Rochor Canal as a Historic Waterway
A 1.1 km stretch of Rochor Canal reopened on 8 March 2015 following a four-year-long revamp. The revitalised stretch begins from the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority building at Victoria Street to Sim Lim Tower at Jalan Besar. The project, managed under Public Utilities Board’s Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters programme, has been lauded for turning a previously grimy and polluted canal into a clean pedestrian-friendly riverfront – complete with benches, community plazas and rain gardens.
Rochor Canal wasn’t only a dirty canal or large storm drain. It played a big role in its neighbourhood, as a waterway that divided two historic settlements of Kampong Glam and Little India. It was also a water source for several industries and a channel for goods transportation in early Singapore. Indeed, to call it a historic waterway is no stretch.
Before the development of land infrastructure, boats and river transport played the role in transportation of goods. Bumboats did not only ply the well-known Singapore River and the quays. They also plied other water bodies like the Kallang River, Rochor River and Rochor Canal for transport purposes.
Rochor Canal is a continuation of a canal that begins from as far as the Bukit Timah area, its water source. Officially, only the section after the Kandang Kerbau Bridge is named Rochor Canal. It continues along the aptly named Rochor Canal Road and ends at Victoria Bridge, where it continues as Rochor River. It is one of five waterways that empties into the Marina Reservoir.
Rochor Canal gave rise to one of the earliest industries in Little India – cattle trade. The natural pasture fed by the waters of the Rochor Canal suited cattle trade. Many streets in Little India are named after this cattle trade legacy, such as Belilios Road (named after a prominent cattle trader), Buffalo Road, Desker Road (named after an abbatoir merchant), and Kerbau Road (kerbau means cattle in Malay). Kandang Kerbau means buffalo or cattle pen in Malay.
The growth of cattle trade fuelled other industries. The first municipal incinerators were constructed off Jalan Besar and later, more municipal abbatoirs were built. Along the canal were rubber factories, ice works, and markets for used goods. One that still exists today is the Sungei Road Thieves’ Market, Singapore’s oldest flea market, which days are numbered with Jalan Besar MRT Station’s opening looming.
There were several villages around Rochor Canal. Kampong Kapur was a predominantly Malay village in the area of Desker Road and Veerasamy Road in the 19th century and Kampong Boyan was an early 20th-century mixed community at Syed Alwi Road. By the 1920s, both villages had disappeared to area improvement and land reclamation works.
Two streets were named after these villages: Kampong Kapor Road and Jalan Boyan. The former still exists today in the heart of Little India, but the latter has disappeared with the development of public housing at King George’s Avenue in the 1980s.
Many other landmarks along Rochor Canal have also disappeared, although a few have remained, such as the Malabar Mosque, Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah, Sungei Road Thieves’ Market and the Jalan Kubor cemetery.
Rochor Canal is clearly no longer a transport channel and boats and cattle are a scene of the past. The canal’s rejuvenation will provide residents and visitors a place for rest and recreation. The air is fairly pleasant, thanks to the little pockets of green spaces at the Jalan Kubor cemetery. While the man-built rain gardens offer some respite from the urban environment, these untouched green spaces are the real lungs that give Rochor Canal its breath of fresh air today.