Clarke Quay

Singapore Infopedia


Clarke Quay is located along the Singapore River. It forms part of the Singapore River precinct together with Boat Quay and Robertson Quay.From the early 1800s, Clarke Quay served as a dock for the loading and unloading of cargoes for the godowns (warehouses) and commercial houses situated along the Singapore River.After the gradual relocation of port activities to Keppel Harbour and other areas from the mid-1800s and the cleanup of the river in the early 1980s,3 Clarke Quay fell into a state of decline before being designated a heritage conservation area in 1989. It was subsequently redeveloped into a commercial and entertainment district.4

Early history
Clarke Quay is named after Sir Andrew Clarke, Governor of the Straits Settlements from 1824 to 1902. He is noted for having presided over the signing of the Pangkor Treaty (1874), which established the system of British resident advisors at the courts of the Malay sultans.5

The history of Clarke Quay is tied to that of the Singapore River, once a major transshipment zone and a conduit for trade. There were many godowns, commercial houses, shophouses and even a dock located along the river in the Clarke Quay area in the early years of Singapore’s history. Coolies (labourers) manually unloaded cargo from the tongkangs and twakows (boats) and moved them to the godowns for storage and distribution.The shophouses were two to three stories high and typically had coolies and working class families living on the upper floors, while the ground floor units were used for shops and trading offices.7 

Among the key Chinese businessmen of that time who located their godowns in Clarke Quay were Hoo Ah Kay (also known as Whampoa), Lim Teck Lee and Tan Yeok Nee. Joseph Pierre Bastiani, a Corsican businessman, was known to have operated a pineapple cannery in the area during the late 19th century.8

The oldest building in Clarke Quay is the River House, which is one of two surviving traditional Chinese mansions in Singapore – the other being the house of Tan Yeok Nee located at the corner of Penang Road and Clemenceau Avenue.9 Constructed in the 1880s, the mansion has been used as a residence and a godown for gambier and other commodities. In 1993, the building was restored and turned into a restaurant, with the restoration efforts receiving the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) Architectural Heritage Award.10

Before its redevelopment, Clarke Quay was colloquially known in the Teochew dialect as Cha Jung Tau (“harbour for ships carrying firewood”), and was together with Boat Quay, an important location for Chinese opera performances and street storytelling sessions.11

Conservation and sale of site
Following the relocation of shipping activity to Keppel Harbour and other areas, and the cleanup of the Singapore River, the government drew up the Singapore River Concept Plan in 1985. The plan, driven by the need to diversify Singapore's tourism appeal and the preservation of heritage areas,12 identified Clarke Quay to be re-adapted into a “festival village” of retail and entertainment outlets.13 Towards this end, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) gazetted Clarke Quay area as a heritage conservation district and launched a Sale of Sites Programme in 1989 to open the area up for private development.14

Although potential investors showed a fair amount of interest in the Clarke Quay Land Sale Programme, only three bids were placed during the sale period from January to July 1989.15 This was the result of URA’s decision to tender the area as a single site to ensure coherence in site development and better coordination between URA and the developer.16 Clarke Quay's redevelopment by a single developer was in contrast to the approach taken with neighbouring Boat Quay, where redevelopment was under the charge of individual landlords.17

The tender was awarded to DBS Land, through its subsidiary Real Estate Holdings. The company was also concurrently involved in the restoration of Raffles Hotel and a number of shophouses at Tanjong Pagar. DBS Land had made a bid of S$54 million for the site.18 According to a URA spokesman, the company won due to its “highest land price, superior design and skill in the adaptive re-use of historic buildings.”19 The project mainly involved the restoration of five blocks of 60 shophouses and godowns (with the requirement that facades and roof designs be maintained), the construction of new buildings, the creation of a promenade and the pedestrianisation of the site.20

The conservation project was considered to be the biggest and most ambitious at that time. Not only did it cover an area of 21,400 sq m, the project cost DBS Land a total of S$186 million.21 The redevelopment won the company the Best ASEAN Conservation Effort award at the eighth ASEAN Tourism Association (ASEANTA) awards.22


When Clarke Quay reopened in November 1993,23 it was touted as a family-friendly attraction with more than 170 retail shops, 17 food and beverage outlets and a S$25-million adventure ride that included heritage elements from Singapore's past.24 

