The Tanjong Rhu area once had four roads of interesting names – Twakow Place, Tongkang Place, Sampan Place and Mangchoon Place. They were named after the local cargo boats that plied the rivers of Singapore for decades. The boats, also known as bumboats, lighters or flat-bottomed barges, were mainly used for transportation of traded goods.
Operated largely by the local Chinese and Indians, the designs of the twakows and tongkangs were typically in bright colours with the striking painting of an “eye” at the front of the boats. They also came with rubber tyres installed around their wooden bodies acting as protective fenders. The sampans, on the other hand, were simple skiff-like wooden boats used by Malay fishermen or for short-distance transportation of passengers.
Named after a Chinese boat, Mangchoon Place, was well-known for its small-boat building industry between the mid-sixties and mid-eighties. The boat building businesses originated from Beach Road, where they owned by several generations of skillful tradesmen from Kinmen (or Quemoy), Taiwan. The industry continued to flourish after their relocation to Mangchoon Place in the sixties – at its peak, there were more than 20 boat builders at Mangchoon Place. By the late eighties, however, there was only a handful left.
The four parallel roads of Twakow Place, Tongkang Place, Sampan Place and Mangchoon Place were bounded by the main Kampong Kayu Road and Kampong Arang Road, whose names mean wood and charcoal in Malay. The wood here refers to firewood, which, like charcoal, was widely used by Singapore households for cooking before the seventies. These two items were the main shipments from Malaysia and Indonesia. Charcoal, in particular, was delivered from the main supply centre at Selatpandjang of East Sumatra.
There was also a short Jalan Batu – batu means stone in Malay – that lies between Kampong Kayu and Kampong Arang Roads.
Before the fifties, most of the charcoal and firewood imports went through the jetties at Beach Road. After the reclamation of Beach Road, the goods were delivered straight to Sungei Geylang, where the twakows and tongkangs berthed along the river banks for the unloading.
During its heydays, there were more than 20 charcoal importers at Tanjong Rhu, where they imported hundreds of tons of charcoal each month. The charcoal were then sold in bulk to wholesalers who in turn supplied to a large retail network in Singapore. The booming charcoal business in the vicinity led to Tanjong Rhu nicknamed “dan zhui ho” (charcoal river) by the local Hokkiens and Teochews, due to the polluted Sungei Geylang blackened by the charcoal ashes.
Custom-made in Singapore, the tongkangs was 300-strong in the fifties, actively plying between Singapore and the neighbouring countries. In the sixties, the number dropped to 200, affected by the Konfrontasi (1963-1966) and halt in the trade with Indonesia. Although some tongkangs were diverted for Thailand trades, many others fell into disrepair and were abandoned.
The import trade of charcoal and firewood continued to decline and never recovered to its previous levels, even after the end of Konfrontasi hostilities. This was largely due to the steady urbanisation and public housing development of the country, resulting in more households switched to electricity and gas for their cooking. By the mid-seventies, the number of tongkangs at the Singapore rivers numbered less than 60.
In the seventies, a team of tongkang crew members would be paid $250 to $300 each for a round trip to Indonesia. A longer voyage to Thailand would cost more; about $300 to $400 per crew member.
The shore labourers were paid much lesser, about 60 cents per katis of charcoal they unloaded. The work was tedious and physically demanding, as each unloading work started at 6 in the morning, and lasted until 5pm. During the unloading, the labourers had to use changkuls to heap the charcoal into wicker baskets. The loaded baskets were then carried ashore by other labourers via a wooden plank.
The charcoal were distributed into gunny sacks and loaded onto the lorries. It was a collective team effort, and the hard-earned money was shared among each group of labourers. On average, each of them earned about $11 a day.
Besides than charcoal, firewood and piling logs importers, Tanjong Rhu also had other factories and godowns of different trades. One of which was Kim Teck Leong, a factory that supplied cables, ropes and marine hardware. At Tongkang Place, a Ng Guan Seng manufacturing house specialised in wooden and cardboard boxes.
Until the late seventies, the manufacture and repair of sampans and other lighter vessels remained a niche industry along the Geylang River. Several specialised workshops, together with their neighbouring paint and lubricant suppliers, held on to their businesses until the vicinity was eventually redeveloped in the mid-eighties due to the urban renewal projects.
Tanjong Rhu’s network of boat- and fuel-named roads reflected the unique blend of cultures and languages in Singapore. The names of Sampan (舢板), Tongkang (舯舡), Twakow (大䑩) and Mangchoon (万春) originated from the Chinese language and dialects, while arang and kayu were Malay words. Sampan, derived from the Chinese’s “three wooden boards”, first appeared as an English word in the 17th century. It then made its way, together with tongkang, into the Malay language, referring to boat and barge respectively.
At the vicinity also existed a boys’ school named Tanjong Rhu School, which was founded in 1950 and stood between Kampong Arang Road and Tanjong Rhu Road. The same year also saw Tanjong Rhu Girls’ School established at Meyer Road. In the sixties, Tanjong Rhu Girls’ School moved in to share the premises with Tanjong Rhu (Boys’) School.
In 1984, both Tanjong Rhu Boys’ and Tanjong Rhu Girls’ Schools were merged to form Tanjong Rhu Primary School. The primary school ceased its operations in 1989, and had its former site taken over by Dunman High School in 1995.
The small Tanjong Rhu housing estate, along Mountbatten Road, was developed in the sixties by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). By 1969, the new blocks of emergency flats were ready for residents to move in. In the mid-eighties, several blocks (Blk 10 to 14) in the housing estate were converted from one-room emergency units to three- or four-room flats in a major HDB upgrading project.
Twakow Place, Tongkang Place and Mangchoon Place were eventually expunged in the early nineties, leaving Sampan Place as the sole survivor today to tell the story of Tanjong Rhu’s forgotten charcoal and firewood trade.
Published: 25 March 2018