Where slipways once lined the muddy banks of the Geylang River: Jalan Benaan Kapal

25 01 2010

My first taste of what life was in a shipyard – an eight week stint in 1982, part of a training programme I underwent, provided me with a first hand view of what the Geylang River and Kallang Basin was like then, one that I would not otherwise have had. The shipyard I was attached to was located at Jalan Benaan Kapal, near the area where the Kallang Indoor Stadium is today. The road had been named in Malay after the activities it was built to serve – Benaan or how it is spelt today, Binaan, the word for building or construction, and Kapal, meaning ship. Looking at the areas around Jalan Banaan Kapal today, it is hard to imagine that it was once had been a hub of activity, with a thriving cluster of family owned shipbuilding and shiprepair businesses. It was Singapore’s first purpose built marine industrial estate, set up based on the recommendation of a UN led industrial survey mission, put in place to identify areas of industrialisation had a potential to develop in what was a newly independent Singapore in the 1960s. With this, the area close to where the Geylang River empties into the Kallang Basin, including a 180 metre stretch of swamp, was developed into a marine industrial estate.

Once a swamp, the site of Singapore's first marine industrial estate, which was a mess of activity, now looking spick and span following a massive clean up effort.

The area where shipyards once would have lined the river side of Jalan Benaan Kapal on the right.

Jalan Benaan Kapal as seen today, close to the junction with Stadium Road, which would have led to the area where the shipyards once were located.

A building once used as workshops housing businesses supporting the marine industry.

Evidence of the industrial past of the area.

What greets the eye today is empty land, some disused workshop buildings and condominiums on either side of the river: Jalan Benaan Kapal on the Kallang side and Kampong Arang Road on the Tanjong Rhu side, where muddy banks laid with slipways, on which boats and small ships such as tugs could be up-slipped and repaired, and the clutter of rusting barges, ships and boats afloat once dominated the scene.

How the Geylang River looked - a slipway of a boatyard on the Geylang River.

Once a industrial area where the rank stench of a river carrying all kinds of flotsam and waste in its dark murky waters would greet each breath, is now a quiet scene of luxury condominiums and a sleepy, much cleaner and better smelling river.

A quiet scene of empty land and condominiums where once slipways, rusting barges and a mess of ships would have dominated the scene in what was Singapore's first marine industrial estate.

The trip to Jalan Benaan Kapal every morning back then would involve a bus ride on service 133 from my home in Ang Mo Kio to a bus stop in Kallang, close to where the Kallang MRT station is located today. Next would be the long half an hour trek to the shipyard that I would have to make. The trek would take me past the former Kallang Airport, which was then used as the People’s Association complex, and across the Nicoll Highway. Continuing, I would have to walk by the area in between the National Stadium and the Practice Track, past the area to the west of the Mountbatten Pitches, what is now an empty plot of land which was the Wonderland Amusement Park – in which I had my first  experiences of  roller coasters. This would now be where the large open car park by the Kallang Theatre and the Kallang Leisure Park is today. This would be where the end of Jalan Benaan Kapal was, at its junction with Stadium Road, where a cluster of small factory buildings would greet the eye and the end where most of the shipyards were located.

The former Kallang Airport, which was used as the People's Association HQ - a landmark that would have marked the start of the long trek from the bus stop I would alight at to Jalan Benaan Kapal.

Where the junction of Jalan Benaan Kapal and Stadium Road had been: now a bend in the road near the Kallang Indoor Stadium.

A row of what would have been workshops left behind along the stretch of Jalan Benaan Kapal where the shipyards once were.

Once in the shipyard, I would get into my blue overalls, and when it was time, make my way to the slipways of the yard. The view we got of the river from the vantage of the slipways – the clutter of ships and boats afloat in the river alongside rusting barges, was a sight to behold. But what I would most remember the Geyland River for was the smell that greeted me at the slipway! Each breath meant having to inhale the rank stench, a stench carried by the dark murky waters mixed with the smell of rotting seaweed and marine organisms  which had  been scraped off the bottoms of the boats and ships, that lay on the mud below, accompanied by the day’s collection of rotting carcasses, wood, rubber tires, plastic bags stained with oil, and whatever else the river carried from the numerous villages (many without sanitation), godowns, factories, and farms upstream.  Looking at and and taking a breath by the river as it was back then, it would have been hard to imagine that the river would one day be a source of clean water: the Kallang Basin, together with the adjoining man-made Marina Bay, is now a part of the downtown Marina Reservoir, created with the construction of the Marina Barrage, which has also cut the Kallang, Geylang and Singapore rivers off from the sea. Another thing that I would well remember was seeing an explosion as it happened, as I was peering from the forecastle deck of a ship across the river towards a barge afloat on the other side. I remember very vividly how at the very moment I had looked across, I could see the deck of the barge buckling upwards and the thunderous noise that accompanied a burst of debris that flew some ten metres up into the air that followed.

Sources of pollution along the waterways (Source: PUB)

The river today is a much prettier and cleaner sight, smelling a lot less than it used to: the result of a ten year effort undertaken to clean up Singapore’s rivers, and perhaps a much safer place to be on: the effort also meant the phasing  out of boat and shipyard activities in the area. These have been replaced by luxury condominiums on the Tanjong Rhu side, and empty plots of land along the Kallang side. Vehicles now run across the area of the river where ships and boats once cluttered it – both over it and under it: the construction of the Tanjong Rhu Bridge now links Tanjong Rhu with Kallang and a tunnel under the river, part of the newly constructed Kallang-Paya Lebar Expressway (KPE). The construction of the bridge has also meant that Jalan Benaan Kapal has been cut into two: the section east of the bridge is now dominated by indoor sport facilities housed in the former industrial buildings, and the section west has been left with a row of former workshops, cut-off from its other half, and lying somewhat obscure and  forgotten. Forgotten as well, are the ship and boat yards and the workshops, which had possibly provided a vital contribution to the growth of a fledgling economy of a nation that many felt had little chance of surviving.

