Diary of a Doctor, Rizal in Singapore

Jose Rizal (1861-1896), fondly remembered as the founding father of the modern Philippines, was one luminary who formed favourable impressions of Singapore. In May 1882, Rizal left the then Spanish colony of the Philippines on his way to Spains for further studies in medicine. As a keen 21 year old leaving home for the first time, nhe meticulously recorded his observations of life and events in a journal that offers a picturesque snap-shot of Singapore in the late 19th century, which are historically important for the breath of details captured.

An eagle-eyed visitor Rizal was also highly sensitive to the cultural nuance of the first foreign land he visited  commenting on the rich mix of ethnicities in the street-scapes he observed. His entry conveyed gus surprise at the finding a city more modern than he imagined. Writing in his diary, he was “surprised to find the streets bordered with trees and many… on both sides. The town is rather pretty.” Travel as the cliche goes, does indeed broaden the mind.

Rizal noted in his diary of his first day in Singapore that although there were “..crowds of Indians of Herculean figures; Chinese a few Europeans, and very, very few Chinese women.” He went on to ask about the presence of women in Sinapore, writing in his diary that he had seen a Chinese woman with the smallest feet; but I didn’t see either Indian women or Malayan. I asked about them and I was told they stayed home.”

Rizal also found the thriving British colony abuzz with people and economic activity, with English spoken everywhere. He described  in detail, building within the city such as St. Andrew’s Cathedral, along today’s St. Andrew’s road, interestingly described as a “Protestant church in Gothic style, the Catholic Cathedral of Good Shepherd (along today’s Victoria Road) as well as the Church of St. Joseph (by Waterloo Street today).

He was mistaken, though, in identifying the former Parliament Houses (now the Art House) as the “…palace of the Rajah of Siam…” He described it as “…notable and has a small iron elephant and what not on the pedestal placed in front of the building.”

Rizal was travelling in and around the north bank of Singapore River, He was to cross the Cavenagh Bridge to the south bank and reached the more “lively” part of town, described in his diary as having “… Beautiful European Buildings  shops  show-windows etc. It is the Escolta of the town.”

The keen botanist, Rizal visited the Singapore Botanical Gardens on his 2nd day of visit. He was bowled over by the park, observing that “its cleanliness and orderliness are admirable; numerous plants with their labels beside them.” He was to revisit the gardens on his second visit in 1887, commenting that he saw “a beautiful Royal Victoria. The leaves can be one meted in diameter.”

Rizal was to visit Singapore a total of four times, noticing changes that pointed to the rapid development of the city over the course of his visits. With elegance, he captured in an 1892 entry his observation that “Singapore has change much since I saw it for the first time n 1882.” This was to be his last visit to Singapore  for not long after this, this revered father of Philippine nation was executed on 30 December 1896, at the age of 35, labelled by the Spanish colonials as “the living soul of the rebellion”.

Today, a visitor can easily re-trace Rizal’s first visit in today’s heritage district of Bras Basah, as most of the buildings he visited are still standing on the exact spot! They co-exist elegantly alongside contemporary glass and steel structures of the modern city, in a history-rich environments and the walking trails of Singapore’s Civic District. Walking down busy Coleman Street today, one can still imagine the lively and bustling city that Rizal wandered about after emerging from the Hotel de la Paix. The hotel is no longer standing but another has risen on te same site and is known today as the Peninsula-Excelsior Hotel.

– Taken from Singapore’s National Heritage Board article “Friends & Neighbours” written by Tan Swee Hong.

NHB has been a great resource for me not only in retracing historical sites related to us Filipinos here but also in learning the history, culture and traditions of the island state — along with NLB, great stalwarts of South East Asian historical education.


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