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Fun facts you didn't know about Singapore's MRT stations

We uncover some hidden histories and secrets behind some of Singapore's MRT stations

Delfina Utomo
Written by
Delfina Utomo
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Name changes, creepy histories and even tragedy – our MRT stations have seen it all. Taking the MRT is such a huge part in our daily routine that sometimes we take it for granted (except for when there's a major breakdown and you're running late). Get to know the stories behind the names MRT stations in Singapore from Simei to Toa Payoh.

RECOMMENDED: The lost landmarks and buildings in Singapore  and 17 historical buildings in Singapore and the stories behind them

North-South line

Bishan
Photograph: Flickr/Jimmy Tan

Bishan

Yes, we know that almost every MRT station used to be the grounds of a cemetery and Bishan is no exception. It was once home to Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng cemetery established by Hakka and Cantonese immigrants. Many graves were exhumed and remains cremated during the 1980s when the government took control of the land. Today, you can still visit the Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng cultural centre and columbarium which is located close to the MRT station. 

Dhoby Ghaut
Photograph: Flickr/komyc

Dhoby Ghaut

Before it was known as one of the busiest MRT stations in town, Dhoby Ghaut was once bustling with dhobis, or Indian washerman who worked in the area. Ghaut refers to 'ghat' which is the Hindi word for steps that lead to a river. In the past, the dhobis would get water from Bras Basah River and wash their customer's clothes at where Dhoby Green is now. 

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Toa Payoh
Photograph: Supplied

Toa Payoh

The name takes reference from the large swampy area that the town used to be – toa is the Hokkien word for big and payoh is the Malay word for swamp. The are was also notorious for squatters which were relocated to make way for HDB flats and estates.

Orchard
Photo: Sebastian Yeo Koh

Orchard

The obvious giveaway is in the name itself. While you may know it as a shopping mecca, Orchard Road used to be full of orchard plantations and was home to orchards for nutmeg, chillies, pepper and more.

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Novena
Photograph: Velocity@Novena

Novena

In more cemetery news, the area where Novena MRT station is used to be part of a Jewish cemetery. Even so, this was not the first and original site of the cemetery. The original site was located behind Fort Canning and was known as the Old Cemetery. It was later moved to the Moulmein area, near the junction of Thomson Road and Newton Road. Jews that died between 1904 and 1973 were buried there. By 1985, the land was cleared due to construction of MRT lines.

East-West line

Bugis
Photograph: Shutterstock

Bugis

Bugis MRT station was originally named Victoria and was renamed to Bugis in 1985. Before the arrival of the British, the large canal that ran through the area was where the Bugis – a notorious seafaring tribe from South Sulawesi also known as pirates – would dock their boats and trade with Singapore merchants. 

Bedok
Photo: Capitaland Mall Asia

Bedok

Named after the town it is located in, Bedok got its name from the Malay word 'bedoh' which is a huge drum. Back in the days, a large drum was used at the nearby Masjid Al-Taqua as a prayer call for the Muslims living in the area. 

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Simei
Photograph: Flickr/Jnzl

Simei

Simei got its name from Jalan Soo Bee which actually still exists in Upper Changi Road today. While some disagree that Simei (the Mandarin translation of Soo Bee) refers to the four legendary beauties of ancient China (that's Xishi, Diaochan, Zhaojun and Guifei), you will find four murals around this town of the ladies themselves leading more people to believe that this is the real reason. Everyone loves a good story, eh?

 

Redhill
Photograph: Flickr/Mr. Dew

Redhill

Also known as Bukit Merah (which directly translates to 'red hill'), the history behind the name is a fascinating one. According to Malay historical annals, Singapore used to be plagued by swordfish that would attack people living by the coast. A young boy suggested that building a wall of banana stems along the coast would then prevent more deaths as the snouts of the swordfish would then be stuck in the stems. His idea worked, gaining him respect but it also caused much jealousy from the rulers. The king ordered for his execution and it was said that the blood-soaked soil from the hill where he was killed is how the area got its name. 

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Tiong Bahru
Photograph: Kevin Lim

Tiong Bahru

Like Novena and Bishan, Tiong Bahru was once burial grounds as well – the word 'tiong' is cemetery in Hokkien while 'bahru' means new in Malay. The first appearance of Tiong Bahru Road on a map was only in 1913. Before that, the road had been named Burial Ground Road as it led from Outram Road into an area surrounded by numerous Chinese burial grounds.

 

North-East line

Hougang
Photograph: Shutterstock

Hougang

The name Hougang came from the Mandarin name for 'au kang' which means the end of the river. Back before the area was developed into a housing estate, Hougang which was located upstream of Sungei Serangoon was once mainly forested land with some pig farms.

Potong Pasir
Photo: Gwen Pew

Potong Pasir

Although this directly translates from Malay to 'cut sand' which doesn't mean much, it could be in reference to the many sand quarries in the area in the past. The intended name for the MRT station was supposed to be Sennett as it was located in a former opposition ward and planners did not want to be associated with it.

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Buangkok
Photograph: Shutterstock

Buangkok

Back in the past, the area now known as Buangkok was actually called Trafalgar by the British. Though it is one of the quieter MRT stations that does not have a connecting interchange or retail mall nearby, this station has quite the political history. In 2005, during a ministerial visit, a resident made cartoonish white paper cut-outs of elephants and put it around the station, symbolically calling the station a 'white elephant' as it was built using public funds without considering the convenience of the actual residents (then, the nearest block was 400 metres away).

Circle line

Bras Basah
Photograph: Ahmad Iskandar Photography

Bras Basah

Before construction began, the station was initially called Museum due to its close proximity to sites such as the National Museum of Singapore and the Singapore Art Museum. The name was later changed to honour the precinct's history as one of Singapore's oldest districts – "Brass Bassa" can found on a map from 1825 – and translates to "wet rice" in Malay, a nod to when the road was used to transport rice.

The station is also one of the deepest stations in Singapore (it was the deepest before Promenade station opened) and has the longest escalator at 41 metres. 

Nicoll Highway
Photograph: Flickr/blue_quartz

Nicoll Highway

Before settling on Nicoll Highway, two other names were considered for the station – Sultan Gate and Kampong Glam before the actual construction. But the project itself saw a lot of setbacks. A section of the tunnel being built on the line collapsed and killed four workers, with three more injured and a body which was never recovered from the rubble. The accident left a collapse zone 150m wide, 100m long, and 30m deep. 

Downtown line

Telok Ayer
Photograph: Shutterstock

Telok Ayer

The working name for Telok Ayer station was Cross Street Station but it was renamed to honour the rich heritage of the area. Meaning 'bay water' in Malay, Telok Ayer was an old shoreline of Singapore and a landing site for (mostly Chinese) immigrants. This is also the reason why there are so many temples and clan associations in the area.

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