Life on the Bumboats (part) shows many authentic details of Singapore's yesteryear
Life on the Bumboats (part) shows many authentic details of Singapore’s yesteryear

I took a walk along Singapore River to visit the newly renovated public areas of Somerset Liang Court – a property owned and managed by The Ascott Ltd, CapitaLand’s serviced residence arm. Across the river is Clarke Quay, operated and managed by CapitaLand Mall Asia, which has transformed an area of disused godowns into a popular, vibrant food and entertainment destination in Singapore. Two bumboats are moored at the quay. In the past, they were used to carry goods from the sea up the river. Today, they have been turned into the seating area of a restaurant.

It was mid-day and the area was quiet. As I sauntered across Read Bridge, my mind travelled back to my childhood days, when I had walked along the river and it was vastly different then: the stench permeating the air was something I cannot forget; the many bumboats on the river and activities by the quayside, especially the coolies carrying gunny sacks of rice onto lorries, are scenes of a bygone era etched vividly in my memory.

Capturing the Life of Singapore Past

The interior décor of Somerset Liang Court – thanks to the good work of Ascott’s in-house team - tries to evoke the nostalgia and charm of old Singapore. And it was here that I saw the Singapore River of my memory, sans the stench, through the work of one of Singapore’s older-generation artists, the late Phua Cheng Phue.

Yes, bumboats, coolies, gunny sacks of rice, trucks, shophouses, all these come alive in this painting of the ‘outline and wash’ method or shuang-gou-tian-cai (双钩填彩) . This involves first outlining all the elements to be depicted in ink with a Chinese brush, freehand. It is then "washed over" with a flat wash of light colours. One is amazed by Phua’s ability to go into very fine details. Take for example the bumboat in the foreground - it is still laden with goods and mostly submerged, so that the red, green and white markings at the stern (and bow, not seen from this angle) are barely visible. Four coolies, each bare-backed with only a pair of trousers, are carrying the bulging sacks ashore, one of them walking precariously across a plank. Underneath the boat’s curved canopy are pails, pots and pans. The bumboats could have been their homes where they would also cook and wash up afterwards. A hard life indeed!

A Life of Resilience

A hard life was also what the artist himself experienced. Born in Singapore in 1934, he moved back to his ancestral home in Hainan with his mother when he turned one. But with Japan invading China, they returned to Singapore in 1940, only to find themselves on an island ruled by the Japanese from 1942 to 1945. Phua started working as an apprentice in his teens in various trades to earn a living, finally ending up in a photographic studio where he eventually became a photographer. He attended night school and learnt western paintings at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts as well. There he was tutored by the famed Cheong Soo Pieng. Later, he picked up Chinese ink and brush paintings by himself, and subsequently left his job to become a full-time artist till he passed away in 2004.

We can clearly see the influence of Singapore’s pioneer artists in Phua’s work. Two of his other paintings displayed in Somerset Liang Court’s Residence Lounge depicting girls in ethic dress, bear the marks of his teacher Cheong, one of four artists often regarded as champions of the Nanyang Style, which flourished when the four made a milestone painting trip to Bali in 1952. Regardless of the technique employed, these artists invariably chose subject matters related to the Nanyang or Southeast Asia region. Thanks to this approach, images of yesteryear of this region still live on today, even though the real objects and the life styles have long passed.

The Circle of Life

For Singapore, gone are the bumboats and the bustle they brought to the river. With the country's rapid economic development post-Independence and urban renewal efforts, the Singapore River was cleaned up and the river scene totally transformed. Bumboats are no longer needed to serve their original purpose of transporting goods and the coolies have long become a term of the past. But we will not forget that Singapore’s progress is only possible with the foundation laid by our forefathers.

I walked past the bumboat restaurant again on my way back to the office. Suddenly I realised that for all the years that I have grown up in Singapore, I have not been on a bumboat. Why not dine there with my family as our way of celebrating SG50?

I showed this article to an old friend who frequented the Singapore River in his younger days. His response was: "you cannot talk about bumboats without talking about the area!" So here's a sketch based on his memories to complete our story:

"The stretch from Boat Quay to Clarke Quay was dotted with warehouses. The whole area was a Teochew enclave. Teochew porridge and sweet potato stalls along the banks served the coolies. Lunch would be a simple affair with porridge and some salted fish or vegetables and cost about 20 cents. Trishaws selling steamed shark meat could also be spotted.

The bumboats, also called lighters, had no engines and must be pulled by tugboats. They transported goods like rice, food produce, fruits and even chemicals from the ships at sea to the banks of the river. A lot of coolies, scrawny and dark (from their hours toiling in the sun), carried these goods on their shoulders from boat to warehouse. Only a plank linked each bumboat to the river, and yet the coolies made it.

Singapore River offered an outlet for children living there to swim despite the stench and the fact that there were dead chickens and ducks floating alongside them.

Landmarks of the area included the Ellenborough Market and an octagonal public toilet used by passengers as a reference to tell taxis or trishaw drivers their destinations. Later came the Van Kleef Aquarium, National Theatre, and River Valley Swimming Pool, by now all demolished."

I think I will share my friend’s precious memories of the Singapore River with my family as we enjoy our SG50 dinner on the bumboat. That will certainly enliven our experience!

This article is contributed by CapitaLand Chief of Art Management, Francis Wong Hooe Wai