Singapore Infopedia


Bumboats, also known as lighters, are large boats or sea-going barges. They were used in the Malay Archipelago for the loading and unloading of goods, or for the transportation of cargoes, supplies and goods from ship to shore and vice versa.1 In Singapore, bumboats are also called twakow or tongkang. They were once used extensively for transport purposes along the Singapore River, Rochor and Kallang rivers, and also along the coast of the mainland and other nearby islands.2

Sometimes called junk-boats, bumboats in Asia are adapted variations of the original wooden European-style lighters.3 Before the arrival of motor power, some bumboats had sails, while others were navigated by oars or guided by long poles up the rivers.4 For more than 150 years, these lighters were vital to the commercial activity on the Singapore River. When the river was cleared as part of the river clean-up campaign in 1983, the lighters were shifted to Pasir Panjang.5

The bumboat is typically a flat-bottomed barge mainly used to transport goods. These general-purpose cargo boats measure approximately 50 to 90 ft from stem head to stern post, with a beam of 16 to 23 ft, and a depth amidships of 8 to 10 ft.6 The front of these boats are often painted with “eyes”, so as to enable them, metaphorically, to see danger ahead.7 Old rubber tyres fixed to the sides of these boats are used as shock absorbers in case of collision with the quay, jetty or other boats.8

Drawings and design specifications of different bumboats can be seen in the article by C. A. Gibson-Hill (Dr) titled “Tongkang and Lighter Matters”, which was published in the Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1952.9


Tongkang, which means “bumboat” or “lighter” in Malay, is also known as the Timber Tongkang. It was built only in Singapore, as well as Kota Tinggi and Mersing in southeast Johore.10 Operated by Chinese Hokkiens and Indians, these boats plied mainly inter-island routes as they are bigger in size. Before bridges were built across the Singapore River, the large tongkang could enter Boat Quay to load and unload goods. However, when bridges were built, the decks were too low for the tongkang to pass beneath. Consequently, these lighters had to moor at the Kallang and Rochor rivers, or the city’s waterfront.11

Twakow, which means “bumboat” or “broad-beamed goods lighters” in Teochew and Hokkien, is an original Singapore product with a Chinese hull developed by the local Chinese.12 Owned and operated by Hokkiens and Teochews who lived along the banks of the Singapore River, these “goods ferries” were the link between ships anchored out at sea and warehouses built along the river banks.13 The Hokkien twakow were the most colourful, with boat-heads painted bright red, green and white, while the Teochew twakow were red in colour.14 These Chinese lighters once dominated traffic on the Singapore River.

Boat dwellers

Many boatmen, especially those with no homes, used to live in the bumboats.15

Until the 1860s or 1870s, the north bank of Boat Quay was a centre for boat building and repair.16 Stephen Hallpike’s boatyard was a large enterprise there.17 In the late 19th century, there were Chinese-owned boatyards further upstream towards the source of the Singapore River. Artisans had also built and repaired boats there on a small scale for over a century.18

River transport
Since the river clean-up campaign in 1983, bumboats have been used as river-taxis by licensed operators to ferry passengers along the Singapore River for sightseeing and pleasure rides up and down this historic waterway.19 Pickup and disembarkation points include Boat Quay and Clarke Quay.20

Variant names
Bumboot (in Lower German, where bum means “tree” and boot means “boat”).21
Lihtan (a 15th century Anglo-Saxon word which means “to relieve of a weight”).22
Lichter (a Dutch word which means “lighter” – to make lighter or unload).23
Thon-kin (Burmese name for tongkang or anglicised as Tonkin).24
Sekochi or sekoci (Malay name for “small trading boat”, and correct name for tongkang).25


Vernon Cornelius-Takahama

1. C. A. Gibson-Hill, Tongkang and Lighter Matters (Singapore: Malayan Branch, Royal Asiatic Society, 1952), 84 (Call no. RCLOS 623.8245 GIB); Joan Hon, Tidal Fortunes: A Story of Change: The Singapore River and Kallang Basin (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1990), 119. (Call no. RSING 959.57 HON-[HIS])
2. Oral History Department, Singapore, Singapore Lifeline: The River and Its People (Singapore: Times Books International, 1986), 68, 70. (Call no. RSING 779.995957 SIN)
3. Gibson-Hill, Tongkang and Lighter Matters, 87, 89.
4. Oral History Department, Singapore, Singapore Lifeline, 83–84.
5. Hon, Tidal Fortunes, 89–90.
6. Gibson-Hill, Tongkang and Lighter Matters, 87, 89.
7. Linda Berry, Singapore’s River: A Living Legacy (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 1982), 49, 76–77. (Call no. RSING 959.57.19 BER-[HIS])
8. Hon, Tidal Fortunes, 131.
9. Gibson-Hill, Tongkang and Lighter Matters, 84–110.
10. Gibson-Hill, Tongkang and Lighter Matters, 87; Awang Sudjai Hairul and Yusoff, eds., “Tongkang,” in Kamus Lengkap (Petaling Jaya: Pustaka Zaman, 1977), 1182. (Call no. Malay R 499.230321 KAM-[DIC])
11. Oral History Department, Singapore, Singapore Lifeline, 68.
12. Gibson-Hill, Tongkang and Lighter Matters, 89; Oral History Department, Singapore, Singapore Lifeline, 69.
13. Hon, Tidal Fortunes, 119.
14. Oral History Department, Singapore, Singapore Lifeline, 69.
15. Oral History Department, Singapore, Singapore Lifeline, 88.
16. Port of Singapore Authority, Singapore, Singapore: Portrait of a Port: A Pictorial History of the Port and Harbour of Singapore 1819–1984 (Singapore: MPH Magazines, 1984), 11. (Call no. RSING 779.93871095957 SIN)
17. Hon, Tidal Fortunes, 29.
18. Oral History Department, Singapore, Singapore Lifeline, 66.
19. Bumboats along The Singapore River, 20th Century, photograph, National Museum of Singapore Collection, National Heritage Board.
20. Neo Chai Chin, “River Taxi Services Scaled Back as One Operator Shuts Down,” Today, 8 January 2016, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Merriam-Webster, “Bumboat,” accessed 30 December 2016.
23. Merriam-Webster, “Lighter,” accessed 30 December 2016.
24. Gibson-Hill, Tongkang and Lighter Matters, 84.
25. Gibson-Hill, Tongkang and Lighter Matters, 89–90; Awang Sudjai Hairul and Yusoff Khan, eds, “Sekoci,” Kamus Lengkap (Petaling Jaya: Pustaka Zaman, 1977), 979, 1182. (Call no. Malay R 499.230321 KAM-[DIC])

Further resources
Maya Jayapal, Old Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1992), 31. (Call no. RSING 959.57 JAY-[HIS])

“On a Bum-Boat Trip in Singapore,” Goodwood Journal 3rd Qtr., (1978): 5, 11, 13, 39. (Call no. RCLOS 052 GHCGJ)

The information in this article is valid as at June 2019 and correct as far as we are able to 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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