Singapore / Boat Quay development from trade centre to tourism

Modern Singapore was founded by British Stanford Raffles, by his establishment of British East India Company. Sir Stanford Raffles was a founder of modern Singapore not only in the sense that he induced economy to Singapore but also re-planed the city from disorganised arrangement to systematic grid.

The Singapore River was located at the sides of swamps, while the Orang Laut (Sea People) lived on floating settlements upriver. In Raffles’ town plan 1822-1823, he designates the north bank of Singapore River for government use and the south bank for Chinese and Chulia settlers. In 1823, the swampy south bank was filled with hard soil, and Boat Quay is created. Since then, the Chinese merchants set up their warehouses and offices in Boat Quay and it gradually turned into a prominent trade centre in Singapore.  Boat Quay had its bloom in 1960s, while nearly half of the imports and exports were conducted at Boat Quay.

Interior of Boat Quay's shop, Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore
Interior of Boat Quay’s shop, Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore

Yet, the peak of Boat Quay soon came to the end in 1980s. After WWII, computerisation gradually led to the decline needs of traditional shipping industry. The end of Boat Quay’s trade industry was further put by the opening of high-tech cargo centre in Pansir Panjang. In 1983, the last of the boats were moved to Pansir Panjang. During the same period of time, the Quayside activities were banned for Clean Rivers Project from 1977 to 1987, in order to dispel the pollution accumulated over past 150 years.

Clean River Project 1977-1987, Lee Kip Lin and National Library Board, Singapore

The rise tourism industry in 1900s was contributed by the conservation program by URA in 1986. As the first urban regeneration area, Boat Quay was part of the master plan of conserving architectural history of Singapore River. Since then, a set of guidelines for restoration and policies were made in order to provide incentive for owners to conserve the area. The land use of Boat Quay was rezoned from industrial into commercial uses and rent control was also repealed so as to allow property redevelopment. Yet, the owners have to comply with a set of detailed conservation guidelines and rules by the same time. The true driven force leading Boat Quay into tourism spot is the scheme that allowed owners to look for tenants by way of tender. The scheme was reacted by a series of market actions, and the atmosphere of tourism evolved naturally. Since the buildings were mostly conserved and maintained by private sectors, who eager to maximise the value of the buildings to cover the cost, addition to the Government allowances on land use and tenant policy, Boat Quay was gradually transformed into a high-end entertaining and leisure hub. In 1993, more than 80% of the shophouses in Boat Quay were restaurants.

Today, shophouses in Boat Quay are converted into expensive dinning, bumboats becomes river taxi for tourists. The entire area of Boat Quay has turned into a tourist spot and full of consumables which is unaffordable to locals. The hardwork of labour in the past, and their sweat and tears, were gone and became memories. What left behind were the façade of those shophouses and warehouses, which stand firmly along riversides and remind us of the area’s heydays.


  1. Authority, Urban Redevelopment. 2016. Boat Quay.
  2. Lin, Eunice M. 2016. Adaptive Re-use of the Historic Boat Quay.
  3. Wang Jingyao; Heng Chye Kiang. 2011. Urban Entrepreneurialism in Conservation Redevelopment: the case of the Boat Quay Historic District in Singapore. Singapore: National University of Singapore.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.