Sampan, known as kolek in Malay, is a small wooden boat, skiff or canoe-like coastal craft that is
typically propelled by oars. Also known as Chinese shoe-boats, it is a common native craft that
sometimes comes with a sail, used for fishing and short range transportation.
The word sampan had originated from the Chinese word sanpan, meaning “boat” (san means “three”
and pan means “board”). It is also spelt champana, champan, sampane, siampan, sampaan and
Used all over Asia, the sampan was once seen in great numbers at the Singapore River until 1983.
Only a few remain currently; these can be found in the coastal areas of mainland Singapore and the
surrounding islands.
The earliest of this type of boats came from China, and the Chinese sampan had been mentioned in
travel writings from the West in as early as the 17th century.
While the word and name has been applied by Europeans to any small boat of Chinese pattern in
the China seas, there are many types of sampans – of different sizes and design variations – in
In Singapore, sampans were used along rivers and coastal areas for fishing and short range
transportation.8 Although primitive, they were for a time virtually the sole means of transporting
passengers and crew between ships at anchorages and the various landing jetties.
Sampans were widely used in the heyday of economic activity at the Singapore River until
September 1983, when the river was cleared as part of the river clean-up campaign.
A native craft, sampans are keelless boats generally made of at least three planks or pine boards,
which gave it the Chinese name, sanpan. Sampan also became an official English and Malay word
meaning “small boat”. Sampans are usually about 8 ft long or less, while the large versions are
about 20 to 23 ft long. The largest sampans, which are about 30 ft long, are used as cargo carriers
or trading vessels.A small-sized craft has a capacity of up to three people; it was also used to carry
small amounts of goods in the past, as well as hawking snacks and sundry items at the waterfront.
Usually propelled by a short, single-bladed or double-bladed paddle, the more modern sampans are
outboard motor powered.

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