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 John I. Thornycroft which set up in 1926 and United Engineers – which had a longer history. 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]




7 responses

15 02 2017
Kim Hocker

I was a US naval officer during the Vietnam situation, and indeed took a patrol boat from Danang to Vosper Thornycroft Singapore for overhaul before turning the vessel over to the Viet Navy. This was late fall of 1969.

I will visit Singapore on the 22nd to 25th of this month and am curious about the current state of this whole area, then known as Katong.

15 02 2017
Jerome Lim, The Wondering Wanderer

Hello Kim,

Tanjong Rhu – where Vosper Thornycroft Singapore was located has changed quite a lot and you probably wouldn’t recognise any of it, but if you wish to have an appreciation of what has become of the area, a good way to do it is from the Singapore Flyer:


On Katong, there has been quite a fair bit of reclamation that has altered the area. A public housing estate built in the mid-1970s now stands between it and the sea. A number of condominium developments have also come up in some places. However, there are still parts of the old Katong to be found – in the area around East Coast Road and Joo Chiat Road. You will find an excellent guide booklet on the area that can be downloaded at this link: If you are looking to join a tour of the area, BetelBox Tours runs excellent walking tours of it and are highly recommended:

I hope you have a great time in Singapore!



16 02 2017
Kim Hocker

Jerome Lin:

Thank you for your reply, and suggestions. I was there for three months and it was quite instrumental in the education of a then 24 year old Ltjg. I had a flat in Katong, probably a 10 minute walk to the shipyard, past the then Singapore Swim Club (which I had a monthly membership). Down the street was the Katong Grange, which was a boarding house of sorts for the English, complete with pub and two clay tennis courts, where I had occasional matches with locals including the North Vietnamese Ambassador to Singapore. It was quite a respite from my time in Danang, Vietnam and patrol.

Look if interested I am sure I have some old 35 mm slides of Singapore then, included I am sure some of the Vosper Thornycroft facility. They are no longer of any use to me. If of interest to you I will bring them to you when I reach Singapore. Please let me know.

Again, your reply is most appreciated,

Kim Hocker

16 02 2017
Jerome Lim, The Wondering Wanderer

Hi Kim,

Thank you for the additional information. 3 months is a long time to spend in Singapore! The Singapore Swimming Club is still around, but is a lot more modern looking now having been rebuilt. It seems quite amazing that you played tennis with the North Vietnamese Ambassador. The conversations you may have had with him would have been interesting!

Thank you also for the generous offer of the 35mm slides you have of old Singapore. If it isn’t too much trouble to bring them with you, I would be glad to have them. 🙂


17 02 2017
Kim Hocker

Mr Lim:

It will be my pleasure to provide you with the slides. I cannot speak of their photographic quality, but perhaps one or two may be of interest.

Obviously, I do not know your schedule. I will be treating myself to the Mandarin Oriental starting the evening of Feb 22nd until Sunday morning the 26th. May I suggest a breakfast meeting any of those available days, or perhaps an evening drink? Naturally, my schedule is pretty wide open. I would love to learn more of Singapore since the early days of the first Mr Lee. It is a fascinating city-state, and you are fortunate to live in such an enterprising place.

My US cell phone number is 831 594-6183, and I can readily receive both text and phone; plus I will have my laptop for any additional emails. I do depart from California tomorrow en route to Taipei for a short visit with some former business friends.

Looking for to re-visiting Singapore,

Kim Hocker

21 02 2017
Jerome Lim, The Wondering Wanderer

Hello Kim, I will send you a reply by email.


21 02 2017
Kim Hocker

Thank you. I just finished sending you a new email.


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