Recoloured waters

2 03 2014

A view of the Singapore River from my favourite bridge, the Cavenagh Bridge. The view is now very different one from the one I did when I first set my eyes on it as a child, with the river emptied of its seemingly overladen twakows – lighters that seemed to have non-existent freeboards. The twakows provided the means to bring goods from the ocean going ships anchored in the harbour to godowns upriver and were the backbone of trading business on which Singapore owes much of its early success to. 

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The once filthy waters of the river, spilling not anymore into the harbour, but into a body of sweet water – the Marina Reservoir, carved amazingly out from the sea and is now surrounded by the modern skyline that has come up at what is today Marina Bay, has since been cleaned up – the result of a huge ten year effort that began in 1977 that also saw it emptied of its twakowsIt is the new trades – that serving new temporary imports in the form of tourists, have replaced the old, and it is this that now recolours the river’s once dark and murky waters, bringing new life to the area. 

More on the Singapore River and the old harbour:


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”.

A secret that one of the bridges at the mouth of the river once hid …

8 03 2010

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.

I loved the Anderson Bridge since my childhood. The steel arches always seemed to hide a mystery.

The Cavenagh Bridge always provided a bounce.

The rivet decorated steel arches of the Anderson Bridge.

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 cabled stayed Cavenagh Bridge was built as an all-weather link between the civic quarter and Commercial Square and is the only suspension bridge in Singapore.

A historic sign which was probably put up when the Anderson Bridge was opened, prohibiting vehicles of over 3 cwt and cattle and horses from using Cavenagh Bridge.

The Cavenagh Bridge by night.

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.

The Anderson Bridge seen soon after its opening in the early 1900s in an old postcard.

The Anderson Bridge is now part of the nightscape that features in Singapore's F1 night race circuit.

The Anderson Bridge was erected at the mouth of the Singapore River to replace the Cavenagh Bridge.

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.

Builder's plate on the Cavenagh Bridge.

The Cavenagh Bridge is used as a pedestrian bridge.

The steel work of the Anderson Bridge did hide a secret for two decades - a skeleton of a man was found in the girders below in the late 1980s, having been hidden for some 20 years.

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.

Bridges built these days are a little more practical and a lot less inspiring. The Esplanade Bridge built in 1997 now takes much of the traffic that crosses the mouth of the SIngapore River.