Romancing Penang’s Ferry


This August, some bright minds will transform the ferry walkway into a platform connecting the people of Seberang Perai with the island in more ways than one.

A cultural festival in Butterworth? Sounds swell!

There have even been cases of fringe festivals eclipsing the main festival itself (Edinburgh Fringe Festival comes to mind). Generally, the two complement each other the way Penang Island complements its mainland half and vice versa – through diversity and a shared history.

For an islander like me, this provides an excuse to head over to gorge on the delicacies there… which brings me to our beloved ferries. In pre-bridge years, for many Penangites on both sides of the strait, the only way across was in fact by ferry.

Crossing the strait

For many, the crossing became very much part of their life. Shirley Ng, for example, lives in Butterworth and works at the city council. “I have been taking the ferry since 1977. It used to be a novelty taking the ferry to work, but that soon became routine.”

Through the years, Ng has seen and met many colourful characters on board. “It’s usually a pretty banal ride, but once I saw a tall and moustached Malay man – not bad looking – sitting inside the ferry, pretending to use a big shell as a camera,” Ng muses. “I have not seen him since, but he left a lasting, rather sad, impression on me.”

Routine or not, the history of the ferry is one that few know about. Writers Marcus Langdon and Keith Hockton, owners of Entrepot Publishing and longtime residents of Penang, are presently curating Crossing the Strait, a photo exhibition on the history of the ferry from its humble beginnings in the late 19th century till the present day. It will be held throughout August on the terminal walkway. “The 12 (photo) panels span the timeline from the very beginning, with the first panel being the early East India Company jetty off Lebuh Light. We’re basically talking about the history of crossing the strait from then until now,” says Langdon.

“People have been crossing the strait for years but the first actual commercial ferry service that we can find seemed to have come in 1894, and it was a Chinese company owned by Quah Beng Kee and his brothers,” reveals Langdon. Quah later bought over the business from his brothers and started his own shipping company while continuing to run the ferries.

“There was a little jetty in front of the fort where the naval buildings are now, called Kedah Pier, and that ferry service ran from the pier across to the mainland,” says Langdon. “As far as I can determine, it probably stopped at a little jetty somewhere near the Sree Maha Mariamman Devasthanam temple (in Butterworth). Quah formed the Guan Lee Hin Steamship Company, and that company was merged in 1907 to form the Eastern Shipping Company. It has a long history in the whole of Penang’s maritime freighting business because Eastern Shipping Company became a very big company which was later taken over by Straits Steamship Company.”

And the ferry service has undergone great changes since the late 19th century: “In those days there were just little steam ferries, and as the service continued and thrived they got a little bit bigger,” says Langdon. “The ferry service was taken over by the Penang Harbour Board in 1922 and it then leased that business to the Federated Malay States Railways (FMSR). FMSR was running its own steam ferries, and the harbour board had these other steam ferries, and they merged that business. FMSR ran that business for a long time and it became Malayan Railways. They scaled up from there, and the Penang Port Commission was formed. Bigger jetties were built where the current jetties are. They were upgraded later on, so basically it’s been a continual ferry service for well over a hundred years.”

It is hoped that the photos will pique the interest of commuters: “In essence, this exhibition is to provide information for travellers; it might tell them something they don’t know and spark a bit of interest. It will be interesting to see what sort of feedback we get from the exhibition,” says Langdon.

The Love Truck.

Passenger portraits along the walkway.

Selfies populating the fence.

From history to… love?

To many, the ferry is very much an object to be romanticised – taken in sepia photos posted on Instagram or slow motion atmospheric videos on Vimeo. So what the folks at George Town Festival (GTF) have done is a photograph installation about love, titled Love on Board, which is an exhibition of photos taken by the public alongside panels of passenger portraits.

How it works is quite simple: take a selfie with your loved ones – be they family, friends or lovers – on board the ferry (sitting in your car does not count – the background needs to be clearly of the ferry). Then, you can get your picture instantly printed and laminated at a “temporary studio”, amusingly called the Love Truck, which will be parked at the space between the ferry and the walkway on the island. After that, you can tie your picture with a ribbon along the walkway of the ferry. Fret not – safety of your pictures has been vouched for by Penang Port: the installation is inside the walkway, so there is not much possibility of pictures getting nicked.

“The purpose of Love on Board is to involve people and the community,” says Carey Ooi, Marcom manager for GTF. “We want to link people back to the ferry itself, and to link the island with Butterworth,” she says about the installation, which kick-started in the middle of July and will last throughout August.

On top of that, Love on Board also aims to encourage people to use public transport; it is hoped that instead of driving all the way to Butterworth, festival goers will take the ferry instead, with the printed selfies as an incentive.

But what about when one arrives on the mainland – how is one to get from ferry terminal to Jalan Jetty Lama, where Butterworth Fringe Festival is centred?

GTF has that sorted as well: “There will be 30-40 Vespas ready to shuttle people from the terminal to Jalan Jetty Lama,” says Ooi. It will be a five-minute ride on the vintage scooters, done in collaboration with Pakatan Vespa Utara (Northern Vespareans). Prices for the shuttle service are yet to be determined at time of writing, but a fun ride is guaranteed. A vintage VW kombi van will also be in service, which should be fun for those who grew up with Scooby Doo cartoons.

And while the installations and festival perks and performances sound like great fun, perhaps Butterworth Fringe Festival’s greatest accomplishment will be in bringing people from all walks of life together – from history aficionados to selfie lovers, Vespareans to everyday folk, mainlanders to islanders. You never know where the walkway will lead…

Julia "Bubba" Tan lives a sedentary life of reading and watching David Attenbourough documentaries. She does not usually refer to herself in the third person.

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