The forgotten side of Singapore River

Most Singaporeans would not be unfamiliar with the Singapore River. We know of its historical importance as the location selected by Raffles to be the first trading port in Singapore. Most of us would remember the three major quays located along the river – Boat Quay, Clarke Quay and Robertson Quay, and the major food places that overlooked the dirty river before the major clean up in the 1980s. However, as Singapore River slowly transformed into a tourism and commercial district, all of its original social fabric has disappeared. I took a walk down the river to trace back as much of these lost memories as I could.

The source of the Singapore River is theoretically located at Zion Road and Kim Seng Bridge, in between Great World City and the Zion Road estate that has been scheduled for demolition. Further upstream is Alexandra Canal, which originates from Queenstown. Before the canal was canalised, it was a stream that flowed into the Singapore River. On the other end of the stream, water flowed into Sungei Pandan. As locals were unable to idenfity the source along this stretch of stream that appeared to flow in both directions, this part of Queenstown was also known as boh beh kang (无尾江; “no tail river” in Hokkien). Today, the multiple drainage systems that pour into Alexandra Canal form the “source” of the Singapore River. With the construction of the Marina Barrage, the river is no longer directly connected to the open sea anymore.

Singapore River was seen as a valley running between Fort Canning Hill and Pearl’s Hill. Hence, the two roads that run parallel on either side of the river were both named “River Valley Road” since the 1840s. In 1858, the River Valley Road to the south of the river was renamed Havelock Road, after Major-General Sir Henry Havelock, a British general who died of dysentery during the Indian Mutiny a year earlier. The other road to the north of the river retained its name till today.

My trail started from Zion Road, moving eastwards to its mouth at Marina Bay.

17, 19 and 21 Jiak Kim Street
Constructed: 1919
Status: Found
Conserved: Since 2014

Zouk 01
Zouk – a club located in an old godown

These three former godowns (warehouses) are perhaps better known to many as Zouk, a club that opened in 1991. Their galvanised iron sheet roofs make then stand out from the other godowns in the vicinity. No. 17, in particular, has a curved roof pediment instead of the triangular ones seen on the other 2. The façade of the godowns has been restored, while the interior has been retrofitted to suit the new function.

This area upstream was where most of the factories and godowns were located. It was reclaimed from swamps, and thus was not suitable for agricultural uses.

The 3 buildings were gazetted for conservation under the Master Plan 2014. However, it was also announced that the lease for Zouk would not be extended after the end of 2015. In mid-2015, Zouk revealed that it has secured a new place at Clarke Quay, and will relocate there by 2016.

Ho Puah Quay & Peng Siang Quay
Status: Lost

Slightly downstream from Zouk is where Ho Puah Quay and Peng Siang Quay used to be. They were named after Hokkien merchant Lim Ho Puah (林和坂) and his son Lim Peng Siang (林秉祥) respectively.

Lim Ho Puah was the son-in-law of Wee Bin, an entrepreneur who starting the trading firm, Wee Bin & Company. He later took over the management of the firm, and subsequently handed over to his son, Lim Peng Siang. The latter then started his own Ho Hong group, which included The Ho Hong Bank Ltd (founded in 1917), The Ho Hong Oil Mills, The Ho Hong Steamship Co. Ltd. and so on. He also acquired most of the business interests of Wee Bin & Co. when it was liquidated in 1911.

Lim Peng Siang was also president of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce in 1913 and 1915 to 1916.

In 1932, Ho Hong Bank merged with the Chinese Commercial Bank (also founded by Lim Peng Siang, together with Lim Boon Keng, Seow Poh Leng etc in 1912) and the Oversea-Chinese Bank to form the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC).

Ho Puah Quay was named in 1907, while Peng Siang Quay was named in 1933.

From older maps, it seems that Peng Siang Quay was expunged first. Today, a group of hotels (including Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel and River View Hotel) stand roughly at their place.

320, 326 & 332 Havelock Road
Status: Found
Conserved: Since 2014

Ho Puah Quay & Robertson Quay 04
Ho Puah Quay & Robertson Quay 05
Old godown at junction of Havelock Road and Saiboo Street, near Ho Puah Quay and Peng Siang Quay

Slightly downstream from Ho Puah Quay and Peng Siang Quay stand 3 godowns that are gazetted for conservation in 2014. These godowns were refurbished as the Warehouse Disco in 1986, but was closed down 10 years later (even before the adjacent Pulau Saigon Bridge was built).

Ho Puah Quay & Robertson Quay 02
Ho Puah Quay & Robertson Quay 03
The old Warehouse Disco

In 2015, it was announced that The Lo & Behold Group will be redeveloping it as a boutique hotel, called The Warehouse Hotel.

