The Singapore River Walk

Singapore’s National Heritage Board has developed a series of walks through which they invite people to “discover our heritage.” These are ambitious adventures, each requiring several hours of walking and a willingness to go well off the traditional touristed beaten path. Even the River Walk, which takes you through the heart of both old and new Singapore, deviates away from the river and onto odd side streets. But as a way to see “where modern Singapore began,” it can’t be beat.

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It’s not entirely clear where you’re meant to start the walk — the guidebook runs to 80 pages, and it’s laid out chronologically and thematically rather than in walking order. I decided to start at near the river’s eastern terminus at the Customs House, a 1969 building that one served as a lookout point for the Singapore Customs’ Harbour Division. Sited near the entrance of the Singapore River, this building now faces the Marina Bay Sands complex:

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A helpful photograph helps you visualize what this vantage point once looked like when Collyer Quay was Singapore’s central entry point and travelers and traders came in from the open ocean:

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Today, the Singapore port has moved west, and the buildings along Collyer Quay have all been repurposed as restaurants and hotels. The red-roofed Clifford Pier, once the main gateway into Singapore, has now been enclosed and turned into a fine dining space.

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As you can see from the buildings in the background, downtown Singapore now buts right up against this area, and few of the city’s older structures remain. But you can still pass beneath this unusual tower, a remnant of a plaza built in the early 1970s:

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From here, the River Walk guidebook invites you to walk in the opposite direction of the river so that you can see Raffles Place, once the center of Singapore’s mercantile community (and now a pedestrian plaza and MRT stop):

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If you sneak through a side alley to get there, you’ll pass by this wall of glass fish, which I really like:

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The River Walk then takes you to Market Street, one of the oldest streets in Singapore (which is right now a mess of wall-to-wall construction), and then to Masjid Moulana Mohamed Ali — but you can’t actually see the latter, because it is Singapore’s only underground mosque.

At this point, I’d been on the River Walk for half an hour and had yet to actually see the river. But it’s worth waiting for — because when it comes into view, you can look up to the wonderful shophouses of Boat Quay.

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Those shophouses are all that remain to indicate that this spot was once a major port, the heart of the first free trading zone in Southeast Asia. There were shipyards and blacksmiths, warehouses and hawkers, and boats everywhere. Now it’s completely changed, and those shophouses — some well over 100 years old — mostly serve overpriced restaurant fare to tourists.

Several companies have sponsored famous artworks along the the downtown stretch of the river; among these are Rodin’s The Thinker, Dali’s Homage to Newton, and Botero’s Bird:

There’s plenty of other public art to be found as you walk along the river, much of it dedicated to giving visitors a glimpse into the country’s heritage:

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The first River Walk guidebook stop on the river’s southern end is the 1869 Cavenagh Bridge, the oldest bridge in Singapore that is still extant in its original form:

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These great notices remain at either end of the bridge:

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Bridges were incredibly important in 19th century Singapore, when much of life took place along this and other rivers. So every single bridge crossing earns a spot on the River Walk.

If you cross the neoclassical Cavenagh Bridge, you venture into Singapore’s civic district, rich with some of the island’s oldest buildings. Here you can also find the Anderson Bridge, built in 1910 …

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… and the Empress Lawn, home to eight majestic rain trees:

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From this spot, you can look across the river at the imposing Fullerton Hotel, built in the 1920s by the British as Singapore’s General Post Office …

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… or walk over to the Dalhousie Obelisk (erected in 1850 to commemorate the Governor General of British India who “emphatically recognized the wisdom of liberating commerce from all restraints, under which enlightened policy this settlement has rapidly attained its present rank among British possessions and with which its future prosperity must forever be identified”) …

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… or to this statue of Sir Stamford Raffles (to monumentalize his landing site, where he “with genius and perception changed the destiny of Singapore from an obscure fishing village to a great seaport and modern metropolis”) …

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… all of which will serve to remind you that Singapore is very proud of its British heritage and doesn’t appear to mind having been colonized one whit.

The River Walk then takes you west along Boat Quay, under the 1929 Elgin Bridge (cars go over the bridge; people go under)…

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… and onto the far more prosaic 1990 Coleman Bridge:

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But while the Coleman Bridge itself isn’t particularly inspiring, I did appreciate the mural art in the tunnel underneath; it offers an interpretive glimpse at some of Singapore’s iconic mosaic tile playground equipment, including the Toa Payoh dragon, the Tampines watermelon, the Dakota Crescent dove, and the Bishan clock.

When you emerge on the other side of the Coleman Bridge, you are greeted with this view up the river towards Clarke Quay:

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By the late 1800s, as commerce moved further inland, Clarke Quay had become a jumble of boats, stores, factories, godowns (warehouse buildings). This reproduction of the Whampoa Ice House gives you some sense of days gone by …

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… as do these faux shophouse windows …

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… and River House, the oldest surviving building in Clarke Quay (and one of only two traditional Chinese-style dwellings in modern Singapore):

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But Clarke Quay became the site of a riverfront development project in the early 2000s, and it is now a major eating and nightlife spot — complete with giant “sun and rain umbrellas” overhead:

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It’s hard to see the history here, though if you squint upstream at the tourist cruise boats, you can try to envision the river as it used to be: cluttered with bumboats (twakows), lighters, punts, river dwellings, and the daily comings and goings of commerce (this requires a vivid imagination, because the river used to be so horribly polluted and overcrowded that you could hardly move through it).

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The Singapore River was cleaned up in the 1980s, and it all feels very modern now. But this mural of Lieutenant General Sir Andrew Clarke helps serve as a reminder of the quay’s origins:

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At this point, the River Walk guidebook suggests a route away from the river and over towards Chinatown. You’re invited to cross the pedestrian-only Read Bridge and make your way first to the former Thong Chai Medical Institution (one of the few examples of secular Chinese architecture still standing in Singapore) …

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… then to Masjid Omar Kampong Melaka (the first mosque built in Singapore) …

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… and then to Tan Si Chong Su Temple (a traditional Hokkien Temple built in the late 1870s):

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This temple once sat right on the riverbank, but it was moved — artwork, structure, and all — as part of a 1989 highway construction project.

The River Walk comes to an end at Robertson Quay, the last of the Singapore River quays and the latest to have seen modern development. This area became the epicenter of Singapore’s shipbuilding and repair industry at the turn of the 20th century. Now it’s an upscale residential area with lots of high-end restaurants. But it’s also home to the playful Alkaff Bridge, designed to resemble the shape of a tongkang (a Southeast Asian boat) and painted 52 different colors in 2004:

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You can keep going up the river from here, but you would fall off of the River Walk map.

The River Walk journey can be done without a guidebook — there’s plenty to be found online — but it’s far more satisfying if you can get your hands on a booklet. The guidebook is packed with information, historical photos, and quotes from old-time Singaporeans (you can read, for example, about a young man who used to go out into the river in the 1940s and who says, “a distinct feature of our swimming style was that our heads were always above water because of the stench from the animal and human wastes and the rubbish”). But the walk is worth the trip no matter what.

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