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The Tongkang – Symbol of the Entrepot Age

Once a part of Penang’s lively waterfront scene, tongkangs have faded into obscurity

It was the 1920s. Penang Harbour, stretching from Swettenham Pier to Pengkalan Weld, bustled endlessly. Bullock carts and handcarts transported goods of all kinds to the wharf while labourers and handlers moved bags and sacks against a backdrop of large ships waiting in the sea roads for their load. Between these ships and the wharf small lighters plied back and forth.

These were the tongkangs. A “tongkang” was simply a lighter used for transporting cargo from the wharf to ships that were too large to dock at the quays. They were small and easily manoeuvred across difficult stretches such as muddy swamps and shallow rivers.

“Tongkang” is a loanword from a southern Hokkien dialect.[1]

As a free port, Penang also served the northern Malay states and southern Siam. Its entrepot trade grew – and the tongkang industry with it. The importance of this little lighter is well recorded. It was noted that of the total trade tonnage in 1929, “10% was handled by the FMS Railway at Prai, around 30% by the Penang Harbour Board and the island wharves, and 60% by lighters at Weld Quay”[2].

The Tongkang Industry


While the European shipping companies based in Penang dealt with administrative matters related to international shipping, the ship chandling, stevedoring and lighterage services were subcontracted to Tamil Muslim companies[3]. These local firms offered a variety of services ranging from landing, boats and stevedores to builders, chandlers and dubashes. This was definitely a lucrative business.

The tongkangs, however, were owned and run separately, by others.

In Penang, the Rawther family, mainly P.K. Shakkarai Rawther, A.K. Seeni Rawther, S.M. Mohamed Yusoff Rawther and Mohamed Salleh Rawther[4], were notable lighter owners. In the 1930s tongkangs owned by Shakkarai sailed as far north as Alor Setar and as far south as Teluk Anson. Rice and copra from Alor Setar were exchanged for cement, while rubber and copra from Teluk Anson were exchanged for rice and flour. The biggest tongkang owned by the company was about 78ft in length and was capable of carrying about 100 tonnes of goods, while the smallest was about 50 to 53ft with the load capacity of 40 to 42 tonnes[5].

Mohamed Yusoff established S.M. Mohamed Yusoff Rawther & Co. in 1915, and today it is managed by his son, S.M Mohamed Idris. The company had about 10 tongkangs when it started out, and advertised itself as landing, shipping and forwarding contractors, boat owners, suppliers, builders, stevedores and dubashes. Mohamed Yusoff came from Thinaikulum in Ramnad, where the Rawther clan is dominant. His son, Mohamed Idris, was born and bred in India and arrived in Malaya only in 1938. Mohamed Yusoff passed away in Penang during the Japanese invasion and his brother-in-law kept the business going until Mohamed Idris returned to Penang after the war. The company owned about 10 tongkangs in the 1930s, but after a restructuring exercise was soon operating about 20 to 30 tongkangs, built by local Chinese workers along the coast of Jelutong[6]. His office once stood at 127 Pitt Street, while the godowns were at 3A Weld Quay.

The lighters operated by Mohamed Idris sailed along the south-west coast of Thailand up to Victoria Point at the Burmese border[7]. They also sailed frequently to Singapore and Thailand and even ferried cattle back from the latter. Other commodities and trading items they transported included rice, flour, sugar, firewood and cement[8].

More interestingly, these lighters were also sent south to Pasir Hitam near Port Weld to be loaded with charcoal destined for Jalan Bakau at Jelutong prior to its re-export to Hong Kong[9]. Taiping and Alor Setar were also common destinations[10]. While operating costs were not especially high, lighters sinking was a common occurrence, as well as minor incidents of theft.

More crucial was the supply of workers needed for operating the lighters. Most were of Tamil-Muslim origin, coming directly from India. While the number of Chinese (known as the “Twakows”) and Indian tongkang workers in Penang had once been more or less equally large, the Chinese were soon outnumbered by the Indians, thanks to the dominance of Tamil Muslim lighter firms in the market. Each tongkang crew was paid two to three Straits Dollars for each metric tonne of cargo discharged. The operation was a tedious one; tongkangs in those days did not have engines and the crew was expected to row throughout the voyage, even in choppy seas and poor weather conditions.

The majority of them worked, slept and even cooked on the vessel. The upper portion of Mohamed Yusoff’s premises on Pitt Street accommodated 15 to 20 lighter workers in the early 1990s[11]. Each tongkang was manned by a three-man crew, and they had to be constantly on the go.

After the war, the Penang Lighters’ Association was established. Chaired by Mohamed Idris for more than 30 years, the association was akin to a boatmen’s union; it acted as a safeguard when it came to employment negotiations. This was to minimise exploitation in wage and working terms. Further improvements were later made with the introduction of new schemes like the Employees’ Provident Fund and an increased number of days off.

But as the need for lighters began to drop, more and more workers were left without job assignments for longer and longer periods of time. This was inevitable given the coming of containerisation. While the Rawther family business survived, the use of tongkangs declined.

Smuggling and the Tongkang

Smuggling activities in Penang thrived when the colonial authorities tried to control import of certain items in order to protect their monopolies. The Rice Crisis of 1919 is a case in point.

