One of the wonderful things we have inherited from our colonial masters is the magnificent structures that we see around our civic district in Singapore. From the glorious columned and domed civil buildings such as the Empress Place Building, the old Supreme Court, City Hall, and the National Museum Building, to the many bridges that straddle the Singapore river, these iconic structures give much of downtown Singapore its character, and provide us with a constant reminder of our history.
I have always found a fascination with these structures, the bridges in particular, since my early childhood. It could have been a fascination that was brought about by listening to the nursery rhyme, London Bridge is Falling Down, which brought with it visions of Tower Bridge, which due to its association with London, many of us young and unaware, mistook as the subject of the nursery rhyme.
I particularly loved the two marvellous examples of the proficiency that the British had for building beautiful bridges that straddled the mouth of the Singapore River, a stone’s throw from the Empress Place Building and the Esplanade that my parents often visited: the arched trusses that is the Anderson Bridge and the cable-stayed Cavenagh Bridge. I always found it a treat for me to walk on the bridges. The Anderson Bridge seemingly hiding a mystery within its intricate steel arches decorated with huge rivet heads, through which one could catch a glimpse of the girders over water below. I was particularly fond of the Cavenagh Bridge, for the thick cables that held it up and the bounce that it provided as one walked along.
The Cavenagh Bridge, the oldest bridge in Singapore, was built in 1868 by Indian convicts and is named after Colonel Cavenagh, the last Governor of the Straits Settlements appointed by the British East India Company and served as an essential all-weather link between the civic quarter and Commercial Square (now Raffles Place), replacing a ferry service which ran across the river. It was refurbished twice – once in 1937 when it was reportedly in danger of “falling down”, and again in 1987. Built as a bridge for both vehicle and pedestrian traffic, it was meant to be demolished when the nearby Anderson Bridge was constructed to replace it and it is fortunate that what is Singapore’s only suspension bridge wasn’t demolished, being converted into a pedestrian and light vehicle bridge sometime after Anderson Bridge was opened. Evidence of this is shown in a sign which prohibited vehicles laden over 3 cwt and all cattle and horses from using the bridge.
The Anderson Bridge, which now features prominently in the Singapore F1 circuit, was built by Public Works Department and was opened in 1910 by Sir John Anderson, the Governor of the Straits Settlements from 1904 to 1911, after whom it is named. It was built to replace the Cavenagh Bridge which was unable to cope with the fast increasing vehicle and pedestrian traffic. Little was I to know that all that time when I was enjoying the strolls with my parents along the bridge, the steel trusses had indeed been hiding a mystery – sometime at the end of the 1980s, a skeleton of a man who had died some two decades earlier had been found hidden within the steelwork by a man involved in maintenance work on the bridge. The steel arches had apparently been used by the Japanese to display the heads of beheaded spies during the Second World War.
There was of course other sinister stories that were then associated with bridges, albeit of a different kind. One that I remember very clearly was associated with the construction of road bridges or flyovers that were coming up in earnest in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as part of the efforts to improve the island’s road network. Then, many of us children lived in a constant fear fuelled by the constant rumours we heard of “head-hunters” seeking heads of young children to serve as a sacrifice to appease the spirits that may otherwise influence the success of a bridge construction project. I suppose these fears were probably unfounded – perhaps circulated by parents as a means to put the fear of kidnapping, which seemed to be quite a common occurrence then, in their children.
Bridges these days are perhaps less interesting as structures, built more to serve a practical purpose. Much of the vehicular traffic these days is taken by one of these modern bridges across the mouth of the Singapore River … the Esplanade Bridge which was completed in 1997, perhaps built to blend in with the modern icons such as the Esplanade, looks almost plain against the backdrop of its two older siblings. What is nice to know is that the two bridges that I love, would still be a part of the landscape of the river along with the magnificent colonial buildings they stand next to.