My Turf

My grandmother's road? Not many in Singapore

Above: Retired teacher Lilian Lim, with her son Desmond Sim, in the road named after her grandmother Florence Yeo. The late Madam Yeo was married to bee hoon king Lim Ah Pin (both below, inset), who built bungalows in the Upper Serangoon area. Below
Above:Madam Yeo was a soft-spoken Peranakan wife, but fought for her daughters to have a share of the inheritance. The adjacent Florence Close was also named after her.PHOTOS: DON WONG, COURTESY OF THE LIM FAMILY
Above: Retired teacher Lilian Lim, with her son Desmond Sim, in the road named after her grandmother Florence Yeo. The late Madam Yeo was married to bee hoon king Lim Ah Pin (both below, inset), who built bungalows in the Upper Serangoon area. Below
Above: Retired teacher Lilian Lim, with her son Desmond Sim, in the road named after her grandmother Florence Yeo.PHOTOS: DON WONG, COURTESY OF THE LIM FAMILY
Most people probably pass by Florence Road in Kovan without a second look, but to playwright Desmond Sim the road is special - after all, you can call it his great grandmother’s road.
Above: Retired teacher Lilian Lim, with her son Desmond Sim, in the road named after her grandmother Florence Yeo. The late Madam Yeo was married to bee hoon king Lim Ah Pin (both below, inset), who built bungalows in the Upper Serangoon area. Below
The late Madam Yeo (above,right) was married to bee hoon king Lim Ah Pin (above,left), who built bungalows in the Upper Serangoon area. PHOTOS: DON WONG, COURTESY OF THE LIM FAMILY

My Turf is a fortnightly series that aims to tell the untold stories of our neighbourhoods. In this instalment, we look at the relative scarcity of roads and places named after women here.

Most people pass by Florence Road in Upper Serangoon without a second look, but not retired teacher Lilian Lim. After all, you can say it is her grandmother's road.

The road takes its name from Madam Florence Yeo (1887-1962), the wife of so-called bee hoon king Lim Ah Pin (1890-1943), a famous vermicelli manufacturer who built bungalows in the area. The roads there were named after the couple.

Madam Yeo was an orphan who lived in a convent, while Mr Lim came from Fujian province with his mother to join his father here. "He was looking for a Catholic girl (to marry). He was only 17, she was 19," said Madam Lim, who is in her 70s.

They had 10 children - five sons and five daughters. Madam Yeo was a soft-spoken Peranakan wife, but fought for her daughters to have a share of the inheritance, she added.

Said Madam Lim's son Desmond Sim, 56, a playwright and teacher: "That was very forward-looking of her, because women of that time, they normally wouldn't speak up."

Mr Lim had one road - Lim Ah Pin Road - named after him, but his wife had two: Florence Road and the adjacent Florence Close.

In Singapore, roads that are named after women are much rarer than those named after men.


Above: Madam Yeo was a soft-spoken Peranakan wife, but fought for her daughters to have a share of the inheritance. The adjacent Florence Close was also named after her. PHOTOS: DON WONG, COURTESY OF THE LIM FAMILY

 

There are about 40 "female" road or place names listed in Singapore Street Names: A Study Of Toponymics, a 2013 book by geographers Victor Savage and Brenda Yeoh, compared with at least 540 named after men.

Many roads or places were named after British royalty - like Queenstown after Queen Elizabeth II, or Princess Ann Close after her daughter. Others, such as Evelyn Road and Olive Road, were christened after the wives or daughters of prominent men. As was Eng Neo Avenue in Bukit Timah.

Evelyn refers to Evelyn Young, wife of Straits Settlements governor, Sir Arthur Young. Olive is a nod to Lady Olive, wife of colonial administrator Andrew Caldecott.

Madam Tan Eng Neo was the wife of businessman Gaw Boon Chan.

  • Some roads, places named for women

  • JALAN HAJIJAH

    The road off Upper East Coast Road was the site of a Malay kampung named after its founder, Madam Hajijah, who bought land in the area and built the original Kampung Siglap Mosque. The kampung lasted until the 1980s.

    DA SILVA LANE 

    This lane near Florence Road in Upper Serangoon takes its name from Bertha da Silva, maiden name Reutens, who lived there, according to Singapore Eurasians, a 1992 book.

