New book takes a deep dive into Kallang River's rich history

Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, an MP for Jalan Besar GRC, at an exhibition featuring key points in the Kallang River's history, at the National Library on June 8, 2019.
Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, an MP for Jalan Besar GRC, at an exhibition featuring key points in the Kallang River's history, at the National Library on June 8, 2019.ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE - The Kallang River is now seen as just another water source. But for many years, it served as a swimming hole, playground and community club for those lucky enough to live nearby.

Mr Chin Fook Siang, 77, says the river most reminds him of an idyllic childhood surrounded by friends in a village.

Mr Chin is one of the former residents who lived along the Kallang River featured in a new book called Our Home By The Kallang River - Past, Present And Future that was launched on Saturday (June 8) at the National Library.

It is published by the Kolam Ayer Citizens' Consultative Committee, in conjunction with Singapore's bicentennial year.

Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, an MP for Jalan Besar GRC, told the launch gathering: "What is more suited for the (bicentennial celebration) other than the river that cuts across many constituencies, many estates, and most importantly, has been around for the last 700 years with a very rich history.

"It is important for all of us to remember not to reminisce about the past but to see what we can use to move forward.

"The river is a microcosm of Singapore... along it, you can find temples, shrines, new buildings and old structures all built around it."

Dr Yaacob, who is also grassroots adviser to Kolam Ayer Grassroots Organisations, added that with water projects, there will be more places of recreation along the river.

An exhibition was also opened at the library featuring key points in the river's history, including the discovery in the 1960s of blue and white porcelain shards dating back to the Ming Dynasty.

 
 
 

The remarkable find confirmed that trade activities were conducted here as early as the 17th century.

The Kallang River was named after a subsidiary group of the Orang Laut, one of the earliest documented inhabitants in Singapore. The Orang Biduanda Kallang lived on boats in the swamps along the Kallang Basin as early as the 1500s.

In the 1970s and 80s, the river was cleaned up after it had been polluted due to intense industrialisation and farming activity.

Mr Chin, who was at the launch, said: "I always think of how my mother told us not to swim there but we would do it all the time. It used to be cleaner but when more houses were built and people moved over, it got dirtier.

"It also reminds me of everyone sitting outside their houses and chatting in the early evenings when it was too hot to be indoors. We were always together beside the river and that was the true kampung spirit."

Mr Chin lived in the Sims Drive area near the Mun San Fook Tuck Chee Temple for almost four decades. He is now the temple chairman and the vice-chairman of the Taoist Federation (Singapore).

Others also reminisced about the river as a site of entertainment, community and even romance.

Retired civil servant Lee Eng Khong, 66, says: "I could look out of my window (in the Geylang area) and see the sampans rowing over and cargo boats in the river.

"I also saw couples dating and rowing together. Sometimes the boyfriend would row the girl home. It was very romantic."

He lived by the river for about 12 years before the family moved out when reclamation work began at the Kallang basin.

Former MP Andy Gan, 71, recalls the times when visiting circuses would erect tents near the river and walk the elephants through the village to bathe in the river.

"I would roam there. It was my source of recreation and my playground where I would catch fighting fish," he says.

"The Shaw Brothers (film producers) also filmed scenes at the river and we would excitedly watch them."