Double-decker ‘tongkang’ plying the Rajang River will be a thing of the past

Double-decker 'tongkangs' crucial part of Rajang River economy since the 1950s

SIBU, Nov 24: Double-decker tongkang or barges plying between Sibu to Kapit and Song will soon see their demise once the Sibu-Kapit Road is fully complete by this December.

To long-time ‘tongkang’ operator Chua Hock Kee, tongkang services will cease sooner than express boats as their only business is to carry goods or cargo load.

“The Sibu-Kapit Road is expected to be fully open to motorists in December. Base on this, I see that we can only last up to the 2021 Chinese New Year celebration (Feb 21).

”There are six ‘tongkang’ plying from Sibu along the Rajang River to Kapit and three to Song and once the Sibu-Kapit Road is complete, cargo lorries will replace tongkang,” he added.

He pointed out that lorries possess more advantanges over ‘tongkangs’ in terms of speed.

”With lorries, it will take them less than 3 hours to reach Kapit, whereas our tongkang will take up to between 18 to 22 hours depending on the water current. The fastest we can travel is 12 hours.

“Besides, lorries can drive up to the doorsteps of the shops to deliver the goods. For us, our vessels have to berth at the wharf in Kapit then our deckhands will unload the goods from the tongkangs to the delivery lorries.

“This is very time consuming and moreover, it will add extra cost to the goods,” Chua added.

Tongkangs are powered by engine with horse power of between 120 to 350 hp depending on the vessel size.  Each tongkang cost between RM100,000 to RM400,000.

Two ‘tongkang’ operators uncertain of their future when they wind up their businesses upon completion of Sibu-Kapit Road

Chua, now 52, had been running the business since he was only 20 years old reminisced the good old days when all businesses in Kapit and Song rely solely on their ‘tongkang’ to transport all sort of goods since the 1950s.

“We carried anything as long as they can fit into our vessel. This include consumable goods like biscuit, rice, cooking oil, canned food, to other items like tyre, fire extinguisher, vehicle spare parts and even coffin,” he said.

Like his peers, he knew and fully accepted that they will have to wind up their business very soon.

“As age is still on my side, I can do other work once I stop operating this business,” he said.

Another operator who wished to be identified only as Kong, 69, concurred with Chua.

“It is very difficult for us to pull through now. Sooner or later, we will have to close down. Our monthly expenditure is quite high as we have to pay salary for our deckhands, RM300 to Sarawak River Board for the use of the jetty facility and for each trip to Kapit, our fuel cost is more than RM1,000,” he lamented.

Each Tongkang employed between three to four deckhands.

Kong who only ventured into the ‘tongkang’ business more than 10 years ago is however uncertain of his future. — DayakDaily