The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1572] The Birth of a National Landscape: Warehouses along the Singapore River.


It is 1824. The scorching heat of the tropical sun wrenched perspiration from the backs of coolies, boatmen, traders and merchants alike. The air is filled with sounds of ceaseless, tireless activity, from a river choked with the endless trail of boats, each sporting coolies (dock-labourers) heaving sacks of spices, rice, cotton, pepper and other assorted goods on their sweat-soaked skin. These merchant ships were bearing flags from all over the world, attracted to the busiest and most prosperous free port in South-east Asian waters. Traders from Spain, Britain, Cochin-China, Thailand and elsewhere plied and promoted their multi-coloured wares sourced from distant lands, bartering Chinese porcelain for Javanese coffee, exchanging British cotton for Indian opium.

The location is Singapore, one of the largest emporiums in the British empire at the height of its entrepot trade; summoning a trade value of $8,468,000 in 1822 and $15,773,000 in 1824, just within a few years after its founding as a colonial port. The genesis of Singapore as a colonial trading port, defensive base and subsequently a thriving independent nation began at the Singapore River. In the 1800s, European imperial influence spread throughout Southeast Asia, and eventually, with the exception of Thailand, all countries in Southeast Asia were colonized. Singapore came under the rule of the British in 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles signed a treaty with the Temmengong, the local chief of a small native population living in Singapore at that time. In 1822, Raffles set in place the first urban directives for Singapore, which has left its imprint on our spatial fabric 200 years since. The river was used to spatially delineate commercial, political and ethnic boundaries. The north bank where land was higher and drier was reserved for government use, so that construction was immediately possible and defence forts could be set up on Fort Canning Hill. In contrast, the swampy south bank of the river that was prone to flooding 10 metres inland were parcelled to Chinese, Indians and Malays, ethnically demarcated to prevent any inter-racial antagonism. The Singapore River, hence politicized, was the birthplace of our nation. It had to provide a fertile and nourishing environment for immigrants hoping to settle in a new land, and requisite infrastructure to enable trade to multiply.

Trading houses sprang up at the river mouth to provide offices for merchants and other services such as boat repairs, banking and insurance companies. The ground floor and basements of these trading houses were also used for storing goods. However, as trade along the river intensified, storage spaces contained in these crammed trading houses soon proved insufficient, leading to the multiplication of godowns further down the river in later years. The spread of these warehouses reflected the increase in commercial activities along the Singapore River. Godowns were simple one to two-storey buildings, with large column-free and high ceiling spaces, in order to maximise storage space. The term ‘godown’ was possibly derived because storehands were instructed to “go down” to the basements of these warehouses to retrieve the required merchandise. These godowns were mostly owned by Chinese merchants, who came to dominate river trade in 1850s. The godowns were used to store rice, sugar, pepper, onions and other spices. These commodities were kept in gunny sacks, wooden crates and rattan baskets which were stacked over the wooden floors of these buildings.

Within these godowns, women called hong-tou-jin (or “red capped-ladies”) because they uniformly wore large, squarish red hats as protection against the sun, could be seen squatting in these godowns for hours, shelling peanuts, sorting good onions from bad ones or peeling rubber sheets from a big bale. Dock-labourers or coolies (“ku-li” in Chinese, literally meaning “hard, bitter labour”), often went shirtless and tied a towel around their heads to prevent beads of sweat from entering their eyes. Their bodies were constantly placed under the strain of lifting and transporting heavy cargo, but they persisted in the work in the hope of changing their fortunes and relieving their families of grinding poverty. It was estimated in 1822 that 30-40 godowns would be created along the river banks, but these warehouses soon became a module that extensively covered the entire landscape. These godowns were physical sites documenting the way of life of our early ancestors, serving as depositories for our nation’s earliest memories, but since the 1980s they have been derelict, destroyed, or threatened by demolition.

