The gateway to the roads that lay to the south of Singapore

21 05 2010

There was a time when embarking on a journey to not just a distant land, but to a destination that would now be considered closer to home, would mean saying goodbye not at the terminal building of Kallang or Paya Lebar Airport as it might have then been, but perhaps at a wharf in Tanjong Pagar or a pier along Collyer Quay. That was a time when the journey would invariably have had to be one made by sea, not with the intent of a leisurely cruise as we are inclined to do these days, but out of necessity. So it was that piers came into prominence as entry and exit points through which the many immigrants, some of whom were our ancestors, arriving in Singapore, and travellers setting off on their journey would pass.

Clifford Pier as seen today. The pier would have been the starting point for many a journey from Singapore back in the earlier part of the 20th Century.

View of the Roads in the 1950s from an old postcard. Clifford Pier, the Inner Roads, the Detached Mole (breakwater) and the Outer Roads beyond can be clearly seen (courtesy of Mr. Low Kam Hoong).

In those days, the inner harbour that would have greeted the immigrants to Singapore, or where those setting off on their journey from Singapore would have had a last glimpse of the island, would have appeared to be very different to what is in the area today. For much of the twentieth century, Singapore’s busy harbour been separated by a breakwater referred to as the “Detached Mole”, built in 1911, which ran parallel to the shoreline. This in the area where today, another breakwater of sorts, the reclaimed parcel of land which now forms part of the southern boundary of the Marina Bay reservoir, and on which the Marina Bay Sands Integrated Resort and part of the East Coast Parkway has been built on, now sits. The breakwater back then, separated what was referred to as the Roads – the Inner Roads within the breakwater where the smaller coastal vessels and the tongkangs and twakows (lighters and bumboats) and passenger launches could be safely anchored. The smaller boats ferried their cargoes of goods and people to and from the larger ocean going vessels, being less susceptible to the effects of waves and wind, anchored in the Outer Roads that lay beyond the breakwater.

Another view of Clifford Pier, the Inner Roads, and the Breakwater in the 1960s (source:

Map of Singapore Harbour in the 1950s showing the Detached Mole, Inner Roads and Outer Roads.

Where the limits of the Inner Roads, the Breakwater would have been. On this sits the reclaimed land on which the Marina Bay Sands Integrated Resort has being built on.

The starting point for many a journey would have taken place at Clifford Pier, named after Sir Hugh Charles Clifford, the Governor of the Straits Settlements from 1927 to 1929, which replaced the original Johnston’s Pier opposite Fullerton Square in 1933. The wonderfully built structure features a roof structure supported by beautiful concrete arched trusses designed by the Public Works Department, served as the arrival point for many immigrants as well as a departure point for many seafarers and travellers out of Singapore. It was one of my favourite places, growing up in Singapore in the 1970s, being first of all, across another favourite place of mine, Change Alley, on which Derek Tait has an interesting post on, and also being where I could, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the going-ons of the pier, observe the comings and goings of travellers and seafarers through the wide hall like deck of the pier, and up and down the numerous stairs at the pier’s end and sides from which the colourful wooden launches took or discharged their passengers. It was also where, I could catch the sea breeze on a muggy evening, standing by its open sides.

View of the Inner Roads from Collyer Quay in the 1960s with a fleet of passenger launches moored in the foreground (Source:

Looking across Marina Bay from the Esplanade Theatres by the Bay across the area that would have once been the Inner Roads.

Change Alley across from Clifford Pier as well as Clifford Pier, was one of my favourite places in the 1970s. I remember being greeted by the sound of the many Laughing Bags that the vendors set off filling the alley as you walked through it.

Clifford Pier would also have been where boats that would take us to what seemed then to me as the distant shores of the then inhabited islands that lay to the south could be boarded, with the promise of an adventure on the high seas that I would somehow associate with a trip to what I would see as my Islands in the Sun. It was also from Clifford Pier that I also later embarked on a voyage of adventure of my own, far beyond my Islands in the Sun, one which I would be describing in another post. It is also interesting to note that the pier is known to locals as Hong Ten Ma Tou 红灯码头, or Red Lamp Pier, named after a red lamp that was placed on it to serve as a navigation aid to seafarers, or so the information plaque says. It is thought however that it was actually hung on Johnston’s Pier and the locals continued the use of the name for the new pier when it replaced Johnston’s Pier.

