Bumboats in Singapore

Bumboats in Singapore

While Singapore is an island, transport within is mainly land-based. The bus, rail, and taxi make up the three main public transport modes in Singapore. Before the development of land infrastructure in early Singapore, boats and river transport played a key role in the transportation of goods and passengers.

The Singapore River itself was the centre of trade since the founding of modern Singapore. Boat Quay was the commercial centre where barge lighters or bumboats would transport cargo and goods upstream to the warehouses at Clarke Quay.

Bumboats plied the Singapore River in the early days as a goods carrier.

Bumboats plied the Singapore River in the early days as goods carriers.

Today some bumboats have been restored as river services under the Singapore River Cruise, ferrying passengers mostly made up of tourists.

Today some bumboats have been restored as river services under the Singapore River Cruise, ferrying passengers mostly made up of tourists.

Bumboats have been in use from the 1600s in Europe although the ones in Singapore have adapted design variations from the original European-style lighters. Commonly known as twakows and tongkangs in Singapore, they were once extensively used for transport purposes along the Singapore River, Rochor and Kallang Rivers, and also along the coast of the mainland and other nearby islands.

Tongkangs, the larger ones, mostly plied inter-island when the bridges were built along the Singapore River and the low decks did not allow the tongkangs to pass beneath. Twakows, the smaller bumboats, were used to carry goods and were the link from the larger ships to the riverbanks. The bumboats in Singapore were often painted with eyes and faces at the bow.

Bumboats painted with faces and eyes along the Singapore River.

Bumboats painted with faces and eyes along the Singapore River.

A pair of colourful tongkangs have been restored as the TongKang Colonial Bar & Restaurant in Clarke Quay.

The colourful tongkang on the left has been restored as part of the TongKang Colonial Bar & Restaurant in Clarke Quay.

These diesel-powered bumboats caused the Singapore River to be polluted and then cargo services were relocated to a new facility at Pasir Panjang. With less usage and pollution in tow, a Clean Rivers Campaign in 1983 saw the last hundred bumboats and lighters on their final journey out of the river.

All the bumboats were due to disappear until the Singapore River Cruise was awarded the license to run river services along the Singapore River. These bumboats now ferry people, mostly made up of sightseeing tourists. There is also a pair of colourful tongkangs, moored along the Singapore River at Clarke Quay, which have been restored to house a cocktail bar and a dining area as part of the TongKang Colonial Bar & Restaurant.

Bumboats restored as river services along the Singapore River aside, locals are likely to be more familiar with the bumboats plying the Changi to Pulau Ubin route. In an interview conducted by the National Heritage Board (video below), the boat operators said that it is a family trade passed down from their fathers and relatives. With about 36 operators left as most retire due to age, the boat operation at Changi Point Ferry Terminal looks to cease soon.

The golden age of boat operation at Changi Ferry Point Terminal was in the 1980s and early 1990s, as the closure of the quarries at Pulau Ubin meant that the island’s residents had to travel to the mainland to find work. Today, passengers are mostly made up of students on school excursions, a handful of Ubin residents, and tourists looking to travel off the beaten path.

Bumboats docked at the Changi Point Ferry Terminal.

Bumboats docked at the Changi Point Ferry Terminal.

Boat operators await for their passengers on a first come first served basis depending on who arrived at the terminal earlier in the day.

Boat operators dock their bumboats and await for their passengers on a first come first served basis.

Some go to lengthy scale to find innovative ways to avoid paying the $2.50 boat fare.

Some go to lengths to avoid paying the $2.50 boat fare.

At just $2.50 per way, a passenger can embark on a bumpy 15-minute bumboat ride across Changi Village to Pulau Ubin, and vice versa.

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