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.
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.
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.
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.
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.