On the last day of 2020, the iconic double-decker ferries connecting Penang island’s main city, George Town, to Butterworth, on the Malaysian mainland, were withdrawn from a service that has been in operation for more than 120 years.
It was the end of an era, and hundreds of people, young and old, flocked to take one last ride across the Penang Strait, the retirement apparently reminding them of the historical importance of a service that has been diminished by the practicality of the two bridges linking to the Malaysian mainland, opened in 1985 and 2014.
“Regardless of race and social status, a ferry ride across the Penang Channel was an iconic experience,” says Penang-born comic-book artist Lefty Julian.
It wasn’t initially clear what fate awaited the six vessels that had been mothballed. However, last month, following a public outcry, the Penang Port Commission made an announcement that is sure to enhance the island’s tourism credentials.
The first Penang ferries entered service in either 1893 or 1894 – five or six years after Hong Kong’s Star Ferry, then known as the Kowloon Ferry Company, began operations. Funded by local Chinese entrepreneur Quah Beng Kee, they were the only public link between Penang and the railway to Singapore.
The original fleet consisted of three large steamers and seven launches that shuttled between Penang’s Kedah Pier and the Bagan Tuan Kecil Pier, in Butterworth, occasionally connecting to nearby towns on the mainland such as Bukit Tambun. From 1925, cars were transported across on floating decks towed by the launches, until a steam ferry vessel was introduced soon afterwards.
The Japanese occupation of Malaya during War World II disrupted services until 1945. Larger vessels debuted in May 1957, just before Malaysia gained independence, to accommodate more motor traffic.
Following the opening on September 24, 1959, of the Pengkalan Raja Tun Uda terminal, in George Town, and the Pengkalan Sultan Abdul Halim terminal, in Butterworth – both of which remain operational – the Penang ferry enjoyed 25 years of unchallenged success.
“Back in the 1970s, the ferries were all painted in yellow, and nothing major had changed since,” says Lefty Julian. “The only difference was that they had reduced the passengers’ area to make way for more vehicles in recent years.
“I understand that nothing lasts forever, so I decided to do my part as an artist to preserve this collective memory of many in a series of drawings.”
One of three themes in the artist’s latest exhibition, “Sama-Sama: George Town, a Multicultural Art Journey”, is the celebration of Penang’s decommissioned ferries. Booked to be a part of the annual George Town Festival (which was supposed to run from July 10 to 18), the exhibition has been postponed indefinitely because of the current surge of coronavirus infections in Malaysia.
Chan Mun Khee, 75, a resident of Bukit Mertajam, to the southeast of Butterworth, made his maiden voyage on the ferry in 1972. “There was always a long queue and it would take about two hours to board if you came on a motorbike. It was so exciting: passengers stayed on the upper deck to enjoy the views of George Town’s skyline while motorbikes were stored at the front of the lower deck, and cars loaded at the back.
“The Penang Bridge to the mainland still had to be built, and the whole ferry journey by car, including embarking and disembarking, would take up to four or five hours,” Chan says.
Traffic congestion was to be the service’s undoing. Proposed by the second Malaysian prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak, in the 1970s, the 13.5km-long Penang Bridge opened on September 14, 1985, under prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. Its opening marked the beginning of 35 years of slow decline for the ferry service.
Ferries do still connect Penang island to the mainland – a much faster catamaran passenger service has shortened the 30-minute crossing to 10 minutes, and a roll-on, roll-off ferry rented from Langkawi transports two-wheeled vehicles – but the drivers of cars must use one of the two bridges.
Following their decommissioning, the double-decker vessels – named after the Malaysian islands of Kapas, Payar, Undan, Talang Talang, Angsa and, of course, Penang – were moored off the terminals on either side of the strait, and were sinking in the collective memory until a literal sinking created a furore.
At the beginning of June, the Pulau Pinang, the oldest of the six, was photographed half-submerged at the Bagan Alam slipway, in Butterworth.
“The Pulau Pinang ferry was included in a proposal to be leased to another company and be still utilised in Penang’s waters, although not for passenger service,” says Datuk Tan Teik Cheng, chairman of Penang Port Commission. “A leakage on the ferry caused water to enter the engine room, eventually sinking the vessel.”
The public uproar over the neglect shown to the ferry named after Penang itself led to swift remedial action and a change in plans. “The Pulau Pinang was fully bandaged and the water drained out, and is now back to floating safely,” Tan says.
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Activists such as Khoo Salma Nasution, of the Penang Heritage Trust, doubt any instructions were given to ensure that the ferries were kept shipshape until they could be refurbished. In line with that of the Penang Public Transport Users Association, an advocacy group for the betterment of public transport, Khoo’s wish was for the ferries to continue to cross the strait, albeit with reduced frequency.
“Penang could use the old ferries – like the Beaufort train, in Sabah, and the Perth tramway, in Australia: the historic vehicles keep running, and people love the experience of riding them,” she says.
But on July 1, the Penang Port Commission announced different plans for the old fleet. The ferries will be transformed into tourist attractions, and most should be ready to start their new lives by the end of the year, Covid-19 restrictions permitting.
Pulaus Kapas and Payar will become floating seafood restaurants operated by Chuen Shin Aquaculture. The two vessels will cruise off Pulau Jerejak, an inhabited islet near the eastern coast of Penang that was in colonial times used by the British as a quarantine station and where Chuen Shin operates fish farms that cover 8,000 square metres.
Pulaus Undan and Talang-Talang will be fitted out with restaurants, shops, conference rooms and wedding halls, and Kantan Jaya Marine Services will use them to conduct pleasure cruises around Penang.
Expected to open in October next year, the Pulau Pinang will become a museum dedicated to the island’s ferries and be moored in the Tanjung City Marina, off Weld Quay, near the Pengkalan Raja Tun Uda terminal.
“The main reason for changing the function of the Pulau Pinang to a museum is that its capability to keep serving passengers is now questionable,” says Tan.
“The main deck will host a historical exhibition with ferry replicas and 3D visuals that will spill into the engine room,” says Hadi Abu Osman, of Printhero Merchandise, the project manager for the Pulau Pinang’s 1.5 million ringgit (HK$2.75 million) new lease on life.
The upper deck and rooftop will house two art spaces, one of which will display glow-in-the-dark pieces. “All artwork will be related to the history of the ferries,” says Hadi.
The final ferry in the retired fleet, the Pulau Angsa, will be managed by the tourism branch of the state government, which was inspired by the adaptive reuse of old ferries in Hong Kong and Dubai.
“The preliminary concept is to refurbish this historical icon into an arts space to nourish Penang’s creative ecosystem and complement our venture in the creative terrain,” says Yeoh Soon Hin, Penang’s executive councillor for tourism and creative economy. The ferry will function as a focal point for those who wish to connect, collaborate and create.
“We are in pursuit of a sustainable business model to generate stable streams of revenue to upkeep its hefty maintenance costs,” says Yeoh. “Penang will maintain the iconic symbolism of the ferry to uphold public sentiment while transforming it into a remarkable space to accelerate tourism development, art appreciation and expression.”
In other words, the Pulau Angsa and her five sisters will remain a welcome sight in Penang for nostalgic locals and historically inquisitive tourists alike.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.