From 1919 through to 1921, a combination of poor rice harvests and speculative buying caused unprecedented rice shortages in South-East Asia and led to the imposition of government controls.[12] Penang’s rice import and export industry was greatly affected – only a small group of merchants who were appointed and given licenses by the government could now deal in rice. This acute rice shortage drove up the price of the commodity in Penang and its surrounding markets, especially along the east coast of Sumatra. The promise of hefty profits enticed some merchants to smuggle rice across the Strait of Malacca.

Tongkangs were an essential tool in the smuggling network. On June 19, 1919, for instance, four Chinese merchants, Yeoh Cha, Yeoh Eng, Yeoh Seng Chu and Yeoh Oh used a tongkang to transport 50 bags of rice to their junk, which was anchored off Jelutong.[13] The rice contraband was intended for Berdajai, a port in East Sumatra. However, the attempt was busted by the police and the smugglers arrested and put on trial. Yeoh Ha and Yeoh Eng were found guilty and fined. Apart from rice, tin and rubber were also major commodities that were smuggled out of Penang by tongkang.

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The Decline of the Tongkang

In the mid-1960s and early 1970s, the heyday of the tongkang was almost over.

The entrepot trade had been dwindling after the war. Under the Malayan Union structure put into place after the war, and also under the Federation of Malaya Agreement of 1948, Penang became part of the Malayan polity. The Straits Settlements were no more. The Malayan Union administration imposed trade regulations which contravened the interests of Penang. An example was the Prohibition of Export Order 1946, which prevented Penang from exporting to the lucrative markets of Sumatra and Siam.

Upon independence in 1957, greater centralisation of trade and commerce further restricted Penang’s entrepot trade. The state was also confronted with the rise of the “Common Market Area” scheme that aimed to place Penang within a common market with the Federation. This, coupled with the gradual erosion of its free port status (where more and more goods ended up on the taxable list), were fatal blows for the island’s entrepot trade.

What made matters worse was the rise of economic nationalism in the early 1960s in Penang’s entrepot partners, namely Sumatra, Thailand and Burma. Their aim was to develop their own trading links as well as their own import-substitution industries. In fact, the introduction of Malaya’s first Five Year Plan (1956-1960) and the second Five Year Plan (1961-1965) considered the manufacturing industries to be the vehicle for the development of the Federation.

As new “mother” ports like Port Klang and Singapore developed, port activities in Penang badly slowed. By 1973 the use of containers in Penang Port had increased so rapidly that an estimated 55% of all cargo handled at the port was containerised.

Container berths were soon constructed (especially in Butterworth), with bulk cargo terminals – equipped with conveyor belt systems – to handle the goods. Private pipelines were similarly put in place. This, coupled with the deepening of the channel to permit ships – both big and small – to berth right at the dock in any tide and condition, simply eliminated the need for tongkangs. Following the changes in port methods, which involved more automation and fewer workers, the tongkang became practically obsolete.

In 1989 Penang Harbour had 195 lighters on its register, with the last license issued in 1978. However, records show that only 106 Port Conveyance Permits (which allowed the lighters to transport goods) had been issued[14]. Today, tongkangs are a rare sight. The loss of the tongkangs signalled the passing of an era of thriving port activities.


  • [1] Zhi, Kong Yuan. “A Study of Chinese Loanwords (from South Fujian Dialects) in the Malay and Indonesian Languages” Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 143.4, (1987), pp.452–467.
  • [2] Chuleeporn Virunha, “From Regional Entrepot to Malayan Port” in Penang and Its Region: The Story of an Asian Entrepot, Singapore: NUS Press, p.125
  • [3] Khoo Salma Nasution, “The Chulia in Penang: Patronage and Place-Making around the Kapitan Kling Mosque 1786-1957” (2014), Areca Books, p. 429
  • [4] Ibid, p. 434
  • [5] Report of the Commission Appointed by His Excellency the Governor of The Straits Settlement to Enquire into and Report on the Trade of the Colony 1933-1934 Vol. IV.
  • [6] Interview with Mr S.M Muhamed Idris
  • [7] Khoo Salma Nasution, “The Chulia in Penang: Patronage and Place-Making around the Kapitan Kling Mosque 1786-1957” (2014), Areca Books, p. 435
  • [8] Interview with Mr S.M Muhamed Idris
  • [9] Khoo Salma Nasution, “The Chulia in Penang: Patronage and Place-Making around the Kapitan Kling Mosque 1786-1957” (2014), Areca Books, p. 435
  • [10] Interview with Mr S.M Muhamed Idris
  • [11] Ibid
  • [12] Paul H. Kratoska, ‘The British Empire and the Southeast Asian Rice Crisis of 1919-1921’, Modern Asian Studies , Vol. 24, No. 1 (Feb., 1990), p.115.
  • [13] The Straits Echo, 9 July 1919, p.986.
  • [14] “Twilight of the Mamak Tongkang”, New Straits Times, 29th September 1989
Koay Su Lyn is a research analyst with the History section of Penang Institute who writes to inspire and takes pride in introducing herself as a writer rather than a lawyer.
Pan Yi Chieh is a research analyst at Penang Institute. She graduated from Taiwan National Tsing Hua University in Anthropology. She loves to explore the hidden history of Penang through documents and interviews.
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