Sunday, August 07, 2011

History: Sarikei-Sibu Water Transport - Row, row your boat

In the days of yore, people settled and developed towns along the Rejang River for its water transport. Before 1961, Sarikei, Bintangor and Sibu were not connected by tarred roads. Let's wind back the clock and trace the history of water transport development. In the beginning, the only way was to row your sampan and gasp in awe in the wake of an occasional colonial schooner.

Express boat on Rejang River, circa early 1970s

In 1911, the Sibu Chinese Merchants had a joint venture with a Singapore businessman, Mr Teo Soon Bee 张美 to form a steamship company. The first small steamship, Flevo 碧里茂, plied between Singapore and Sibu three times per month.

The Sibu Chinese Merchants built its first boat, Pren 巴莲 , in 1918 and it sailed along Rejang River. In 1919, Kuching's Ong Tiang Swee founded the Sarawak Steamship Co. 輪船公司 and a steamship sailed between Singapore and Sibu and added a route to Kuching.

In 1937, the Sibu Chinese Merchants bought a 2000-ton steamer and named it "New Foochow 福州". It served between Sibu and Ma Wee port in Fuzhou, China.

In 1935-1938, Kiong Hong shipyard was established in Sibu and built small launches with 5 to 8 horsepower (hp) to service the small towns along Rejang River. In 1939-1941, small fishing boats and sea faring cargo ships were built.

Express boat on Rejang River, circa early 1970s

During World War II, the Japanese controlled the river  from 1942-1944 and no new ship were added to service the Rejang. In the decade post the war (1945-1955), lots of small slow launches plied the Rejang. Sarikei to Sibu took a whooping 8 hours while Sibu to Kapit needed a day.

In 1960-1963, the double decker motor launch, Lieng Hiing 聯雄, cut the travel time between Sarikei and Sibu to 4 hours. You could reach Kapit within a day from Sibu.

The era of the express boats dawned in 1964-1966. The express boats could traverse between Sarikei and Sibu in 1.5 hours. The express boats San Pan 三邦 and Sibu 詩巫 zoomed between Sarikei and Sibu twice a day each. The small express boat, The Time , could travel between Sibu and Binatang (now Bintangor) in 1 hour

In 1967-1980, the first metal based express boat, The Swallow 燕, started the metal boat revolution and pushed the wooden launches to the smaller routes. There were 18 shipyards in Sibu that jostled for business to build cargo ships and ocean faring vessels. Sibu became the undisputed queen of shipyards in Sarawak. (Source: 1)

At its peak, there were more than 150 boats travelling along the Rejang; with more than 50 boats serving the Sarikei and Sibu route. Competition was intense with honking and touting for passengers at the wharf. Free packets of drinks were even bundled into the promotion in the mid 1970s and boats would race against each other at times. By the 1990s, improved road conditions between Sarikei and Sibu impacted river transport between Sibu and Sarikei badly. The river route between Sarikei and Sibu had its last trip and hung up its horn in 1996. (Source: 2)

Kuching to Sarikei express boat, 2007

In 1981-1988, 90% of the express boats were built in Sibu and came with the bells and whistles of modern creature comforts like air con, video players and nice seats. An aluminium alloy based express boat plied the Kuching-Sarikei-Sibu route and opened a new sea chapter to slowly relegate the old maidens like MV Rajah Mas and MV Soon Bee to the cargo category in late 1990s.

Now Sibu has 33 shipyards at Rantau Panjang that build for the global market. Those illegally located shipyards in Sibu's Sungei Bidut and Engkilo were asked to close by 2009 and were moved to Rantau Panjang. (Source: 3) With space running out, a new zone at Bawang Assan was allocated for ship building in Feb 2011. (Source: 4) A Maritime Museum in Sibu was announced in 2010 to mark the impressive journey of this industry. (Source: 5)

1. Sibu Chinese History Collection 詩巫華族史科集, 1992. Page 254-257
2. Borneo Post article (24th Oct 2010)
3. The Star article (4th Dec 2008)
4. The Star article (15th Feb 2011)
5. The Star article (3rd April 2010)


Sarawakiana@2 said...

This is a lovely post...easy to read andeasy to remember in the future...thanks

Daniel Yiek said...

SIBU: IT service engineer Lau Ing Kuiing remembered how he loved travelling as a boy when growing up in Sungai Paoh, Jakar, in Sarikei Division.