To evoke the past and create a nostalgic atmosphere, the streets were lined with 80 gaslights that were manually lit every evening. There were also other reminders of the past, such as river cruises and tongkangs retained as floating dining platforms.25 Sights and attractions at Clarke Quay included wandering minstrels and street performances, with the Read Bridge occasionally doubling up as a performing stage for buskers, just as Teochew storytellers used to entertain residents in the past.26  

In the subsequent years, a number of notable tenants moved into Clarke Quay. A popular Sunday flea market selling second-hand items, knick knacks and antiques was set up in 1994, and in that same year, Singapore’s first virtual reality ride, Reality Rocket, was launched in Clarke Quay.27 In 1995, the famous Satay Club that had its beginnings early in the 1940s also found its way to Clarke Quay after it vacated its premises at the Esplanade, which was then being developed as Singapore’s prime location for the arts.28 Since its redevelopment, Clarke Quay has hosted many events, including the Mid-Autumn by the River celebration,29 the annual Singapore Food Festival30 and the Singapore Million Dollar Duck Race.31

The redevelopment of Clarke Quay increased its commercial viability and made it a livelier place. However, it also attracted criticism for eroding the identity of the area and turning it into a generic tourist zone, with critics noting that "the "carnival and festival village" themes have little to do with the working history of Clarke Quay".32

While hopes were high for the viability of the revamped Clarke Quay, the project was not a commercial success. Analysts had predicted an annual turnover of up to S$45 million, but Clarke Quay's turnover in 1994 was just S$16 million, with an accumulated loss of S$4.42 million.33 The adventure ride closed in the mid-1990s, and the fall in the number of visitors was attributed to reasons such as Clarke Quay's relative inaccessibility, the lack of a coherent identity with its mishmash of tenants and visitors shunning the area when weather conditions were unfavourable.34

A second revamp
In 2000, Clarke Quay underwent a change in management when DBS Land merged with Pidemco Land to form CapitaLand.35 In 2003, CapitaLand hired British architectural firm Alsop Architects to refresh Clarke Quay's image and infrastructure and revitalise the district.36

The makeover plan involved improvements to Clarke Quay’s infrastructure and the quality of its nightlife by overhauling the line-up of tenants to cater to the tastes of young urban professionals. Marking a shift away from Clarke Quay’s previous family-oriented incarnation, French cabaret Crazy Horse Paris as well as nightclubs such as Attica and London’s Ministry of Sound, were brought into Clarke Quay and given 24-hour operating licenses.37 

The other aspect of Clarke Quay’s revamp involved an S$80-million infrastructural upgrade to enable visitors to enjoy the site regardless of weather conditions. This involved the construction of a series of pod-like dining platforms by the riverside, and the installation of a number of silent fans and towering overhead canopies along Clarke Quay’s main walkways.38

After these changes were implemented, Clarke Quay saw an improvement in visitor traffic and business.39 However, the aesthetic changes to Clarke Quay wrought by the redevelopment attracted criticisms from members of the public, who felt that the post-modern designs of the canopies and dining platforms detracted from the historic feel of Clarke Quay.40

New developments
he revamp increased visitor traffic to Clarke Quay, aided by the completion of a Mass Rapid Transit station in mid-2003.41 The Central mall, across the river from shophouses and godowns, was developed by Far East Organization and opened in January 2007.42 In 2011, CapitaLand spent more than S$1 million to restore the last two tongkangs remaining on the Singapore River. They were built as unmotorised cargo boats in 1968 and 1972, and had been used as floating restaurants since 1993.43

In 2012, Clarke Quay received about one million visitors per month. Restaurants and eateries occupied about 60 percent of its space, while another 30 percent was leased to entertainment outlets with offices taking up the remaining 10 percent. That year, CapitaLand announced a new S$15.6 million extension to Clarke Quay, with a new frontage on River Valley Road and more than 15 new dining and entertainment options.44 The extension and renovations were completed in January 2013.45

