Aerial view of bumboats along the Singapore River

The term ‘bumboat’ refers to the ‘tongkang’ and ‘twakow’ lighters that transported cargoes between the banks of the Singapore River and ships anchored in the harbour. Tongkang crewed by Indian and Chinese lightermen were the main cargo-carrying craft used along the river up to 1900, when Chinese-manned twakow began to dominate the lighter business. Both types of vessels were initially propelled using oars and punt poles before the introduction of sail in the 1860s and motor engines in the 1930s. The tongkang’s appearance took after that of craft found in South India, which had a rounded hull and double-ended bow. On the other hand, the twakow was influenced by traditional Chinese nautical designs, with the squat-looking craft having a wide hull with an almost flat bottom designed for carrying heavy loads in shallow waters. Following the river cleanup campaign in 1983, bumboats are now a rare sight and the remaining few have mostly been converted into leisure craft for sightseeing tourists.