Monoscapes: Kallang Basin

24 03 2013

More than a quarter of a century has passed since the ten-year effort to clean the Kallang Basin up was completed in 1987. Now part of body of freshwater cut-off by land reclaimed at Tanjong Rhu and Marina South, and the Marina Barrage, it is now hard to imagine a time when the waters of the Kallang Basin,  were dirty, murky and exuded a stench that would be hard not to take notice of. Fed by the Rochor, Geylang and Kallang Rivers, the waters before the cleanup were littered not just by the many boats that were anchored in the basin, but also by what the numerous slums, boatyards, sawmills, pig and poultry farms that had once populated the areas upriver deposited. The sight of carcasses of dead animals floating in the waters was not an uncommon sight. Today, as the area is being transformed, it is not the trading boats we see, but recreational boats which perhaps serve as a last reminder of what may not have been so distant a past.

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The curious ridge of sand which runs from Katong to Kallang Bay

25 11 2012

Taking a walk by the waterfront by the Singapore Indoor Stadium these days, it would be hard to imagine a time not so long ago when looking across to Tanjong Rhu, a very different scene would have greeted one’s eyes. Where million dollar condominium units housed in cream coloured blocks now dominate the view across, the scene a quarter of a century ago would have been one of wooden boats, wooden jetties, slipways and drab looking structures running along a body of water the surface of which would have been littered not just by rubbish that had found its way into the three rivers that flowed into the basin, but also by carcasses of dead animals that floated down from the many farms that has once been located upstream.

Tanjong Rhu (left), seen across the Kallang Basin today.

Tanjong Rhu translates from Malay into the Cape of Casuarina (Trees). Once described as a “curious ridge of sand which runs across from Katong to Kallang Bay”, its tip, known as “Sandy Point” has had a long association with the boat building and repair trade, having been an area designated for the trade by Sir Stamford Raffles as far back as 1822, with Captain Flint being the first to set a company to do that in the same year. By the 1850s, the trade was already well established around Sandy Point and the trade continued to thrive in the area even after the first graving dock was constructed in New Harbour (Keppel Harbour) in 1859. Over the years, among the business that found their way to Sandy Point were the well established names such as British boatbuilder J I Thornycroft which set up in 1923 and United Engineers. Thornycroft became Vosper Thornycroft in 1967 following the 1966 merger of the parent company with Vosper Limited in the UK. Vosper Thornycroft’s Singapore operations in turn merged with United Engineer’s in 1967. The yard unfortunately got into financial difficulties due to the mid 1980s recession and went into voluntary liquidation in early 1986.

The end of Tanjong Rhu was home to several shipyards including Vosper Thornycroft (seen here), the parent company of which is an established builder of Naval craft in the UK and Singapore Slipway (which became Keppel Singmarine), established as far back as 1887.

A slipway of a boatyard on the Geylang River

A well established organisation involved in shipbuilding still around that can trace its history to Sandy Point is the newbulding arm of Keppel Corporation, Keppel Singmarine. The subsidiary of what is now Keppel Offshore and Marine is a merger of Singmarine and Singapore Slipway. It was Singapore Slipway that had been established at Sandy Point in 1887 when a group of merchants bought William Heard and partner Campbell Heard and Co’s slipway which was set up earlier in the decade and formed the Slipway and Engineering Company. Keppel Singmarine’s yard operated at Tanjong Rhu until the early 1990s.

A boat littered Kallang Basin in 1973 at the time of the completion of the National Stadium (Singapore Sports Council Photo). Land reclamation along the Nicoll Highway promenade can be clearly seen.

Besides the shipyards, another area of Tanjong Rhu a short distance away from its tip that wasn’t very pretty was at the area known as Kampong Arang. That had been an area that was dominated by wooden jetties, used by charcoal traders to offload charcoal from tongkangs (wooden lighters) coming in from Indonesia and Thailand. The charcoal trade was established in the area in 1954 when charcoal traders were uprooted from the waterfront along the reclaimed land south of Beach Road to allow for the construction of Merdeka Bridge and the Nicoll Highway. The once thriving charcoal trade operated at Tanjong Rhu up until January 1987 when the trade was already in decline. At its height in the late 1950s, as many as 300 tongkangs plied between the two countries and Tanjong Rhu, falling to 60 by the time the 1970s had arrived when demand fell as many households had by then already switched to using gas and electric stoves. The traders were relocated to Lorong Halus (only 15 of the 40 that operated at Tanjong Rhu continued at Lorong Halus with demand mainly from the reexport of charcoal than from the local market) in early 1987 at the tail end of the decade long Kallang Basin cleanup efforts.

Another view of Kallang Basin and Tanjong Rhu today.

Beyond the cleanup efforts, the face of Tanjong Rhu has also been altered by the land reclamation south of the cape which has increased its land mass. The land reclamation, started in the early 1970s, was originally intended to allow for the construction of the East Coast Parkway and was further expanded to give the area now referred to as Marina East – at the tip of which the Marina Barrage now closes the channel between it and Marina South which has turned Marina Bay and the Kallang Basin into a huge reserve of a much needed resource, fresh water. The shifting out of the trades from the area were complete by the time the mid 1990s had arrived and allowed much of the northern waterfront area of Tanjong Rhu to be developed into a residential area and the basin into a recreational area that it is today.

[see also: Where slipways once lined the muddy banks of the Geylang River: Jalan Benaan Kapal]





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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