During the early 1980s, rumours of the impending demolition of Bugis Street to make way for an MRT station began to circulate. The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) was planning to rezone and renew the area - a case of sacrificing heritage vs. retaining infrastructure. Rent control was to be repealed which would lead to the vanishing of traditional trades practised by generations. A group of hawkers who plied their businesses there appealed to the Member of Parliament for Kampong Glam against this decision. Transwomen were also warned to stay away from Bugis Street by the authorities. The Citizens’ Consultative Committee for Kampong Glam met up with the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and the Hawkers’ Department with a proposal to convert Bugis Street into a food centre. Their idea was rejected.
In the latter half of 1985, Bugis Street was demolished. All the street hawker stalls were cleared and relocated to other areas of Singapore to continue their business.
The vice squad was tasked to clean up Bugis Street of its transwomen, known to tourists far and wide. The transvestites were be given the choice - move back to Lorong 6 in Geylang, or face arrest. The police stationed officers in Bugis Street to round them up, haul them to the police station and record their particulars. The transwomen were told to clear out of the area and go back to Lorong 6. Those who kept returning were booked and later charged in court. The harsh measures were also instituted because some transwomen were involved in a number of thefts and pickpocketing cases. Where once large groups of "sisters" would emerge out of the shadows into the smoky, brightly lit streets at about 1am in their slinkiest outfits and carefully coiffured hairdo, the police action resulted in only about five or six being spotted sitting at the tables after midnight by October 1985.
On 11 October 1985, The Straits Times published an article in which one transwoman was interviewed regarding her feelings about the demolition of Bugis Street. She said, "This is our home, it is where all our friends are. This is the only place we can go where we are accepted and appreciated. We were beaten and abused by some Singaporeans who despised us and we were always being raided in Orchard Road. At least here, the foreigners are more broad-minded and treat us well."
In 1987, as part of the Singapore Tourism Board’s efforts to preserve, conserve or revamp iconic sites and tourist attractions, a decision was made by the Singapore Tourism Board to redevelop Bugis Street.
The "Bugis Junction" project was finally undertaken from around 1992 to 1994. A structural engineer recalls that the planners intended to retain 2 to 4 of the old buildings there. However, as there was a huge basement underneath the buildings, very thick slabs were to be cast under them and lifted by 1 to 1.2 metres. The lifting operation was designed and trenches were cut underneath to cast the slab. Suddenly, a change of decision was made and the few buildings were demolished and replicas built, so what one sees today are not renovated old buildings but replicas.
In the mid-1990’s, Bugis Street reopened for business. The news was welcomed by former hawkers and retailers, resulting in the full occupation of the retail and entertainment outlet once again, although non-chain proprietors faced challenges. Unfortunately, this overwhelming response also unfavourably lured lawbreakers. The sale of illegal and pirated goods sprouted. Bugis Street’s management took this matter seriously and, with the help of local authorities, such activities were strictly prohibited. In tandem with the increased liberalism of Singaporean society, the 1990s saw the setting up of the Boom Boom Room, a transwoman cabaret where Singapore's iconic drag comedian, Kumar, performed and pulled in the crowds.
In 1997, Bugis Street Development Private Limited embarked on the upgrading of Bugis Street. The original main street was transformed into a street lined with 2 rows of stalls.
In 2004, Bugis Street expanded the second floor with an addition of 64 stalls. Bugis Café was established to target the teen market. This completed Bugis Street as a trendy, fashion haven for the young to hangout. In support of ‘Entrepreneurship Education and Service Quality’, Bugis Street Development Private Limited collaborated with Singapore Polytechnic to provide entrepreneurship training in a realistic environment by renting retail space to the Singapore Polytechnic students.
Currently Bugis Street has about 600 concept stalls and the number is expected to grow. Future developments are in the pipeline to make Bugis Street a better and more exciting street shopping complex.
Bugis Junction, opened on 8 September 1995, was managed by a Japanese company, Parco. The old shophouses on Malabar Street, Malay Street and Hylam Street were rebuilt and weatherproofed, and the streets covered with transparent glass domes to make them part of a shopping mall. The whole unit was incorporated into an existing pedestrian shopping mall on Bugis Street which is connected to Bugis MRT station by an underpass. Bugis Junction features a hotel, a 15-storey office tower, food outlets, departmental stores and an umpteen number of shops selling all and sundry.
- Yeo Hong Eng, "Singapore's Bugis Street of Old", 1 June 2013.
- Dazzled, "History of Bugis street and Bugis Junction", Blogspot, 19 April 2012.
This article was written by Roy Tan.