Ho Puah Quay & Robertson Quay 01
320, 326 & 332 Havelock Road

Robertson Quay
Status: Lost

Watermark Robertson Quay 01
Watermark Robertson Quay was built over this old godown

Robertson Quay is the largest of the 3 main quays along Singapore River. It was named after Dr J. Murray Robertson, a Municipal Councillor.

Watermark Robertson Quay 02
The cross patterns have been present on the façade since the godown was built

After the area was zoned for residential, hotel and commercial uses in the 1990s, most of the godowns have been demolished. The only remaining godowns have been repainted and incorporated into Watermark Robertson Quay. A number of other developments in the area also included “Robertson” or “Robertson Quay” in their names.

Alkaff Quay
Status: Lost

River Place (formerly Alkaff Quay & Earle Quay) 02
River Place, where Alkaff Quay once stood. The pedestrian walkway used to be the road by the same name. Alkaff Bridge is nearby in the background

Alkaff Quay was located at the western half of River Place condominium, close to where Alkaff Bridge currently stands. It was named in 1907 after Syed Ahamad bin Sheik Alkaff, as the 17 godowns in the quay belonged to Alkaff & Company, the company ran by the Alkaff family.

Pulau Saigon & Earle Quay
Status: Lost

When I first read about Pulau Saigon, I had problems identifying its location on the modern map. It was an island located in the river, but land reclamation has resulted in it being merged into the surrounding land. There was a Pulau Saigon Bridge that connected the island to the northern bank of the river, while another nameless bridge connected it to the south. Confusion arose when there is currently another Pulau Saigon Bridge located further upstream. So where exactly is Pulau Saigon?

By comparing the major roads, I finally pinpointed the location to be the area bounded by Magazine Road and Havelock Road – the part of River Place closer to Clemenceau Road and the open space on the other side of the road. The original Pulau Saigon Bridge, built in 1890, connected the island to Merbau Road to the north, while the nameless bridge was connected to the junction of Magazine Road and Havelock Road. After Clemenceau Bridge was completed, Pulau Saigon Bridge remained as a footbridge until its demolition in 1986, in lieu of the construction of the Central Expressway.

Pulau Saigon 01
To the left – the rough location of Pulau Saigon

Pulau Saigon was also known as Pulo Saigon (“pulo” is the Javanese version of “pulau”, both meaning “island”). Some maps identified the triangular island as “Kampong Saigon”. I wonder if it a community of immigrants from Saigon that led to the name.

River Place (formerly Alkaff Quay & Earle Quay) 01
Earle Quay was located roughly in this location

Earle Quay was located along the southern bank of the river overlooking the island (the side that was subsequently merged with the island). It was named in 1907. I can’t find much information on its namesake, or even his full name, other than the fact that he was the manager of the Straits Steamship Company.

Hong Lim Quay
Status: Lost

From the name, I believe Hong Lim Quay was so named as Cheang Hong Lim owned the godowns in the quay. Cheang Hong Lim was a businessman and philanthropist who donated large sums of money for various public projects in Singapore. The road Hong Lim Quay was subsequently renamed Boat Quay.

Riverside Point
Status: Found

Riverside Point (formerly Hong Lim Quay) 01
Riverside Point, where Hong Lim Quay once stood

Standing at the original site of Hong Lim Quay now is Riverside Point, a development that primarily houses restaurants and office space. Its series of pitched roofs resemble the architectural form of the original godowns located there. The pitched roof in the middle is a glass roof that shelters a central courtyard.

Riverside Point (formerly Hong Lim Quay) 04
Riverside Point (formerly Hong Lim Quay) 03
Riverside Point

Back when Clarke Quay was a popular venue for family-oriented events, Riverside Point became the de facto hideout for visitors from the scorching sun. Now, with Clarke Quay oriented towards night activities, Riverside Point became rather quiet in the day.

Riverside Point (formerly Hong Lim Quay) 02
Earle Quay was located roughly in this location

From 2003 to 2006, the National Museum of Singapore (then the Singapore History Museum) was temporarily housed in Riverside Point while its main building was being restored and expanded.

Clarke Quay
Status: Found
Conserved: Since 1989

Clarke Quay 03
Clarke Quay Block E, as seen from Central across the river

Clarke Quay is the largest conservation area along the Singapore River. Five blocks of godowns and shophouses were retained and integrated into the new development. The Clarke Quay Festival Village was opened in 1993, and was a venue of good food and family fun.

Clarke Quay 04
Clarke Quay in the 1990s

Clarke Quay 06
One of the many activities held at Clarke Quay

Ten years later, it was revamped into a district of vibrant night life. During the revamp, giant canopies known as “Angels”, designed by Alsop Architects Ltd, were erected along the two streets. The ETFE canopies provide sun and rain protection, allowing the pedestrian streets to be usable even during bad weather, without the use of air conditioning (a contrast to the approach adopted in China Square).

