Singapore's "Then and Now" Series: When East Meets West in Telok Ayer


Nestled in Singapore’s Central Business District’s (CBD) network of dazzling skyscrapers is a once-coastal street and prominent landing bay for our nation’s early immigrants (Source). Telok Ayer has changed plenty since its waterfront days and has recently welcomed a new addition to its burgeoning skyline, Frasers Tower.
In this Then and Now series, we embark on a trip down memory lane to uncover the history of Telok Ayer, marked by the heritage shophouses and historic cultural monuments hidden in this modern Chinatown.
A panoramic view of Telok Ayer Bay, 1872, Bourne & Shepherd on Mount Wallich, (from Telok Ayer in Malay refers to “Bay Water” (Source) and holds significant historical value for Singapore.

Before land reclamation of the Telok Ayer Basin started in the early 1900s, Telok Ayer Street originally faced the seafront and was the initial and main landing site for early immigrants who arrived by sea.
Sir Stamford Raffles had designated Telok Ayer to be a district for the Chinese in 1822 (Source). However, as the first landing point of many immigrants, Telok Ayer naturally grew into a melting pot of races and religions.
Telok Ayer Street alone is home to 72 national monuments of rich cultural heritage in Singapore. Hence, developing new buildings within the area of Telok Ayer required careful
planning to balance out the preservation of the heritage structures and the advent of modern glass-panelled skyscrapers.
Among the national monuments is the Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, Singapore’s oldest Methodist Chinese-speaking church and one of the most iconic religious buildings in the area.
Founded by Methodist pioneer missionary Dr. Benjamin West in 1913, the church catered primarily to the area’s large Chinese immigrant population (Source).
The front gate of Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, which was founded in 1889.

The church’s pastor, Reverend F. H. Sullivan, first acquired the original plot of land in 1913 in Telok Ayer (Source). About 11 years later, with funding from church steward, Ng Hong Guan, the church managed to also acquire the adjoining land that previously belonged to the British Crown and the Chinese Free School. With more land, construction of the church began in earnest. A French construction company, Bross and Morgin, was engaged for the deed, with Denis Santry of Swan & Maclaren as its chief architect (Source).
The church intentionally incorporated both European and Chinese architectural styles to reflect Telok Ayer’s multi-racial and culturally-diverse nature. The building is an eclectic blend of a Roman church foundation with strong Chinese elements, which resonated with Chinese churchgoers of the Methodist church then.
Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church is also the first church building in Singapore to house its sanctuary on the second storey.

The church’s primary structure retains the conventional Western architectural style of a rectangular main body resting on arch colonnades. Blending in seamlessly is a strikingly-Chinese red Pagoda roof which adorns the church together with its East Asian characteristics of louvre doors and windows, to complete the structure (Source).
The design of the Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church has remained unchanged through the decades. Among its original designs are the four timber panels with gold-leafed Chinese characters that read “shang di shi ai”, meaning “God is love”.
Affirming the deep religious and cultural heritage of this iconic building, the church was gazetted as a national monument on its hundredth anniversary in March 1989.

No lack of monuments in Telok Ayer

Another national monument that sits on Telok Ayer Street is the Al-Abrar Mosque. Established in 1827, it was initially built to cater to the Chulias, who are Tamil Muslims from south India (Source).
The place of worship, estimated to be the width of three shop houses, sets itself apart in the vicinity with design elements borrowed from Indo-Islamic architecture and a touch of European Neoclassical features. The Islamic symbols of a crescent moon and a star distinguishes the façade as that of a mosque.
Exterior of Al-Abrar Mosque.

Doric columns line the interior of the prayer hall, with coloured glass panels above the large French louvred windows, undoubtedly showing off its European influence.
Today, the mosque is a reminder of the Chulia immigrants who once lived in the area and who played a vital role in developing the budding economy of early colonial Singapore.
French louvred windows in the prayer hall of Al-Abrar Mosque. (Source:

A walk down memory lane


Flanked by shophouses and high-rise buildings, the relatively obscure Ann Siang Hill, is another historic precinct in Telok Ayer.
The hill was originally known as Scott’s Hill and Gemmill’s Hill, named after its owners, before finally being renamed as Ann Siang Hill (Source). This was after Chia Ann Siang, a wealthy Chinese businessman built his house and estate on the site.
Shophouses on Ann Siang Road.

The Chinese used to call this area “Qing Shan Ting”. The early Chinese immigrants visited Ann Siang Hill when they wanted to send money home to their families in China, as it was the traditional site of remittance houses. Letter writers and calligraphers also set up shop at narrow “five-foot ways”, or passageways, along the shophouses, to help the illiterate immigrants write letters home.
Entrance to Ann Siang Hill Park.

A short 30-minute climb up to Ann Siang Hill Park, located at the end of Ann Siang Road will offer a view of conservation shophouses, contrasted with a backdrop of modern high-rise buildings.

New lease of life in Telok Ayer


The 38-storey Premium Grade-A building along Cecil Street has been a vibrant new addition to the Central Business District area.

Today, sitting next to these historic landmarks is its modern neighbour, Frasers Tower. Since its completion in May 2018, the latest iconic development has brought buzz and a new lease of life into the area with its exclusive community zones for tenants and visitors to live, work and play.
Among them is The Oasis, a three-storey retail podium with a lush roof garden. The space is home to an eclectic mix of food and beverage concepts, including new-to-market concept, Preludio, Relish and crowd favourites such as Muchachos.
Another community zone is The Sky, a roof garden located on the 38th floor that offers stunning, panoramic views of the city.
The Terrace located on Level 4 is an exclusive tenant-only space that has resting pods, pool tables, and dedicated areas for collaborative discussions and networking sessions.
Unique to Frasers Tower is The Park at ground level which is directly linked to Telok Ayer Park. Featuring lush greenery, The Park provides tenants and passers-by temporary respite from the sun, and opportunities to experience dining at the restaurants located within the property.
These days, the community spaces are alive and buzzing with activity as Frasers Tower continues to welcome more organisations that have chosen to house and grow their businesses there.
Despite entering a new urban era, Telok Ayer still remains a melting pot of cultures where different communities co-exist and collaborate. It has retained its distinct identity and heritage as a bustling commerce hub whilst reinventing itself with modern marvels that cater to a new generation of workers.
For more information about Frasers Tower, click here.