Chulia Kampong, Singapore

Chulia Street, Singapore
Chulia Street, Singapore

Looking at Chulia Street off Raffles Place and Boat Quay now, no one would know what it was like before. Chulia Kampong, unlike Kampong Glam, has vanished from the map of Singapore. So I was intrigued by the description given by the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh in his novel, River of Smoke. The book, set in the 1830s, is about the opium trade between India and China which used to pass through Singapore.

Singapore was founded by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819, so it was a new settlement then. The book describes the experience of Neel and Ah Fatt. Ghosh writes:

For Neel and Ah Fatt, the journey to Singapore was exceptionally slow; the Bugis schooner they had boarded at Great Nicobar was on its way back from the Hajj, and was obliged to make many stops along the Sumatran coast, to drop off the pilgrims. As a result, the trip was prolonged by several days. They reached Singapore at low tide, so the schooner had to drop anchor in the outer harbour. Instead of waiting for the tides to change, the passengers pooled their coins together to hire a Chulia lighter to take them upriver to Boat Quay.

The mouth of the river was clogged with vessels – proas, sampans, junks, lorchas and dhows.

Boat Quay, Singapore
Boat Quay, Singapore, now

Later, the two friends visit the Chulia Kampong near Boat Quay. This was where Indians originally lived before many of them moved to Little India, which became the main Indian settlement. Ghosh writes:

Ah Fatt and Neel… visited the weekly clothes market in the Chulia Kampong, where many of Singapore’s lightermen, coolies and petty tradespeople lived. This was one of the poorest quarters of the makeshift new frontier town, a mushrooming bustee of bamboo-walled shanties and pile-raised shacks, squeezed between dense jungle on one side and marshy swamplands on the other.

The market was held in an open field, adjoining one of the tributary creeks of the Singapore River. The road that led there was not much more than a muddy pathway, and most of the bazar’s visitors came by boat. From the Malay and Chinese parts of town people came in perahus and hired twakow rivercraft, while sailors and lascars usually came directly from their ships, in brightly painted tongkang lighters, bearing the wares they hoped to sell or barter: sweaters… tunics… oilskins and pea-jackets…

Neel and Ah Fatt were among the few to come on foot and the bustle of the marketplace took them by surprise: after a long trudge along an unfrequented path, there it was, all of a sudden, a noisy melee of a mela, on the banks of a mangrove-edged creek… it had its share of itinerant pedlars and hawkers, entertainers and snack-sellers… but the clothes-stalls were the main attraction, and it was to those that most of the visitors went.

Amongst sailors and lascars the bazar was known as the “Wordy-Market” which suggested it had once been a market for vardis, or soldiers’ uniforms. Many garments of that description were still to be found there… But these regimental uniforms were not the market’s only wares: over the two decades of its existence the Wordy-Market had gained an unusual kind of renown, not just within Singapore, but far beyond. In the surrounding peninsulas, islands and headlands it was spoken of simply as the “Pakaian Pasar” – the “Clothes Market” and was known to be a place where every kind of garment could be bought and sold… Well-heeled visitors to the island might prefer to do their shopping in the European and Chinese stores around Commercial Square, but for those of slender of slender means and pinched – or those with no coins at all, but only fish and fowl to barter – this market, listed on no map and unknown to any municipality, was the place to go…

Commercial Square was renamed Raffles Place in 1858.

Chulia Kampong is gone, but there is still Chulia Street. According to an article published in Today, a free newspaper in Singapore, Chulia Street was once called Kling Street because people from South India, then called “Kalinga”, used to live there. Kalinga, which actually used to be the name of the eastern Indian state of Orissa and a part of neighbouring Andhra Pradesh in the south, somehow got condensed into “Kling”, says the newspaper article published in 2005. “Kling”, however, became a derogatory word and so Kling Street was renamed Chulia Street, it adds. At the request of the Indian Association of Singapore, Kling Street was renamed Chula Street in 1921, according to Singapore Infopedia.

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