5 Things You Didn't Know About Singapore - Secrets of Singapore River

For two centuries, the Singapore River has played a significant role. From its early beginnings in 1819 when the mysterious Singapore Stone was discovered, to its bustling days as a trading port and to the river’s redevelopment in the 1980s. Today, it has been transformed into a thriving entertainment and dining hub, with the old warehouses and bumboats refurbished into trendy restaurants and sightseeing boats.

If only the Singapore River could speak, what incredible stories would it tell?

Let’s go on a Singapore Rediscover journey and discover the hidden gems of Singapore. Here are 5 Things You Didn’t Know About The Singapore River!

1. Cavenagh Bridge Is The Oldest Bridge Along The Singapore River

When you walk along the southern bank of the Singapore River around the Boat Quay area, you would have probably seen a beautiful suspension bridge in white. Named after Major General Orfeur Cavenagh, who was the Governor of the Straits Settlements from 1859 to 1867, the Cavenagh Bridge is the oldest bridge along the Singapore River that still stands in its original form!

Built in 1869 to provide a linkage between the north and south banks of the Singapore River, the Cavenagh Bridge is also the first suspension bridge in Singapore made of steel. Before this bridge was constructed, people could only move between the two districts via a long detour or by paying for a boat ride across the river.

It was originally designed to withstand a load four times its own weight. Take a closer look and you can see the numerous steel rivets and elaborate suspension struts that were used in its construction back then. However, due to the flourishing trade on the Singapore River in the late 1880s, the bridge was unable to cope with the increasing load. As a result, the Cavenagh Bridge was then converted into a pedestrian bridge.

Today, you can still see the official police sign at both ends of the bridge that prohibits the use of vehicles that weighed more than 3 cwt (152 kilograms), and the crossing of cattle and horses. A sign that has got to be baffling to the modern generation but speaks volumes about the history of the Singapore River.

Fun Fact Singapore: The Cavenagh Bridge was built in Glasgow, shipped to Singapore in parts and assembled painstakingly by Indian convict labourers.

2. The Singapore River Was Once The Territory Of Secret Societies

Looking at today’s peaceful meandering Singapore River lined with famous restaurants and trendy watering holes, one would find it hard to imagine that Chinese secret societies were rampant along the river banks during the 19th century.

Gang members would approach Chinese immigrants fresh off the boats and offer friendship, assistance and a sense of belonging. Due to their strong political and economic influences, they would also provide a much-needed network to getting jobs here in the early days of colonial Singapore. In their heydays, these secret societies were immensely powerful. Not only do they collect protection money from businesses, they also operated gambling dens, brothels and opium houses. At the same time, they manage lucrative legitimate businesses like pepper and gambier farming.

These vices, especially opium smoking, affected the growth of the economy and also sent many immigrants into a downward spiral of despair. For the Chinese coolies in Singapore, opium was a form of escape from the harsh realities of life. This addiction left them in huge debts and with little money remaining to send back to their families.

Chinese coolies working at Boat Quay. Photo source: Singapore Philatelic Museum, Donated by Prof Cheah Jin Seng.
Chinese coolies working at Boat Quay. Photo source: Singapore Philatelic Museum, donated by Prof Cheah Jin Seng.

As their power grew, riots and social disorder happened as rival gangs would clash. Although they played a beneficial role to helping the early immigrants, the colonial government was forced to intervene in order to gain back control of society. Secret societies were outlawed in 1889 but their presence continued well into the 20th century.

This forgotten secret of Singapore holds great relevance to Singapore’s history and is probably only remembered by the older generation now.

Fun Fact Singapore: Secret society members often carry around membership certificates or coin tokens for identification purposes, which sometimes also reflect their status within the gang’s hierarchy. Just like business cards!

3. The Singapore River Used To Be Home To Two Popular Hawker Centres

The hawker culture in Singapore is our unique identity and we have often heard the older generation bemoan the loss of older hawker centres. Along the Singapore River, there used to two popular hawker centres that also saw their fates come to an end as a result of economic development.

The old Boat Quay Food Centre. Photo source: Ministry of Information and the Arts, National Archives of Singapore
The old Boat Quay Food Centre. Photo source: Ministry of Information and the Arts, National Archives of Singapore

The Boat Quay Food Centre and Empress Place Food Centre, both built in 1973, were located on opposite banks of the Singapore River. Boat Quay Food Centre occupied the site that was beside Fullerton Hotel (previously the General Post Office) and Empress Place Food Centre was located near Victoria Theatre.

They were part of Singapore’s clean up scheme to clear food hawkers off the streets and improve hygiene levels. And, it was a success. These two hawker centres offered a huge variety of delicious food at cheap prices, and a much cleaner environment to dine at. The scenic waterfront view also attributed to its popularity with office workers nearby, including families and dating couples during the weekends.

Empress Place Food Centre. Ministry of Information and the Arts, National Archives of Singapore
Empress Place Food Centre. Photo source: Ministry of Information and the Arts, National Archives of Singapore

In order to make way for the next phase of development in 1983, hawker stalls from both food centres were temporarily moved to Empress Place Transit Food Centre, which was eventually demolished as well. It was a sad event for many older Singaporeans who had many happy memories there. Fortunately, our strong hawker culture is still very much alive.

To pass on such valuable knowledge about our history to the next generation, one unique family activity to do in Singapore is to go on the Singapore River: Eat, Play, Love Walking Tour with expert local guides. In collaboration with Singapore River One, Monster Day Tours has created a unique experience to uncover hidden gems, indulge in yummy foods from award-winning restaurants and rekindle your love for our Singapore River!

Fun Fact Singapore: Built in 1923, People's Park Food Centre is considered to be one of Singapore's first hawker centres and it is still well-loved by the local people.

4. Clarke Quay Was A Major Dock For The Loading And Unloading Of Cargoes

Ask any young person where is the best nightlife in Singapore and the answer would most likely be Clarke Quay. Filled with music-thumping clubs and trendy bars, this entertainment area is even well-documented in travel blogs as a must-do activity in Singapore by party-loving tourists.

However, do you know that back in the early 1800s, Clarke Quay’s main activity was a dock that loaded and unloaded cargoes for warehouses situated along the Singapore River? Together with Boat Quay and Robertson Quay, these three quays played an integral role in the flourishing of Singapore’s trading and port industry.

Walk around Clarke Quay and you would see rows of shophouses that have been converted into fine-dining restaurants, dance clubs and even karaoke bars. These shophouses were once warehouses, trading offices and shopfronts, with the upper levels being the living quarters for the workers.

After the shipping activity was gradually relocated to Keppel Harbour, Clarke Quay underwent an overhaul and reopened in 1993 as a family-friendly attraction with retail shops, food and beverage outlets and a S$25-million adventure ride that included heritage elements from Singapore's past. There are some of us who would remember the Satay Club at Clarke Quay with fond memories. A Sunday flea market selling second-hand items and antiques was also popular with the locals.

Sadly, this redevelopment only lasted a short period as it incurred huge losses. A second revamp took place in 2000 and this time, it succeeded by catering more to the demands of young urban professionals.

Fun Fact Singapore: The Riverhouse at Clarke Quay is one of only two surviving traditional Chinese mansions in Singapore today!

5. Two Statues Of Sir Stamford Raffles Can Be Found Around The Singapore River

We locals always complain that there is nothing fun to do in Singapore but that is so not true. One unique thing to do in Singapore is to go on an exploration around the Singapore River and uncover its many treasures! There are plenty of top-rated museums, art sculptures and beautiful historical buildings here that will delight cultural enthusiasts.