Bridges Through Time: Heritage Bridges That Tell Singapore's History

Find out what these well-trodden grandes dames, given conservation status in December 2009, have to tell about Singapore’s history.

Ord Bridge

In the 1960s and ’70s, stalls run by the colonial government at the end of Ord Bridge sold toddy, an alcoholic beverage of fermented coconut palm sap. Each mug cost about 20 cents then – a small luxury for the poor who wanted to drink their agonies away. Those who’d had a mug too many would often loiter there, and some even lay down on Ord Road, which used to run across the bridge before it became a pedestrian bridge. Those driving to the area often had to manoeuvre around the bodies on the road! Ord Bridge is now a pedestrian bridge – where you can still spot beer bottles left behind by revellers. The origins of this iron-trussed bridge are relatively less well known, but researchers say it was possibly designed for the Indian railways, as its width and length match the dimensions of mass-produced Indian railways in the past. Built in 1886, it is the second oldest existing bridge across the Singapore River and named after Major-General Sir Harry St George Ord, the first governor of the Straits Settlements who served from 1867 to 1873.

Listen to former journalist Tan Wee Him talk about toddy stalls.


Cavenagh Bridge

The oldest existing bridge across the Singapore River is known unofficially as the “love bridge”. Yes, proposals and wedding shoots often take place there. But it is also a scenic spot for following a Chinese tradition of throwing an orange into a river on the 15th day of the Chinese New Year, so that one would soon find a good spouse (just don’t get caught for littering).

The bridge’s parts were bolted together by manufacturers P&W MacLellan in Glasgow, Scotland, then shipped out to Singapore.
In the 1860s, extensive trade activity at the river mouth caused the river to be congested with fleets of small boats. Cavenagh Bridge was built in 1868 to provide road access between the government’s quarter and the commercial district (Raffles Place today) on the opposite bank. So instead of taking a ferry service that cost 1 cent to cross the river, people going to, for instance, the post office (now The Fullerton Hotel) from the government’s quarter could use the bridge. Though commonly thought of as a suspension bridge, Cavenagh Bridge has a rigid cable-stayed structure, assembled from wrought iron parts by convict labour. Named after the last British India-appointed Governor of the Straits Settlements, the bridge initially had carts and carriages crossing it, but was later converted into a pedestrian bridge.
During the Japanese Occupation, a sentry and screening centre were set up along Elgin Bridge. Those who walked past had to bow to the Japanese soldiers, and some would be stopped for questioning. For more stories, listen to teacher Tan ChengHwee’s account of the Japanese Occupation

Elgin Bridge

There was once a narrow wooden bridge called “Monkey Bridge” where the Elgin Bridge now stands. In the early 19th century, that was the only place to cross the Singapore River on foot. The bridge, officially named Presentment Bridge, was built in 1822 on just 12 closely spaced timber piles. One needed to be agile to walk on it, hence its nickname. In 1844, it was replaced by Thomson Bridge, also made of wood. Eighteen years later, that too was torn down for a new bridge made of iron, and renamed in 1863 after Lord James Bruce Elgin, India’s Governor-General from 1862 to 1863. Elgin Bridge was a key passageway that facilitated increasing trade between South Bridge Road, where most new immigrants lived, and North Bridge Road, where the British civic institutions and Kampong Gelam were. The bridge you see today is the second Elgin Bridge, sheathed in reinforced concrete and supported by steel frames and three arches.

Near the Asian Civilisation Museum, Malcolm Koh’s sculpture “A Great Emporium” depicts a European trader negotiating prices with a Chinese towkay and Indian coolies.
The frequent reconstruction of the bridge and changes in materials used reflected the increased load and traffic that fell on the river bridges as trade in Singapore prospered. The current Elgin Bridge was built in 1929 and designed for the first time by an engineer from Singapore’s Municipal Commission rather than a consulting engineer in Britain. The engineer, TC Hood, having local knowledge of the river, raised the new bridge 1.2m higher than its predecessor so that heavily laden boats could pass even during high tide.
The medallions of the Singapore Lion and the elegant cast iron lamps were designed by the famous Italian sculptor Rudolfo Nolli.

Read Bridge

If you’re Teochew, you might know that Read Bridge was a popular night hangout for Teochew storytellers, who would set up shop with a soapbox, a kerosene-filled lamp and a wooden stool. The storytellers would charge a small fee based on the amount of time they spent telling stories, measured by the burning of a joss stick. Coolies, tongkang (bumboat) rowers and families often came with their own stools, and would drop coins into the soapbox after each session. First built in 1889 to replace Merchant Bridge, this bridge was the initiative of Scottish businessman William H. Read, who came to Singapore in 1841. (Read was the first non-government member of Parliament in colonial Singapore who made notable contributions to public service.)

Contact the National Archives for oral accounts by Teochew storyteller Chua Joo Siang (in Teochew)
In 1931, the current Read Bridge was built. As its reconstruction took place during the Great Depression, the design was kept simple to fit the reduced budget, resulting in a plain concrete bridge with little ornamentation. Today, the wide pedestrian bridge pulses with Clarke Quay’s nightlife and is a popular gathering spot for clubbers and tourists.

Anderson Bridge

The beauty of this bridge’s majestic steel arches hides a gory past. During the Second World War, Japanese soldiers hung the severed heads of criminals and spies from the three arches as a warning against defiance. Singapore’s first steel bridge was built in 1910 to help the city cope with growing vehicle and pedestrian traffic, and reduce the load on Cavenagh Bridge. By the early 20th century, steel had replaced iron as the preferred material for bridges as it offered greater strength and resistance to corrosion.

The structural components of the bridge were manufactured in Britain, then flat-packed (long before IKEA did for their furniture!) and shipped to Singapore to be assembled. But the bronze gas lamps, railings and iron castings were made in workshops along River Valley Road, in Singapore’s first large-scale attempt to develop the local steelworks industry and reduce dependence on British engineering. The bridge, with a bowstring arch structure, is named after Sir John Anderson, Governor of the Straits Settlements and High Commissioner for the Federated Malay States from 1904 to 1911.
The history of these bridges has been deeply explored by conservation architect Ian Tan from the National Heritage Board. To learn more about what these bridges tell us of our colonial history, read his research thesis
    Jan 13, 2015
    Kelly Ng and Siti Maziah Masramli
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