From fishing village to waterfront hub

While many may know Tanjong Pagar as the electoral stronghold helmed by late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew since 1955, or the place where a former railway station gazetted as a national monument stands, few have heard of the Malay legend that surrounds the area.

Folklore has it that the area was once a sleepy fishing village which suffered swordfish attacks. As schools of the sharp-mouthed fish maimed the villagers who could not go out to sea to make their livelihood, the reigning maharaja commanded his men to stand side by side to form a human shield. This was picked apart by waves of piscine attacks, until a little boy suggested creating a barricade with the trunks of banana trees along the coast. This trapped the attackers by their snouts and the boy was hailed a hero of the village.

Translated from Malay as “cape of stakes”, the district of Tanjong Pagar is still driven by forward thinking today. In his election speech in 1955, Mr Lee Kuan Yew said he wanted to represent Tanjong Pagar because, at that time, “No other division has such a high proportion of workers, wage-earners, small traders and such a low proportion of wealthy merchants and landlords living in it.”

A key business and lifestyle hub of the Central Business District, tradition lives alongside gentrification in Tanjong Pagar, forming a picture perfect marriage of conservation shophouses surrounded by modern skyscrapers.

Strategically located with a naturally deep harbour, Tanjong Pagar was key in establishing Singapore as a centre for shipping and trade in the early days. Feeding the need for a larger port, wharves built saw the birth of today’s Keppel Harbour (then-named New Harbour) which supported the burgeoning shipping activities in the mid-19th Century.

And while gone are the thousands of rickshaw pullers transporting customers between the docks and the town in the days when Jinrikisha Station – at the junction of Tanjong Pagar Road and Neil Road – served as a depot, traces of old Tanjong Pagar remain.

The historic Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, once a major gateway to Southeast Asia, continues to be a popular attraction for Instagram and photography enthusiasts, and history lovers in recognition of its architectural and social significance.

Besides this, rows of shophouses which first mushroomed along Duxton Road, Tanjong Pagar Road and Neil Road in the later decades of the 19th century are now home to a slew of boutique hotels, cafés, fancy restaurants and chic bars.

Drawing nightly crowds with sophisticated wine and dine establishments from the likes of highly-coveted Lolla which serves up communal small plates in an intimate setting, to secretive underground watering holes such as Operation Dagger, Club Street and Ann Siang Hill have formed a bustling nightlife enclave for trendy locals, curious expats and wandering foreigners.

The transformation of Tanjong Pagar has extended to Tras Street – once known for seedy nightclubs and bars – which has now become filled with a plethora of high-end restaurants, including the 1-Michelin Starred Terra Tokyo Italian. Even the old Tanjong Pagar Plaza has seen the opening of an artisan Japanese pâtisserie among its traditional shops.

Along Maxwell road, the bold red colonial-era building which was once the headquarters of the Traffic Police, may soon see the likes of international arbitration’s who’s who. Currently housing world-class design exhibits with tenants such as the Red Dot Design Museum, Red Dot Traffic will be taken over by Maxwell Chambers in an effort to triple Singapore’s infrastructure for international dispute resolution and solidify the country’s standing as a hub for it.

To crown the precinct’s growing reputation as Singapore’s fastest-changing neighbourhood, Singapore’s newest landmark and currently the republic’s tallest building, Tanjong Pagar Centre, now stands tall as a shining beacon for the district.

A mixed-use development that towers 290 metres above the Tanjong Pagar MRT station, it combines 890,000 square feet of office space, 100,000 square feet of retail, a 5-star luxury business hotel, a lush landscaped park, and 181 exclusive residences, living up to its reputation as a vertical city.

It will overlook the Greater Southern Waterfront Project as the district of Tanjong Pagar becomes part of a waterfront city when the port sees its lease expire in 2027. Tanjong Pagar’s port facilities will be relocated to Tuas and the freed-up land will be part of the project which will be three times the size of Marina Bay.

Some of the plans for redevelopment include a 30-kilometre stretch of waterfront promenade connecting Labrador Park to Gardens by the Bay in Marina South after 2030, and extending the city to this waterfront.

The district’s thriving mix of old and new has come to encapsulate so much of the nation’s origins, stories, and aspirations.

And that’s really a long way from fighting swordfish with the trunks of banana trees.

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