Singapore River communities

by _People:Cornelius, Vernon

Singapore River communities were people living by or around the Singapore River.1 In ancient times, Singapore, then known as Temasek, was a fishing village.2 The orang laut (sea gypsies) were the earliest known inhabitants in Singapore. Later, in the early 1800s, Temenggong Abdul Rahman and his followers built their settlement at the river mouth.3 The founding of modern Singapore by Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1819 brought economic opportunities to this same spot, attracting thousands of immigrants.4

Ancient Chinese historical reports and the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals) recorded Temasek as a fishing village with its thriving city and capital, Kuala Temasek, located at the original mouth of the Singapore River, in the vicinity of the present Queen Elizabeth Walk.5 Sang Nila Utama from Palembang renamed Temasek as Singapura (“Lion City” in Malay) when he and his followers settled here between the late 12th and early 13th centuries. The orang laut were also the earliest inhabitants in the area. The ancient relic known as the Singapore Stone testifies to the location’s ancient origins.6

In 1818 Temenggong Abdul Rahman arrived from Rhio with his followers and set up a village by the left bank of the river.7 The 1819 treaty that he signed with Raffles turned Singapore into a free port, with trading activities near the river mouth. The boom in economic opportunities then attracted thousands of Chinese and other immigrants.8

Modern river community
In the Raffles Town Plan, the original Chinese kampong stretched from Elgin Bridge downstream towards the river mouth. By the turn of the 20th century, economic activity had given rise to a distinct community along the river. The people were a close community with simple lifestyles, and their humble homes were small and often overcrowded. Many people also lived in bumboats. Trade on the river was dominated by the Hokkien and Teochew peoples, and of these, the Tan and Lim families comprised the majority. The Hokkiens were located nearer the river mouth in the southern part of Boat Quay, while the Teochews resided mostly in at the northern area of Boat Quay between Coleman Bridge and Read Bridge, particularly where Ellenborough Market once stood.9

Population and trade growth in the 1860s gradually saw activities extended upstream; by the late 1890s, there were Chinese villages, Malay kampongs, godowns, rice mills, sawmills, Chinese-owned boatyards, and an assortment of other trades and home industries. In the 1930s, the areas upstream from Robertson Quay, Ho Puah Quay and Kim Seng Bridge became heavily industrialised, with numerous godowns and shophouses set up in the area. Loading and unloading the goods were labourers known as coolies and swaylo (Cantonese for “watermen” or “water-hands”), as they balanced heavy gunny sacks of rice and other goods over their shoulders. For a long time too, there were squatters living in squalid conditions abutting the river, resulting in health hazards and pollution.10 Up until the early 1980s, families still lived in wooden huts along the warehouses on the Jiak Kim Street side of the river.11

Leisure and entertainment
For the communities’ entertainment, storytellers were stationed at various spots along the riverbank, regaling the lightermen or river communities with stories. Two popular areas for the storytellers were in the vicinities of Read Bridge and Coleman Bridge. Besides the storytellers, there were also readers who read aloud the day’s happenings from newspapers.12

During some Chinese festivals, there were street wayang (Malay word for “theatre”) featuring Hokkien or Teochew opera on a makeshift stage by the river. Street musicians added to the atmosphere with the music of the day.13 Gambling in mahjong and si-sek (“card game”) were also popular past-times.14

Besides being a site of trade, the river also served as the people’s swimming pool. Kids often frolicked in dangerous waters between bumboats. There were elaborate dinner feasts by the riverbanks, especially during the Hungry Ghost Festival (also called chi-guek in Hokkien and Teochew, meaning “seventh month of the lunar calendar”).15

End of an era
The onset of urban development, coupled with the evolving economy, during the latter half of the 20th century led to the decline of the lighterage industry and other jobs centred on the Singapore River. The river communities were gradually resettled in public housing. The Lee Kuan Yew government sought to clean up the polluted river, with the efforts culminating in the 1983 River Clean-up Campaign, which led to the removal of all lighters from the Singapore River.16


Vernon Cornelius-Takahama

1. Stephen Dobbs, The Singapore River: A Social History, 1819–2002 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003), 7, 59. (Call no. RSING 959.57 DOB-[HIS])
2. C. M. Turnbull, A History of Singapore, 1819–1988 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1989), 2, 5. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS])
3. Turnbull, History of Singapore, 1819–1988, 5; Oral History Department, Singapore, Singapore Lifeline: The River and Its People (Singapore: Times Books International, 1986), 20. (Call no. RSING 779.995957 SIN)
4. Oral History Department, Singapore, Singapore Lifeline, 22–23; Turnbull, History of Singapore, 1819–1988, 1; Joan Hon, Tidal Fortunes: A Story of Change: The Singapore River and Kallang Basin (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1990), 6–7. (Call no. RSING 959.57 HON-[HIS])
5. “The Merlion Springs to Life at the Push of a Button,” New Nation, 19 September 1972, 4 (From NewspaperSG); Hon, Tidal Fortunes, 3–4; John N. Miskic, Archaeological Research on the ‘Forbidden Hill’ of Singapore: Excavations at Fort Canning (Singapore: National Museum, 1984), 40. (Call no. RSING 959.57 MIK-[HIS])
6. Hon, Tidal Fortunes, 3–4, 6; Paul Michel Munoz, Early Kingdoms: Indonesian Archipelago & the Malay Peninsula (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2016), 185–86 (Call no. RSEA 959.801 MUN); Miksic, Archaeological Research on the ‘Forbidden Hill’ of Singapore, 40.
7. Turnbull, History of Singapore, 1819–1988, 5–6; Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore: 1819–1867 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 29. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])
8. Oral History Department, Singapore, Singapore Lifeline, 22–23; Hon, Tidal Fortunes, 9.
9. Oral History Department, Singapore, Singapore Lifeline, 21, 36–40, 42, 49, 72–74, 88; Hon, Tidal Fortunes, 14; Ray K. Tyers and Siow Jin Hua, Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then and Now (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1993), 20–21. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS])
10. Oral History Department, Singapore, Singapore Lifeline, 35–36, 40, 90; Dobbs, Singapore River, 7; Hon, Tidal Fortunes, 30, 142, 144.
11. Hon, Tidal Fortunes, 29; Lye Yin Fong, “The Big S’pore River Clean-Up in March,” Singapore Monitor, 20 February 1984, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Dobbs, Singapore River, 93.
13. Hon, Tidal Fortunes, 126, 140–41, 150, 153.
14. Dobbs, Singapore River, 83, 92.
15. Oral History Department, Singapore, Singapore Lifeline, 102, 106.
16. Dobbs, Singapore River, 99–115.

The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we are able to 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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