This painting whimsically mixes layers of history of the familiar “Dhoby Ghaut” precinct, smack in the heart of the city. Dhoby Ghaut is a busy place today. It hosts the biggest MRT interchange and the President’s Istana. But many people do not know why the place is called “Dhoby Ghaut”.
This painting peels off layers of times to expose what Dhoby Ghaut, Orchard Road and Bras Basah Road was like in their early days. I call it whimsical because it is an impossible scene – the landmarks depicted in the painting did not exist at any one time, as some were demolished before the others were built, and so on. But in art, anything is possible!
The view is seen from a prison (Gaol) which used too sit on present day SMU site. It overlooks a sprawling field dotted with white linen drying under the sun. The washermen from India are seen here washing the laundries in the stream (Sungei Bras Basah). The stream still exists today, but hidden underground as the Stamford Canal, used to drain storm water off the Orchard valley. The washermen are called “Dhobi” and the step leading to the stream is called “Ghat” in Hindi, hence giving the name “Dhoby Ghaut”. This washerman scene existed around mid 1800s till early 1900s.
Scan the painting for familiar or unseen-before-landmarks. Go google them to find out more. The tall Mandarin hotel and former Dynasty Hotel (current Marriott) should give you orientational clues. Of interest to note are the circus, the Railway track crossing Orchard Road from Emerald Hill to Penang Road, and the grand old dames atop and at the foot of Mount Sophia, something you won’t see today. I won’t let the cats out further here, so you can better enjoy the view and your “treasure hunt”.