CLUB Street may now be dominated by bars and restaurants, but its past lives on in its name.
In the 1890s, the street near Chinatown was named for the many Chinese clan-associated and wealthy businessmen's clubs which sprang up there.
Some institutions from its past still survive. About six clan associations remain in buildings three or four storeys high on Club Street and the neighbouring Ann Siang Road.
And their regulars, who are mostly retirees, still remember the street's former glory days as the first port of call for immigrants from China and the hub of Chinese social activities.
"A lot of immigrants from China needed a clan association. Everyone from the same village was together and helping one another. If you were bullied or had any problems, you could come to the clan association for help," said Mr Lee Keng Choy, 76, a trustee of Thin Ho Association on 20, Ann Siang Road.
He recalled about 25 to 30 such clan groups on Club Street and Ann Siang Road.
"The clan associations were more ethnicity-based, while the clubs were more economy-based," said Associate Professor Victor Savage from the National University of Singapore's geography department.
The clubs, such as the exclusive Ee Hoe Hean Club founded by Hokkien businessmen in 1895, were "social networks" where the rich mingled with one another, said Prof Savage, who studies place names.
Club Street had other names too. Hokkiens called it tua men lao, which means "within the big gate", a reference to the big gateway at its entrance from Upper Cross Street, he said.
Mr Carlinn Chu, 54, secretary of the Ching Yoon Clan Association, recalled that the street was particularly festive during the Chinese New Year period, with firecrackers and street hawkers.
Clan groups also organised wayang shows during deities' birthdays. Said Mr Chu: "During the prayers, people would throw and scatter one-cent coins on the street. We had a lot of fun picking them up.
"As kids, we would recklessly run around the street trying to knock five-cent kites out of the sky using bamboo poles." They would target the kites flown by children from other dialect groups, he added with a chuckle.
Secret societies were also common there, said Mr Lee. Yet very few fights broke out, which he attributed to Ann Siang Road's name - which means "peaceful" in Mandarin.
Businessmen also paid a "monthly due" to secret societies to ensure their peace of mind, noted Prof Savage.
But over the years, clan associations started moving away. Many sold their land, now a prime area near the Central Business District, and built new headquarters elsewhere, said Mr Lee and Mr Chu.
In their place, an enclave of trendy restaurants, bars and offices has sprung up in recent years.
The clan members who remain said they could not bear to go. Mr Lee, whose father founded the clan association, rents out its third floor to a small media firm.
"These days, some people still come to the clan associations here to spend their time, play mahjong. All senior citizens," said Mr Lee.
Mr Sham Ah Loon, 70, is a clerk at Nam Sun Clan Association, which was founded over 170 years ago.
He said that a few curious tourists will visit every month, and groups of schoolchildren on field trips are common during the holidays.
Nestled between their modern neighbours, the clan buildings are a portal to the past.
Black-and-gold plaques which commemorate important anniversaries take pride of place on the walls next to black-and-white photo portraits of founders and past donors. Antique wooden chairs abound, left behind or bequeathed by past members.
The top storeys of the Nam Sun and Sai Chiew clan associations house ancestral tablets and shrines with incense, joss sticks and offerings.
Old-timer Chan Yuen Kwong, 74, a council member of Nam Sun, said that he did not mind Club Street's transformation and felt "quite good" whenever tourists stopped by and asked about the clan association's building.
Said Prof Savage: "Each generation invests new meaning in the buildings and streets that they use. It could be their first courtship in a pub on Club Street they will always remember, or dining with friends.
"The buildings stay the same, but the activities change over time and you just have to accept that."
This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 21, 2013
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