Hong Lim Park’s tradition as a site for storytelling can be traced back to the Japanese Occupation. For many years after, it also served as the venue for many of Singapore’s first political rallies.
Originally named after the first Superintendent of Police, Thomas Dunman, its name was changed to Hong Lim Green in 1876 to honour Cheang Hong Lim, the businessman who donated the land to create a public garden.
The Straits Chinese Recreation Club, one of several sporting clubs formed by Asians for Asians during the colonial era, once had its headquarters at the park. A uniquely shaped octagonal pavilion was erected in 1887 as its clubhouse. By 1914, the pavilion was torn down and replaced by a single-storey building at the cost of $12,000 — this building functioned as the park’s entrance from New Bridge Road.
After the club moved out in 1959, the City Council converted the grounds into a park for the general public. A year later, the old clubhouse was demolished, and subsequently, an open-air theatre was built. The curved backdrop behind the stage also functioned as a screen for public movie screenings.
After the revamp, storytelling at the park resumed in the form of Chinese opera performances. Opera lovers gathered to watch shows performed in various dialects.
Public housing by the Singapore Improvement Trust introduced more people to the surrounding area. Youths visited the park to play football and children were attracted by the playground and fountain.
At the turn of the 21st century, Hong Lim Park gained a new identity with the establishment of the Speakers’ Corner. Modelled after a similar Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park, the Hong Lim Park - Speakers’ Corner became the first and only venue in Singapore where citizens can give public addresses without a Public Entertainment Licence.
The opening of Speakers’ Corner on 1 September 2000 attracted more than 20 speakers and several hundred attendees. The launch drew worldwide attention, with at least 15 foreign news agencies reporting on the milestone event.
However, the following years saw a dearth of activities, despite the list of allowed activities being expanded to include performances and exhibitions in 2004. This lack of activity continued until the relaxation of rules that allowed demonstrations by Singaporeans without police permits in 2008.
On 1 September 2008, Singapore had its first legal public outdoor demonstration at the Speakers’ Corner, and the park saw an increase in activities thereafter, with some even attracting up to thousands of people.
Buildings and sites featured on Roots.SG are part of our efforts to raise awareness of our heritage; a listing on Roots.SG does not imply any form of preservation or conservation status, unless it is mentioned in the article. The information in this article is valid as of May 2019 and is not intended to be an exhaustive history of the site/building.