From ‘Be inclusive:PM Lee urges’, 18 Jul 2011, article by Victoria Barker in myPaper
Mr Lee, who is an MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC, noted that although Singaporeans travel widely and many live and work overseas, they must remember where they come from.
“Home means you must have memories, shared experiences…some sense of where we came from and why we’re here,” he said. Mr Lee cited the name of his constituency as an example of Singapore’s rich history.
Until the early part of the 20th century the area was called “Ang Mo Kiah”, he explained, although he was not quite sure how this came to be. “Ang mo kio” means “tomatoes” in Hokkien.
“But, in fact, there were no tomatoes in Ang Mo Kio. Maybe it was called Ang Mo Kio not because of the fruit but because…there were nine bridges connecting this very rural area (back then),” he speculated.
“Or…because the British built it.”
In Hokkien, “ang mo” refers to Caucasians while “kio” means bridge. Such “folklore” is worth recording to pass on to future generations, he said.
Our PM, and AMK MP, was mistaken when he mentioned that the name Ang Mo Kio as we know it today emerged only in the ‘early 20th century’. In fact ‘Ang Mo Kio’ as a plantation (though unlikely to be a tomato one) has been cited as early as 1855, barely 40 years since the founding of Singapore by Raffles (See below, Singapore Muncipal Committee report, 2 Jan 1855, ST). ‘Amokia or ‘Amokiah’, which could have been an anglicised version of AMK, or perhaps a typo at the time, made its print appearance in 1883 (Advertisements, 13 Feb 1883, ST), though there’s no conclusive proof of which came first. A 1872 map of Singapore also places ‘Amokiah’ in the vicinity of where today’s AMK should be (see map below).
According to Wikipedia, the literal ‘red hair’ translation in ‘ang mo’ referred to a certain surveyor John Turnbull Thomson (1820 – 1884), a supposed ‘carrot-top’ Scot who was instrumental in bridge-building in the area to ‘facilitate logistical transport to nearby British bases at Seletar’. The original ‘Ang Mo Kiah’ perhaps, who also happened to love durians (Surveyor who loved durians and painting, 13 November 1983), Thomson was also responsible for the construction of numerous public buildings including the Pedra Blanca lighthouse. I couldn’t find any evidence to the claim that Thomson was in fact red-haired, or whether the colloquial term ‘ang mo’ was attributed to him. What’s almost certain though is that he was in Singapore from 1838 (1841 in other accounts) till 1853 building roads and bridges, which is consistent with the emergence of ‘Ang Mo Kio’/Amokia from that point onwards. According to Singapore Infopedia, only 1 bridge over Kallang River at what is now the junction of AMK Ave 1 and Upper Thomson Road was mentioned as the inspiration behind ‘Ang Mo Kio’, or ‘red haired bridge’, though every other bridge at the time were probably built by ang mors anyway.
Perhaps some mysteries surrounding town names should be left unsolved. To me, Ang Mo Kio seems to be a case of a bad colonial racist joke lost in translation, and there’s nothing wrong with naming it after a fruit/vegetable. Was there any lavender in Lavender? Was Redhill ever really red? Does Woodlands sound like a good place for hunting rabbits?