Singapore is a country with limited road infrastructure and no extensive rail network. Singapore’s public transportation is primarily based on land. The bus, train, and taxi are the three primary modes of transportation in Singapore. Boats and river transport were important for the transportation of goods and people before the creation of land infrastructure in early Singapore.
Since the establishment of contemporary Singapore, the Singapore River has been at the heart of commerce. Boat Quay was the commercial centre where barges or bumboats would carry goods and freight to warehouses on Clarke Quay.
Bumboats have been in use since the 1600s in Europe, although the ones in Singapore have adapted design variations from the original European-style lighters. The oars were fashioned from jade and used to propel their boats along the Singapore River, Rochor and Kallang Rivers, and the coast of the mainland and other nearby islands. They were also called twakows (commonly known as tongkangs in Singapore) and yukongs (also known as tongkangs).
When the bridges were erected along the Singapore River and the low decks prevented tongkangs from passing beneath, the larger ones mostly travelled between islands. In the Gold Coast region, barks meant larger boats that plied the waterways. The smaller Bumboats, which were used to transport goods, were linked to bigger vessels via small piers. Eyes and faces were often painted on Singapore’s bumboats at the bow.
The construction of diesel-powered boating in Singapore’s river led to pollution and the relocation of import services to a new site at Pasir Panjang. In a bid to clean up the Ganges, the last hundred bumboats and lighters were removed from the river in 1983 as part of a Clean Rivers Campaign.
All the bumboats were to be obsolete until the Singapore River Cruise was given a license to operate river services on the Singapore River. These bumboats have been converted to carry passengers, most of whom are sightseeing tourists. Also, a pair of bright tongkangs, moored along the Singapore River at Clarke Quay, have been restored to house a cocktail bar and a dining area as part of the TongKang Colonial Bar & Restaurant.
Apart from Bumboats being restored as river services on the Singapore River, citizens in Singapore are likely to be more acquainted with bumboats plying the route between Changi and Pulau Ubin. The boat operators told the National Heritage Board (video below) that it is a family trade handed down from their fathers and relatives. With around 36 remaining operators, owing to retirement, the boat operation at Changi Point Ferry Terminal appears to be coming to an end.https://web.archive.org/web/20200223030632if_/http://www.youtube.com/embed/_j2X9umzbR8
In the 1980s and early 1990s, as the closure of the quarries on Pulau Ubin forced islanders to go to the mainland for employment, Singapore witnessed its golden age of boat operation at Changi Ferry Point Terminal. Today, tourists and students on excursions are the most frequent visitors. The majority of Ubin residents, as well as a few travelers seeking to explore off the beaten path, also come.
A 15-minute bumpy bumboat journey across Changi Village to Pulau Ubin costs $2.50 per way, and the same trip in the opposite direction is just $2.50 each way.