It would be hard to conjure an image more at odds with the present reality of Orchard Road than historian Mary Turnbull’s depiction of a colonial-era “country lane lined with bamboo hedges and shrubbery, with trees meeting overhead”. A hundred years ago, merchants here for their daily constitutionals would have strolled past rows of nutmeg trees, followed at a discreet distance by their manservants. Today, Orchard Road is lined with symbols of consumption: huge, glitzy shopping malls and worthwhile restaurants and bars, either in the malls themselves or housed in a number of top-flight hotels.
Although the parade of designer names here is dazzling, it’s noteworthy that the area has not been totally untouched by the malaise afflicting city-centre shopping precincts the world over, losing trade to malls elsewhere in the downtown area and all over the island. Perhaps with this in mind, Singapore’s planners have put Orchard Road through a costly makeover in recent years, revamping walkways and adding three new malls. The most striking, Ion Orchard, right above Orchard MRT, has a bulgy glass frontage vaguely reminiscent of Theatres on the Bay, and is topped by a tower of luxury apartments. Just about the only building of significant age left on Orchard Road itself can be glimpsed west of Scotts Road, where the Thai embassy has its origins in the purchase of a mansion here by the Siamese king in the late nineteenth century. Today the embassy cuts a distinguished but lonely figure, dwarfed by the modern architecture around it.