Singapore River and the City

Contents
1 Introduction
2 Merlion
3 Boat Quay
4 Clarke Quay
5 Riverside Point
6 Financial centre
7 Marina Bay and the Integrated Resorts
8 The Marina Barrage

The mouth of the river is marked by the bizarre symbol of Singapore: the grotesque Merlion statue, a lion's head on a fish's body. The financial heart of the city is just south of here; tall towers cast shadows on streets which on weekdays are a frenzy of suited traders, bankers and office workers. The most pleasant area is along the river, which offers peaceful walks along its banks. The riverside is dotted with restaurants and bars making it a lively place at night.

Merlion

Standing guard at the mouth of the
Singapore River
- though rather dwarfed now by the Esplanade bridge - is the mythical Merlion, half-lion, half-fish, the grotesque saturnine symbol of Singapore. The statue was sculpted by local artist Lim Nang Seng in 1972 and stands in the miniscule
Merlion Park
, an unaccountably popular stop for tour groups, where there is a souvenir shop which is sometimes rather ambitiously billed a museum. It is inspired by the two ancient (Sanskrit) names for the island: Singa Pura (lion city) and Temasek (sea-town). The confused creature is emblazoned on many a trinket and T-shirt. In a bizarre move, the 8.6-m symbol was shifted 120 m in 2002 to a finger of reclaimed land, still in the park, in front the Fullerton Hotel. The relocation was the combined effort of a barge, two 500-tonne lifting capacity cranes and 20 engineers.

Directly behind the Merlion stands the imposing
Fullerton Hotel
, in prime position, overlooking the mouth of the river, formerly the General Post Office. Until 1873 this site was occupied by Fullerton Fort, built to defend the Singapore River from seaborne attack. Fullerton Building was erected in 1925-1928 by a firm of Shanghai- based architects. The heavy, almost Scottish, design seems a little out of place in tropical Singapore and, perhaps appropriately, the firm left the colony in the early 1930s after they had been struck off the architect's register for professional misconduct.

Cavenagh Bridge
, erected in 1869 by convict labourers (the last big project undertaken by convicts here), was originally called Edinburgh Bridge to commemorate the visit of the Duke of Edinburgh. It was later renamed Cavenagh in honour of Governor WO Cavenagh, the last India-appointed governor of Singapore. The bridge was constructed from steel shipped out from Glasgow (supplied by the same company that furnished the Telok Ayer Market) and was built to provide a link between the government offices on the north side of the river and Commercial Square to the south. However, it was apparently built without a great deal of thought to the tides:
tongkangs
, the lighters that transferred cargo from ships to the godowns (warehouses) at Boat Quay, and vice versa, could not pass under the bridge at high tide and would have to wait for the water level to drop. It became a footbridge in 1909 when the Anderson Bridge superseded it, but it still bears its old sign that forbids bullock carts, horses and heavy vehicles from crossing.

One of the more striking buildings on the river, for its sheer size, is the headquarters of the
United Overseas Bank
(UOB) backing onto Chulia Street, which towers to the maximum permissible height of 280 m (to avoid collision with low-flying aircraft). The octagonal tower is said to represent a pile of coins, although this seems simply too crass to believe. Below, in the open under-court area, is a large bronze statue by
Salvador DalĂ­
entitled Homage to Newton, cast in 1985. A bronze statue of a squat bird, by
Fernando Botero
, sits on the waterfront, while behind the UOB, on Chulia Street and next to the OCBC Centre, is a giant reclining figure by Henry Moore.

Boat Quay

Along the south bank of the river, facing Empress Place, is Boat Quay - commercially speaking, one of the most successful restoration projects of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). In the early 19th century this part of the river was swamp and the original roomah (
rumah
means house) rakits were rickety, stilted affairs, built over the mud. However, by the mid-1850s Boat Quay had emerged as the centre of Singapore River's commercial life, with three-quarters of the colony's trade being transferred through the godowns here. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 increased trade still further, but the development of the steamship around the same time threatened the commercial vitality of the area: vessels became too large to dock here. Merchants, worried that shipping companies would move their business to the new port of Tanjong Pagar which opened in 1852, began to use lighters, or
tongkangs
, to load and unload ships moored outside the river.
Tongkangs
, barges and sampans once littered the river, but they were cleared out to Marina Bay, or destroyed and scuttled, as part of the government's river-cleaning programme over a period of 10 years during the 1990s. Singapore River is now said to be pollution-free (although it only takes a quick glance to see that this is blatantly untrue), but what it gained in cleanliness it has lost - some would argue - in aesthetics.

