Our aim was to prepare curcumin derivatives and study their apoptosis-inducing effects on bladder cancer cells in order to establish a basis for targeted chemotherapy of cancer. n-Maleoyl-L-valine-curcumin (NVC) and n-maleoyl-glycine-curcumin (NGC) were chemically synthesized. Intracellular esterase activity of the human bladder cancer EJ cell line and renal tubular epithelial (HKC) cells was examined by 6-carboxyfluorescein diacetate fluorometry. After incubation with NVC or NGC for 6–24 h, cell viability was detected by MTT colorimetry. Cell apoptosis and apoptotic rates were measured by acridine orange/ethidium bromide staining, TUNEL labeling and flow cytometry. Intracellular caspase-3 activities were determined by spectrophotometry. The esterase activity within EJ cells was 10.2-fold higher than that of HKC cells, which was abolished by bis-p-nitrophenylphosphate, an esterase inhibitor, resulting in decreases in NVC- and NGC-mediated cell viability arrest. For EJ cells, the IC50 values of NVC (20.1 μmol/l) and NGC (18.7 μmol/l) were close to curcumin (16.5 μmol/l). Meanwhile, their IC50 values on HKC cells were, respectively, 4.06- and 3.23-fold higher than curcumin. Moreover, NVC and NGC induced apoptosis of EJ cells by 10.13–23.36 and 12.42–28.56%, respectively. Administration of these two derivatives resulted in decreased apoptosis of HKC cells compared with curcumin. The caspase-3 activities of EJ cells, but not of HKC cells, were 5.21- and 5.63-fold enhanced by NVC and NGC, respectively. Thus, novel esterase-sensitive curcumin derivatives were synthesized, which induced extensive apoptosis of bladder cancer EJ cells, but not normal cells.