Big Pore and Small Pore of Singapore

“Big Pore and Small Pore of Singapore”, don’t quite make sense but if I will to say it in Chinese “新加坡的大坡, 小坡” and “going down town” in Chinese or Cantonese “下坡 or 落坡” – it means a lot to the older generation. Maybe I should rephrase it as “Big Town and Small Town of Singapore”. I remember in the 60s and 70s, my godmother would always got her daugthers to 落坡 or to 大坡, 小坡 to buy something. We are Cantonese so we said “落坡” instead of in Mandarin “下坡”, but both means the same. Chinese New Year is coming soon, most elderly generation will usually 落坡 (go down town) to buy some Chinese New Year’s goodies. So where exactly are  “大坡, 小坡” and “落坡” means going to where?

In this post, I will explain;

– why the name “大坡, 小坡”  and what does “下坡 or 落坡” means?

– where are “大坡, 小坡”?

As early as Raffless’ time, Singapore town was simply divided by the Singapore River. Why would I said that? From history, we knew that Raffles returned in 1822 (3 years after he found Singapore) for the last time and he and Lt.Philip Jackson drafted the Raffles Town Plan or the Jackson Plan (Singapore first development town plan).

This plan divided the town into different areas for different ethnic groups as opposed to today, probably Raffles believed that people of the same race would like to stay together. In fact long before Stamford Raffles, there already existed a small Chinese immigrant population cultivating gambier and pepper. As more immigrants flocked here, the population increased.

The Raffles Town Plan allocated the Chinese to the Southern bank (or South-West) of the Singapore River and the European mainly to the northern bank of the Singapore River. The South Bank (or left side of the River) and the North Bank (or the right side of the River) are shown below;

A simple Raffles Town Plan;

Credit : Above 2 Singapore University Press

The detailed Jackson Plan 1822;

Thus the Boat Quay which is South-West bank of the Singapore River, was designated a Chinese Kampong (the British spelled it Campong as seen in some old maps). This Chinese Kampong slowly grew and became homes to many Chinese immigrants then, and that was how Chinatown was evolved. In fact we can said that this was probably the first settlement of Chinese here and it as it grew bigger, thus known as “大坡”. The “大” here may also mean “first”.

But why use the word “坡”? After some “Googling” and visit to the library, the Chinese word “” (pō) was actually used mistakenly for the word “” (bù) due to the similar Hokkien pronunciation and the lack of Chinese word knowledge in the past. The word “坡” means “slope” and the word “埠” is commonly used in Southern Min language, 閩南語, (Min Nan or Hokkien)  means harbour, port or market place along the bank of the river. As the Boat Quay area was first developed and a busy trading place, it was referred to as “大埠”. As time passed by, those who spoke in Min Nan language mistaken the word for “大坡” due to lack of education and similar in Min Nan pronunciation. It was believed that at that time, most Chinese porters spoke Hokkien.

Another explanation was the old generation used the word “坡” as “place”. In olden times, Singapore was known as “石叻坡” by the Chinese. “石叻” is a direct translation from the Malay word “Selat” (Sit-lat) meaning “Straits”. So the Boat Quay area soon became a “Big Place” – “大石叻坡”, while the north bank of the Singapore River became the “Small Place” – “小石叻坡”. But the phrase were too long, and people shortened it to “大坡” and “小坡”. Some also said that “坡” means “Urban District” (市区).

So now where exactly is “大坡” or what are the places in “大坡” ? “大坡” include areas along the South Bridge Road and New Bridge Road like Raffles Place, Market Street, Malacca Street, Pearl Hill, Cross Street, Upper Cross Street, Telok Ayer Street, Phillip Street, Church Street, Circular Road, Amoy Steet, Tanjong Pagar, Chinatown, Hong Lim, etc.

An old 1862 map by Moniot showing  “大坡” ;

Credit : Ong Chwee Im

No one knows when the term “大坡” and “小坡” was used, but as early as 68 years (1887) after Raffles founded Singapore, there was a record of the place “大坡” and “小坡” in the book “新加坡风土记” from China.

As more and more China immigrants came to Singapore, the “大坡” became overcongested, so these immigrants “overflow” to the North Bank of the river. Though Raffles allocated the European and the Government buildings to the North Bank, the Chinese immigrants slowly “overflow” to this North Bank. The richer European began to relocate to Katong and Tanglin area. So those later Chinese immigrants were located at “小坡”.

An old Raffles Town Plan map showing the “小坡” in general;

An 1900 map showing the area between North Boat Quay, Hill Street and High Street;

Credit : Above 2, Yoke Sum Wong, Lancaster University

“小坡” (Small Town) include Hylam Street, Tan Quee Lan Street, Bali Lane, Bugis Street, Sultan Gate, and Beach Road area. In the olden times, there existed an “grey area” between the “大坡” (Big Town) and “小坡” (Small Town), which was known as “水仙门” (area between North Boat Quay, Hill Street and High Street). See above map. These area were not part of “小坡” nor “大坡”, and I will blog about “水仙门” separately. 

To some, the Singapore River is used to divide the”大坡” (Big Town) and “小坡” (Small Town) while others use the Elgin Bridge and Coleman Bridge.