Travelling in the late 60s meant taking a boat ride with his mother to Sibu for wedding receptions and other functions.

This came probably once or twice a year only, but it was a good enough holiday for the village boy because he got to ‘see the world’ in Sibu.

The ‘holiday package’ came with an exciting boat ride, with a stopover in Bintangor, he reminisced.

Almost 50 years have since passed, and Lau, now married with four children in Sibu, still travels to his village about thrice monthly.

Looking back, he said he had gone through a travel evolution of sorts in the vast land of Sarawak, which is bisected by hundreds of rivers and tributaries.

Over the years, he had travelled in wooden boats, express boats, speed boats, by ferry, and now by cars on roads through bridges.

Lau’s story is a reflection of the people of Central Sarawak, where river transport used to be their bread-and-butter mode of moving around.

Ever since achieving independence through Malaysia, infrastructure development in Central Sarawak has changed significantly.

When Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Adenan Satem announced on last April 29 that Lanang Bridge would be toll free effective May 24, 2015, Lau said the news brought great strides to the history of travel.

From his own travel story, he saw two significances of change.

“Firstly, travelling between Sarikei and Sibu in the 60s by motor launch would take eight hours; it is now an hour’s ride.

“In short, Lanang Bridge had changed the life of the people.

“Secondly, travel becomes cheaper with upgraded infrastructure. When I first travelled, the boat fare was RM4. It increased to RM8 in the 80s.

“A speed boat ride cost RM12 in the 90s. Now, it costs RM3 to cross Lanang Bridge. In another few days, crossing the bridge will be free.”

Lau came from a family of seven siblings, including two sisters. He is the sixth.

He loved travelling as a boy because that would take him out of his rubber plantation and pepper garden.

Travelling meant coming to Sibu, where his family has a lot of relatives.

Lau studied in Khiew Mang Chinese Primary School and Sarikei High School.

His real chance to venture out came when he studied in Sacred Heart School in Sibu.

“That means more boat rides. I used to return twice monthly. In the travel evolution, I went through travelling in boats without air-conditioners to those built in the shape of airplanes and air-conditioned.

“In the 90s, boat rides included entertainment movies from video tapes.”

Lau left for Kuala Lumpur to study in Tuanku Abdul Rahman College thereafter.

When he graduated in 1989, express boat rides reached its height of development.

“In the next few years, bigger express boats were built with six seats in a row and travelling at faster speeds that cut travel to only one hour plus between Sibu and Sarikei.

“I remember residents living along river banks complained because the waves generated by these powerful boat engines caused serious soil erosion.”

Lau said land travel became popular since the 90s when ferry services were introduced.

“First, there was a ferry service in Durin. Sarikei folks could then drive to Sibu via Durin. But that was like travelling through the back door, for we had to go round the back in a 120km route, with most parts of the journey on gravel and earth road.”

Daniel Yiek said...

He said the route might take up to two hours; it was not a popular route and travellers continued the river route.

“Land travel became popular when the ferry services of Sungai Ma’aw and Paradom began. Shortly, Lanang ferry service offered an alternative route.

“This marked the next chapter of travel in Rajang River Basin and the dwindling of river travel.”

Despite the travel evolution, Lau said river crossing by ferry had one disadvantage — queuing at the ferry point.

“I once waited for four hours in a queue. Tempers of drivers flared and passengers fumed. But when Lanang Bridge was built, this nightmare perished.”

Lau said the travel evolution had left behind cherished memories.

“We are now a part of the history of change spearheaded by the government. Maybe, when we age, we shall be story tellers to our grandchildren about this adventure of travel in Rajang River Basin. Each of us is a story in itself.”

Lau recalled visitors were always amazed by how people travelled in the Rajang River Basin.

“When I started work after graduation, I brought a West Malaysian colleague for an express boat ride to Sarikei.”

He said his colleague was dumbstruck when he saw how travellers walked up a single plank from the pontoon to the boat and moved about swiftly on the surfaces of boats cramped at the wharf.

Lau said he was carrying a computer printer in one hand and a bag in another then.

“To the West Malaysian, this was like performing a balancing stunt on the surface of the water.”

Lau said this was the unique life of the people of the Rajang, but, sadly, this had become history and remained a story to tell.

“We should move on now. The next chapter of our story is our new life with Lanang Bridge as travels between Sibu and Sarikei continue. This will be a story for our children to continue.”

Source: Borneo Post 18/5/2015

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