With technological advances threatening to undermine Boat Quay's vitality, it is perplexing that the area's merchants didn't sell up and move on. One popular explanation is that the curve of the river made it look like the belly of a carp - a sure indicator of commercial success according to Chinese folk wisdom. The wealthier the merchant the higher their godowns were constructed, giving the frontage an attractively uneven appearance. By the time the URA announced its conservation plans in 1986, Boat Quay had fallen on hard times. The original inhabitants were encouraged to leave, the shophouses and godowns were restored and renovated, and a new set of owners moved in. The strip now provides a great choice of drinking holes and restaurants for Singapore's upwardly mobile young, expats and tourists alike, although the area's hipness has faded in recent years and is predominantly patronised by tourists only.

Elgin Bridge
marks the upriver end of Boat Quay. The bridge was built in 1929 to link the community of Chinese merchants settled on the south side of the
river with the Indian traders of the High Street on the north side, and was named after Lord Elgin, governor-general of India. It is, in fact, the fifth bridge to be built on this site. The first was constructed in 1819 and was the only bridge across the river at that time. Note the roundels depicting the Singapore lion, which are under a palm tree on the bases of each cast iron lamp at either end of the bridge. They were designed by Cavalieri Rodolofo Nolli.

Clarke Quay

Further upriver, the newly hip Clarke Quay has also been renovated at great expense and is lined with colourful shops, bars and restaurants that are particularly popular with the large expat crowd and Singapore's young and trendy elite. At night Clarke Quay is lit up like a perpetual Christmas tree shaded by giant rainproof mushrooms - it's worth checking out just
for the spectacle. A further stop up the river takes you to the forest of plush hotels around
Robertson Quay - trendy, but somehow quieter, more relaxed and in tune with the wine bar and bistro lovers. This was once godown country - in colonial days, the streets around the warehouses would have been bustling with coolies. It is now a pleasant pedestrian area, with 150-odd shops, restaurants and bars. Clarke Quay has a slightly different feel to Boat Quay; while the latter consists of individual enterprises, the former is controlled by a single company that keeps close tabs on which shops and food outlets open. The atmosphere is more contrived, more managed and controlled. In the pedestrian lanes, overpriced hawker stalls and touristy knick-knack carts set up from lunchtime onwards, selling all manner of goods that people could do without. Despite this, it is still a lot of fun, especially at night, and unlike Boat Quay it is possible to snack from stalls while wandering the
alleys of the area.

It is also the site of Singapore's first bungee jump, the
G-Max
, www.gmax.com.sg
. Daredevils are strapped into a chair to be launched 60 m in the air at 200 km per hour. The screams can be heard from across the river. Next to the G-Max is the
GX-5
 offering punters the chance to fly across the Singapore River at over 100 km per hour.

A good way of seeing the sights along Singapore River is on a
Riverboat Cruise
, www.rivercruise.com.sg,
which can be taken from Clarke Quay or Boat Quay. A rather banal recorded commentary points out the godowns, shophouses, government buildings and skyscrapers lining the riverbank.

Riverside Point

Spanning the river at Clarke Quay is a pedestrian bridge,
Read Bridge
, erected in the 1880s and named after a famous businessman of the day. The antique lamps have been added to a structure which, when it was built, looked more modern than it does now. Read Bridge leads to
Riverside Point
, an arcade of upmarket shops and restaurants.