The Tanjong Rhu Bridge now links the Kallang area with Tanjong Rhu, allowing vehicular traffic over the area of the Geylang River where shipyards once featured.

What used to be a slipway lined river bank along Jalan Benaan Kapal now features an empty plot of land. There is evidence of the KPE tunnel which runs under the river in the form of a structure housing the tunnel's vents.

The road leading up to the Tanjong Rhu Bridge now cuts Jalan Benaan Kapal into two sections.

The section east of the bridge leads to industrial buildings which are now used for sports and recreation.

Futsal at The Cage on Jalan Benaan Kapal.

The west section of Jalan Benaan Kapal end abruptly where it once led to the junction with Stadium Road.

A former workshop where a different kind of weights would have been lifted by A-Frames and chain blocks ... now used by the Singapore Weightlifting Federation.

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My first taste of what life was in a shipyard – an eight week stint in 1982, part of a training programme I underwent, probably provided me with a first hand view of what the Geylang River and Kallang Basin was like back then, one that I would not otherwise have had.

The shipyard I was attached to was located at Jalan Benaan Kapal, close to the area where the Kallang Indoor Stadium is today. The road’s name being derived from the activities that went on along the road, from the Malay words for building or construction, Binaan and ship, Kapal. Looking at Jalan Banaan Kapal today, it is hard to imagine that it was once had been alive, with a thriving cluster of family owned shipbuilding and shiprepair businesses, in what was Singapore’s first marine industrial estate. This had been set up based on the recommendation of a UN Industrial Survey Mission to help in developing Singapore’s industrialisation potential following its independence, in what was a swamp area close to where the Geylang River empties into the Kallang Basin.

What we see today as empty land and condominiums at the area on either side of the river, Jalan Benaan Kapal on the Kallang side and Kampong Arang Road on the Tanjong Rhu side, were muddy banks laid with slipways, on which boats and small ships such as tugs could be up-slipped and repaired.

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12 responses

25 01 2010
Steven Yip

Hi Jerome,

Thanks for the memories. Those were the days. I remember the period most because of Bobby and also the attitude of the staff in the shipyard.

Bobby, for getting caught sleeping near the propeller of a tugboat in the docks and the engineers and staff of the shipyard not taking us trainees serious enough.

Thanks for the memories!
Steven Yip

26 01 2010
The wondering wanderer

Steven, glad to share the memories. :) I remember the attachment period for the incident involving Bobby and that we hadto keep ourselves “entertained” because we not trusted with any real tasks – perhaps that is why I had the time to observe the surroundings form the slipway! Thinking about it, it was half a lifetime ago. How time flies!

15 02 2011
Happy Wanderer

Had the same experience. Nobody trusted us trainees – they took us in only because of “political” reasons – didn’t want to say no to Singapore Polytechnic. The pay was pittance.

15 02 2011
The wondering wanderer

Pittance indeed … but still better than the allowances they paid us in NS back then …

2 02 2010
Philip Chew

At Jalan Benaan Kapal there was also a row of JTC shophouses and a Food Centre on the opposite side. The ground floor shops supplied materials to the shipyard but the upper floors were illegally used to house foreign workers from Burma. Initially the food centre had make shift stalls and a common washing area with a standpipe. It was unhygienic. Later it was upgraded with fixed stalls, tables and chairs and washing done within each stall.

3 02 2010
The wondering wanderer

Philip, thanks for you comments and information. There was a food centre we went to for lunch but I am not sure if it is the same one you mentioned … did you work in the area?

9 02 2010
esther

Thanks for the fond memories, I once used to live at Tanjong Rhu, very near to the river bank and well aware of the bustling life back then. Beside shipbuilding industry, there is also charcoal business warehousing, etc. You have mentioned Wonderland Amusement Park, wondering any pics of that to share? that place used to be our family ‘must go CNY outing’.

9 02 2010
The wondering wanderer

Esther, thanks for your comments. Am glad to share my memories – Tanjong Rhu was where the bigger yards were: Vosper and Singmarine (I think it was called Singapore Slipway then) – I guess there must have been charcoal warehouses – I don’t remember them in the area, but I remember that there were plenty upstream on the Kallang River.

I have been looking for photographs of Wonderland myself but can’t seem to find any of my own. I had lots of fun on the roller coaster and always looked forward to outings there … I have come across some photos, including one of the Ovaltine Cups at this page: http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showthread.php?t=305623.

If you lived in the Tanjong Rhu area – you may have remembered Katong park … there was this wooden merry-go-round which I used to enjoy being on … not sure if you have any photographs or memories of it?

15 02 2011
Happy Wanderer

Ah Wonderland !! That was a load of fun -I remember the lion headed roller coaster. Hm… it will be nice to see some pictures – also Gay (Happy) World, Great World and New World : the Universal Studios of our times!!

15 02 2011
The wondering wanderer

There was a subsequent post on Wonderland … did head down to a couple of the “Worlds” in my earlier days but Wonderland was the place to be! :)

14 05 2010
Philip Chew

No, but I lived nearby. Kallang Park was originally a park without all the existing buildings including Kallang Stadium. The play area was near the Oasis. There were merry-go-round, swings, seesaw, sand pit and others. During the Malaysia cup, I saw most of the matches for I got free tickets.

16 07 2010
This time it is for real … « The Long and Winding Road

[...] memories of from the days passing by on my way to the shipyard which I was attached to in nearby Jalan Benaan Kapal, and from the many sports events I have attended, of which the Malaysia Cup and more recently the [...]

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