank building opened on 29 May 1978 at a cost of $17 million. The 17-storey PIL Building was constructed by Pacific International Lines (PIL) Realty Pte Ltd, and costs $12 million to build in 1978. The 20-storey Wing On Life Building was completed at the end of 1974 at a cost of $25 million. The building featured the then modern, column-free interior space. It was said to be the first building in Southeast Asia to apply the twisted mullions structural concept for structural support for its tower block. Many of these buildings continue to be the offices of key banks and financial institutions, thus sealing the street’s status as Singapore’s financial centre.
After Boon Tat Street, which cuts across Cecil Street, are Tong Eng Building and opposite this The Globe (previously the location of Dunn House). Moving beyond the Cross Street junction are Market Street Carpark and the International Factors Building and opposite this the IOB Building, TPI Building and the Kwantung Provincial Bank Building, followed by the Prudential Tower. The $3 million Kwantung Provincial Bank Building was completed in 1976, rising up 6 stories. The Bank of East Asia, ASO Building and the House of Eden lie on its curve as it meets Robinson Road and opposite these buildings are Equity Plaza and Republic Plaza.
Chinese Name: Aphien kongsi (Hokkien) - Opium Kongsi
$3 mil building for Kwangtung Bank [Microfilm: NL8063]. (1974, October 26). The Straits Times, p. 7.
300 at opening of big new building [Microfilm: NL2372]. (1940, February 25). The Sunday Times, p. 3.
Bank’s new building [Microfilm: NL9689]. (1978, May 29). The Straits Times, p. 10.
Cecil Street to go one-way from Sunday [Microfilm: NL9866]. (1974, December 4). The Straits Times, p. 7.
Chua, B. H.. (1989). The Golden Shoe: Building Singapore’s financial district. (pp. 23-29, 49-51). Singapore: Urban Redevelopment Authority.
(Call no.: RSING 711.5522095957 CHU)
Colony cavalcade [Microfilm: NL2364]. (1936, April 26). The Sunday Times, p. 2.
Dunlop, P. K. G. (2000). Street names of Singapore (p. 42). Singapore: Who’s Who Pub.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 DUN)
Dutch bank moving into new $500,000 premises [Microfilm: NL1789]. (1940, February 23). The Straits Times, p. 13.
Edwards, N., & Keys, P. (1988). Singapore: A guide to buildings, streets, places (p. 450). Singapore: Times Books International.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 EDW)
Firmstone, H. W. (1905, February). Chinese names of streets and places in Singapore and the Malay Peninsula. Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 42, 72-73.
(Call no.: RSING 959.5 FIR)
Government notice [Microfilm: NL625]. (1929, July 11). The Straits Times, p. 4.
Hoffman, L. (1958, March 2). Time House 2800 the Straits Times moves into new $2 million offices [Microfilm: NL2491]. The Sunday Times, p. 2.
Keng, S. T. (1981, August 11). Cecil Street becoming new business centre [Microfilm: NL11206]. The Straits Times, p. 15.
Medeiros and Nunes buildings: Modern continental design of new offices [Microfilm: NL4150]. (1937, October 5). The Straits Times, Supplement, p. 1.
Millions spent on Singapore police [Microfilm: NL2359]. (1934, December 23). The Sunday Times, p. 12.
Mok, S. P. (1973, April 4). $15m multi-storey office building rises on ‘twisted mullions’ concept [Microfilm: NL7399]. The Straits Times, p. 14
The Nestle and Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk Company… [Microfilm: NL457]. (1919, July 18). The Straits Times, p. 8.
Nestle House opening [Microfilm: NL1784]. (1939, July 8). The Straits Times, p. 13.
The new detective station…[Microfilm: NL284]. (1900, August 2). The Straits Times, p. 2.
The new home of the Straits Times Press [Microfilm: NL1470]. (1932, December 17). The Straits Times, Building and Engineering Supplement, p. 1.
New landmark to go up in Cecil Street [Microfilm: NL9555]. (1978, January 4). The Straits Times, p. 18.
New Singapore Detective Station [Microfilm: NL637]. (1930, July 19). The Straits Times, p. 11.
New laws spurred changing store skyline [Microfilm: NL10251]. (1979, July 25). The Straits Times, p. 7
Old city building to go [Microfilm: NL1526]. (1937, August 14). The Straits Times, p. 12.
Old Cecil Street disappears [Microfilm: NL4150]. (1937, October 9). The Straits Times, p. 12.
Police organisation [Microfilm: NL512]. (1923, November 24). The Straits Times, p. 9.
Portuguese missions investment in new buildings [Microfilm: NL4150]. (1937, October 5). The Straits Times, p. 4.
Savage, V. R., & Yeoh, B. S. A. (2003). Toponymics: A study of Singapore street names (p. 79). Singapore: Eastern Universities Press.
(Call no.: RSING 915.9570014 SAV)
Singapore Land Authority. (2009). StreetMap@Singapore. Retrieved August 20, 2008, from http://www.map.gov.sg/StreetMap/ Turnbull, C. M. (1995). Dateline Singapore: 150 years of the Straits Times (pp. 61, 84, 86). Singapore: Times Editions for Singapore Press Holdings.
(Call no.: RSING 079.5957 TUR)
Wing On building opens today [Microfilm: NL8375]. (1975, July 19). The Straits Times, p. 13.
The information in this article is valid as at 2009 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.