“.. house-boats belonging to Malays, filled with women and children. There were roofed in to shelter their inmates from the rain or sun and were usually propelled by old men sitting in the bows cross-legged.”
Margaret Brooke (1913), My Life in Sarawak.
Perahu tambang photo taken in 1890s (Source: Malaysia, A Pictorial History 1400-2004)
The perahu tambang were reported already in operation since the 1800s, as this is where the trading between the Malay, Dayak and the Chinese took place (Tan, 2009). Chinese settlements can be traced back around that time, when the Chinese immigrants were involved in the trading activities in Kuching, and gold and antimony mining in Bau. An excerpt from an interview conducted by Tan (2009) stated that the local Malays modelled the perahu tambang based on the Chinese boats. However, the origin of the design is not yet concretely confirmed.
The Malay kampongs around the fort and Astana have existed even before the first Rajah arrived in Kuching (Awang Pawi, 2014), as traditional Malay settlements can be found scattered along the river banks as it eases connectivity that helps their socioeconomics. The houses were built so closely with one another that is separated by canals. The ownership of small boats and perahu tambang among the Malay is therefore not optional but a must, the boats to them were like car ownership in modern times and the perahu tambang were the taxis, which were either built by themselves or hired carpenters.
Under the reign of the third Rajah, Charles Vyner Brooke, Kuching has continued to grow in terms of water transportation. The population growth in the 1920s saw the perahu tambang activities shifted to not just operating for the Malay community, but expanded to all community in Kuching and the activity of the boat plying evolved into a traditional career inherited through generations (Tan, 2009). The river banks were then connected by Satok suspension bridge which was completed in 1926 but using perahu tambang to get to the other side of the river was still favorable. Despite this, the perahu tambang service did start to decline as land vehicles slowly being adapted thus replacing the traditional mode of transportation.