The Ships of the South China Sea

If you stand on the coastline in Singapore, you’ll see ships in every direction.  The container ships are easily identifiable — they have containers on them — but I’ve spent a good amount of time wondering what the other vessels might be.  So Prescott and I took afternoon’s journey to the Singapore Maritime Gallery, a small museum located just above one of Singapore’s ferry terminals.


Singapore owes much of its fame and fortune to the shipping industry.  When the British established Singapore as a port in 1819, they proclaimed it a free trading zone — which means that it was open to all traders, and that they could trade here without paying customs taxes.  So a relatively small island with about 150 inhabitants grew in five years to house 16,000 people.  Singapore soon began playing host to ships from all over Asia and became a stopping point for ships from Europe as well.

Singapore has a natural deep water port, but it’s surrounded by lots of tiny islands.  The first way of warning ships about dangerous outcroppings was to light fuel inside of coconut shells.  Then someone figured out that a lighthouse would be more practical way of keeping ships out of trouble.  The oldest in Singapore is the 1851 Horsburgh Lighthouse, which sits out on a rock at the eastern entrance to the Singapore Straight. I’ll probably never see it there, so I was happy to be provided with this replica instead:


Today, Singapore is the world’s busiest port as measured by shipping tonnage.  It has 130,000 “vessel calls” every year, which explains why the horizon is constantly cluttered with ships waiting to come into port.  Here’s a map of what I assume to be the major shipping lines:


The museum offered all sorts of interesting facts and figures, such as:

  • More than 90% of the world’s traded goods are carried by ship (as an aside, if you haven’t read 90% of Everything, a book about the shipping industry by Rose George, I highly recommend it).
  • A ship arrives at or leaves Singapore every 2-3 minutes.
  • At any given time, there are about 1,000 ships in the Singapore port.
  • Singapore is the largest bunkering (ship refueling) port in the world.

The gallery let you walk into a shipping container, which was very cool.



And they let you know what you might find in a shipping container when it comes into port:


But the best part of the museum from my perspective was the ship display:


Here, you can learn what all of the different kinds of ships are and what they do.  For example, here’s a container ship (on the bottom) and a ship that would carry oil, grain, or coal in its hull (on the top):


Here’s a tugboat (Little Toot was one of my favorite books as a kid):


And here’s a garbage collection craft:


The ship below is a vehicle carrier, which the gallery likened to a “multi-story floating car park.”  When full, it can carry 1,940 cars.


I spent a while examining the small, fascinating display showing how much area Singapore has added to its land mass between 1975 …


… and today:


It’s fascinating to look at a map of a country that has intentionally grown itself so much.

We spent a long time playing with the bridge simulator in the museum (we lost the “get your ship to port” game every time — it was surprisingly challenging — but we loved playing it):


Singapore is rightly proud of its port, and there’s a lot of boosterism and signage explaining how good they are to the environment (we took those claims with a grain of salt).  Still, the museum is well worth an afternoon, especially if you have any interest in the the crowded world of the Singapore Strait.

There’s a rooftop garden and playground on the top floor of the gallery complex, which feels very Singaporean (they like to put well-organized green spaces everywhere).


The garden has a deck with a nice view of the water:



For some reason (I suspect a money-making enterprise was involved), someone has put a replica of a Mississippi Riverboat just next to the ferry dock.  It was built in 1991 and is the only riverboat of its kind in Asia:


In signage news, I continue to be fascinated by the I Love Children organization’s “have kids right now” ad campaign.  They have signs plastered all over the MRT:


I find the graphics amusing, but apparently some people have accused the group of scaremongering …IMG_3422


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