Where Sojourners Make Acquaintance.



Film Title: Nilam
English Film Title: Sapphire
Year of Release: 1949
Directed by B. S. Rajhans
Written by A.R. Iyer
Produced by Malay Film Productions
Country of Production: Singapore

Film Synopsis:
Ahmad, a young Javanese man, is urged by his mother to leave the village in pursuit of greater adventures overseas. He inherits a magic holy keris and takes to the oceans with his new found friend at the pier. They sail halfway round the globe and land in an exotic (but Malay-speaking) Arabian kingdom in Egypt. There, Ahmad falls in love with princess Nilam, and is about to marry her with the King’s consent. But the scheming prime minister, in favour of his own son’s marriage to princess Nilam, advises that Ahmad should bring back a mythical sapphire to the palace as a betrothal gift, from a cave in a faraway place guarded by vicious Egyptian mummies.

Ahmad inherits a magic holy keris and travels to Egypt to prove his worth.


The Film Locations:

Though the story is set in Java and Egypt, “Nilam” was presumably shot on-location in Singapore, late 1940s. Three outdoor film locations are worthy of a mention here:
1. Tongkang moorings (where the sojourners in the film meet), probably in the vicinity of the Kallang Basin;
2. Lake in a garden (where lovers and revelers paddle in boats), likely to be the now-defunct Alkaff Gardens;
3. Rugged landscapes and granite quarry (where the sapphire is hidden with the mummies, and where Ahmad is later banished to work as a slave), in all likelihood the granite quarries in Bukit Timah and Mandai.


1. Where Sojourners Make Acquaintances

Tongkang moorings in the vicinity of Kallang Basin?

Film-still from “Nilam”.
Tongkang moorings on the coasts of Singapore Kallang Basin(?) masquerading as a fictional pier in Java, where travellers take off to faraway lands more than halfway round the globe.

Film-stills from “Nilam”.
Ahmad literally bumps into a fellow sojourner by chance at the (fictional) pier. This new-found travel mate and friend, Jaimun, will travel with Ahmad to Egypt and become his “for-comic-effect” side-kick.

In reality, tongkangs and similar sailing vessels that departed from Singapore’s Kallang Basin  (in 1950s) do not journey as far as to the Arabian coasts. They were more involved in the regional trade within Southeast Asia.


Tongkangs and moorings in a non-fictional Singapore

01c-KallangBasin,The_Two_Mast-er_Sailing Tongkang,1973
A vessel that resembles the ones depicted in the film-stills above.
A two-masted sailing tongkang moored at Kallang Basin.

“The tongkangs are mostly used to transport charcoal, firewood and piling logs from Indonesia and to a lesser extent from Thailand. Made from durable malayan hardwoods, they have long proved their worth in this bulk carriage business.”

“The tongkang has been described as ‘a fairly large, heavy, barge-like cargo-carrying boat propelled by sail(s), sea-going or used in open harbours. In the immediate area around Singapore, it signified a sailing lighter (or barge) with a hull of European origin, or a boat developed from such a stock’.

The word ‘tongkang’ is Malay, and is probably derived from belongkang (probably perahu belongkang), a term which was formerly used in Sumatra for a river cargo boat.”

– Ngiam Tong Dow, “Tongkangs – The Passage of a Hybrid Ship”, in Aileen Lau(ed.) Maritime Heritage of Singapore, Suntree Media, Singapore, 2005, pp.174.

A Singapore two-dollar currency note from the “ship” series (1991-1998).
It depicts a sailing two-masted tongkang with the sails up.

“During the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were relatively few steamship, so that the main part of the trade between China and Singapore was handled by Chinese junks, and later the tongkangs. These vessels were the chief means of sea transport, carrying men and goods between South China and the Nanyang (South Seas) countries. They also called at ports in Indo-China, Burma and Thailand. Excluding trade with Europe, which was carried by steamships and English lighters, the major portion of Eastern trade was carried by tongkangs.

Gradually, however, the shipping lanes, mostly European, gained control of this Eastern trade with faster and more efficient steamships. Faced with this competition, junks and tongkangs declined in importance but retained control of the coastal and inter-island trade. Being smaller vessels, they were able to negotiate small rivers and anchor in shallow waters. In fact, the tongkang was built in such a manner that it could lie on river beds without tilting over when the tide was out.”

– Ngiam Tong Dow, “Tongkangs – The Passage of a Hybrid Ship”, in Aileen Lau(ed.) Maritime Heritage of Singapore, Suntree Media, Singapore, 2005, pp.173.

“Majority of the junks(tongkangs) that used to ply between South China and Malaya have disappeared. Most of these junks set sail from Hainan, he (a leading tongkang maker) said, but since the island was occupied by the Chinese Communists they have not been seen in Singapore. Most of the junks built in Singapore are employed for inter-coastal and inter-island trading as well as for carrying out barter trade between Singapore and the Federation (of Malaya), Sumatra and Indonesian ports.”

