Last weekend the urban sketchers of Singapore, which I am a member of, chose Boat Quay (a popular tourist destination!) – a river embankment that curves around the shoreline of the north and south sides of the Singapore River – as their sketching venue. Before I describe what met my eyes, let me take you back in time. Like hundred and fifty years back. By this time, swamp covered Singapore once infested with wild animals, dense forests, pirates, and the Malayan Temenggung had been ‘found’ by 38 year old Raffles (in 1918), it’s allegiance shifted to the crown and it’s fate as a free trading post and deep water harbour for British merchant fleets in the Mallacca Straits had been sealed.
The settlement had developed considerably – forests had been cleared, hills flattenned, muddy pools and swampy ground levelled off, lands auctioned to build houses, business and residential quarters laid out, fundamental laws such as prohibition of gambling put down. Palatial hotels and European bunglows of the traders were lining the shore, while the locals – mostly Chinese and Arabs settled on the left bank of the Singapore river. Nutmeg, pepper, gambier, cocoa nut plantations, were starting to prosper, attracting merchants and traders from far and wide to the shores of Singapore.
Frank Vincent, a traveler describes the scene while approaching the dock in Singapore, upon his visit in 1871, “Like Malacca,very little of the town or city of Singapore appears from the sea…We steam past two or three war vessels, two telegraph steamers(which are only awaiting orders from London to commence laying a a wire from here to Hong Kong), and by some thirty or forty merchant ships of all nations to our anchorage in the crescent-shaped roadstead about a mile from town. We engage a Malay prow to take us ashore, and are landed near Hotel d’Europe, to which our good captain has recommended us”.
The ‘crescent-shaped roadstead’ that Vincent mentions in this narrative could very likely be the Boat Quay, we were documenting in our sketchbooks for three hours last Saturday. The Chinese likened the concave shape of the dock to the ‘belly of the carp’ which they believe is auspicious for business. And so it was. While the north bank was reserved for government buildings, the south bank prospered as the commercial hub (this port was one of the most important in the British Empire, specially after the opening of Suez canal in 1869) lined with gowdowns, warehouses, merchant offices, shops of shipwrights and ship chandlers. There is no Hotel d’ Europe though, which used to be a stone’s throw away on the north bank and have since been replaced with the Supreme Court.
If you were a 19th century traveler like Vincent, driving by Boat Quay in a hackney carraige ($5 a day for a pair or $3 for one horse!), or a British clerk hurrying to his downtown trading office in a jinrickshaw (3 cents for half a mile for one passenger), you’d find the river bank teeming with bumboats / sampans (Chinese sailing boats), cheek by jowl, gently bobbing with the ebb and flow of the waves. A constant drone of human limbs stretching, lifting, scurrying across gangplanks would drive your gaze to the scores of swarthy men with taut leathery skin loading and unloading gunnysacks of cargo on their arched backs in the scorching equatorial heat. What remains unchanged even today is perhaps the weather.
Many original buildings have been preserved, but instead of stale smelling gowdowns, you have access to crispy fish and chips and chilled beer. These grand dames of the past now work as pubs, restaurants and night clubs. Commanding skyscrapers form the backdrop in place of ‘a fine view of the straits, the large island of Bintang (visible) in the distance and the Chinese junks and foreign shipping in the harbour‘ as described by Vincent from his luxury hotel.
Besides sketchwalking, a significant part of the weekend was spent at my husband’s office. He had to clear some pending work and I decided to accompany with a plan in mind. This is how it took shape :