The name of the contemporary country is derived from the Indian dhobis who immigrated to Singapore with the British in the 19th century, even though their group no longer exists.
The parents of Narayanan Narayanan hired a washerman, or dhobi, in Singapore in the 1930s for around Rs 5, to do their clothes. The 90-year-old Indian-born Singaporean former stockbroker recounted that “he used to come to our Newton Roadhouse every Sunday morning and collect the week’s laundry, which he slung over his shoulders.” Even though Narayanan now utilizes a washing service, he continues to use the term “dhobi.”
Dhobis first appeared in Singapore in the 19th century. In 1819, the British introduced them to the island together with Indian troops known as siphahis. They belonged to the so-called bazaar contingent, which also included other types of personnel to meet the demands of the British and the sipahis. But unlike many other military, the dhobis made an imprint on their new homeland. Dhoby Ghaut was the name given to an underground station for Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit system. In 1987, the station first opened.
“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 initial Dhobi village was located near a section of a freshwater creek, which is essentially where the Dhoby Ghaut MRT station is now.
Sungei Beras Basah, or “wet rice river” in Malay, was the name of the tiny stream because wet rice was carried in by boats and dried on the banks there. In Singapore, it was also where the dhobis worked. The stream is no longer there, and the section is now known as Stamford Canal after Thomas Stamford Raffles, the British immigrant who founded Singapore. It is a part of the Orchard Road shopping area.
The dhobis who immigrated to Singapore were from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. “There were Tamilian dhobis too, with the colonial forces arriving from the Madras region,” said Nalina Gopal, curator of the Indian Heritage Centre in Singapore. They gave the region its name, and the Tamil name for it was Vannan Theruvu.
The dhobis stayed in Singapore for more than a century, but they never came with the intention of remaining there. Few dhobis ever brought their families, according to Rai: “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 permanently returned to India, they would send over a son or a relative to continue the dhobi business in Singapore.
The only thing that remains now of Dhoby Ghaut’s modest beginnings is, of course, its name. The closest station to alight at and travel to in order to buy, dine, and take in art is the MRT. Museums and malls that carry names like Gucci, Armani Exchange, Jimmy Choo, Calvin Klein, and others are located on each side of Orchard Road. Additionally, it is close to Istana, the president of Singapore’s official house.
But are Singaporeans familiar with the Dhoby Ghaut saga?
Since the local Malay name for laundry is “dobi,” many Singaporeans would be aware of this background, according to tour guide Darren Goh of SneakPeek Singapore, which conducts free walking tours. Even if they are unaware that people once washed clothes where they now shop for clothing, individuals might draw that link while speaking a local language.
However, as of 2010, barely 15% of the local populace speaks Malay or Tamil at home. There is no reason to believe that the bulk of the populace, who speak English, Mandarin, or other Chinese languages, is suspicious of Dhoby Ghaut’s past. For instance, a humor column from 1987 purports to blame a “British wallah” for the location’s moniker, with the Indian link being completely unmentioned.
Even though Tamil is one of Singapore’s four official languages, Dhoby Ghaut is still the only notable monument there with an Indian language name.
However, Goh noted that “Dhoby Ghaut is often used as an example when people mention Indian-derived place names in Singapore,” which may disappoint Singaporeans who take pride in their nation’s pluralism.