Across Merchant Road via an aerial walkway is yet another shopping centre-cum- restaurant complex -
Riverside Village
- with its component parts,
Merchant Square
and
Central Mall
. This was reputedly once a centre of prostitution and racketeering, which is hard to believe now that fornication and fraud have given way to fusion cuisine and fashion. At the northwest corner of the complex is the attractive
Tan Si Chong Su Temple
, which has successfully resisted attempts at modernization. The temple was built in 1876 as an ancestral temple and assembly hall of the Hokkien Tan clan. The money was donated by Tan Kim Cheng (1829-1892) and Tan Beng Swee (1828-1884), sons of the wealthy philanthropist Tan Tock Seng. The temple faces the Singapore River - as feng shui (geomancy) dictates - and it is particularly rich in carvings and other decoration. The series of two courtyards and two altar halls symbolizes li, the admired characteristic of humbling oneself in deference to others. The dragon-entwined columns, round windows and granite panels are comparatively unusual. Above the main altar table are four Chinese characters that translate as 'Help the world and the people'.

Financial centre

Shenton Way
(Singapore's equivalent of Wall Street),
Raffles Place
,
Robinson Road
and
Cecil Street
, all packed tight with skyscrapers, form the financial heart of modern Singapore. These streets contain most of the buildings that give the city its distinctive skyline and it is best seen from the
Benjamin Sheares Bridge
or from the boat coming back from Batam Island. The first foreign institutions to arrive on the island still occupy the prime sites: the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation and Standard Chartered Bank. A short walk away down Philip Street is the small
Wak Hai Cheng Bio Temple
, built in 1826, looking particularly diminutive against the buildings around it. The name means 'Guangdong Province Calm Sea Temple' and the purpose is pretty clear: to ensure that Chinese immigrants making the voyage through the dangerous South China Seas arrived safely. The two key gods depicted here are Xuan Tien Shang Di (the Heavenly Father) in the right-hand hall and Tien Hou (the Heavenly Mother) in the left. Tien Hou (Tin Hau) is a particular favourite of sailors. The figures on the roof are extremely vivid and so is some of the carving inside.

Another piece of old Singapore amidst the new is the
Lau Pa Sat Festival Market
, once known as Telok Ayer, between Robinson Road and Raffles Quay. This was the first municipal market in Singapore. The first market here was commissioned by Stamford Raffles in 1822, but the present structure was designed by James MacRitchie and built in cast-iron shipped out from a foundry in Glasgow in 1894. (The same foundry cast the iron for Cavenagh Bridge.) It is said to be the last remaining Victorian cast-iron structure in Southeast Asia and was declared a national monument in 1973, but was dismantled in 1985 to make way for the MRT, before being rebuilt. It is now a thriving food centre.

Marina Bay and the Integrated Resorts

At the time of research the Singapore skyline was changing dramatically as the three Integrated Resorts were being constructed, due for completion in 2010. The resorts will house Singapore's first ever casinos, the world's largest aquarium and thousands of hotel rooms and shopping opportunities. Despite the creation of an estimated 35,000 jobs for Singaporeans, there are grave concerns by activist groups about how the casinos will affect Singaporean society as a whole, with fears of an upsurge of gambling-related crime.

The Marina Barrage

Completed in 2008, this is an impressive 350 m-long dam built across the Marina Channel between Marina South and Marina East. This award-winning project created Singapore's 15th reservoir, forming the new downtown Marina Reservoir out of the Kallang Basin. The dam is made up of nine gates to block the tide. Each 30m-long gate has a pump capable of pumping out the equivalent volume of water per minute as an Olympic swimming pool. There is an
information centre
 where tours can be arranged. Kids - and adults who feel like cooling off - will love the water play area with its fountains and paddling pools. To get there, hop on an MRT to Marina Bay where there are free shutte buses going to the barrage.

Cementing Singapore's reputation as the 'Garden City',
Gardens By The Bay
, www.gardensbythebay.org.sg
, is a national parks project that will house three distinctive gardens at Marina South. The first phase is due to open in 2011 and should be quite spectacular.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
Products in this Region

Southeast Asia Handbook

Southeast Asia is vast and the variety and scope of what's on offer is truly mind-boggling. Whether...

Malaysia & Singapore

Traversing the South China Sea, guiding travellers from the giddy heights of Kuala Lumpur to the...

SIngapore PopOut Map

Explore the splendid city of Singapore with the help of this genuinely pocket-sized map. Small in...
PDF Downloads

  No PDFs currently available

Digital Products

Available NOW!
Read more...