Fading romance of the ferries


Two ferries docked at Pengkalan Raja Tun Uda in Weld Quay, Penang. — Filepic

THE first ferry I took to reach Penang island for the first time in 1991 was ‘Pulau Undan’, and it was so romantic.

“Pulau Undan, Pulau Undan. Bersedia (get ready), ” the man manning the terminal in Butterworth said in a curt professional manner through the public address system.

The ferry captain pulled on his horn and let out a long, loud, low-pitched blast in acknowledgement.

“Pulau Undan, bertolak sekarang (depart now), ” the man at the terminal instructed.

I was 20 years old. It was almost three decades ago. Yet I never forgot that voice on the public address system. So cool and calm.

My (then) girlfriend led me below deck as the ferry went under way.

It was such an adventure. I loped from stern to fore and back and could not decide which view from which end I liked the most.

The sea was much cleaner back then. I remember seeing large needlefish (Banang in Malay) darting away from the ferry at the fore.

As the ferry got closer to Weld Quay, I quietly beheld the colonial buildings and the clock tower at what is now Wisma Kastam.

That sense of wonderment I had looking at the Pearl of the Orient for the first time has been preserved in me till today and I empathise with tourists who love Penang so much.

Oh ya, I forgot to mention the snack bar at the ferry’s upper deck. So many people would buy a bun or curry puff to munch on while waiting for the vessel to cross the channel.

That time, the ferry ride was 40 sen. Now, it is RM1.20.

But the romance of the ferry rides did not last long for me.

You see, I lived then in Bagan Ajam in north Butterworth and worked on the island.

Every work day, I joined the throng rushing to the island in the mornings.

So many people took the ferry. Penang Bridge was already up but not everyone could afford to pay the daily bridge toll nor were cars back then seen as a necessity. How to compare RM7 (bridge toll then) with 40 sen (adult ferry fare then)?

Then there were the monsoons. If you were on board a Penang ferry during a mad storm, you would get wet.

The wind would blow the precipitation into the ferry, roof notwithstanding.

I noticed that when there was a storm, the ferries would take a more circular route, probably to negotiate the current and waves.

The thing about Penang channel is that it is shaped like a funnel on both ends and the current is really strong.

More than once, the ferry had to stop mid-channel when the weather was bad and waited for I did not know what. And I would be late for work.

The worst were night times when I had to work late. After a certain time, the ferry service petered down to just one ride per hour; the service was 24/7 back then.

I fell asleep at the ferry terminal’s waiting area so many times.

I missed the last bus in Butterworth a few times and had to walk about 10km to my rented room in Bagan Ajam.

After a few months, the romance of the Penang ferries wore down to nothing for me and as a public transport commuter, I yearned for a better system to cross the channel.

I could not stand it in the end and finally moved to Penang island where the rent was much higher than in Butterworth.

It is only a distant memory now but back then, the higher rent I had to pay out of my humble clerk’s salary drew a sigh out of me at the start of every month.

So now when new and faster ferries are supposed to be commissioned next month, we have thousands of people ranting and raving on social media about how much they love the old clunkers that ply Penang channel so very slowly.

They became so noisy that Federal Government coughed up RM30mil to maintain the ferry service as it is.

My take: if you don’t need to take the ferry daily, you don’t get to comment.

If you are but a tourist who want that romantic ride across, prepare to pay at least RM30 for the joyride.

Mainland Penang is a valuable piece of the state because it allows wage workers to live in a slightly cheaper locale while working in one of the top economic hubs in the country.

For that to happen efficiently, we need faster transport across Penang channel.

Some people superficially draw comparisons with Hong Kong’s ferry service between their island and Macau in mainland China.

A quick check on the news shows that Hong Kong’s Star Ferry is suffering losses too and looking at their ferry fares, I don’t think stingy Penangites will ever be able to pay those fares.

Our boxy old ferries are not going to be crushed into scrap metal anyway. They will be turned into museums, floating restaurants, or tourist attractions for out-of-state people to pay at least RM30 to use to cross the channel.

‘Penang lang’ who need to cross the channel daily have been wishing for a faster and better way across by ferry for decades.

Visitors and romantics must walk in the shoes of such people before they open their mouths.

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