For more than 200 years, boatmen, such as Ah Chong, have provided those living along the river with one of the oldest modes of transportation. The penny boat, or perahu tambang, has long been a cheap and convenient way for villagers in Kampung Seberang Nyonya, Tambang Badak and Pantai Johor to cross the waterway to Pekan Cina and Alor Star.
A row of shophouses built in the early days of Pekan Cina
On a good day, Ah Chong earns over RM20 and he can carry three person per trip.
Passengers with bicycles and motorcycles are sometimes charged extra. Once a thriving profession,
Ah Chong’s career is slowly giving way to progress and development in Pekan Cina. “In the past, passengers were charged 5 sen each for the trip.
The jetty here used to be a very busy place where it supported many trading activities.
“Boatmen in their sampans transported rice and other agricultural produce along the river,” he said. However, paved roads and bridges along and across Sungai Kedah have replaced the sampan.
Ah Chong said the scorn of the young and more affordable private transportation left only a few people who were keen to cross to Pekan Cina via sampan.
“Pekan Cina has changed a lot. There are so many cars here right now and sometimes, we are dealing with parking problem. Those days, people were travelling via trishaws, bicycles and sampan,” he said.
Pekan Cina was opened in 1862 by the early Chinese settlers. It was also known as the town’s earliest road, lined with typical old Chinese-style shophouses.
Located about two minutes away from the Alor Star city centre, the city’s first hotel was the Tai Ah Hotel in Jalan Pekan Cina, which later was converted into a shop.
The arch is a unique mixture of Pekan Cina and Pekan Melayu.
Tea-seller Lee Ley Seng, 68, having grown up in Pekan Cina, said it had taught him the meaning of harmony and peace by living in a multiracial country.
“The most unique thing about Pekan Cina is that it is located next to Pekan Melayu.
“Most of the traders would stay in their shophouses.
“They would run their businesses as usual in daytime but at night, it was like a festival. “Neighbours from Pekan Cina and Pekan Melayu would chat over tea and coffee, and mingle with each other,” he said.
Lee grew up with 10 siblings at his father’s tea shop. He took over the business when his father died. “I really miss the good old days.
Elderly Chinese men could be seen whiling away their mornings here over cups and cups of steaming Chinese tea, and indulging in their favourite pastime, Chinese checkers.
“As years went by, no one lived here as the buildings were too old. “Most of the old traders moved to big cities to continue running their businesses,” he said, adding that Pekan Cina had changed, too, as some shophouses were converted to cafes, hardware stores and bars as well.
Lee hopes the Kedah government could preserve the more than 100-years-old buildings, as they were one of the treasure troves available in the state.
Echoing his sentiment was Lim Siaw Liang, 71, who works at a dry food store, selling anchovies and belacan (shrimp paste or sauce). Lim has been working at the store for over 20 years, and lamented that the number of traders here had dwindled, with most moving to cities to run their businesses.
“According to my late father, Pekan Cina had its own attraction. People here were living peacefully with the Malay community who lived in Pekan Melayu and they mingled with one another.
“We were like family. “This town has uncountable memorable experiences to certain people. The young generation should learn from the past about the meaning of harmony and living together, regardless of race and religion.
“If people ask me what is the best example and the meaning of peace, I would tell them, go to Pekan Cina and Pekan Melayu, and you will learn something from them.”