Clarke Quay 01
View of the pedestrianized Read Street from Read Bridge, with the “Angels” towering over the old shophouses

Clarke Quay was named after Colonel Sir Andrew Clarke, second Governor of Singapore and Governor of the Straits Settlements from 1873 to 1875. The stretch of Clarke Quay road along the river bank is now pedestrianized, while the stretch around Liang Court is still a vehicular road.

Clarke Quay 05
The old map of Clarke Quay, as seen on Read Bridge

Clarke Street is the name of the street that cuts across the blocks, connecting Tan Tye Place to Canning Lane. Prior to its naming in 1896, it was two separate streets known as East Street and West Street, located in north Kampong Malacca (the area across the river was known as south Kampong Malacca). Read Street runs perpendicular to it, and was known as North Street and South Street. Both streets have also been pedestrianized.

Clarke Quay 02
Old godowns at Clarke Quay Block A

Locals also referred to the area as cha chun tau (柴船头; Hokkien for “jetty for boats carrying firewood”), referring to the tongkangs that transported firewood from Indonesia.

Ellenborough Market
Constructed: 1845
Status: Lost
Destroyed: 1968
Demolished: 1970

Central (formerly Ellenborough Market)
Central, where Ellenborough Market used to stand. The linkbridge crosses over Tew Chew Street

Ellenborough Market was located along Tew Chew Street, at the current location of the Central shopping mall. This area was part of the south Kampong Malacca. The market was built in 1845 by Captain Charles Edward Faber, the Superintending Engineer. Within the first year, cracks appeared on the walls due to bad construction. After the Edinburgh Exhibition in 1897, part of the cast-iron structure was purchased, dismantled and shipped over to be reassembled alongside the existing structure in 1899. With this new addition, the market was also known as Pasar Bahru (Malay for “New Market”), in contrast to the Lau Pa Sat (old market) along Raffles Quay. Due to the presense of a large number of Teochew hawkers, the market was also known as “Teochew Market”.

On the other side of the market, running parallel to Tew Chew Street, were two other streets – Fish Street and Ellenborough Street. Both Ellenborough Street and Ellenborough Market were named after Lord Ellenborough, Governor General of India. Ellenborough Street was originally knwn as Tocksing Street, named after Chinese businessman Tan Tock Seng. It was known to the locals as sin pa sat khau (新巴刹口; Hokkien for “the mouth of the new market”).

Fish Street was so named due to the fish trade in Ellenborough Market. The large Teochew community in the area was probably the reason for the name of Tew Chew Street, which was otherwise known as tua poh sin koi (大坡新街), which means “the new street of the Big Town”.

On the other side of Ellenborough Street stood the Ellenborough buildings, a block of 2-storey shophouses built by John Turnbull Thomson, the Government Surveyor, from 1845 to 1847. They were built for Tan Tock Seng (which may explain the name of Tocksing Street).

Ellenborough Market was destroyed in a fire in 1968, and was abandoned for about 2 years before being demolished. HDB flats were later constructed on the same site, together with a 3-storey wholesale centre also known as Ellenborough Market. By then, Fish Street has been expunged.

Ellenborough Street HDB 02
The HDB flats at Ellenborough Street in the background, with Clarke Quay in the foreground

Ellenborough Street HDB 01
A close up of Block 3 Ellenborough Street

In the mid 1990s, the HDB flats, the new Ellenborough Market, Ellenborough Street and the Ellenborough buildings were all demolished and expunged for the construction of Clarke Quay MRT Station of the Northeast Line. Central now stands above the underground station. Only Tew Chew Street remains. The vendors in Ellenborough Market were then moved to Victoria Street Wholesale Centre, which in turn was demolished in 2012.

Boat Quay
Status: Found
Conserved: Since 1989

Boat Quay 01
The conserved shophouses at Boat Quay, with the Raffles Place skyscrapers in the background

Boat Quay is the quay located closest to the Singapore River. It was a swampy area when Raffles first arrived, and earth from a small hill at Commercial Square was used to reclaim it. It then grew into the busiest port in Singapore, handling up to three quarters of the martime trade in Singapore at one point in time. Its importance only declined in the early 1980s, when a modern cargo centre was built in Pasir Panjang. It was then conserved and redeveloped together with the other quays as part of a scheme to rebrand Singapore River. The conserved area is located within the area bounded by South Bridge Road and North Canal Road.

Like most other quays, a road with the same name runs along the river bank, on the south of the river. It is now pedestrianized. On the north of the river was the road North Boat Quay. Most of it was also pedestrianized, except for the short stretch between Hill Street and North Bridge Road.

Boat Quay was known among the locals by various other names. Like Clarke Quay, it was also referred to as cha chun tau. Other names include tiam pang lo thau (淡邦路头; Hokkien for “the place to go for sampans”; 淡邦 refers to sampans, or 舢舨), chui chu boi (水屋尾; Hokkien for “bathing house end”), Suspension Bridge Quay (referring to Cavenagh Bridge) and The Belly of the Carp (referring to the shape of the river, which the Chinese believed to have good fengshui).

