The sampan, known as kolek in Malay, is a small wooden boat, skiff or canoe-like coastal craft typically propelled by oars.1 Also known as the Chinese shoe-boat, it is a common native craft that sometimes comes with a sail, and is used for fishing and short range transportation.2 The word "sampan" originated from the Chinese word sanpan (san means “three” and pan means “board”).3 The earliest of this type of boats came from China, and the Chinese sampan had been mentioned in travel writings from the West in as early as the 17th century.4 Used all over Asia, the sampan was once seen in great numbers at the Singapore River until 1983.5
In Singapore, sampans were used along rivers and coastal areas for fishing and short range transportation.6 Although primitive, they were for a time virtually the sole means of transporting passengers and crew between ships at anchorages and the various landing jetties.7 Sampans were widely used in the heyday of economic activity at the Singapore River until September 1983, when the river was cleared as part of the river clean-up campaign.8
A native craft, sampans are keelless boats generally made of at least three planks or pine boards, which gave it the Chinese name, sanpan.9 “Sampan” also became an official English and Malay word meaning “small boat”. Sampans are usually about 8 ft long or less, while the large versions are about 20 to 23 ft long. The largest sampans, which are about 30 ft long, are used as cargo carriers or trading vessels.10 A small-sized craft has a capacity of up to three people; it was also used to carry small amounts of goods in the past, as well as for hawking snacks and sundry items at the waterfront.11 Usually propelled by a short, single-bladed or double-bladed paddle, the more modern sampans are powered by outboard motors.12
Sampans were also operated by the Chinese to ferry passengers from locations along the river to the seafront, in addition to providing rides across the river.13 For many years, a Punjabi girl and her brother had also ferried passengers between the Havelock Road river bank and Robertson Quay for a few cents.14 In the early days before bridges were built, each river crossing cost a duit or quarter-cent.15
Sampans can still be seen along the coastal waters of Singapore. These are now used mostly for fishing and pleasure rides.16
1. Awang Sudjai Hairul and Yusoff Khan, eds., “Sampan,” in Kamus Lengkap (Petaling Jaya: Pustaka Zaman, 1977), 954 (Call no. Malay RCLOS 499.230321 KAM-[DIC]); Linda Berry, Singapore’s River: A Living Legacy (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 1982), 43. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BER-[HIS])
2. Oral History Dept., Singapore, Singapore Lifeline: The River and Its People (Singapore: Times Books International, 1986), 67 (Call no. RSING 779.995957 SIN); C. A. Gibson-Hill, A Note on the Small Boats of the Rhio and Lingga Archipelagos (Singapore: Malayan Branch, Royal Asiatic Society, 1951), 121. (Call no. RCLOS 623.829 GIB-[GBH])
3. Collins Dictionary, “Sampan,” accessed 21 August 2019.
4. Chinese Sampans, late 19th-early 20th century, photograph, National Museum Collection, National Heritage Board.
5. Oral History Dept., Singapore, Singapore Lifeline, 66.
6. Gibson-Hill, Note on the Small Boats, 121; C. A. Gibson-Hill, Tongkang and Lighter Matters (Singapore: Malayan Branch, Royal Asiatic Society, 1952), 98. (Call no. RCLOS 623.8245 GIB)
7. Port of Singapore Authority, Singapore: Portrait of a Port: A Pictorial History of the Port and Harbour of Singapore 1819–1984 (Singapore: MPH Magazines, 1984), 42. (Call no. RSING 779.93871095957 SIN)
8. Oral History Dept., Singapore, Singapore Lifeline, 66–67.
9. Maya Jayapal, Old Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1992), 31. (Call no. RSING 959.57 JAY-[HIS])
10. Hairul and Khan, eds., “Sampan,” 954; Gibson-Hill, Note on the Small Boats, 123, 127.
11. Gibson-Hill, Note on the Small Boats, 121; Oral History Dept., Singapore, Singapore Lifeline, 80.
12. Gibson-Hill, Note on the Small Boats, 123–24.
13. Oral History Dept., Singapore, Singapore Lifeline, 80.
14. Berry, Singapore’s River, 75.
15. Joan Hon, Tidal Fortunes: A Story of Change: The Singapore River and Kallang Basin (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1990), 18. (Call no. RSING 959.57 HON-[HIS])
16. Chinese Sampans.
National Heritage Board, Singapore River Walk (Singapore: National Heritage Board, 2016), 18, 34–36, 46.
The information in this article is valid as at August 2019 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.