Little more than a creek, in the nineteenth century the Singapore River became the main artery of Singapore’s growing trade, and was clogged with bumboats – traditional cargo boats, the size of houseboats, with eyes painted on their prows as if to see where they were going. The boat pilots ferried coffee, sugar and rice to warehouses called godowns, where coolies loaded and unloaded sacks. In the 1880s the river itself was so busy it was practically possible to walk from one side to the other without getting your feet wet. Of course bridges were built across it as well, mostly endearingly compact and old-fangled, apart from the massive new Esplanade Bridge at the mouth of the river.
Walk beside the river today, all sanitized and packed with trendy restaurants and bars, some occupying the few surviving godowns, and it’s hard to imagine that in the 1970s this was still a working river. It was also filthy, and the river’s current status as one of the leading nightlife centres of Singapore ultimately originates in a massive clean-up campaign launched back then, which saw the river’s commercial traffic moved west to Pasir Panjang within the space of a few years. Several museums have sections exploring the role the river once played and the pros and cons of its transformation, with a particularly good discussion at the Asian Civilisations Museum, which states frankly: “[the project] also washed away … [the river’s] vibrant history as a trade waterway. Its newly cleaned waters now appeared characterless and sterile.” At least today various boat rides offer a view of the riverside restaurants and city skyline.