Boat Quay

Singapore Infopedia


Boat Quay, a river embankment on the south bank of the Singapore River,1 is one of the oldest and most historical areas in Singapore’s central region. For more than 150 years, warehouses (or godowns) thriving with economic activity lined the banks of north and south Boat Quay. Many of these original buildings have been preserved and are now places of entertainment.2


Skulls found along the Singapore River, as noted by Munshi Abdullah, point to pirate activity in the area, in fact, it was thought to be a pirate sanctuary. Close to the mouth of the river was a Malay village and further upstream was a floating settlement built by the Orang Laut (sea people). When the British established Singapore as a free port, large sailing ships and immigrants looking for work began to arrive.3

Boat Quay curves around the shoreline of the northern and southern side of the Singapore River. The original Chinese kampong (village) in Raffles’s 1822 Town Plan4 was sited here. Defining areas for business and trade, Raffles ordered that sand from the hill at Battery Road near Commercial Square (now Raffles Place)5 be used to fill the mangrove swamps on both banks of the Singapore River6 as they were spongy and not suitable for landing.7 This became Singapore’s first development project.8 Raffles was determined that only the higher and more respectable class of businessmen should occupy the Boat Quay areas, as evidenced by his letter of October 1822 to the Town Planning Committee, which stated that principal merchants should get top priority in land allocation in the area.9 Munshi Abdullah postulated that Raffles’s decision had been such as he thought that only the wealthy could afford to build proper houses in this commercial district; had Raffles given the land to poorer residents, its development may have been more haphazard.10

Several major business players were first established at Boat Quay, including Alexander Laurie Johnston (founder of Singapore’s first European trading house in 1820), Edward Boustead,11 Joseph Balestier,12 Alexander Guthrie,13 Yeo Kim Swee, Tan Kim Seng14 and Tan Tock Seng.15 

Boat Quay appeared in George Coleman’s 1836 Map of Singapore.16 By 1842, the land, dubbed Boat Quay, was developed17 with large numbers of Chinese traders and labourers settling in.18 The bulk of goods came from plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia, and godowns and warehouses were located all along Boat Quay.19 Chinese merchants built their own double-storeyed terrace homes there with private jetties for the easy loading and unloading of their goods.20

When the reclamation of Telok Ayer Bay prevented junks from anchoring at its shoreline, the economic importance of the river increased as it became an alternative route used for the transportation of goods.21 The shallow waters of the Singapore River, however, did not facilitate the entry of large Chinese junks (which could weigh as much as 700 tonnes). Thus, smaller lighters (also known as tongkang22 or bumboats) were used instead. At its peak, Boat Quay supported about 2,700 boatmen and 1,500 lighters (this was reduced to 600 boatmen and about 300 lighters in 1983).23

Business grew so quickly that by 1890, the river banks supported more than 100,000 people from the initial 1,000 in 1819 and 12,000 in 1822. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 contributed to increased trade at Boat Quay,24 despite the construction of New Harbour (today’s Keppel Harbour) at Tanjong Pagar in 185225 to cater to larger steamships involved in international trade. By then, three-quarters of all shipping activities in Singapore were conducted at Boat Quay.26

By the 1860s, Boat Quay had become a predominantly Chinese domain as European merchants moved away from Commercial Square due to congestion and the increasing use of New Harbour.27 Mechanisation resulted in the replacement of bumboats,28 which then led to the decline of Boat Quay as a harbour in the 1960s.29 

Locals came to call Boat Quay “Suspension Bridge Quay”, referring to Cavenagh Bridge that was built in 1867.30 At its widest point, the river is shaped like the belly of a carp – an auspicious symbol for business to the Chinese – thus earning it the nickname “the belly of the carp”.31 Its north bank (today's Empress Place) was set aside for the Europeans, who had their offices, houses and government buildings there.32 The south bank was set aside for the commercial sector and part of the designated area for the Chinese Village.33 

Today, towering buildings such as UOB Plaza, Chartered Bank Building, Bank of China Building and OCBC Centre, rather than warehouses, mark Boat Quay’s skyline. Bumboats and barges were banned since the Clean Rivers campaign34 (which started in September 1983 and cost $170 million),35 except for those that served as river taxis for tourists.36

In 1983, local entrepreneur and poet Goh Poh Seng proposed a $53 million conservation project in the “millionaire’s triangle” in Boat Quay (an area that reportedly had more millionaire-owners than any other plot of land of similar size in Singapore), which raised the ire of 108 landowners, who wanted to ensure that their rights over their property stayed protected.37

Conservation and development
Boat Quay was earmarked for conservation by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA)38 in 1986.39 The once busy Boat Quay Food Centre and Empress Place Food Centre, built in 1973,40 are now gone.

In 1989, the area around Boat Quay (and its 108 shophouses), were gazetted for conservation,41 while the river bank was developed into a pedestrian mall.42 Along with the restoration of shophouses along the river bank,43 restaurants and pubs in the area saw a boom in 1994 and 1995.44 However, poor business, fights45 and traffic congestion that arose from illegal parking,46 started to plague Boat Quay. By 2000, much of its business had drifted “up the river” to newer nightspots at Clarke Quay and Mohamed Sultan.47 In 2008, the Singapore Tourism Board and URA embarked on a major makeover of the Singapore River to improve pedestrian walkways with new lighting in the trees, sidewalks and landing points for river taxis.48

In 2016, following complaints of touting and a blocked view of the Singapore River due to tents erected by eateries, the outdoor dining areas at Boat Quay were revamped. URA, which funded this facelift, stated that the wide variety of tents used by eateries made the area look disorganised. Thus, the tents were replaced by uniform structures with retractable fabric canopies, and their overhead cables were moved underground. More open spaces with public seating were also added to offer visitors clear views of the Singapore River.49

