Clarke Quay - The Past In The Present. A Critical Analysis On How Landscapes In Singapore Have Brought About Contestations Of Spaces.

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TITLE OF PROJECT: Clarke Quay - The Past in the Present



Ever since independence in 1965, Singapore has been striving to build its nation for its people. According to an exhibition catalogue (10 Years that Shaped a Nation, 2008), instilling a sense of identity and a sense of pride amongst the citizens, as well as binding them together were given great attention as they were important for the survival of Singapore as a rising nation. Nation-building is creating this sense of attachment among the people to the country regardless of the different races, religions, cultures or languages. It is also instilling a sense of identity and pride for the country, binding the people together in the process of doing so. Landscapes have been used as this tool of nation-building and we will be discussing mainly about how Clarke Quay has been used as a tool of nation-building in Singapore.

Clarke Quay is well-known as an entertainment site, yet it is also rich in history, dating back to as early as the 19th century. It was founded by Sir Stamford Raffles who made Clarke Quay into a centre of trade where coolies could be found loading and unloading a plethora of produce and shipments. (Michelle Lee, 2009) It was an ordinary landscape back then, where people lived and worked. However, in 1977-1978, the waters of Singapore River was found to be polluted so badly, by the trading activities and people living there, that the government had to have a massive clean-up of the river to raise the hygiene level of the waters and its surroundings. (Singapore VR, 2008) Major changes have been made through the redevelopment of Clarke Quay, giving us the present-day Clarke Quay, a centre of entertainment and leisure (Wee, 2009).

Clarke Quay has been used as a tool of nation-building through its richness in heritage, it being a source of tourism and economic growth as well as the vibrancy of its night life. However, there were also concerns as to how it has been challenged as a tool of nation-building. There were questions raised such as whether modernisation of the place had caused the loss of heritage, memories of the past and hence, making it less effective as a tool of nation-building. Furthermore, even much of its history was preserved; Singapore's current generation may not find it relevant and might be unable to relate to them.

Clarke Quay being mobilized as a tool of nation-building

Richness in Heritage

Clarke Quay is a contemporary historical district where parts of it has been restored to remind Singaporeans of their past, a place where the boatmen as well as merchants toiled day and night, making Clarke Quay a centre of entrepot trade. (Samuel, 1991) There are national monuments preserved such as The River House which used to be a home for a towkay, Tan Yok Nee, which is now a well-known restaurant and bar managed by the IndoChine group (Pham, Emmons, Eveland, Lin-Liu, 2009). This also showed how landscapes have changed, from being an ordinary landscape, a mere residential place to being a spectacular landscape which attracts tourists and interest people. The preservation of monuments is also an effort made to prevent the loss of heritage while modernizing the site at the same time.

A photo of the group in front of The River House(left) and a photo of a shophouse(right).

Source of tourism and economic growth

Clarke Quay is also a tourist attraction which contributes to Singapore's economic growth. Apart from just cleaning up the Singapore River back then, the goal for the area was also for it to be a tourism site to boost Singapore's economy. This was achieved with the investment of 80 million dollars (CapitaLand, 2006). Clarke Quay now houses more than 30 new and unique F&B and entertainment outlets along the 200 metre long riverfront, attracting both tourists and locals, especially the party-goers. Thrill rides in the area such as the GX-5 Extreme Swing and the G-MAX Reverse Bungy give an exhilarating touch to the place. The Central, which comprises of retail and home offices, recently opened in 2007 and the convenience of being connected directly to Clarke Quay MRT Station, has attracted even more visitors to Clarke Quay. Apart from the amenities, festivals such as the Singapore River Festival, an annual event since 2008, plays an important role in attracting visitors. It offers more than a week of performances, chic fashion shows, and non-stop partying. Ms Ranita Sundramoorthy, Deputy Director of Arts & Entertainment at the Singapore Tourism Board, said "Over the past two years, the Singapore River Festival has helped drive traffic to the precinct and increase spending at the various outlets along the River." Surveys that were carried out during the Festival in 2009 showed an increase in more than 40 per cent in business revenue and record footfall of close to 300,000 people over the nine nights (Singapore Tourism Board, 2008). Clarke Quay has become an important tourism site and pride for Singapore as it boasts of Singapore's successes with its many entertainment and leisure availabilities. This has instilled a sense of pride among Singaporeans as people from other countries mentions of Clarke Quay and the image that others have of Singapore in terms of economic success.