An arial view of the Elgin Bridge and Coleman Bridge and part of the “大坡”;

Credit : Editions Didier Millet, National Archives of Singapore

If we used these methods, the “小坡” (Small Town) will include the “grey area”. So using the Fort Canning Rise and Coleman Street seemed more accurate to divide both town, but later Stamford Road was used. So “小坡” area were from Stamford Road to Rochor River in the past, even include Serangoon Road (Litte India). Since “小坡” (Small Town) consisted of two main roads – Victoria Street and North Bridge Road, thus using the Stamford Road as a divider is more accurate.

An old 1956 map showing “小坡”;

Credit : SIT, Survey Dept.

As more and more immigrants came to Singapore, besides the European, we also had Arab and Malay immigrants residing at the “小坡” (Small Town) area.

So are you going to “落坡” to prepare for the Chinese New Year? And where are you going, “大坡” or “小坡”?


What my father wrote;
Wishing all my Chinese Readers a “Happy Tiger New Year!”

Cool New Graphics – MySpace/Friendster

35 Responses to “Big Pore and Small Pore of Singapore”

  1. 1 kimology Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 10:24 am

    Yes, I remember my Mum telling the taxi driver to go to either 大坡 or 小坡 depending on what she wanted to buy. Also on one bus trip when an nice Indian bus conductor very patiently tried to find out from a Hokkien old lady where she wanted to go to, whether 大坡 or 小坡 but all she knew was that she wanted to 落坡 – no road names, address, nothing. I got down before she did so didn’t know the outcome. In those days, those who stay in the sua teng ( mountain top) may only go to town once or twice a year so it is really a big deal.

  2. 2 Equally Old Thursday, February 4, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    Yes, LKK, I agree, to most older locals, from the north bank of the Singapore river to Stamford Road was called 水仙门。

    And from Stamford Rd to Rochore Road, in fact, some even consider further up to Syed Alwi Rd, as 小坡。( I think the stratch between Rochore and Syed Alwi Rd had a more specific name — Jawa 街)

    I am not sure about other dialect group. As Cantonese, when refering to that part of Singapore with my parents, aunts or uncles, who are in their 60s and 70s, still, the ONLY terms we use are, 大坡,水仙门,小坡 and the verb 落坡。

  3. 3 laokokok Friday, February 5, 2010 at 7:53 am

    Maybe in the past, there were not many places one could go to so not many really know the specific name of the place. To most, 落坡 means going to both 大坡 and 小坡.

  4. 4 laokokok Friday, February 5, 2010 at 7:53 am

    You are right Equally Old.

  5. 5 Yeoman Friday, February 5, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    Besides 大坡,小坡 and 落坡, there is also a term called 坡底 among the Hokkien people. Do you know where 坡底 is?

  6. 6 laokokok Friday, February 5, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    Actually 坡底 means 市区. So 落坡 means go to 市区, which can be 大坡,小坡.

  7. 7 Victor Koo Friday, February 5, 2010 at 11:30 pm

    I lived near Victoria Street which was in 小坡. It also included North Bridge Road area. 大坡 included South Bridge Road area and Chinatown area.

  8. 8 Tisu Girl Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    Haha…i always thought 落坡 means to go jalan jalan for the older folks… :p

  9. 9 XiuXiuWong Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    hey, i cant wait for CNY to come!!!!

    i think by now, the town must be super crowded…

    happy CNY and have a prosperous year ahead =)

  10. 10 laokokok Friday, February 12, 2010 at 7:58 am

    So are you from Bugis Street, Victor? Haha, Happy New Year to you.

  11. 11 laokokok Friday, February 12, 2010 at 7:59 am

    You may be right Tisu Girl, as in the past there were not many shopping area for the older folks. So they may go there to jalan jalan too.

  12. 12 laokokok Friday, February 12, 2010 at 7:59 am

    Happy New Year to you too, XiuXiuWong.

  13. 13 yang^2 Wednesday, February 17, 2010 at 10:35 am

    Maybe you can blog about 小坡大马路(North Bridge Road)、二马路(Victoria Street)、三马路(Queen’s Street)、四马路(Waterloo Street)、五马路(Bencoolen Street)、六马路(Prinsep Street)、七马路(Selegie Road),大坡大马路(South Bridge Road)、二马路(New Bridge Road/ Eu Tong Sean Street)?

  14. 14 laokokok Thursday, February 18, 2010 at 10:31 am

    Yes, they will be blog about this year.

  15. 15 Tim Tuesday, March 2, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    Thanks for sharing. I remember my folks used to use these two terms when i was young back in the late 70s. However i don’t think these 2 terms are used now right? I think if i said these to my nephew or neice, they would probably be reply like ‘huh’!

  16. 16 xizor2000 Wednesday, July 21, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    Great post here. May I check with you whether you might have old maps of the Orchard Road area?

  17. 17 Pan Wei Gen Monday, January 16, 2012 at 12:31 am

    hi can i check with u where did u get the old maps

  18. 18 laokokok Monday, January 16, 2012 at 12:57 pm

    Well, they are from my parents.

  19. 19 Pan Wei Gen Tuesday, January 17, 2012 at 1:52 am

    hi can i check with u. What is the age of the shophouses constructed. is it 1822 or 1819.

  20. 20 sinkapor Monday, October 1, 2012 at 6:48 pm

    wow!! Thanks for blogging this post. It’s a history lesson for me which has not been taught in school, told I remembered my grandma mentioning these terms before.

  21. 21 konshoe Sunday, October 20, 2013 at 1:10 am

    This is a very knowledgeable article! It has been wondrous helping in researching for my article which shares a First Day Cover featuring old maps of Singapore!
    Drafts From My Coffee Table – Old Maps of Singapore

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