The beautiful arched concrete trusses that support the roof of the pier.

A window in the façade of the pier.

It may be comforting to know that despite the large wave of land reclamation and redevelopment that has swept over much of the Inner Roads and the areas around Collyer Quay and has seen Clifford Pier cut off from the boats, ships and islands that provided it with a reason for her being. But alas, Clifford Pier is now, despite looking none the worse for wear, only a pale shadow of what it was in its heyday. Where the pier had once been alive with the continuous footsteps of seafarers, travellers and the many interested onlookers that pass through its deck, it is now devoid of life, surrounded by waters that can only lap sadly and silently onto the columns that hold it up.

Plaque commemorating the opening of Clifford Pier in 1933.

Information plaque on Clifford Pier.




28 responses

21 05 2010

I think there was a “Red Lantern” bar with open seating at the foot of Change Alley Overhead Bridge. Many Thai prostitutes stood here soliciting for business – 1980s.

21 05 2010
The wondering wanderer

Yes, thanks Peter! I do remember that vaguely … think it was called Red Lantern Beer Garden – not sure what went on there … was probably too young to notice! Do you remember there was a floating restaurant or nightclub called the Sea Dragon which sank nearby – think it would have been at the end of the 1960s or early 1970s … you have any information on that?

21 05 2010
The Singapore Daily » Daily SG: 2 May 2010

[…] Life, the universe and everything – The Long and Winding Road: The gateway to the roads that lay to the south of Singapore […]

22 05 2010

Yes I remembered SEA DRAGON but before that there was a Mississippi river-boat which could be boarded at Clifford Pier; was called THE SINGAPORE LADY. Looks like the one now at this Marina South Pier but it is not. SINGAPORE LADY was owned by the Goodwood Park Hotel group. IIt was dining and dancing onboard. I email you the pictures for the boat and a close-up view of the breakwater. Can u recall?

After SEA DRAGON, there was a FAIRWIND junk and now the ADMIRAL CHENGHO.

22 05 2010

apologies, FAIRWIND junk was around 1988.

23 05 2010

There was also another touristy boat called “The Junk” (c 1969)

24 05 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks Peter for refreshing my memory on this and for the wonderful photographs, I did remember there were a few floating ones as well as ones involved in dining cruises, including the junk you mentioned – I don’t recall most of the names though, only the Sea Dragon – probably because of the sinking – do you recall what the circumstances were in relation to that incident?

24 05 2010

i was at the marina bay sands earlier and was telling my partner we are standing on reclaimed land… it’s amazing how the CBD sky line has changed in the past 20 yrs…

24 05 2010
The wondering wanderer

Yes, Eileen, the transformation of the skyline over the last two to three decades is amazing! It is quite unbelievable and hard to imagine this without looking at old photographs and postcards of the area.

24 05 2010

Sea Dragon – Reading the Straits Times many years ago, there was a fire onboard in the early hours before dawn. It was moored close to the pier and then sank.

I wanted to go up the Admiral Chengo but when I foudn the price, I changed my mind.

I think there was a local travel firm, Mansfield Travel or this company (the sales staff wore green batik and white trousers) which had an office at the Overseas Union House (Neptune Theater place) organised this type of cruise.

24 05 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks Peter. Mansfield was a subsidiary of Straits Steamships and would have had offices across at Ocean Building – so I guess it was the other company. Now that you mentioned the junks – I remember one with a swan off mast that was going around the harbour – which one was this?

25 05 2010

I clearly remember going to Clifford Pier to pick up relatives visiting Spore. from India. They would have been quarinted on St. John Island for At least 5 days. In 1968 departed from C.P via bumboat to board a ship in the outer roads for avoyage to Sabah to attend a wedding. Any one remember the Shell gas station closby to C.P.
In late 2008 while showing the area to my daughter it hurt a lot seeing a for sale sign for C,P. Does the Govt. need the money? esp. for a site with a storied history.

26 05 2010
Have we knocked the Pedestrian Crossing Rules down? « The Long and Winding Road

[…] at a historic pedestrian crossing, Singapore’s first overhead bridge at Collyer Quay near Clifford Pier (which was installed in 1964). Four signs were erected, 50 metres away on either side of the […]

30 05 2010

What are Laughing Bags???

