Once Upon A Time in Penang before the construction of deep-water wharves in Butterworth , the harbor waters were teeming with tugboats, each with one or two or even three “tongkangs” in tow.
These formed a vital sector of the marine transportation industry and was an iconic feature of life in Pulau Pinang in those days.
A crossing of the channel onboard a ferry would see me peering out of the windows, to watch intently how the poor little tugs labored in a gentle rock-and-roll fashion against wind and water, with black smoke spewing from their funnels as they hauled the bigger unpowered vessels.
These days, such a scene is quite rare; and when I come across one, it never fails to tug at my heartstrings.
No romantic frolicking but an economic activity borne out of necessity.
In the days before the deep-water wharves were constructed along the shores of Butterworth, wooden boats – called tongkang – would line up alongside cargo ships of all sizes in the waters of Penang Harbour. Using shipboard cranes, goods of all kinds were transferred from the tongkangs onto the ship, and vice-versa.
There were many ships at anchor, each with its attendant tongkang flotilla. And the cross-harbour ferries usually had to do some deft zig-zagging amidst them to ensure crossing in one piece (and still floating). Some fascinating memories to share.
For better or for worse, the advent of containerization has practically sunk this mode of cargo transport for ports around the world.