Fig. 1: Clarke Quay

Fig. 2: G-MAX Bungy

Vibrant Night Life

Clarke Quay now has been promoted and well-known for its vibrant night-life, a tourist attraction, a place filled with pubs, restaurants and retails. The present Clarke Quay offers a very different image at as compared to the night view in the past. This is clearly seen in the lightings, restaurants, pubs and clubs, operating throughout the night. Various types of cuisines, such as Indian, German, Iranian and Spanish could also be found there. Besides that, there are activities such as watching of football matches at a bar, where people of all ages and different walks of life come together. This has also increased interaction among Singaporeans, even though they might not know each other but through common topics like football, Singaporeans were able to interact and know each other better even though they were of different backgrounds.

The vibrant night life of Clarke Quay could have also instilled a sense of pride among Singaporeans as not many countries have such vibrancy and beautiful night view. When people have a common sense of pride for their country, it binds them together and helps in the nation-building of a country.

Night view of Clarke Quay(right).A photo of the locals and tourists watching football match.

Issues and Challenges

Dilution of History

Although Clarke Quay could have been successful at being mobilized as a tool of nation-building to a certain extent, there were also some issues and challenges that it faced. If one were to compare Clarke Quay now with how it was like in the past, it would not have reminded them much about Singapore's history. As an ex-coolie, Lock Heng Huat who was 86 years old when interviewed and brought to a redeveloped section of the Singapore River by the New Paper, 27 November 1993, said: "Why did you bring me here? This is not where I worked as a coolie. The place is gone forever", (Chang, 2005) This was nearly 18 years back and Clarke Quay has further transformed so much more now. Memories of the past have been slowly diluting and will soon be gone if nothing is to be done about it. Some may argue that we are living in an ever-changing world where cultures, ideologies and everything changes, and thus there is a question as to why we should be harping on the past. Especially since Clarke Quay has been successful in attracting tourists and Singaporeans, and has been contributing much to Singapore's economy, one may wonder if there is a need to look back to the past which might not benefit us economically. As Smith postulates, 'no memory, no identity; no identity, no nation', cited in (Chang, 2005), while progressing forward is important, we should not forget our roots for that is what binds a nation together. Collective memories are shared experiences that bind people together and Clarke Quay is one of these storehouses of memories. As mentioned by S.Rajaratnam that history - our ancestors' aspirations and achievements, is recorded in buildings too, not only in books and having these buildings demolished is having our records gone, cited in (Chang, 2003). Clarke Quay is one of the examples of how our history have been slowly diluting. As from a respondent interviewed in May 1998, described Singapore River as 'never romantic' or even a place where 'people lived and passed motion in it'. It was only when the government redeveloped the place, leading to having the place romanticized. (Chang, 2003) It is the same for Clarke Quay, its romanticized image, especially in the night, was never present in the past. This very different image that was portrayed in Clarke Quay has definitely displaced or even erased some of these social memories of the past.

From the comments of the people interviewed by the various sources, as quoted above, although they might not be representative, we can see that there are people who are unsatisfied with how Clarke Quay has been changed and how it has lost much of its heritage and diluted the history of Singapore. Memories of the past have been lost and people are less able to associate and identify with the Clarke Quay now. This could have made Clarke Quay less effective as a tool of nation-building.

Adaptive Reuse

Furthermore, even though there were attempts to bring Singapore's heritage back in Clarke Quay, the purpose of the place and how it has been used have totally changed. Even the initial idea when reconstructing Clarke Quay was already to change its uses and only use the exterior building as a historic reference. The main aim of DBS Land, the owner and developer of Clarke Quay back then, was for financially benefits and to attract tourists to the place. (Clarke Quay Pte Ltd, 1993) (Clarke Quay Pte Ltd, 1994). Furthermore, conservation efforts by the government were motivated by a need to increase the number of tourist and attract tourist dollars, especially after the economic recession of 1985. (Eisen, 2008). This explains why Clarke Quay, although conserved, much of its heritage and culture has been lost and the place converted to pubs and restaurants to attract tourist to Singapore, in order to boost her economy and tourism status. Much of the memories were lost as Clarke Quay and recreated as memories of a tourist hub and contemporary popular culture among youngsters who club in Clarke Quay. Allan Ng who was interviewed in May 1998 expressed dismay of the place: "Clarke Quay, sad to say, is too westernized in its concept. It's like a normal shopping centre near a river and therefore it is not attractive. Even the way they build the shop houses is a waste: they tear up the interior so badly that it's no different from a normal shopping centre." (Chang, 2003) Although Clarke Quay has restored 5 blocks of shop houses, only the exterior was made to look like a shop house. If one was to take a stroll down Read Street and Clarke Street, it would not remind one much about the past. There are only pubs and restaurants in sight. The buildings may still be there but the people occupying it are no longer the Chinese living communities. The nostalgic sentiments, historical values which were heavily concentrated on the Chinese communities living there were lost (Anthony M. Orum, 2010). One very significant example will be the Chinese Street Opera. In the past, it served as an entertainment for the Chinese coolies who lived at Clarke Quay. Today, although there were occasional Chinese Street Opera events going on, the cultural and nostalgic feeling were lost as Clarke Quay is being modernised over the years. (Lee T. S., 2009). There are not as authentic as before and they have also lost its original supporters who used to watch them perform.