30 05 2010
The wondering wanderer

The laughing bag was a small bag which could fit into the palm of your hand with a drawsting at the top, with a button activated sound unit (similar to those you find in the talking or crying dolls today) which emitted loud laughter on activation inside it. These were popular in the late 60s and early 70s and the vendors at Change Alley would put a lot of them on at the same time filling the alley with electronic laughter! It is similar to this one being sold at

7 06 2010

I had a classmate in the 70s who was very passionate about fishing. I did asked him where he fish and he told me that sometimes he would go to the “Detached Mole”. He would ask a sampan “ah pek” to bring him there in the morning and then fetch him back later in the afternoon. I did ask him what if the sampan “ah pek” forgot about him. He would be stranded on the “Detached Mole”. He said that it has never happened.

9 06 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks for sharing that Tony … I didn’t realise that the Detached Mole was used by fishing enthusiasts! 🙂

1 07 2010
The joy of being caged in the courthouse « The Long and Winding Road

[…] built, the chief architect with the Public Works Department who was also responsible for designing Clifford Pier, construction or at least the preparation work for construction started on the site on which the […]

10 08 2010

Hi, is anyone able to tell if this “detached mole” could be the first offshore breakwater in Singapore? Thanks!

10 08 2010
The wondering wanderer

It might not have been … apparently a breakwater existed opposite Johnston’s Pier well before the detached mole was built.

14 08 2010
Jeffery Abdullah

I remember well back in the 1990’s when I visited Clifford Pier admiring the British Colonial architecture and the surroundings. Due to my interest to it, I have built a little model of diorama part of the place. You can view it here:-

Old Clifford Pier

15 08 2010

I remember the huge crowds at Clifford Pier during a certain time of the year when pilgrims visit Kusu Island. The queues stretched from inside Clifford Pier to the Boat house. That was before they built the additional shopping area on the left of the pier. I think there was like a YWCA clubhouse on the right side of clifford pier, where the demolished Neptune Resturant used to be.

7 10 2010
Go fly kite and jump into the harbour! « The Long and Winding Road

[…] saw many descend on what was once the sea … a reclaimed piece of land part of what was the Inner Roads of the Singapore Harbour, on what is now the Promontory @ Marina Bay. The Inner Roads had then extended to the Detached Mole […]

13 10 2010
Revisiting Clifford Pier « The Long and Winding Road

[…] have inherited from our colonial past, including one that my attention was turned to last evening, Clifford Pier. Ward’s contribution towards the beautiful pier was as the Chief Architect of the team of […]

26 10 2010

I recollect my dad bringing me up to the Asia Insurance Building as 7 year old kid in 1966 across the road which was then the tallest building in the country. Clifford Pier brings back frond memories of my national service in the navy in 1979. Yes we used to hang out and get sloshed with all sorts of company. There was the time I was part of a secret mission to pick up ISD officers from the Pier in my naval vessel and route them to Pulau Brani. An another memorable experience as a NS man to collect a harbour launch constructed along the stench filled Kallang river, under Nicoll Highway bridge and struggle to tug the vessel all the way back to Brani. Subsequently in the 90’s as a father, I took my daughters to board a tea or dinner cruise……. Today I rarely go there unless some pretty lady wishes to invite me for a drink at the hip bars along the coast line : )

29 10 2010
The wondering wanderer

Thanks for sharing that Shan! 🙂 Think all of us who also remember the old river would have remembered the stench very well! The area around the old pier has changed so much – even the pier is now a very hip restaurant, One on the Bund!

22 05 2012
Boris O'Pen

Some great memories here. It’s true, there was the Red Lantern at the foot of Change Alley. I used to be a customer of TJ’s which was still in existence following the tragic refurbishment. Does anyone remember the Tropicana nightclub? Are there any memories of the Satay Club? I was pleased to see People’s Park food court still going strong on a recent visit, although it might not be to everyone’s taste.

8 05 2014

What happened to the iconic 4-faced clock that used to hang at the center of Clifford Pier??
If you were to meet somebody at Clifford Pier that you didn’t know the saying was always; “Meet you under the clock”.

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