In 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in Singapore and discovered that the area surrounding the Singapore River was swampy and crowded with floating settlements and wooden huts. Soon after, he embarked on Singapore’s first land reclamation project by taking a small hill from present day Raffles Place, making the area south of the river a Chinese settlement and reserving the area north of the river for government buildings and homes for government officials.
Boat Quay became an exceptionally successful port and was integral in Singapore’s economic activities, in part because of its free port status. A second harbor was built at Tanjong Pagar to handle the increasing traffic. However, Boat Quay still received more than half of all shipping in the Port of Singapore because of the opening of the Suez Canal which led to steamships using the port. From the late 1800s until World War 2, there would be over 100,000 people living and working along the Singapore River.
In the 1960s, Boat Quay saw a significant drop in usage as mechanization took over the role of bumboats (small wooden boats). The opening of a high-tech cargo center in Pasir Panjang was the death knell for trade along Boat Quay. By this point, the rivers were heavily polluted and the Singapore government embarked on a decade-long Clean Rivers project. In the mid-1980s, they decided to conserve the buildings and transform the Quayside into an entertainment hub.
These days, the only boats that you will see on the Singapore River are the bumboats that run tours and serve as river taxis. The old shophouses and warehouses are now home to popular restaurants, bars and other entertainment venues that are frequented by the professionals that work in the CBD area, and tourists. Their colorful facades serve as a reminder to the importance of Boat Quay in Singapore’s history.
Boat Quay, Singapore, 049868