Moreover, the intangible heritage behind the living communities are not displayed or continued by the new tenants. Clarke Quay was once bustling with cobblers, tailors, cheap street hawkers, people burning incense paper and people doing their laundries out in the open on bamboo poles. There were various cultural practices such as shoe-making and tailoring craftsmanship. These could not be found in Clarke Quay anymore. These common cultural practices and interactions were what bonded the people together and with these gone; the relationship of the people and the place can no longer be established. Therefore, Clarke Quay might not have been effective in bringing the people's sense of belonging and attachment back.

The night life (by the river, alongside the restaurants and pubs)

Landscape of exclusion

In addition, Clarke Quay could also be seen as a landscape of exclusion, which might hinder it from being an effective tool of nation-building. As mentioned above, Clarke Quay serves more for the tourists and the night life people as it is dominated mainly by clubs, pubs and restaurants that operate at night. As stated in Quay Notes Issue 1 Oct 1992 (Revitalising the commercial heart of Singapore), "The plan is to turn the city districts at Clarke Quay, Boat Quay and Robertson Quay into 'The City That Never Sleeps'." Clarke Quay was meant to be made into an entertainment centre for night-goers after being refurbished. This could make families, the elderly and those who do not like staying up late in the night feel excluded from Clarke Quay. This could make Clarke Quay less effective as a tool of nation-building as it would not serve as a place to bind people together if people feel excluded from it or even do not visit it. Furthermore, efforts made to preserve the heritage in Clarke Quay would not benefit these people who feel excluded. Therefore, Clarke Quay as a landscape of exclusion might not be effective as a tool of nation-building.


In order to bring the historically-rich Clarke Quay back to its past golden days and for Clarke Quay to not only be a landscape for the night life people or a mere tourist attraction, we have suggested a few possible solutions.

The government could set a quota on the shops allowed for food and beverages, entertainment and cultural/tradition shops. Having more shops selling cultural or tradition items such as Wooden Clogs, Chinese puppets, Kebaya and Qi Bao costumes could reflect more of Singapore's heritage. Also, such shops could be able to attract more people to hang out at Clarke Quay during the day. However, Clarke Quay is under the control of CapitaMall Trust, and such a quota might be difficult to implement as the main aims of companies are usually profit and having these shops might not be maximizing their profits.

Another solution could be to have a common area in Clarke Quay for people to interact and have weekly events held there. For example, in the past, there were the scenes of neighbourhood people gathering in front of a once considered luxury black-and-white television, enjoying the free screening of television dramas. Such a common area for people to interact could be brought back through the public screening of Chinese opera, puppet shows and movies. However, given the technology today, one need not travel out of their home to watch at Clarke Quay and hence, it might not be very successful. Even so,we think that such screening provides a platform for those who benefits from it and it could reflect what Clarke Quay was like in the past.

Lastly, we could have an initiative called 'Thank God It's Daytime". It could be collaboration by the various statuary boards to hold regular public exhibitions or awareness programs biweekly at Clarke Quay. Attractive events such as the flea markets, selling mainly handicraft work to promote workmanship and cultural exhibitions such as "Tea Appreciation", "Chinese Calligraphy" and "Peranakan Culture". With regular events during the day, Clarke Quay could be less of a 'ghost town' in the day and the landscape would be more inclusive of the people who are not after its night life charm.


In this ever-changing world, there is no one-fits-all method in doing anything. We have to be flexible and always adapt to these changes in order to stay relevant. Although it is not possible to keep Clarke Quay as it is in the past, there are still many ways where we can modernise our nation, and still preserve our heritage. Much have to be done in Clarke Quay for it to stay effective as a tool of nation-building.


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Bounded by River Valley Road, North Boat Quay, Clarke Quay and Tan Tye Place, the area was given conservation status on 7 July 1989. (URA: