Back in the 1930s, Narayanan Narayanan’s parents paid around Rs 5 to a washerman, or dhobi, in Singapore for doing their laundry. “He used to come to our Newton Road house every Sunday morning and collect the week’s laundry, which he slung over his shoulders,” recalled the 90-year-old Singaporean of Indian origin and former stockbroker. Narayanan uses a laundry service now, but still chooses to use the word dhobi.
The story of dhobis in Singapore began in the 19th century. They first arrived on the island in 1819, brought by the British along with Indian siphahis, or soldiers. They were part of what was known as the bazaar contingent, which included various kinds of servicemen to cater to the needs of the British and the sipahis. And yet the dhobis left an impression on their new country in a way that many other servicemen didn’t. When an underground station for the Mass Rapid Transportation system was built in Singapore, it was named as Dhoby Ghaut. The station was opened in 1987.
“The naming of the MRT station as Dhoby Ghaut is an attempt to mark out what was once the key occupational group in the area – really remembering Singapore’s heritage,” said Rajesh Rai, associate professor at National University of Singapore and author of Indians in Singapore 1819-1945. “The first dhobi settlement was at a part of a freshwater stream that is more or less exactly where the Dhoby Ghaut MRT station is.”
The narrow stream was known as Sungei Beras Basah, or “wet rice river” in Malay, because that was where wet rice was brought in by boats and then dried on the banks. It was also the workplace of the dhobis in Singapore. The stream does not exist anymore and the stretch is now known as Stamford Canal, named after the British founder of Singapore, Thomas Stamford Raffles, and it is part of the shopping district on Orchard Road.
The dhobis who moved to Singapore came from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. “There were Tamilian dhobis too, with the colonial forces arriving from the Madras region,” said Nalina Gopal, curator at the Indian Heritage Centre in Singapore. “The area was named after them, and was known as vannan theruvu in Tamil too.”
While they continued to work in Singapore for over a hundred years, the dhobis never arrived with the intent of settling down in the country. Rai says very few dhobis ever came with their families – “The pattern was for the male to work as a dhobi, returning to India perhaps once every three or four years and maintaining his family there.” Before they returned to India for good, they would bring over a son or a relative to carry on the business of being a dhobi in Singapore.
Today, there isn’t a single trace left of the humble origins of Dhoby Ghaut, except its name, of course. The MRT is the nearest station to get down at and head to shop, eat and soak in art. The Orchard Road area is flanked by museums as well as malls which house brands such as Gucci, Armani Exchange, Jimmy Choo, Calvin Klein and more. It is also near the official residence of the Singaporean president at Istana.
But do Singaporeans know the story of Dhoby Ghaut?
“Among Singaporeans, quite a few people would know about this history to it, as the colloquial Malay word for laundry is ‘dobi’,” said Darren Goh, a tour guide who runs SneakPeek Singapore, which offers free walking tours. “In a local language, people are able to make that connection, even if they don’t know that people actually used to wash clothes right where they now buy clothes.”
As of 2010, however, only about 15% of the local population speaks either Malay or Tamil at home. The majority of the population, which speaks English or Mandarin and other Chinese dialects, has no reason to suspect the history behind Dhoby Ghaut. For example, a humour column from 1987 seems to set the blame for naming of the place squarely on some “British wallah”, the Indian connection seemingly oblivious.
Despite Tamil being one of the four official languages of Singapore, Dhoby Ghaut remains the only prominent landmark named in an Indian language in the country.
For Singaporeans who are proud of their country’s multiculturalism, though, said Goh, “Dhoby Ghaut often is used an example when people mention Indian-derived place names in Singapore.”