The Singapore Free Press, 2 August 1950, Page 7. Additional information in parentheses mine.

Tongkangs at their moorings in an anchorage off Beach Road sea front.

Counstruction of the Merdeka Bridge, as photographed from the Eastern Survey Tower, 1954. One can discern the distinctive tongkang masts on the left in the picture, where the sailing vessels are moored off the Beach Road sea front.

Aerial view of Kallang Basin, showing Merdeka Bridge and tongkangs moored along the coast. 1964.

“The centre of the tongkang industry was that part of the island limited by Kallang Road, Crawford Street, Beach Road and Arab Street where owners of tongkangs had their business premises. This was a compact area where seamen could be recruited and vessels chartered without difficulty.

Timber Tongkangs anchored and unloaded their cargo of logs into the sea, off Beach Road, the main anchorage for tongkangs until the building of the Merdeka Bridge in 1956. Logs were towed into the Kallang Basin, where they lay submerged in water until required by sawmills and this resulted in a distinctly unpleasant smell in the vicinity.

All other tongkangs unloaded their cargo of charcoal and fuelwood, poles, planks and sago at Tanjong Rhu. Though Beach Road was the hub of the industry, it was gradually replaced by Tanjong Rhu, where warehouses and wharves were constructed to accommodate the tongkang trade.

Tongkangs were used for coastal and inter-island trading. Singapore tongkangs sailed to Indonesia, South Johore, Malacca, Perak and Sarawak. As the main portion of the trade was with Indonesia, tongkangs operated mainly in the Riau and Lingga Archipelagoes which lay to the south and southeast of Singapore, the east coast of central Sumatra, namely Siak and Indragiri, and some of the major islands off the Sumatran coast.”

– Ngiam Tong Dow, “Tongkangs – The Passage of a Hybrid Ship”, in Aileen Lau(ed.) Maritime Heritage of Singapore, Suntree Media, Singapore, 2005, pp.175. Emphasis in bold mine.

Shipyards and Tongkang moorings at Tanjong Rhu. 1964.

Off-loading of pole wood cargo carried out by workers on filmsy piers.
This resembles the pier or mooring for tongkangs as depicted in the above-mentioned ‘chance meeting of sojourners’ scene from “Nilam”.


Where Once was the Hub of the Tongkang Industry.

Today, the vicinity of the basin at the mouth of the Kallang River — where scenes from “Nilam” were probably shot — is vastly different from its heyday as the hub of the tongkang industry. Instead of make-shift piers, sawmills, tongkang moorings,  coastal pollution and hard seamen labour, one would today encounter well-manicured parks, park-connector pathways, sea sports, stadiums, joggers, leisure fishing, Thai transient workers on weekend breaks, seafront condos and remnant factories and workshops.

Where once seafarers and sojourners used to meet.
I went in search of the remnants of such encounters.


01-1-A_pier_off_Crawford_Street 01-2-Reclaimed_land,off_BeachRoad_and_NicollHighway,where_once_were_tongkang_moorings 01-3-KallangRiversidePark 01-4-KallangRiversidePark 01-5-KallangRiversidePark 01-6-Blk9,Kampong_Kayu_Road 01-7-Jalan_Benaan_Kapal 01-8-GeylangRiver,Jalan_Benaan_Kapal 01-9-Under_the_Tanjong_Rhu_Bridge 01-10-Jalan_Benaan_Kapal,Factories 01-11-Jalan_Benaan_Kapal,Factories 01-12-Jalan_Benaan_Kapal,road_end 01-13-Jalan_Benaan_Kapal,road_end 01-14-Jalan_Benaan_Kapal,road_end 01-15-SportsHub 01-16-TanjongRhuPlace


The photographs above:

1 – A pier off Crawford Street.
2 – Reclaimed land off Beach Road and Nicoll Highway. Where once were tongkang moorings.
3, 4, 5 – Kallang Riverside Park.
6 – Blk 9, Kampong Kayu Road. “Kayu” means “wood” in Malay.
7 – Jalan Benaan Kapal. “Benaan Kapal” means “ship building” in Malay.
8 – Geylang River, Jalan Benaan Kapal.
9 – Under the Tanjong Rhu Bridge.
10, 11 – Jalan Benaan Kapal. Factories and workshops.
12, 13, 14 – Jalan Benaan Kapal. Road end.
15 – Singapore Sports Hub. Under construction.
16 – Tanjong Rhu Place. “Tanjung rhu” means “Pine headland” in Malay.


To be continued in the next post.


This is Part 1. Where Sojourners Make Acquaintance.
Part 2 – Where They Confess Their Love For Each Other.
Part 3 – Of Rugged Landscapes, Mysterious Rock Caverns, Slavery and Rehabilitated Granite Quarries.



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