Running almost parallel to Boat Quay further inland is Circular Street. It was so named due to the curved nature of the road and the river bank. A section of Circular Street was also known as chap peh kho ki (十八溪墘; 溪墘 means “stream bank”), chap peh keng au (十八间后; 后 means “behind”) or chap peh keng (十八间) in Hokkien, or sap pat kan (十八间) in Cantonese, all referring to the 18 houses or shops located there.

Canton Street runs perpendicular to Boat Quay and Circular Road, connecting the two. It was so named as the port of Canton was the main point of departure for early Chinese immigrants before arriving in Singapore, and not due to a congregation of Cantonese in the area. This part of Boat Quay around Canton Street was also known as chap sa hang in Hokkien or sap sam hong in Cantonese (十三行; meaning “thirteen shops”). It was also known as khai kin huen-koi-a in Hokkien, meaning “small cross street by Boat Quay.

Tan Kim Seng’s and Edward Boustead’s Godowns
Constructed: 1850s
Status: Lost

The Riverwalk & Riverwalk Apartments 02
The Riverwalk, where Tan Kim Seng’s godown once stood

On the site of The Riverwalk and Riverwalk Apartments once stood the godown built for Peranakan trader and philanthropist Tan Kim Seng (陈金声). It was connected to the godown owned by Boustead and Company, a trading company founded by Englishman Edward Boustead in 1827. Its design was a copy of Boustead’s godown, providing a consistent façade along Singapore River. Boustead’s godown was built in 1832, but demolished in 1925 when South Bridge Road was widened in lieu of the construction of Elgin Bridge. Tan Kim Seng’s godown survived much longer, having appeared in the early 1970s street directories. I am not sure when exactly was it demolished though – probably when The Riverwalk was built.

The Riverwalk & Riverwalk Apartments 01
The staggered layers of the curved concrete balconies are a distinct feature, easily identifiable along the banks of Singapore River

Yeo Kim Swee’s Godown
Designed by George Drumgold Coleman
Constructed: 1842 to 1843
Status: Lost

Yeo Kim Swee (杨金水) was a prominent Chinese merchant. His godown was located along North Boat Quay. It was the longest surviving godown in the area. After it was demolished, the Empress Place Transit Food Centre was built.

Empress Place Transit Food Centre
Constructed: 1983
Status: Lost

The Empress Place Transit Food Centre was built to house about 90 hawkers from Boat Quay Food Centre and Empress Place Food Centre, affected by the MRT construction. The new parliament house now stands in its place.

Boat Quay Food Centre & Empress Place Food Centre
Constructed: 1973
Status: Lost
Demolished: 1993

Boat Quay Food Centre 01
Where Boat Quay Food Centre used to be

The two food centres stood on either side of the mouth of the Singapore River. Boat Quay Food Centre was a long stretch located at the food of the Bank of China building, while Empress Place Food Centre was located next to the Empress Place Building (now the Asian Civilisation Museum). Boat Quay Food Centre was built to house the hawkers who were situated along Hallpike Street.

The street was located between the Attorney General’s Chambers (now the Old Parliament Building) and Yeo Kim Swee’s godown (now the new Parliament House), and is now defunct. It was named after Stephen Hallpike, an English blacksmith who established the first shipyard in Singapore from 1836 to 1844.

Empress Place Food Centre 01
Where Empress Place Food Centre used to be

The food centres served mainly the working class from nearby Raffles Place.

Due to the construction of the MRT lines between City Hall and Raffles Place stations, about 90 hawkers from the two food centres were relocated to Empress Place Transit Food Centre, which interestingly was back at the area around Hallpike Street where the hawkers first started.

All the food centres were demolished in the early 1990s.

For a walkthrough of the bridges along Singapore River, click here.

File Last Updated: August 25, 2015

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6 responses to “The forgotten side of Singapore River

  1. its wonderful that you’re taking the effort to document these trails and history. unfortunately, the photos are not displaying properly.

    • So sorry about the photos issue. I’m still in the progress of migrating everything over to a new (and hopefully more reliable) site, and updating the links. Hopefully everything will be fixed soon!

  2. Cardelo – I want to acknowledge you as a source in a book I am working on – can you email me? Thx.

  3. Gordon, Zenda, Andrew, Alexander and Arthur

    Fantastic……..this collection of historic information is wonderful and I spent several table sessions with my family reading through and mapping the contents before taking the family on a long walk down the riverside identifying the various points of interest!

  4. Very interesting information and a lot of hard work has gone into this. Congratulations and thanks.

  5. I remember there were plenty of good food at the old Ellenborough market.

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