22 July 2013

Life as a Boy in Clarke Quay (an Urban Sketcher's story)

Lined with rows and rows of up-market restaurants and happening bars with live music, today's Clarke Quay is a chic hangout for locals and tourists alike, usually coming alive as the sun sets. The gorgeous riverside ambiance makes for quite the dining experience. 

Just over three decades ago, though, it was very different place. Since the 1800s - till the start of its redevelopment in the late 1980's, Clarke Quay had been the heart of early Singapore's economy. These units used to be godowns and warehouses for merchandise that came by way of the Singapore River, whose banks up to the 70's were lined bumper-to-bumper with traditional cargo-carrying bumboats. It was more popularly known in Teochew as 万家山脚 (literally, Foothill of Ten Thousand Families), and aptly so, for it was very densely populated, and it was situated at the foot of Fort Canning Hill. 

One unmistakable trademark of the old Clarke Quay was... its smell. The stench of the filthy, litter-covered SG River aside, the air reeked of wet guni sacks, and fermenting rice wine and the sweat of rickshaw riders and coolies working at the docks. And opium. Yes, opium. This place was home to many illegal, underground, opium operators back in the day. 

The place was always abuzz with life and activity. Its rustic coffee shops served up some of the best versions of what became today's iconic local fares, like the Fishball Mee Pok, Prawn Soup Noodles, and Teochew Porridge, etc. 

Singaporeans over the age of 35, or who have lived here or around here, might know first hand what I was describing above. I have.

See that unit on the second level of that turquoise building? That was my home from birth to when I was 4 years old. Each unit was a communal long house of sorts, that stretched deep into the back. Multiple families living in one of these  shared a common washing area, bathroom, etc. Nothing but a piece of fabric separated the main corridor from their tiny rooms. Privacy? Unheard of, back then. (It did make me wonder how my parents could have made me in these conditions... I'm glad God made sure they did.) =]

The first level is currently home to TCC, a nice cafe serving good cakes. Interestingly, back in the early 70's, it too was a kopitiam (local coffeeshop). There was a huge opening on the 2nd level directly overlooking the coffee shop... And people hung their laundries over people eating below. *Faintz*  I remembered when we had wanted to order anything from the coffee shop, all we had to do was shout our orders from upstairs, and then lower a basket hung on a pulley, with money in it, and just haul up our orders and our change in it! Singapore's well-known efficiency and efficacy go way back. =]

There were many pleasant memories of this place I used to call home. We didn't have much in those days, but we had one another, and people were happy with less. Jumping into the filthy river was kids' idea of an afternoon of fun. My dad operated one of the bumboats, and I remembered having hours of fun on board; once he even rescued me from certain drowning. =|

There were also unpleasant memories: my dad's funeral was held on these very grounds (I was only 6 then). I lost him to opium (he had lung cancer).

Strange that I still remember most of the stuff from back then even though I was so small then. My mom and I (before she passed on a few years ago) would walk back there from time to time, just to reminisce the old days.

Sketching this, all those memories came flooding back, in a good way. It helped me appreciate where I'd come from, and make me thankful for what I have today. I only hope my kids would someday look back fondly at the home we have now, and the moments we have spent in it. If they did, I would have done alright as Dad.


  1. Lovely pic and I enjoyed your back story very much. Great that sitting to sketch can give you the time to reflect on your memories happily.