Alexandra Canal, Singapore

At the tip of southeast Asia is the city-state of Singapore. Its tropical climate and hilly terrain means that there are plenty of hidden waterways flowing through this little republic. The Singapore River shares the country’s name flowing through its Downtown Core on the way to the sea. The furthest reaching tributary of this river is Alexandra Canal.

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Considering the density of Singapore and its long history of neglecting such waterways, what has become of Alexandra Canal?

Where it Flows

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The earliest detailed map that I found showing Alexandra Canal at its full natural extent is a June 1945 map of Singapore and Johor Baharu from the National Archives of Singapore. Where it was marked “Tonglin Halt” on the far left, North Buona Vista Road zigzags towards Pasir Panjang Estate. This is where Rochester Mall stands today. Across the road, the Ministry of Education and Biopolis complex also stand atop the covered riverbed. The latter was built in 2003 to facilitate public and private research in the life sciences. Making up for its size, Singapore is a powerhouse in finance and seeks a similar position in scientific and medical research.

The railway line running past Tonglin Halt in 1945 is today the Greenway, a rail trail stretching the length of the country, which is only 24 kilometers. Although the railroad is gone, the neighborhood is served by the Buona Vista station on the elevated East-West Line, and the underground Orange Line.

On the Surface

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Alexandra Canal makes its appearance on the surface beneath the elevated tracks in the median of Commonwealth Avenue to the east of Queensway. As these two street names suggest, Singapore was once a British possession. The stream’s name is also colonial, its namesake being the queen consort of King Edward VII. The Chinese population is the majority in the country. Prior to receiving a royal moniker, the stream was known as Boh Beh Kang, which is Hokkien for No Tail River. Nearby Stirling Road also has a drainage ditch along its shoulder hinting at the headwaters of Alexandra Canal. In Sydney, Australia, there is another Alexandra Canal named after this queen.

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The neighborhood here is Queenstown, given the name in 1952 in honor of newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II. The blog My Queenstown has a page from 2010 documenting its search for the source of Alexandra Canal, along with details on local history. The photo above comes from a branch of the canal that originates in a forest near Masjid Hang Jebat, then following Mei Chin Road towards Commonwealth Avenue.

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Outside of the Hang Jebat mosque, there is a small wetland draining into a culvert that contributes to Alexandra Canal.

Dawson to Tanglin

At the recently completed Commonwealth Towers, Alexandra canal crosses beneath this avenue and reemerges on its northern side. It flows east in a straight line as the Alexandra Canal Linear Park.

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A 1920 map of Singapore shows that the canal was already straightened by then, paralleled by Alexandra Road. At the time, the Tanglin neighborhood of today was marked as a mangrove swamp and a Chinese cemetery. Its earliest settlers were initially from Chaozhou in Guangdong and Scotland, as preserved in local street names.

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Looking at the Linear Park from Dawson Road, the water is concealed beneath the park. The Skyville at Dawson condos offers sky bridges connecting the towers, seemingly a vertical city with palms planted n these bridges as parklets in the sky.

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In the early years of Singapore’s independence, Alexandra Canal had the appearance of Los Angeles River, enveloped in concrete and subject to flooding that disrupted neighborhoods along its course. The above photo comes from the National Archives of Singapore.

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At Tanglin Road, the Jamae Masjid sits in a depression where the canal flows behind the mosque and returns to the surface on the other side of the road. While many mosques worldwide follow a common Arab design of a dome with a minaret, in the Far East and southeast Asia, mosques tend to have a local appearance with pagoda-like minarets topped by peaked roofs. While the minaret appears historic, it was completed in 1964.

Tanglin to River Valley

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Across Tanglin Road, Alexandra Canal widened into a lengthy waterway flowing towards downtown. It wasn’t much to wrote home about until 2011, when a 1.2 kilometer stretch of the canal between Tanglin Road and Delta Road was transformed into a multi-use park that educates visitors on the role of wetlands and bioswales using water from the canal.

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The program that redesigned the canal is ABC Waters (Active, Beautiful, Clean) and its landscaping is thoroughly postmodern, resembling Concrete Plant Park on the Bronx River and Gantry Plaza State Park on the East River. The map above appears on signs along the canal, with the ABC Waters mascot Water Wally greeting visitors. Designed by Scrawl Studios, the drop-shaped character introduces local children to sustainable water practices.

Roadways crossing the canal in this section were given green shoulders with plantings on their sides that give the appearance of a land bridge. At River Valley Road, Alexandra Canal becomes the Singapore River.

Singapore River

The British colony of Singapore had its start at the mouth of the river, gradually expanding upstream with quays built along its shores. No longer an international seaport, the river is plied mainly by tour boats following a ten-year $170 million cleanup project spearheaded by the nation’s founding leader Lee Kuan Yew. At its mouth with the sea, the Marina Bay Barrage keeps out the storm surge and changed the harbor from an estuary to a freshwater reservoir.

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In contrast to the canal, Singapore river is certainly not a hidden waterway, as shown in the above map, it is a very popular tourist destination and national heritage corridor.

Within the half century of Singapore as an independent nation, Alexandra Canal’s transformation echoes the success of this city-state. What was once a trash-filled canal lined by shantytowns is now a linear park lined by luxury condominiums. In this century Singapore is leading in sustainable urban design, a model for cities worldwide.

Other Hidden Waters of Singapore

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No other city is as ambitious about restoring its hidden urban waterways than Singapore. In 2008, it government published the Active, Beautiful and Clean Waters Programme Master Plan, which mapped every stream within Singapore with designs for the cleanup and restoration for every one of them.

I’ve often been asked whether I would be publishing a follow-up book to Hidden Waters of NYC. If it were possible, I would love to spend a couple of months in a city such as Singapore as a Water Historian in Residence, documenting the history, courses, and current conditions of its hidden streams. After that, I would revisit nearby Hong Kong, then see the khlongs of Bangkok, and the world-famous Cheonggyecheon Stream in Seoul. Not sure who would pay for such an ambitious itinerary. Perhaps UN-Water, ASEAN, or the Parks departments of these cities. If anyone has ideas, let me know.

In the News:

DNAinfo reports on the beached dead whale in Rockaway Beach.

Staten Island Advance explores Goodhue Woods through which Harbor Brook flows.

Bloomberg reports on the floating farm park that will be arriving in New York City.

Michigan Radio reports on possible federal funding cuts for the restoration of Grand River in Grand Rapids.

KSAT News provides an update on the restoration of San Pedro Creek in San Antonio.

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