Along the Gelam-Rochor-Kallang river, there existed an important historic port-town forgotten by many. This bustling port-town stretched from modern-day Victoria Street to the edge of Kampong Glam, and once housed Sultan Hussein Shah’s court. Rochor River and Kallang Bay became the focal points of port activity, which continued as late as 1975. It served a different clientele from the Singapore River port, with many from Java, Celebes, Palembang, Riau and the Malay Peninsula coming to call. Here, we tell the story of the types of trade the port-town attracted, the communities that dwelled within and the jobs they took up.
In the early 1800s, Kampong Gelam was a flourishing centre of Malay and Islamic culture with the mosque built by Sultan Hussein, madrasahs, Malay schools and printing houses. In the middle of it was a royal citadel, which included a royal square as well as districts of traders, craftsmen and pilgrim brokers.
Various factors and a sequence of events throughout history contributed to the influx of people and trade at this old port-town. Some even believe that the port-town was in existence before the British arrived here in 1819.
Subsequently, Kampung Gelam’s waterfront, Rochor River and Kallang Bay became the focal points of port activity.Image: Gelam-Rochor-Kallang Port-Town.
Traders would unload their goods from ships at Beach Road to trade. They would exchange their merchandise for items from Chinese merchants, as well as Indian merchants, located at Arab Street.
Bugis silk sarongs and scarves was a popular commodity amongst the ladies in Singapore. Other items that were traded included trepang (sea cucumber), gold dust, bird’s nest, coffee, camphor, pepper, sago, paddy and rattan.
Many Malay and Muslim communities as well as immigrants from around the region, such as Celebes (present-day Sulawesi), Java, Bawean, Banjar, Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, settled here. The Arabs, Chinese and Indians also made the port-town at Gelam-Rochor-Kallang their home.
Individuals within these communities took on different professions. Some were coppersmiths and tombstone makers. Others worked onboard ships as navigators or with the British East India Company as clerks and scribes. By the mid-19th century, some also began to operate printing presses.Image: Different communities that settled at the Gelam-Rochor-Kallang Port-Town.
They occupied different areas within the port-town. For example, Sultan Gate was lined with blacksmiths, and Baghdad Street housed diamond craftsmen and traders. The carpark along Kandahar Street was once Pondok Java, which housed the Javanese community, and was famous for its Javanese theatre and arts performances. Bussorah Street, Haji Lane and Arab Street used to be a hub for early Malay printing presses. In 1911, a few aristocrats of the dissolved Riau Sultanate moved to Singapore to set up the Al-Ahmadiah Press, where the Sultan Hotel stands today.
The port-town was also known for ship repairs and ship building. Shipbuilding activity was dominated by the Bugis and Orang Laut communities of Kallang. The Gelam-Rochor waterfront was already a zone for gelam caulking and sail-weaving before 1819. Bugis merchants and shipbuilders occupied Kampong Bugis with its shipbuilding sheds. Stakes held up the riverbank to reduce silting.