Alex Chow

1. Heng Chye Kiang and Vivienne Chan, “The "Night Zone" Storyline: Boat Quay, Clarke Quay and Robertson Quay,” Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review 11, no. 2 (Spring 2000): 44 (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website) 
2. Heng and Chan, “‘Night Zone’ Storyline,” 42.
3. Heng and Chan, “‘Night Zone’ Storyline,” 43.
4. Jon Lang, Urban Design: A Typology of Procedures and Products (Oxford: Elsiever/Architectural Press, 2005), 174. (Call no. RART 711.4 LAN)
5. Dhoraisingam S. Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage: Through Places of Historical Interest (Singapore: Elixir Consultancy Service, 1991), 68. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SAM-[HIS])
6. Chan Kwee Sung, “Remembering a River's Heyday,” Straits Times, 13 November 2000. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
7. Lang, Urban Design, 174.
8. “On the Heritage Trail,” Today, 28 March 2002, 33. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Chwee Lye Low, “Singapore River: Six Strategies for Sustainability,” in In T. C. Wong, B. Yuen & C. Goldblum (Eds.), Spatial Planning for a Sustainable Singapore, ed. Tai-Chee Wong, Belinda Yuen and Charles Goldblum (Dordrecht: Springer, 2008), 87–88. (Call no. RSING 307.1216095957 SPA)
10. Chwee, “Six Strategies for Sustainability,” 87–88.
11. Tong Soon Lee, Chinese Street Opera in Singapore (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 118–9. (Call no. RSING 782.1095957 LEE)
12. Heng and Chan, “‘Night Zone’ Storyline,” 44.
13. Chwee, “Six Strategies for Sustainability,” 87–88.
14. Chwee, “Six Strategies for Sustainability,” 87.
15. Lee Han Shih, “Clarke Quay Bid Enters Final Phase,” Business Times, 31 August 1989, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Caroline Chan, “Clarke Quay Land Parcels Attract Only Three Bids,” Straits Times, 7 July 1989, 44. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Heng and Chan, “‘Night Zone’ Storyline,” 46.
18. Lee, “Clarke Quay Bid Enters Final Phase”; “DBS Land to Set Up New Firm for Clarke Quay Project,” Straits Times, 18 October 1989, 39. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Peter Sung, “The Agreement Signing Ceremony for the Clarke Quay Conservation Area, speech, Bras Basah Room, 4th Level, Westin Stamford, 22 January 1990, transcript, Ministry of Communications and Information (1985–1990). (From National Archives of Singapore document no. sp19900122s)
20. Lang, Urban Design, 177.
21. “Clarke Quay Wins Award for Conservation,” Straits Times, 10 January 1994, 27; Chan, “Clarke Quay Land Parcels Attract Only Three Bids.” 
22. “Clarke Quay Wins Award for Conservation.”
23. Geraldine Kan, “New Attraction Clarke Quay Pulls in Big Crowds Daily,” Straits Times, 11 December 1993, 27. (From NewspaperSG)
24. “Page 6 Advertisements Column 1,” Straits Times, 7 April 1993, 6 (From NewspaperSG); Heng and Chan, “‘Night Zone’ Storyline,” 46.
25. Chwee, “Six Strategies for Sustainability,” 88.
26. Wan Meng Hao and Jacqueline Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2009), 15. (Call no. RSING 959.57 WAN-[HIS])
27. “Virtual Reality at Clarke Quay,” Straits Times, 16 July 1994, 48. (From NewspaperSG)
28. “Satay Club over the Years...,” Straits Times, 4 June 2003, 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. “Giant Lantern to Light River,” Straits Times, 28 September 2001, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Magdalene Lum, “Get Set for S'pore Food Festival,” Straits Times, 26 June 1994, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
31. “These Ducks Raised $1 Million,” Straits Times, 3 December 2001, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
32. Heng and Chan, “‘Night Zone’ Storyline,” 46.
33. Karl Ho, “The Quay to Success,” Straits Times, 22 January 2005, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
34. Ho, “Quay to Success.”
35. “Corporate Timeline,” Capitaland, n.d.
36. Krist Boo, “‘Worn Out’ Clark Quay to Get New Look,” Straits Times, 11 February 2003, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
37. Ho, “Quay to Success”; Zul Othman, “Spark Quay,” Today, 26 November 2005, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
38. Krist Boo, “The Quay to Being COOL,” Straits Times, 24 October 2005, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
39. Boo, “Quay to Being COOL.” 
40. Krist Boo, “Why Get Rid of Unique Traditional Look of Clarke Quay? Straits Times, 3 October 2005, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
41. Clara Chow, “Clarke Quay: The Comeback Kid,” Edge Singapore, 16 May 2005. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
42. “Page 5 Advertisements Column 1,” Today, 26 January 2007, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
43. Lee Siew Hua, “Tongkangs Reborn,” Straits Times, 26 November 2011, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
44. Ng Kai Ling, “Clarke Quay: Revamp Draws Visitors, Revenue,” Straits Times, 21 August 2013, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
45. Melissa Kok, “Quay of Life,” Straits Times, 21 March 2013, 2. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as of 8 September2014 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic. 

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