Gambling at the original sands at Marina Bay

24 08 2017

Gambling at the sands at Marina Bay actually started well before Marina Bay Sands landed – on the evidence of the accounts of Munshi Abdullah. In his autobiography, “Hikayat Abdullah“, Munshi Abdullah describes the events at the time of modern Singapore’s founding in 1819 to which he had not been witness to. He did however have a reliable enough source in the form of  William Farquhar. Farquhar’s observations, as recorded by Abdullah, extended to the physical landscape around the mouth of the Singapore River and the adjacent shoreline and rather interestingly to some of what seemed to go on around the shores.

Especially interesting is a description of mouth of the river in its natural state and the superstitions the local population held of a particular stone at which offerings were made:

In the mouth of the Singapore River there were a great many large rocks, but there was a channel in between the rocks, which was as crooked as a snake when it is beaten. Among all those stones there was one with a sharp point like the snout of a swordfish, and that was called by the sea-gypsies Batu Kepala-Todak (Sword-fish-head Rock), and they believed that that stone had an evil spirit or ghost. It was at that stone that they all paid their vows, and that was the place they feared, and they set up banners and paid it honor: for they said, “If we do not honor it, when we go in and out of the straits it will certainly destroy us all”. So every day they brought offerings and placed them on that stone.

Also interesting is what must have been a most gruesome of sights greeting the newly arrived of skulls, some with hair still on them, rolling about the edge of  the shoreline. The shoreline and its sands, two centuries before it was made into part of Marina Bay and the Sands casino arrived, was also a location for what must have been some of the earliest instances of gambling in Singapore:

And all along the edge of the shore there were rolling hundreds of human skulls in the sand, some old and some new, some with the hair still remaining on them, some with the teeth filed, and others not, skulls of all kinds. Mr. Farquhar was informed of this, and when he saw them, he had them picked up and thrown out to sea; so they were put in sacks and thrown into the sea. At that time the sea-gypsies were asked, “Whose skulls are all these?”‘ And they said, “These are the heads of the victims of piracy, and this is where they were killed.” Wherever native vessels or ships were attacked, the pirates came here and divided the plunder; in some eases they killed one another in struggling for the booty; in other cases it was those whom they had bound. It was on the shore here that they tried their weapons, and here also they had gambling and cock-fighting.

A very different shoreline and river, 1819 (source: The Singapore River: A Social History, 1819-2002 by Stephen Dobbs).

Boat Quay – the site of a swamp when Raffles first landed on the opposite bank. Soil from a hill at what is today’s Raffles’ Place was used to fill the swamp (what would be the very first reclamation to take place in Singapore).

Marina Bay today, a body of fresh water where the sea had once washed up to.


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 5footway.inn at Boat Quay

28 06 2013

An interesting experience I had recently was a stay I had at the conservation shophouses along Boat Quay. The shophouse, or rather the upper floors of it at No. 76 Boat Quay and the next door unit No. 75, now plays host to a rather chic looking hostel, the 5footway.inn. The hostel at Boat Quay is the latest in a series of boutique hostel chain 5footway.inn’s four properties. Two are found in Chinatown and another in the Bugis area, all conveniently located within conservation districts in Singapore.

The Terrace - a lounge area which allows interaction or relaxation over a cup of coffee which also serves as the breakfast room.

The Terrace is where one can interact, relaxation over a cup of coffee, and have breakfast at.

The 5footway.inn at Boat Quay.

The 5footway.inn at Boat Quay.

I must admit that my motivation for accepting the kind offer extended by the hostel to spend a night, was have a peek inside the conservation unit and to discover how it has transformed since its earlier days when living in one of the overly crowded shophouses, many of the lower floors of which might have been used as warehouses and offices, might not have provided as pleasant an experience – especially in days when the river was better recognised for its smell rather than anything else. And with my last hostel experience going back to the well forgotten days of my lost youth, it did seem like if would also be interesting to see how hostels and the experience of staying in one has changed over the years.