    ALEXANDRA ROAD 

    Laid out in 1864 to connect River Valley Road with Pasir Panjang, the road was named after Queen Alexandra, consort to King Edward VII. She was born in Denmark in 1844 and died in Britain in 1925 at the age of 80.

    MOUNT SOPHIA 

    Sophia, which means wisdom in Greek, seems like a popular name. This hill behind Cathay cinema is linked to at least three Sophias and the founder of modern-day Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles.

    Sir Raffles' brother-in-law, Captain William Flint, in 1823 moved his home to the hill formerly called Bukit Selegie. He supposedly renamed it Mount Sophia after his daughter, Mary Sophia Anne, and Raffles' second wife Sophia Hull.

    In 1859, plantation owner Charles Robert Prinsep, who had three daughters, Sophia, Emily and Catherine, bought land in the area. Since there was already a Mount Sophia, he named the other hills in the area after his other daughters. While the names of Sophia and Emily remain, Mount Catherine no longer exists, as it is the location of the Istana, with its own address of Orchard Road, Singapore 238823.

    BLACKMORE DRIVE 

    This is a rare case of a road named in recent decades after a woman - Australian missionary Sophia Blackmore, who came here in 1887 and founded Methodist Girls' School, which, coincidentally was situated on Mount Sophia for years. When it moved to Bukit Timah in 1992, a new access road was named after its founder at the school's request.

    SOURCE: SINGAPORE STREET NAMES: A STUDY OF TOPONYMICS, SINGAPORE INFOPEDIA

 

That roads here are very "masculine" reflects the dominance of men here during the colonial period, said scholars interviewed.

This was when 70 per cent of Singapore's place or road names were decided, said Dr Savage, formerly of the National University of Singapore (NUS) and now a visiting senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Back then, a rich man could pretty much name a road after himself.

Professor Yeoh of the NUS geography department said: "Sometimes, one or two female road names crept in because they named them after their wives, daughters or mothers.

"But that's usually not the case."

After Singapore became independent, naming roads after persons became uncommon, said Prof Yeoh, who is also vice-provost (graduate education) at NUS.

This reflected the public ethos of the new nation state. Also, there were more public roads than privately-owned ones. Roads were generally no longer named after living persons, said Prof Yeoh, as "whether they are worthy of naming is not a foregone conclusion".

Singapore is hardly unusual in having few female road names.

A 2015 analysis of road names by mapping platform Mapbox of seven cities - San Francisco, Paris, London and four Indian cities including New Delhi - found that only 27.5 per cent of streets named after people took their names from women.

The lack of female road names is likely similar in other post-colonial cities, said Prof Yeoh. But many have been "purged of their colonial names" after independence, while Singapore has kept them to reflect its colonial heritage.

The Singapore Council of Women's Organisations (SCWO), which in 2014 unveiled the Singapore Women's Hall of Fame to honour the nation's most inspirational women, thinks it is "a shame" so few roads here are named after women.

"SCWO would be happy to work with the authorities to identify the Singapore women after whom roads could be named," said Ms Margaret Thomas, chairman of the hall of fame.

She named Hajjah Fatimah, a 19th-century businesswoman and philanthropist; Mrs Checha Davies, a pioneering women's rights activist; Ms Teresa Hsu, an inspiring social worker; and Mrs Ellice Handy, an educator and culinary pioneer, as examples.

When asked about this issue, the Street and Building Names Board said it does not assign names but approves applications for the naming and renaming of buildings, estates and streets from building owners and developers.

It can consider applications for naming new streets or places after outstanding people "who had made significant contributions to Singapore, in the areas of economics, the arts, sports, education or politics". It cited Zubir Said Drive, outside the School Of The Arts, which is named after the late composer of Singapore's national anthem.

The board said in general, these names should be "easy to remember, meaningful and appropriate to the local or historical context".

Indeed, Dr Savage said many considerations come into play in deciding road names, with these being important anchors of identity.

He said the naming of roads after women should not be a kind of affirmative action, noting that many Old Guard ministers have yet to be honoured in such a way.

Prof Yeoh said the lack of female road names reflects a problem "deeper than street naming".

"There should be more gender representation, no matter whether it's in politics, business or academics."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 25, 2017, with the headline 'My grandmother's road? Not many in Singapore'. Print Edition | Subscribe