Bumboats, aka lighters, large boats or sea-going barges used in the Malay Archipelago for loading, unloading and transportation of cargoes, supplies or goods, from ship to shore or vice versa. Name originated from the English "scavenger's boat" or "dirt-boat" which carried dirt and refuse, and also ferried foodstuffs to and from off-shore ships. In Singapore, bumboats are also called twakows or tongkangs and were extensively used for transport purposes along the Singapore River, Rochore and Kallang Rivers, and also along the coast of the mainland and the other nearby islands.

Bumboats were in use from the 1600s in Europe, when these were scavengers' boats, primarily dirt and waste carriers, but these vessels also ferried fresh and provisioned foodstuffs to and from ships off-shore. Sometimes called junk-boats, and strictly speaking are not junks, in the present meaning of the word, bumboats in the Asian region have adapted design variations of the original wooden European-style lighters. In its evolution, the lighters in Singapore are different and also called twakows and tongkangs. Before the arrival of motor power, the earlier version of bumboats had sails, others were powered by oars or guided by long poles up the rivers. With "painted eyes" and familiar faces, these lighters were vital to the movements of commercial activity on the Singapore River for more than a hundred and fifty years. The "Clean Rivers Campaign" in 1983, shifted them to Pasir Panjang.


"Tongkang" (Malay word meaning "bumboat" or "lighter") aka the Timber Tongkang, built only in Singapore and south-east Johore in Kota Tinggi and Mersing. Also spelt as tongkan and tonkang, these slow, very beamy and unwieldy boats usually sailed with great caution and no regard for time. Operated by Chinese Ching Kang Hokkiens and Indians, because of their bigger size, these boats mainly plied inter-island. Before bridges were built across the Singapore River, these large tongkangs could enter Boat Quay to unload or load goods. When bridges were later built, the decks were too low to allow tongkangs to pass beneath, and these lighters moored at Kallang, Rochore River, or the city waterfront.

"Twakows" (Chinese Teochew and Hokkien word meaning "Bumboat" or "Broad-beamed Goods Lighters"), an original Singapore product with a Chinese hull developed by the local Chinese. Owned and operated by Hokkiens and Teochews who lived along the Singapore River banks, these "goods ferries" were the link between ships anchored out at sea, and the wharehouses which sprang up along the river banks. Hokkien twakows were the most colourful, with boat-heads bright red, green and white, and Teochew twakows were solid red in colour. These Chinese lighters continued to dominate river traffic, but unfortunately the water-level of high tides under the eight bridges spanning the Singapore River, made movements only possible when the tide was low.

A boat or vessel, usually a flat-bottomed barge used mainly for the transportation of goods. These general purpose cargo boats measure rougly between 50 to 90 feet from stem head to stern post, with a beam of 16 to 23 feet, and a depth amidships of 8 to 10 feet. Their "painted eyes" enable to see danger ahead. Before the coming of motor power, bumboats were powered by oars or sails. Old rubbers tyres fixed on to the sides of these boats are used as shock absorbers in case of collision with the quay, jetty or other boats.

Drawings and design specifications of the different versions of Bumboats can be seen in the article "Tongkang and Lighter Matters" by Dr. C.A. Gibson-Hill in Journal Malayan Branch, Royal Asiatic Society, 1952.

Boat Dwellers
Many boatmen or lightermen used to lived in these lighters from early times especially those with no homes here.

Until the 1860s or 1870s the north bank of Boat Quay was a centre for boat building and repair. Stephen Hallpike's Boatyard was a large enterprise here. In the late 1800s, further upstream towards the Source of the Singapore River, there were Chinese-owned boatyards, and artisans built and repaired boats here on a small scale for over a century.

There are few twakows and tongkangs left now and these are found mostly around the waters at Pasir Panjang, and are now mainly operated by Indians.

River Transport
Since the "Clean Rivers Campaign" in 1983, licensed converted bumboats as river-taxis ferry passengers mainly tourists along this historic waterway, for unique sightseing and pleasure rides up and down river. Pickup and disembarkation points are along Boat Quay and Clake Quay.

Variant Names
Bumboot in Lower German bum, bom means "tree" and boot means "boat".
Lihtan is a 15th century Anglo-Saxon word meaning "to relieve of a weight".
Lichter, a Dutch word meaning "lighter" (to make lighter or unload).
Thon-kin, Burmese name for tongkang or anglicised as tonkin.
Sekochi or sekoci, Malay name for "small trading boat", and correct name for the tongkang.

Vernon Cornelius-Takahama, 2000

Awang Sudjai Hairul, & Yusoff Khan (pp. 979, 1182). Kamus Lengkap (1977). Petaling Jaya: Pustaka Zaman,
(Call no.: RCLOS 449.230321 KAM)

Berry, L. (1982). Singapore River: A living legacy (pp. 43, 49, 75, 77-79, 90). Singapore: Eastern Universities Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57.19 BER) 

Gibson-Hill, C. A. (1952). Tongkang and Lighter Matters (pp. 84-107). Singapore: Malayan Branch, Royal Asiatic Society.
(Call no.: RSEA 623.8245 GIB) 

Hon, J. (1990). Tidal fortunes: A story of change: The Singapore River and Kallang Basin (pp. 29, 74, 89-91, 119, 122, 131). Singapore Landmark Books.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 HON-[HIS]) 

Port of Singapore Authority. (1984). Singapore: Portrait of a port: A pictorial history of the port and harbour of Singapore 1819-1984 (pp. 11, 42). Singapore: MPH Magazines.
(Call no.: RSING 779.93871095957 SIN)

Chambers 21st Century Dictionary (p. 790). (1996). Edinburgh: Chambers.
(Call no.: R 423 CHA) 

Concise Oxford Dictionary (p. 788). (1995). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: R 423 CON) 

Oxford English dictionary (pp. 295, 649, 936). (1989). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
(Call no.: R 423.18 OXF) 

Singapore Lifeline: The River and its People (pp. 63, 66-70, 72, 74, 77, 82-88). (1986). Singapore: Times Books International.
(Call no.: RSING 779.995957 SIN) 

Webster's Comprehensive dictionary (p. 176, 738). (1977). Chicago: J. G. Ferguson Publishing Company.
(Call no.: R 423 WEB) 

Further Readings
Jayapal, M. (1992). Old Singapore (p. 31). Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 JAY) 

On a bum-boat trip in Singapore. Goodwood Journal, 3rd Qtr., 11, 13. (1978).
(Call no.: RCLOS 052 GHCHJ)

The information in this article is valid as at 2000 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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