The river I once knew

7 07 2011

I first set eyes on the Singapore River in my very early years when I accompanied my mother on her regular forays to the department stores in Raffles Place. To get to them, we would cross the river on the wonderfully designed Cavenagh Bridge. The open balustrades of the bridge offered an excellent view of the comings and goings on the busy river. It was fascinating to the curious child that I was, to watch the heavily laden wooden twakows (cargo boats) straining upriver with the cargoes that their much larger, steel-hulled cousins in the inner harbour had fed them. Even more fascinating to me was the spirited movement downriver of the boats whose bellies had been emptied by the industrious coolies at the many godowns (warehouses) lining the river.

Cavenagh Bridge.

Watching the coolies at work fascinated me more than seeing the passing of the twakows. I would stop and stare at the men as they took small but quick steps across the narrow planks that linked the boats to the stepped, concrete banks of the river. The planks would strain under the weight – not so much that of the bare-bodied men themselves, but of the load that each balanced on one shoulder. The loads seemed not just to outweigh the men who bore them, but to also be larger than the coolies’ lightly built frames. At times it looked as if the planks were too narrow, but I never once saw those men lose the ability to balance themselves and the offset loads that they carried.

A scan from an old postcard showing the river in busier days, filled with the twakows that transported goods from their steel hulled cousins upriver to the numerous godowns that lined the river.

In those days, besides the colourful distractions that the twakows, godowns and coolies provided, the waterway had a reputation for its less than pleasant smell. In fact, many visitors who arrived prior to the late 1980s remember Singapore for the river’s smells. It was an odour that I well remember myself and was reason enough for my mother to avoid stopping by the very popular Boat Quay food stalls. These had fitted themselves onto the narrow strip of land between the back of the buildings that lined the river (one was the Bank of China Building) and the river itself.

The (old) bank of China Building set against the new building has been one of the few survivors of the area around the river since I first became acquainted with the area in the late 1960s.

Much of what went on in and around the river had indeed contributed to how it smelled, as well as to the murky waters that the twakows ploughed through. A massive effort to clean up the river began in 1977 and meant that life in and around the river as it was, would soon be a thing of the past. The twakows, a feature of the river for over a hundred years, disappeared in the early 1980s, an event that I somehow missed. By the time I got around to visiting the river again, they had vanished from the waters that had once held hundreds of them. Soon, the river was to be cut off from the sea that had given it life, with reclamation work at Marina South and the construction of the Marina Barrage. The river did not go quietly, however, and is now entering its second life, integrated into a potential source of fresh water for the modern metropolis that has grown around it.

A massive effort to clean up the river began in 1977 and the twakows, a feature of the river for over a hundred years, disappeared in the early 1980s, Many of the godowns along Boat Quay (seen here dwarfed by the steel and glass of new Singapore) have since been transformed into food and entertainment outlets.

Nevertheless, the river will always evoke its colourful past for me. I still look at it through the eyes of the child, and what I see are images of the twakows, coolies and godowns that are today all but forgotten.

This post has been published in the July / August 2011 issue of Passage, a Friends of the Museums, Singapore publication as “Singapore River Reminisces, Boat Quay in the 1970s”.




6 responses

7 07 2011
Claire Leow

I remember the hawker center where ACM now stands. And how my father would buy me Green Spot and we would lean and watch the twakows go by. He had Tiger Balm ready for the stench! Then we would walk over to either Queen Elizabeth walk to enjoy the sea breeze or to Change Alley, then a row of shops in a darkened alley, not today’s mall, and we had fun looking at what secondhand goods were on sale, dropped by sailors looking for cash to have a few nights of revelry. I remember eating ice-cream at the ice-cream palour of Robinson’s. I have a pic of us on a bumboat taken from Clifford Center, myself pleased as Punch. Ah those were the days……

8 07 2011
peter long

Always enjoy reading your articles of old singapore and special note of the photos accompanying these articles.

8 07 2011

Please check out this related post about lunch time at Singapore River at:

Great memories as we walk down Singapore River. Cheers!

9 07 2011
Francis Lai

What you’ve written about ” The river I once knew” was what I witnessed as a kid way back in my kampong days during 1961/62 period. As a kid I would follow my kg’s neighbour to sell sugarcane drink at the Singapore River (not the present type of sugarcane drink in hawker centres). This sugar cane was the thinner version and it has to be boiled for many hours, and it is rarely found in Singapore nowadays. During school holidays, I would hitch a ride on his tricycle to the Singapore River somewhere near Clemenceau Rd/Roberson Quay to sell the hot and cold “cooling type” sugarcane drinks to the “coolies” there. Till now, I can still recall the atmosphere of the river, the sight, the smell & the sound at the river then !

9 07 2011


Can u elaborate more on the thin type sugar cane and boiling? First time I hear…..

5 01 2022
Gordon Hogan

This was the way it was when visited Singapore in 1961 and the early years of the 25 years when our family made Singapore our home.

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