The perahu tambang are traditionally described as a passenger boat made out of timber with thatch leaf roof (although aluminium are now commonly used) that can carry 8 to 10 passengers at a time (Rahman, 2015; Manan, 2014), and has horizontal seats on both sides of the boat (Mohd Yusoff, 2013). Some are 15 feet (4.6 meters) long and 4 to 5 feet (1.2 to 1.5 meters) broad, while some are even longer and wider. The size of the perahu tambang may differ and the construction of a perahu tambang in Brooke era did not use any nails unlike in the modern ones (Taboh, 2014), instead they used pasak (timber pegs) system. Nails and steel joints are used today as to strengthen the structure of the boat and ease the construction process. Timber is used as the main material as they are strong. The process require communal works from various people as the process can be complicated. In term of aesthetics, the whole attention was put on the functional aspect to perform as a mode of transportation. The modern day perahu tambang are more colorful based on the owner’s desire.
A passenger has to wait at a landing place, or locally known as the pengkalan to board any perahu tambang (Mohd Yusoff, 2013). The perahu tambang operate between these pengkalan along the Sarawak river banks. The method of crossing the river has changed very little, with the more apparent improvement is the use of engines replacing manual plying (Manan, 2014). Initially the perahu tambang would cross the 400-meter-wide river within almost 10 minutes to get from one end to another (Rahman, 2015). The principle of the manoeuvring is based on the tidal current. The pak tambang would stand at the bow facing forward and manoeuvre it with oars which are fixed to two pieces of timber in the gunnel (Mohd Yusoff, 2013). They would get help from the current whereby they will very quickly get into the stream, and where they are forced to move against the current, they will hug the shore for as long as possible (Zainal Abidin & Mohd Salleh, 2002). Due to this they would not move the perahu tambang at right angles as they need to get the bow to be about 30 degrees to it instead. The perahu tambang therefore would be moving sideways rather than forwards. Similarly, the same technique is used during the rising tide but the other way around.
A. Boat movement during falling tide
B. Boat movement during rising tide
The traditional technique of maneuvering the perahu tambang as observed in 1950s (Zainal Abidin & Mohd Salleh, 2002)
Modern day perahu tambang after the 1970s are equipped with outboard engines that would take them around 2 to 3 minutes to reach the other bank, which is significantly shorter as compared to the traditional method (Rahman, 2015). They still rely on the tidal current but with the help of the engines, they can cross the river in a straight line. The traditional technique is still used but only to get to the stream of the current then the engine will then do the rest, significantly reducing the efforts as opposed to the traditional method.
“.. 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.
“Sungai Sarawak penuh keliaran perahu tambang,
Hilir mudik mansang berlawan,
Menyusur arus bawa penumpang.”
An excerpt from Madzhi Johari’s song – ‘Oh Pak Tambang’
The ephemeral purplish orange dawn in Kuching’s sky sets up a scenic backdrop for the Sarawak’s capital city. Indulging in the romantic ambience are people wandering along the Kuching Waterfront overlooking the Sarawak river. Blending in this picturesque scenery are the people who spend most of their time on the river itself, the boatmen who are always busy in giving the river a pulse of life by carrying passengers crossing to the other side. Before there were bridges connecting both sides of the river, they were the only option. These are the boat plyers, or also locally known as pak tambang (or penambang), plying the Kuching’s iconic boats that are known as the perahu tambang (or ‘perauk’ tambang). Their livelihood has been around from at least the 1800s and still survive until today.