The changing Singapore River

by | November 23, 2017

The Singapore River of the past was not like what it is today. It was heavily polluted and had lots of river traffic.

BY: James Seah

The Singapore River

Singapore River is ageless until the end of time, meaning lasting forever, eternal for as long as Singapore lasts on this planet. Since time immemorial, centuries before Stamford Raffles founded the island of Singapore in 1819, the Singapore in its original geographic position and location existed.

The Singapore River is not man-made as one might think; its size, shape, length and location was naturally created. However, the land utilisation and purposes of the Singapore River over the decades has changed as a result of inland transportation, buildings along the riverbanks, and open spaces used for recreation and sightseeing where visitors, tourists and Singaporeans enjoy. Over the decades, the Government and people of Singapore have worked together to transform the Singapore River into a clean, green and beautiful Garden City.

The Singapore River precinct, with its three distinctive quays – Boat Quay, Clarke Quay and Robertson Quay, is the historic heart of the city and the foundation upon which Singapore has been built. Its diverse offerings and welcoming ambience are a draw for both locals and visitors. Its preservation and continued vitality are important for economic and cultural reasons.

In the early days, the Singapore River provided an ideal natural artery around which the city could flourish as trade ebbed and flowed across the archipelago. The transformation from tidal creek to port and commercial centre was necessary for the rapid growth of the island as an entrepôt in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, the river also suffered problems with congestion and pollution over the years. From the initial days of flourishing trade and activity at the Singapore River, it became heavily polluted.

I remember when my father first brought me to Boat Quay during the school holidays when I was nine or 10 years old. I watched the ‘coolies’ who worked shirtless on a hot sunny day carrying heavy sacks of rubber, rice and other spices from the boat to the warehouse or lorry. It was tough and hard menial work for them. My father, who was from China, worked as a bookkeeper at Telok Ayer Street near the Singapore River. I also saw the bumboats and tongkangs that cluttered the river.

In the evening, once my father brought me to listen to the Chinese storyteller at the Singapore River riverbank who spoke in Hokkien. As the coolies were not literate, the storyteller told stories from the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” (a 14th century historical novel by Luo Guanzhong) and other Chinese classics. There was also Chinese newspapers about China to keep up with news in China. Each storytelling session would cost five or 10 cents, and the story started when a joss stick is burnt and the story ended when it stopped burning.

In the late 1960s, there were food stalls at the Boat Quay hawker centre located behind the Bank of China building and facing the Singapore River. The hawkers and customers threw their rubbish into the Singapore River and this added to the water becoming polluted and smelly. It was difficult to describe the memory of smell. The stench was so bad that tourists made sarcastic remarks that the water from the Singapore River should be bottled and sold as ‘smelling salt’.

Today, the Singapore River has been reborn. It has transformed from a working waterway to an attractive waterfront environment for housing, recreation, entertainment and new commercial developments. It has brought about renewed activity, while conserved buildings along the river lend charm and preserve the memory of the river’s past.


James Seah, 68, has a personal blog called Blog To Express. He was recently invited to share about his Singapore River memories as part of the annual Singapore River Festival organised by Singapore River One.



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