Singapore’s story began at the banks of Singapore River.
It was here that Raffles first stepped ashore and for years, it was the economic heart of Singapore. Godowns, warehouses and offices lined the river and streams of bumboats chugged up and down, ferrying goods and money into Singapore.
So important was the river that an artillery battery was established at its mouth (that’s where Battery Road gets its name). However, this could not protect the river from becoming polluted as squatters, rice mills, sawmills and boat yards were located along the river.
With the 1980s came the “River Clean-up Campaign” and new life. Places such as Boat Quay, Clarke Quay and Robertson Quay saw a revival in the 1990s.
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Exploring Singapore River
Today, Singapore River continues to have a place in Singapore’s story.
We bring you some ideas on exploring Singapore River, its bridges, sights and sounds on a Little Day Out of your own.
Singapore River Bridges
Erected in 1869, Cavenagh Bridge is also the oldest bridge on the River. Built in Glasgow, Scotland and assembled by Indian convicts, it is named after Major General William Cavenagh, the last Governor of the Straits Settlements appointed by the British East India Company.
But did you know, there are 13 other bridges that cross the Singapore River?
These start from as far upstream as Kim Seng Road, near Great World City, to the new Jubilee Bridge that opened in 2015.
Some landmark bridges along the River to look out for include Coleman Bridge, and Elgin Bridge.
Coleman Bridge is located between Clarke Quay Central and The Riverwalk. The original bridge was built by George Coleman, the first Government Superintendent of Public Works in 1840. The current structure was built in 1990.
Elgin Bridge is located where the first bridge that crossed the Singapore River once stood. It is the fifth bridge to stand on this spot with its predecessors including a wooden drawbridge known as Monkey Bridge (because the bridge was so narrow that people need to be agile like a monkey to get across or risk falling into the river.) The present bridge was opened in 1929 and sits between The Riverwalk and Boat Quay.
Underpass Mural Art
Hidden under the Coleman and Elgin Bridges are colourful murals.
At the Coleman Bridge underpass, scenes depicted range from Sang Nila Utama to Raffles’ landing to old-style heritage playgrounds. These colourful works of art are the work of Social Creatives, a non-profit arts enterprise that seeks to promote art with a purpose.
At Elgin Bridge, step back into yesteryear with underpass murals designed by Raffles Design Institute. ‘Back to the Past’ depicts the trade and transportation activities that took place along the Singapore River while the second artwork, ‘The Early Days’ shows professions such as labourers, postmen, merchants, rickshaw pullers, policemen and food sellers from the past.
Along the Singapore River, sculptures stand in homage to the pioneers who once lived and worked along the river when it was the major artery of Singapore’s commerce.
A good place to start is the statue of Raffles, located at the spot where he is believed to have stepped on to Singapore’s shores. Except, as of August 2015, the white statue is shrouded in a veil of netting as construction works go on around it.
Thankfully, there are other works that offer photo opportunities along the river.
First Generation, beside the Cavenagh Bridge, is a brilliant work by Chong Fah Cheong that depicts the exuberance of boys playing at the Singapore River. This reflects a time when it was not uncommon for boys to swim carefree in the river, avoiding the bumboats that plied the waterway.
On the other side of the same bridge is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it collection of three cats. These depict Kucinta Cats, a Singapore street cat. They were once part of a group of 15 cat sculptures cats placed around the Singapore River. Read 9 Feline Facts about Cats in Singapore.
Another interesting group of sculptures to look out for is the People of the River series. The First Generation boys belong to this series and others include The River Merchants, A Great Emporium and From Chettiars to Financiers.
The River Merchants is found in front of the Maybank Building. It depicts Alexander Laurie Johnston, a Scottish merchant in early Singapore in discussion with a Chinese trader and Malay Chief. Nearby, Indian and Chinese coolies load a bullock cart, once a common sight along the Singapore River.
A Great Emporium and From Chettiars to Financiers can be found next on the opposite bank of the Singapore River, next to the Asian Civilisations Museum. However, as of August 2015, like Raffles, they are boarded up due to ongoing works.
Perhaps the strangest sculpture along the Singapore River is the sculpture that never was.
The Foundation stone for the Monument to the Early Founders of Singapore was laid by Singapore’s first President, Mr Yusoff Ishak in January 1970. Funding for the monument ran out and all that remains is the foundation stone. It can be seen next to The Fullerton Hotel today.
Of course, the “sculpture” that attracts the most number of visitors is found at the mouth of the Singapore River.
Projecting a fountain of water from its mouth, the Merlion is an icon of Singapore. Designed in 1964 for the then Singapore Tourism Promotion Board, the two Merlion statues located at Merlion Park include a two-metre tall mini-statue and the eight-metre tall statue that has added: “doing the Merlion” to the local lexicon.
Join in the hordes of tourists taking pictures with the Merlion! It is just silly fun!
Ride the River
It is hard to imagine the Singapore River filled with bumboats and lighters, polluted with rubbish and oil spewing out of motorboat engines. Nowadays, the only boats along the river are those ferrying passengers back and forth.
Two companies operate on the Singapore River, Singapore River Cruise and Singapore River Explorer. Both offer the full-blown tourist bumboat tours that take passengers out from the Singapore River, past Clarke Quay and Boat Quay, into the Marina Bay.
However, if you don’t feel like taking the tourist tour, another way to experience the water is the water taxi service. Offered by the same two companies that offer the tourist boats, it costs $3 or $4 for a one-way ride. The only catch is that the payment is by EZlink card, and one card is needed per passenger. For more details on the water taxi service, click here.
Eats by the River
Boat Quay and Clarke Quay provide plenty of dining options for those looking for a meal beside the river. Here are two places that you can try out for a different dining experience beside the Singapore River.
Ma Maison at Clarke Quay Central is a Japanese-Western restaurant. It has a rustic ambience and overlooks the Singapore River. Best of all, it is family-friendly too. Kids get a simple toy while dad gets a complimentary draft beer and mum gets an ice-cream in its family special. When it is time to go, take a key to the counter to pay.
A bar along Boat Quay may seem like a strange choice for family dining but The Penny Black is one to check out. Filled with office workers on the weekdays, it is un-crowded for weekend lunches. The old-style pub décor transports you out of Singapore and they even serve roasts with Yorkshire puddings on weekends. The only catch, you must bear with the “musty” bar smell.
Hidden under Esplanade Bridge is Candy Boulevard. It offers cool treats and little bites to counter the hot Singaporean weather. It is a good stop either on the way to or back from Merlion Park.
And, of course, something that never disappoints is the all-time favourite ice-cream man. He is often found beside the Cavanagh Bridge hawking his cool wares. Can anyone say, “Chocolate Chip Wafer”?
Happy explorations of the Singapore River!