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Mar 29, 2013

Seafarers' Singapore (Part 1)

Collyer Quay and Finlayson Green c 1951

RAY TYERS on his first voyage to Singapore in the 1930s writes about the port city that he knew first nearly 40 years ago - its people and places, its sounds and its smells.  He recalls it all with an affection that seafaring men who roam the world seem to have for one special place - this place of merchants and sailors of all races at the southernmost tip of the Asian continent.

The is Part 1 of  4 blogs in a series of  travellogue  journals  expressed by Ray Tyers in his own words on this blog for us to share.  (Source:  The Straits Times Annual, 1971). With the help of "memory aids" from archived photos wherever appropriate with courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore (NAS).  Thanks and acknowledgement to the public domain for contributions and sharing on the blog.

Ray Tyers, left, with friend on his first voyage to the Far East
Come back with me to the early Thirties when, as a young member of a ship's company, we sail towards the approaches of Singapore on a humid but strangely beautiful morning, on a round-the-world passenger cruise.  There is little or no wind because October is a month which comes between the end of the South-West (summer) and the beginning of the North-East (winter) monsoons.  The surface of the sea is as smooth as glass, whilst the ship's bows are cutting through the reflections of a motionless Chinese junk and two slim Malay boats heading hopefully in the opposite direction.  Such a scene must have been only too familiar to Conrad on his many return voyages from Borneo.

 This approach from the sea as we pass many kelong, fish traps, is as beautiful as we have yet seen anywhere and we have come a long way, visiting many lands.  The low-lying hills come soon into focus, revealing lush green grass and tropical trees.  Elegant residential buildings are surrounded with flowering shrubs such as frangipani, hibiscus and bougainvillaea.  Merging with nature below is a Malay village built over the water, from which the diving boys defy the sharks, as they swim out calling and diving for money.  These youngsters are the descendants of the original Orang Laut (men of the sea) whom Raffles found here in 1819.  Now the reddish-brown corrugated roofs of the godowns come into view as we nose our way towards the berth at a Singapore Harbour Board wharf (now known as Port of Singapore Authority).

The assembled crowd to meet the ship are in various forms of tropical dress and undress.  Everyone seems to be wearing a topee and soon the passengers bring their topees out on deck, newly purchased at Port Said from Simon Artz.  Many European and nearly all the Chinese clerks are  perspiring in the tutups - the high-necked white tunic which has survived from East India Company days.  The coolest looking are the rickshaw-pullers, many of them half asleep resting on the shafts of their rikshas.  They are all lined up and orderly with their gleaming white loose covers fitted to passenger seats.  Immigration formalities have been completed on board and so these officers go ashore.  On board come the Company's agent in palm beach coat and trousers followed by  peon (office boy) with the mail.  Then come the Thomas Cook man, representatives of Raffles Hotel, the Adelphi Hotel and Sea View Hotel all in uniform, with the names of the respective hotels advertised on their peak caps.  Next follow the ships stores managers.

Sea View Hotel  c  1910

A whole crowd of people from all walks of life are meeting friends and business acquaintances.  The excitement of greetings and conversations add to the other noises of steam winches and beginning of cargo working.   It is the usual chaos, familiar with the arrival of 200 cruise passengers.  The ship is out of England some six weeks, but the Imperial Airways flying-boats have brought us news from Home in less than 11 days.  Kallang airport is brand-new and these graceful flying-boats use Kallang basin after their water landings and take-offs. 
The Rawang (above)  was a typical Straits Steamship

Kallang Basin, Singapore  c 1962

Kallang Airport c 1954

The Kallang airport observation tower is yet to look down on the stream of smooth 1970 automobiles instead of aircraft, as they now flow in both directions across Merdeka Bridge.

The lion stone statue and State of Singapore emblem at Merdeka Bridge in 1960s

The Singapore Railway Station opposite the wharves has just been completed.  It is paved and panelled with coloured rubber manufactured by a Singapore rubber works from a patent process, with the result noise has been reduced to a minimum.  Our agents are W. Mansfield & Co. who are housed in the first big building to go up in the business district since World War I.  Ocean Building on Collyer Quay was completed 10 years ago.  It was built on the lines of the Flatiron Building in New York.  Who would have dreamed then that this impressive landmark, which broke away from Victorian architecture, would be replaced with an air-conditioned modern structure of office and private lunch rooms, 28 storeys up on the old Ocean Building site and astride Prince Street to the old building adjoining the Arcade.

Singapore Railway Station at Tanjong Pagar Road  c  1930

The 28-storey Ocean Building (above) dominating the waterfront scene in 1974 command the area, with a shopping parade that replace the last of the Victorian period verandhed-offices above godowns on Prince Street corner, once a Collyer Quay scene.

The year 1971, will see the end of what yet remains of the Victorian era on the corner of Prince Street - the old two-storey type of commercial building designed for use as a warehouse on the ground floor and offices on the upper floor, with a wooden veradah projecting above the pillared five-foot-way.  How very useful in the old days were these verandahs, when telephone conversation in offices became impossible because of old trams grinding past.  It was quicker for the merchant princes to step out of their windows and enter those of Mansfields, Islay Kerr or Paterson Simons to say what had to be said and then slip back to their desks the same way.

A Mansfield Co advertisement in 1920
 From Ocean Buildingin the Thirties, let us move along towards Change Alley.  This bazaar passageway of central Singapore is a source of great entertainment which becomes a talking point long after the ship has left these shores.  The shopkeepers are using broken French, English, Italian and these days Russian has been added to their knowledge, derived from years of dealing with seamen and tourists from all over the world.

Walking along towards Fullerton Square is Whiteaway Laidlaws, the department store (now Malayan Banking) which is familiar because it was in Whiteaways store in Colombo, outward bound, where we bought that better fitting palm beach coat, in preference to the ill-fitting one from a London store.

Going over Cavenagh Bridge, which spans the Singapore River, there is great activity as something like 70 percent of Singapore's trade flows under this bridge in a huge motorised Chinese tonkang, barges, to unload at Boat Quay or futher up.

Cavenagh Bridge, Singapore  c 1910

Boat Quay, Singapore  c 1905

Around the Dalhousie Obolisk are the Malay gharry and motor syces, drivers, playing sepak raga, a Malay game in which a wicker ball is kept in the air by kicking it from player to player.  It is quite fascinating to watch and requires practice and skill.

There is no wide, clean, attractive and colourful Queen Elizabeth Walk which is enjoyed today for it did not exist then.

Family outing to Queen Elizabeth Walk  c  1956

There are plenty of tough Bugis seamen from the Celebes, engaged in mending their sails on the banks and some are on the Padang across the road.  These hardy seamen were trading through Singapore long before Stamford Raffles made his appearance some 113 years earlier.  There are other ships more modern than the Bugis schooners and of unusual design and with white-painted hulls.  These are known as the "Mosquito Fleet" or the "Kapal Boggardt".  The navigation bridge of the Straits Steamship Co. Ltd. ship is perched immediately abaft the bows for safer navigation up the narrow rivers among fishing and sailing craft, for there are no fine roads serving the Malayan east coast such as were to come later.

The men from the Celebes often mended their nets on the Padang, or under the trees.

To be continued ...



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