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Published: January 22nd 2020
The Belly of the Carp
Singapore River was known as the Belly of the Carp to early traders because of its sweeping curve and the prosperous symbolism that comes with the golden carp. In Chinese legend the carp is a lucky fish. In Chinese, fish (yú) has the same pronunciation as the word 余 (yú) for ‘more’ or ‘plenty’, representing prosperity. In Buddhism, the fish symbolizes happiness as they have complete freedom of movement in the water. They represent fertility and abundance.
Whenever I visit Singapore I always spend at least a little time along the river. This year I picked up this nifty pamphlet from the Asian Civilizations Museum called The Singapore River Walk
, put out by the National Heritage Board. As I started to read through it, I found there was a lot more to the river than the museums, banks, and restaurants that I was familiar with, so I decided to talk a walk.
Before the land reclamation projects that brought Marina Bay and Gardens by the Bay into being, the river flowed into the Strait of Singapore where the river took a wide sweeping bend. Singapore became a pretty important
trade post, with lots of warehouses (and bars) set along the river. Today all the big banks are clustered around “the belly of the carp,” the wide sweeping curve, at the east end of the river.
Surprisingly, at least to me, is that under the United Overseas Bank, one of the biggest banks in Asia, there is an underground mosque, Moulana Mohamed Ali Mosque. Originally this mosque was started by three Indian Muslims traders who purchased a couple of shophouses in the area to be used as a convenient place for Muslims working downtown to pray. When the area was marked for re-development, they worked out a deal with UOB to build a mosque on their premises. While the mosque isn’t exactly hidden, the sign is easy to miss. It is on Chulia Street, on the side away from the river.
Upriver from the banks is Clarke Quay, an area known for its bridges and bars. I used to stay near there. I was pretty familiar with the area, and knew that a lot of the old warehouses and shophouses that were built for traders are now vibrant bars and restaurants, but I didn’t know some of the
One of the smaller bridges to cross the river at this point is Read Bridge. It’s named after William Read, a prominent businessman of the 1880s, but it was also known as Storyteller’s Bridge. The coolies who unloaded the bumboats along the river during the day looked for some diversion – and a glass of palm wine - at night, and that’s where the storyteller came in. He’d set up a stool and a small table to put a light on, and he would read stories. Sometimes they were from books, sometimes they were the plots of Chinese operas, sometimes he made them up. He would have a little box for people to put coins in, and more coins he collected the longer he read.
Just a little ways upriver, a point of land juts out into the river. While it’s not marked by any sign, and generally doesn’t show up on any map, this is the remnant of Pulau Saigon, or Saigon Island. It was a small, low-lying island in the middle of the river, and it got its name because it served as a storage area for produce from Vietnam. Over the years it
developed a reputation as a hangout for thieves and smugglers. The government bought the island from its owner, and eventually land reclamation projects enlarged the island and filled in the part of river on one side so the island was connected to the mainland. There is nothing built on it now, but it is adjacent to Riverside Point. This used to be warehouses and trading offices, but has now been turned into offices, with bars and restaurants on the ground floor.
The brightly colored shophouses across the river from Riverside Points are now bars and restaurants that, during the day, are pretty tame – if they are even open. But at night this area becomes a crowded, raucous entertainment district. This is such a popular area that it is air-conditioned. Yes, outside air-conditioning, under the umbrellas to protect you from the sun and the rain.
One of the bigger buildings used to be a pineapple cannery. In the early 1900s, pineapples were often intercropped with rubber trees, and a lot of pineapples were grown in Singapore and Malaya. Since the word for pineapple and the word for good luck sound similar in Chinese, pineapples became a popular feng
shui symbol of good fortune and prosperity. Pineapples became even more popular when it became possible to can them so they could be sent long distances. Today there is a machine outside the door that promises to tell your fortune for a mere 2 Singapore dollars, no pineapple required.
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