Bumboat Cruise on the Singapore River

A bumboat is a small boat used to ferry supplies to ships moored away from the shore. The name comes from the combination of the Dutch word for a canoe—"boomschuit" ("boom" meaning "tree"), and "boat".

In Tobias Smollett's 1748 novel, The Adventures of Roderick Random, a "bumboat woman" conducts business with sailors imprisoned on board a pressing tender moored near the Tower Wharf on the Thames River, London, England. In HMS Pinafore, W. S. Gilbert describes Little Buttercup as a Bumboat Woman.

In Singapore, the term "bumboat" is applied to small water taxis and boats that take tourists on short tours.

Bumboat Cruise on the Singapore River

Rhetoric is what keeps this island afloat.
Singaporean voice with a strong American accent,
barely audible above the drone of the bumboat engine:
“Singaporeans are crazy about their food.
They are especially fond of all-you-can-eat buffets.
Why not do as the locals do and try out one of the buffets
at these hotels along the waterfront.” The Swissotel looms.
The Grand Copthorne. The Miramar. All glass
and upward-sweeping architecture. Why not do
as the locals do. Here in this city where conspicuous consumption
is an artform. Where white tourists wearing slippers and singlets
are tolerated in black-tie establishments. Dollars. Sense.

How did I ever live in this place? Sixteen years of my life
afloat in this sea of contradictions, of which I was, equally, one:
half-white, half-Chinese; the taxi-driver cannot decide
if I am a tourist or a local, so he pitches at my husband:
“Everything in Singapore is changing all the time.”
Strong gestures. Manic conviction. “This is good.
We are never bored. Sometimes my customers
ask me to take them to a destination, but it is no longer there.”
We tighten our grip on two squirming children and pray
that the bumboat tour will exist. Nothing short of a miracle
this small wooden boat which is taking us now past Boat Quay,
in its current incarnation, past the Fullerton Hotel

To the mouth of the Singapore River, where the Merlion
still astonishes: grotesque and beautiful as a gargoyle.
The children begin to chafe at confinement. My daughter wails
above the drone of the engine. There’s talk of closing the mouth
of the river. New water supply. There’s talk of a casino.
Heated debate in the Cabinet. Old Lee and Young Lee
locked in some Oedipal battle. The swell is bigger out here
in the harbour, slapping up spray against the sides of the boat,
as if it were waves that kept it afloat, this boat,
this island, caught between sinking and swimming,
as I am caught now. As if rhetoric mattered.
As if this place gives me a name for myself.

First published in Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia, edited by John Kinsella and Alvin Pang. Ethos books, 2008, pp. 168-9.

Image: "The Crank" (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by teddy-rised

2 comments on “Bumboat Cruise on the Singapore River

  1. This one affected me more than any other, I really feel the loss brought on by rapid change, and the loss brought on by the willful ignorance of loss.

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