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Boat Quay is a historical quay in Singapore which is situated upstream from the mouth of the Singapore River on its southern bank.

It was the busiest part of the old Port of Singapore, handling three-quarters of all shipping business during the 1860s. Because the south of the river here resembles the belly of a carp, which according to Chinese belief is where wealth and prosperity lay, many shophouses were built, crowded into the area.

Though serving aquatic trade is no longer Boat Quay's primary role, the shophouses on it have been carefully conserved and now house various bars, pubs and restaurants. Therefore, Boat Quay's social-economic role in the city has shifted away from that of trade and maritime commerce, and now leans towards more of a role accommodated for tourism and aesthetics for the commercial zone of which encloses the Singapore River. It is the soft front to the composolitian banking and financial sectors lying immediately behind it.

Boat Quay is also the name of the road along the quay, which has since been converted into a pedestrian mall.



File:Boat quay night 2009n.JPG

The quay and the Singapore skyline at night

Since the founding of modern Singapore in 1819, the Singapore River was the artery for much of the island's trade and economic activities. The south bank of the river, where most of the commerce took place, is known as Boat Quay.[1]

In the 1820s, the area was swampy and built over with raft houses occupied by local traders. It was reclaimed with earth taken from a small hill where Commercial Square, now Raffles Place, stands.

As early as 1822, Sir Stamford Raffles had already designated the area south of the river to be developed as a Chinese settlement. Boat Quay was completed in 1842 and the Chinese, mostly traders and labourers, settled there in large numbers. Conditions were squalid but Boat Quay flourished, rapidly exceeding in volume the trade on the north bank where the Europeans had their offices, houses and government buildings.

In the midst of Boat Quay were the trading offices of some of Singapore's leading towkay (Hokkien for business owners) and philanthropists, such as Tan Tock Seng and Tan Kim Seng. The level of activity on the river was an indicator of the island's economic status. In prosperous times, hundreds of bumboats would fight for limited berthing space. Goods were carried from ships anchored in the river, to the road by lighters and coolies. Traders bought and sold many items, from raw materials such as rubber, tin, and steel, to perishables such as rice and coffee, and many other manufactured goods.

Boat Quay was very resilient to change. Its role did not diminish even when a new harbour was built at Tanjong Pagar in 1852. On the contrary, it continued to grow, spurred on by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, when steamships started calling at the port of Singapore. In fact, during that period, three-quarters of Singapore's overall trading business was transacted from Boat Quay.

Its decline really began in the 1960s, as mechanisation and computerisation gradually usurped the bumboat's role in the shipping industry. In September 1983, the government opened a modern, high-tech cargo centre in Pasir Panjang. This led to the rapid demise of Boat Quay's river trade, as the highly mechanised container port replaced the laborious and hazardous lighter system. Therefore, during the mid-1980s, after all the trading companies had moved out and the lighters removed, Boat Quay was devoid of activity, with the river deserted.

Adaptive re-use of the historic buildings[]

File:Boat Quay 4, Dec 05.JPG

Since the 1990s, Boat Quay has been transformed into a pedestrian mall with restaurants, pubs, cafes and clubs.

The Singapore government cleaned-up the river in 1983 and moved the remaining shipping industry's lighters were moved to a new quay near Pasir Panjang. Therefore, the Boat Quay was deserted and unused from 1983 to 1989.[2]

In 1986, the Urban Redevelopment Authority announced plans to preserve Boat Quay as part of a master plan for conserving the whole of the Singapore River and its environs.

On 7 July 1989, an area encompassing South Bridge Road, Circular Road, Lorong Telok and North Canal Road was gazetted. The two- and three-storey shophouses in that area, with their characteristic five-foot way beneath projecting upper floors, were preserved and transformed into new businesses. The shophouses and godowns along the river bank were restored in the 1990s and are now bustling shops, restaurants and bars.

When the area became a conservation area in 1989, redevelopment began and by 1993 all historic shophouses were under reconstruction. The Singapore Urban Redevelopment Authority issued stringent guidelines for the restoration but did not provide cash grants or tax relief for conservation projects but waived some of the development charges, car parking requirements and car park deficiency charges.[2]

The historic shophouses could easily be re-used for modern businesses, such as restaurants, cafes, bars and small shops. The interior of the buildings could be modified with the new use in mind, in some cases using new non-traditional interior ornamentation, materials, and colours. For instance, the interior of the Opera Cafe at No. 40 Boat Quay was modified to create an ambiance similar to an opera stage-set. The ground floor of the Lim Family Shophouse at No. 58 Boat Quay was converted into a Japanese restaurant. The upper floor is used as a weekend flat for the Lim family, who lived in the building since 1908. The architect Mok Wei Wei created more open space by demolishing some of the original partition walls, but kept and restored the original teak floors, paint colour on the window frames, wooden balcony doors, and tile roofs. The historic blackwood furniture and art pieces were also restored and re-used.[2]

Historical names[]

File:Singa River Boat Quay in the mid-nineteenth century.jpg

Boat Quay during its heyday around 1865, when as many as 150 boats moored on the river, trading everything from rubber, tin and iron, to silk, porcelain, rice, opium, spices and coffee.[2]

Boat Quay is one of the early roads established when the Singapore River was the main port area of the colonial city. In the 19th century, the Chinese had several names for this road, referring to different sections of it:

  • tiam pang lo thau or "the place to go for sampans";
  • chap sa hang (十三行) or "the thirteen shops" (the part near Canton Street);
  • chap peh keng (十八间) or "the eighteen houses" (the part near Circular Road);
  • chui chu boi or "bathing house end";[2]
  • khoi ki or "steam bank";
  • bu ye tian (不夜天) or "place of ceaseless activity"; and
  • tiam pang lo thau (place to go for sampans)[2] or "sampan ghaut or landing-place" (referring to the lower part of Boat Quay near Purvis Creek).
  • cha chun tau (柴船头), meaning "jetty for boats carrying firewood" (the part around Read Bridge)
  • chap poet heng, meaning the eighteen houses[2]

Some of the quay's colloquial English names included:

  • suspension bridge Quay (after Cavenagh Bridge); and
  • "The Belly of the Carp" because of the shape of the river at this point.
File:Singapore Boat Quay.jpg

The Parliament House (left) and Empress Place Building (centre) along North Boat Quay Promenade, and The Fullerton Hotel (right) at Boat Quay at night


See also[]


  • National Heritage Board (2002), Singapore's 100 Historic Places, Archipelago Press, Template:ISBN
  • Victor R Savage, Brenda S A Yeoh (2003), Toponymics – A Study of Singapore Street Names, Eastern Universities Press, Template:ISBN

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