The Port of Singapore is still the cross-roads of the world.
Singapore is the crossroads of the world — a title which it has enjoyed since its earliest days when mariners realized that it was a prime location to have a layover while the monsoons shifted. For one half of the year the winds would blow through the Strait of Malacca from one direction, for the other half they’d blow the opposite way, allowing for easy two-way global trade and transport. Even after the days of sail Singapore is still an epicenter of logistics, being located in the heart of the world’s busiest shipping corridor.
The Port of Singapore is the world’s second busiest — trailing only behind the Port of Shanghai. A fifth of the world’s shipping containers and half of the world’s supply of crude oil comes through this port — which is connected to 600 other ports in 123 countries.
The magnitude of these numbers are difficult to really conceptualize until you walk down to the city-state’s southern beaches and look at the endless queue of thousands of ships waiting to get into port. I tried to walk down to the line’s beginning but it just kept stretching out to sea beyond the visible horizon.
I tried to get into the port but security was tight. I even got politely scolded for taking photos. Though as I walked around its massive bulk I found a mill — yes, a mill — that had one of those spaceship-like revolving restaurant on top that would provide a perfect view of the port. I went in and took the elevator to the top. I marched through the dining area and began taking pictures out the window.
I can never help but to be impressed with how orderly major shipping ports appear to run. Everything seems so in sync, so well coordinated, so mechanized from above. I watched as containers would be lifted off the ships and onto platforms, where they would then be taken to a designated storage area before being loaded on the backs of trucks or into other ships to be taken somewhere else.
Though what was truly remarkable was how few people are actually required to move so much material. When you look out at a modern port you don’t really see many people anywhere. One guy in a crane can unload and reload an entire ship with a small support crew on the ground. Other than that it’s just a random forklift zooming by every once in a while and a steady stream of trucks entering and exiting. Though I’m sure that there is a good deal of man-powered logistics work being done from within the port’s buildings, on the ground there’s almost nobody.
I looked out from the window of the revolving restaurant at the mountains of shipping containers that stretched off to the city beyond as a waitress began berating me for being there. I was clearly being kicked out — a fact which I put off for as long as I could.
The modern container port itself is a relatively recent phenomenon. The first shipping container wasn’t put into use until 1956. Before that ships were packed by dock workers manually.
It could be said that modern shipping began when a trucking company owner from North Carolina named Malcom McLean got pissed off at how long it took to unload and reload his trucks at shipping ports. He thought this work should be done by cranes and that goods should be kept in port and placed directly on the ships in containers. It took him nearly 20 years but eventually he’d converted an old tanker ship to carry 58 containers. The following year he had a ship that could carry 226 containers, and through the 1960s he built up an entire fleet of increasingly larger ships.
His methods were copied, and by the 1970s this was the predominant way to ship goods by sea.
This changed everything. Not only did these innovations birth the modern shipping industry but the modern global economy as well. Before the container ship sending many types of products around the world didn’t make any economic sense — it was just too expensive. Now shipping by sea is not only economically viable but is relatively cheap, and most of the the world’s imported goods are now arriving by container. Globalization, manufacturing products overseas, and the emergence of an array of new economies that are shaping our world now would probably not have happened without the container ship.
Part of the intrigue of travel is to work on an ever-evolving impression of how the world comes together. There is perhaps no better place to do this than at big international container ports, the places where the story lines of our era intersect for a moment before moving on.
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