Sunday, 9 May 2010

The Singapore Pong

Singapore and Malaya had a smell all of its own back in the 1960s. With the open monsoon drains and the cluttered up Singapore River, the pong was something that I've never smelled since! With the river being full of sampans and bumboats bringing in food and other produce for the markets, everything just seemed to go overboard. This included any plastic waste, cardboard, rotting vegetables and fish, boat fuel, animal waste and all kinds of other waste. At the end of the day, when the markets had shut up shop, any rubbish lying around was either left where it fell or swept into the river. Of course, the rats loved it and there were many of them running about. There must have been tens of thousands of them back then because when I went back in 1990, even though the river had been cleaned up and was practically empty of boats, there were still thousands of rats running about, especially down by the Merlion statue.
I remember the monsoon drains in front of our house at Jalan Wijaya but I don't remember seeing any rats there ever, which is strange. Maybe I've just forgotten them, there must have been a lot of them about.
I remember the smell of Singapore more than the smell of Malaya (apart from Jason's Bay which sometimes stunk of Oxen muck!) and it's a smell that's hard to describe. I'm sure that anyone reading this blog who was there at the time has never forgotten the pong. It's surprising, even with all the injections, that none of us ever got anything more deadly than mumps and German measles, especially when we were walking around in bare feet or flip flops.
Now that Singapore has been cleaned up the smell has gone forever. However, if you're feeling nostalgic, I've discovered that it can still be found in places like Egypt and India!


  1. Derek, I certainly remember the pong, and I had more than my fair share of it at a shipyard on the Geylang River ( The Singapore river stank as well ... my sister and I shared a private joke about the Merlion that stood at the mouth of the Singapore River in the 1970s, attributing the continuous stream of fluid that flowed out of its opened mouth to it ingesting the contents of the river beneath it.

  2. Derek. You forgot to mention one other thing that folks dumped into the river ... animal carcasses. In fact the Kallang River which flowed through my kampong was labeled the Dead Chicken River by the kampong folks.

    Anyway, now I know why our British friends loved to take photos of the Spore River. You should go to Thimbuktu's blog to see some truly scary photos of the Spore river in the old days. (link from my blog)

    As for the numerous rats you see in modern Spore, I think it due the abundant left over food left lying about by hawkers and coffee shops. The rats problem has been in the news quite few times actually.

  3. If you thought the pong from the Singapore river is bad, you haven't smelt the awful bouquet of the crap depot at the intersection of Rochor canal and Bencoolen St. Thats where all the nightsoil collection end up. The bucket trucks were pretty bad too, especally when you were stuck behind them in a traffic jam. There was no escape because cars don't come with airconditioning.

  4. I remember a river called the "Sweetwater canal". I don't know if we called it that or that was it's real name. I always laughed when we talked about it, because the smell was so bad.

    John Lawrenson

  5. I lived in Johore Bahru in the mid 60s as a child. We used to catch the bus over the causeway and get off at the central bus station. Closeby was an open air cafe where we had a Seven-up or fizzy orange. Within a stone's throw were the covered markets where you could buy live animals (we always wanted to take home a chick) and opposite the bus station was the Sweetwater Canal which smelled like a general sewer and did indeed have everything floating in it! We always wanted to lean over the wall to have a sniff of it for a really was that bad (worse because of the tropical heat).