Due to its location and depth, the Singapore River was an ideal docking ground for lighters (trading boats) which were otherwise stranded against the surf or grounded on shallow beaches. When these lighters arrived at the Singapore River, coolies were expected to unload them immediately, regardless if it was dinnertime or at 1 A.M., or if they had already been working for more than 24 hours. It was bone-breaking work for the coolies, who had to lift and stack bales of rubber and gunnysacks of rice, coffee, sugar and other spices weighing up to 100 kilograms each. Wooden crates containing over 200 kilograms of dried fish were among the heaviest goods handled. It took three coolies to lift one of those cases onto the back of a fellow worker, who would struggle with it towards a waiting lighter. The need to guard cargo from theft and shelter the goods in the event of rain meant that they had to stay riverside even when they were not working. Communities comprising mostly lower-class labourers naturally formed along the river, while lively clusters of hawkers, cobblers and butchers emerged to support the daily needs of these communities. A common form of recreation for these labourers was story-telling, where literate individuals would read a newspaper or storybook by candlelight while people gathered around, animatedly providing an oral-form of entertainment in the cool of the evening. According to one observer, there was a carnival like atmosphere pervading the river centre, a permanent ‘bazaar’ crammed with the ‘production of almost every nation of the world’. The lives of these labourers were inextricably connected to the river. The river was their source of sustenance as well as the context of their communities; for many, this pulsating riverfront tousled by constant flux and chaos became their permanent berthing ground.

Singapore’s early economy was very much organised into family clans- owners of godowns and trading companies employed family members and relatives or members of the same dialect group. Mutual trust existed between employers and employees, many of whom worked for his entire life under the same employer. Small communities were formed around such working arrangements within these warehouses, which extended far beyond impersonal working-relations. They ate together and lived near each other, and spent entire lives in a matrix of relations that spread from financial favours to marital ties between relatives.

While Chinese were mostly traders, Malays were primarily fishermen and boatmen, while the Chuliah Indians were boatmen or merchants. Life at the river comprised of a competitive co-existence between communities of different races and dialect groups. Singapore’s earliest inter-racial communities were generated through economics; trade was the only common language binding together disparate ethnic diasporas from different homelands, cultures and languages. Racial tolerance in multi-racial Singapore remains a sensitive issue to this day, and its fragility is as fiercely guarded as it was painstakingly instilled since our nation gained independence in 1965. Ethnic enclaves around the river such as Chinatown and Kampong Glam, where the Chinese and Malays were respectively assigned, indicate racial boundaries that have been intentionally erased over the years. Understanding of our journey from segregated migrant beginnings to a collective nationhood in the present day begins critically at the Singapore River. However, this understanding is eroding as the embedded narrative of spaces around the river is gradually flattened to fit touristic themes.

In the 1980s, the Singapore government spearheaded an operation called the Clean Rivers project to dredge the Singapore River of sludge and filth, and to eradicate the stench emanating from the river. Entrepot trade was no longer Singapore’s economic backbone, and the Singapore River proved too narrow and shallow for modern vessels. Lighters were relocated to Keppel Harbour, and only licensed water taxis were allowed access to the river. Lighters, latrines, hawkers, and poultry farms- anything that was potentially pollutive to the river was removed or relocated to other parts of Singapore. Amputated from their original use and relationship to the river, many warehouses along the riverbanks were abandoned and swiftly demolished to make way for new urban priorities such as condominiums, offices and shopping centres.

Currently, street maps do not even indicate the names of these warehouses, evidencing the erasure of parts of our social history. These warehouses are forgotten in-between spaces, disused and disregarded, prevented from telling the stories of our past that it was once so actively involved in. Instead today, tourism is hailed as the new economic imperative for this historically-rich life-line of Singapore. The waters are clean, and the stench of a cluttered history has been deodorized. Most of the warehouses are gone; if any ‘bazaar-like’ atmosphere was present, it too has disappeared and been replaced with an unnerving calm. This spruced up image of the Singapore River comes with a package of laws and touristic themes designed to retain its sheen of newness. It is now illegal to swim in the Singapore River. Everything is modern and glistening. The river is now dangerously in sync with a prevalent notion of Singapore: It is sterile.