Variant names
Chinese names 
Hokkien: Tiam Pang Lo Thau means “the place to go for sampans,50 sampan ghaut or landing place”51; Chap Sa Kang means “the 13 shops”52 or “the street of thirteen shops”.53 This is near Canton Street.; Chap Peh Keng means “the 18 houses” – a section near Circular Road;54 Chap Poet Keng (“street of 18 houses”);55 Chui Chu Boi means “bathing-house end”;56 Chwi Chu Boi (“bathing house end” – near Elgin Bridge where people used to bathe or swim).57 Kho Ki (also spelled as Khoi Ki)58 meaning “stream bank”59; Bu Ye Tian meaning “place of ceaseless activity”60; Lam Pang Lo Thau meaning “sampan ghaut or landing-place”.61

Cantonese: Sap-sam hong means “the 13 shops”. This is near Canton Street.; Sap-pat kan means “the 18 houses” – a section near Circular Road. 

Vernon Cornelius-Takahama

1. G. Uma Devi, et al., Singapore's 100 Historic Places (Singapore: Archipelago Press, 2002), 66. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS])
2. “Quay to a Good Time,” New Paper, 15 November 1994, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
3. “River's History Told in An Old Map," Straits Times, 27 July 1982, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Devi, et al., Singapore's 100 Historic Places, 66.
5. Ray Tyers and Siow Jin Hua, Ray Tyers' Singapore: Then & Now (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1993), 16–19. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS])
6. Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 41–43 (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA]); Singapore Chronicles (Hong Kong: Illustrated Magazine Pub, 1995), 189 (Call no. RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS]); Linda Berry, Singapore’s River: A Living Legacy (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 1982), 79–82, 85, 87–90. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BER-[HIS])
7. Berry, Singapore’s River, 79–82, 85, 87–90.
8. Singapore Chronicles, 189.
9. Joan Hon, Tidal Fortunes: A Story of ChangeThe Singapore River and Kallang Basin (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1990), 9–13, 50. (Call no. RSING 959.57 HON-[HIS])
10. Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 89. (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS])
11. Singapore Chronicles, 189.
12. “Mr. Joseph Balestier,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), 20 September 1899, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “Guthrie Enterprise,” Straits Times, 22 February 1971, 10 (From NewspaperSG); Berry, Singapore’s River, 79–82, 85, 87–90.
14. Singapore Chronicles, 189.
15. Devi, et al., Singapore's 100 Historic Places, 66.
16. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 41–43.
17. Singapore Chronicles, 189.
18. Devi, et al., Singapore's 100 Historic Places, 66.
19. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 41–43; Singapore Chronicles, 189.
20. Hon, Tidal Fortunes, 9–13, 50.
21. Hon, Tidal Fortunes, 9–13, 50.
22. Robert Powell, Living Legacy: Singapore`s Architectural Heritage Renewed (Singapore: Singapore Heritage Society, 1994), 48–49. (Call no. RSING 363.69095957 POW)
23. Singapore Chronicles, 189.
24. Singapore Chronicles, 189.
25. Devi, et al., Singapore's 100 Historic Places, 66.
26. Singapore Chronicles, 189; Powell, Living Legacy, 48–49.
27. Singapore Chronicles, 189.
28. “Photo Report on THE SINGAPORE HARBOUR BOARD,” Singapore Free Press, 9 October 1961, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
29. Devi, et al., Singapore's 100 Historic Places, 66.
30. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 41–43; Berry, Singapore’s River, 79–82, 85, 87–90.
31. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 41–43; Hon, Tidal Fortunes, 9–13, 50; Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers' Singapore, 16–19.
32. Devi, et al., Singapore's 100 Historic Places, 66.
33. Hon, Tidal Fortunes, 14.
34. “SEPTEMBER: Seetoh Kok Fye,” Straits Times, 1 February 1988, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
35. Lim Wei Chean, “Makeover to Add Night Buzz to S'pore River,” Straits Times, 1 March 2008, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
36. Tyers and Siow, Ray Tyers' Singapore, 16–19.
37. M. Gretchen, “Boat Quay's Businessman and Poet,” Straits Times, 8 May 1983, 1; Bertilla Pereira, “Decision Soon on Millionaire's Triangle,” Singapore Monitor, 30 June 1985, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
38. Devi, et al., Singapore's 100 Historic Places, 66.
39. Devi, et al., Singapore's 100 Historic Places, 66.
40. Hon, Tidal Fortunes, 9–13, 50.
41. Powell, Living Legacy, 48–49.
42. Singapore Chronicles, 189.
43. Devi, et al., Singapore's 100 Historic Places, 66.
44. Arti Mulchand, “Boat Quay Runs Dry on Business,” Straits Times, 15 October 2000, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
45. “Pub Strip Battles Its Image Woes,” Straits Times, 15 July 2001, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
46. “Illegal Parking Blitz,” New Paper, 29 September 1997, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
47. Mulchand, “Boat Quay Runs Dry on Business.” 
48. Lim, “Makeover to Add Night Buzz to S'pore River.”
49. Valerie Koh, “Boat Quay to Get S$5M Facelift,” Today, 30 April, 2015, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
50. Berry, Singapore’s River, 79–82, 85, 87–90.
51. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 41–43.
52. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 41–43.
53. Berry, Singapore’s River, 79–82, 85, 87–90.
54. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 41–43.
55. Berry, Singapore’s River, 79–82, 85, 87–90.
56. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 41–43.
57. Berry, Singapore’s River, 79–82, 85, 87–90.
58. Berry, Singapore’s River, 79–82, 85, 87–90.
59. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 41–43.
60. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 41–43.
61. Savage and Yeoh, Singapore Street Names, 41–43.

The information in this article is valid as at October 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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