The reception area. Computers are provided for use by the guests.

The reception area. Computers are provided for use by the guests.

My night’s accommodation was in a comfortable private room. Simply furnished as one might expect, it did have under a high loft bed, a small desk as well as a key-card operated locker. The desk proved to be useful –  being where I could enjoy the high speed wireless internet connection with my laptop in the privacy of the room. The wireless connections are one of the things the 5footway.inns I am told have a reputation for and pretty neat especially for one who does spend a fair bit of time in cyberspace.

The private rooms are furnished with a Queen sized loft bed.

The private rooms are furnished with a Queen sized loft bed.

Under the loft - a keycard operated locker and a desk.

Under the loft – a keycard operated locker and a desk.

The common spaces around the hostel are also rather pleasant spaces to relax in in which one can also interact with other hostel guests. The reception area is one – a row of desks arranged along one wall is where desktop computers are provided for use by the guests. The space, illuminated by both natural and artificial lighting, is decorated with Edwin Koo’s black and white prints which provide a flavour of what one does find in a gallery, Gallery 76, of the award winning photographer’s provoking images.

Another view of the reception area.

Another view of the reception area.

Another view of the terrace - which offers great views of the river ...

Another view of the terrace – which offers great views of the river …

And beyond it ... it is also a wonderful location to observe the rising of the sun.

… and beyond it … it is also a wonderful location to observe the rising of the sun.

The gallery which has a permanent display of 30 of Koo’s works, forms part of a larger common space which opens up to a terrace which provides wonderful views of the Singapore River. The common space serves both as a lounge at which seating is arranged, and where complimentary machine dispensed hot beverages and water is available, as well as a breakfast area. Breakfast is provided to guests is simple but adequate and includes cereal, toast and fruits. If one is an early bird, and if Mother Nature does oblige, breakfast can be taken at the terrace from which one is able to watch the  changing hues of the break of day. Once the sun does come up, it is in its warm golden rays that breakfast can be enjoyed in.

The view at breakfast.

The view at breakfast.

The Terrace lounge area is also where a gallery featuring award winning photojournalist Edwin Koo's works.

The lounge area is also where a gallery, Gallery 76, featuring 30 of award winning photojournalist Edwin Koo’s works is found.

One of the great things about the hostel has to be its location. Set in a row of former godowns to twakows carrying goods from sea going vessels emptied their cargo, the area the hostel finds itself in is one which has been transformed into one of the island’s destinations for food and entertainment. It is also within walking distance of shopping malls, Chinatown, the historic Civic District, the commercial district with its towering blocks of glass and steel and most importantly to the MRT and public bus stops. The location is also where some stunning nighttime views of the river and the illuminated buildings around the river can be seen – and makes it a very convenient location from which one can do an unmolested night shoot in the wee hours of the morning – after the area is emptied of its night time crowds.

A nighttime view of the river and the skyline around it from the nearby Elgin Bridge.

A nighttime view of the river and the skyline around it from the nearby Elgin Bridge.

The Elgin Bridge.

The Elgin Bridge and the north bank of the river across from Boat Quay.

A view from he terrace of the 5footway.inn.

A view from the terrace of the 5footway.inn.

Boat Quay is also close to the skyscrapers of the commercial district.

Boat Quay is also close to the skyscrapers of the commercial district.

During my stay the one thing I would have liked to have had during my stay would have been the convenience of ensuite facilities in its private rooms which it didn’t have. Having said that, I do have to also add that I do not have any negative impressions of  its common toilet and bathroom facilities. A female area is found on the lower level and a male area on the upper level – for which I can say, at least for the male facilities, quite clean and adequately sized. All in all, I found the 5footway.inn at Boat Quay, which does also have dormitory like accommodation available, to be clean and comfortable with its free high speed wireless internet, great location and affordable prices all great plus points. Certainly a stay at the 5footway.inn at Boat Quay, for anyone looking for a clean and no-frills place to stay whilst in Singapore, is one which should be considered.

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.