In an interview, architectural theorist Rem Koolhaas noted of Singapore that “history will disappear; the tabula rasa will be the norm.” While our fascination with tabula rasa stems from a desire to constantly improve ourselves, and improvement means keeping pace with the demands of modernity and progress while relinquishing older functions, I believe there is a place for the old in modern-day Singapore. The authenticity of our cultural narrative rests on the way we treat our history. The widespread opinion that Singapore lacks its own culture needs to be seriously addressed by questioning ourselves. How may we deal with history? Do we conserve it in attempts keep it alive, or do we preserve it as a relic that existed in a climate we have since moved on from? How may we draw contemporaneous relevance from our past?

Warehouses are a vital part of our social narrative, albeit a forgotten one; If City Hall and Supreme Court buildings are a physical representation of the colonial upper crust of society then, these abandoned godowns along Havelock Road certainly present the underbelly of society which has been sorely neglected. The stories of common men and women who fought for economic survival through back-breaking labour and persistence, and constructed the fragile beginnings of Singapore definitely merit re-telling. Currently, the barrier that one may feel toward the Singapore is not so much physical as it is a social and economic one. Restaurants, bars, pubs and condominiums line the length of the river up to the water’s edge, and save for pedestrian paths, the river has been commercialised and privatised rather than made accessible for public consumption. The atmosphere of the river is now rarefied because many groups of people such as the working class, children and elderly are excluded from the programs existing there. For the river walk to be made completely accessible to all, the spaces of the river and the warehouses need to be democratized. This could be achieved through several proposals. Tax incentives could be given for owners of the riverfront warehouses to open their frontage to pedestrians, while rentals of these spaces could be controlled to encourage a wider mix of activities that could draw children and the elderly back into the area. Many of these river-fronting programs like bars and condominiums are expatriate or upper-middle class enclaves, and have engendered active night-life activities for the area, but neutralised the day-time vibrancy of the place. The presence of everyday life is no longer there, the sense of the communal is sorely missing, and the intimate scale of warehouses has been replaced by soaring skyscrapers.

The Singapore River has become little more than a scenic photograph due to the stringent rules that prohibit one from physically interacting with the water, as well as metal barriers along most points of the river that prevent people from relating to the river in a tactile way. This is a far cry from times when people washed along the river and children jumped into the water during playtime. Extensive landscaping of the spaces lining the river could create a continuous promenade where land meets water in a more organic way, encouraging people to re-engage with the Singapore River physically and mentally. Planting of trees and grass would create an inviting park-scape for Singaporeans to bring their families for a leisurely picnic, where the elderly can practice 'tai-chi', a slow-paced martial arts routine popular among the aged, and children could play by the river. The Singapore Tourism Board (STB), the authority in charge of the events and design of the Singapore River precinct, could liaise with grassroots Community Centres to open up the river as a special gathering place during ethnic festivals, so that people can celebrate local traditions together at the river, such as the Chinese custom of floating candles down a river during the Mid-July Festival. The godowns at Havelock Road could be meaningfully converted into a flexible public space, hosting exhibitions showcasing what life along the river used to be like, and offering free art galleries for emergent artists. A new program mix should be inserted into the warehouses, especially ones that could be both educational and entertaining, in order to return the river to a wider audience. For example, arts and craft classes could be periodically scheduled by the National Arts Council (NAC) for people to learn pottery or traditional crafts like weaving. Street performances by buskers or dancers should be encouraged, and the rules for street busking licenses should be relaxed. The NAC could also collaborate with local theatre groups, and schools like the newly opened School of the Arts (SOTA) to bring youths to the river on excursions to better understand the role of the warehouses and watch a local performance within the premises.

A range of activities appropriate to the scale of the warehouses and relevant to our present times need to be injected along the Singapore River, to prevent the further gentrification of the area and its consequent alienation of segments of society from our nation’s most important cultural symbol. The very presence of the warehouses remind us of a time when people of all social classes were welcome to walk along the river and participate in its market atmosphere, its daily rituals and festivities. The aim of a successful reconversion should be to return the river banks to the people.

The only authentic stories of a space are narrated through the people who occupy it. The continuation of Singapore’s cultural narrative can only take place at the Singapore River. The River, which has been silenced through years of touristic reduction and sterilization, must now regain its voice.

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