THE kotak fishing boats – like their bright colours – are fading into obscurity in the face of competition from bigger and more powerful modern fishing vessels.
Kotak fleets are fast vanishing from the mooring areas at the two major kotak fishing villages – Bintawa and Sungai Apong — in the state capital.
During their heyday in the 60’s, it was common to see kotaks – as many as over 300 – clustered along the shores of Sarawak.
Today, these once ubiquitous fishing boats, used predominantly by Henghua fishermen, no longer rule the local fishing grounds. And 10 years down the road, they could well be history.
This is not surprising as there are now only 12 kotaks left in Kuching – two at Bintawa and 10 at Sungai Apong.
Though the number of kotaks is diminishing, the two powerful associations — Kuching Chinese Kotak Association (KCKA) of Bintawa and Sungai Apong Kotak Association of Kuching (SAKAK) — representing the two fishing villages are still very active with members having successfully transitioned from kotak to modern fishermen.
The distinct features of the kotak are not only its rainbow colours but also denoted through its sole usage by the Henghua fishing community, especially in the early days.
Even today, the over-100 strong SAKAK is still 100 per cent Henghua in composition, according to its 53-year-old chairman Lau Hong Joong.
One the other hand, the KCKA has opened its membership to other dialect groups such as the Hakka and Teochew though the percentage is low, revealed its 60-year-old chairman Law Bee Soon. The association now has over 100 members.
When the sea-faring Henghuas from China first landed in Kuching, fishing was not a choice profession but the only resort for Henghua immigrants without skills or education.
“Our forefathers had no choice. Unskilled and illiterate, there was nothing much they could do in terms of jobs. As Kuching is situated not far from the sea, we – like them — all ended up as fishermen,” related Law who has been fishing for the past four decades.
The migration of the Henghuas did not come about in bulk but was rather sporadic, spreading over a century before World War II.
Their numbers were not big and they settled down mainly as fishermen along Ban Hock Wharf at Padungan and Petanak areas, living in thatched huts and later wooden houses.
This early Henghua community formed an association — the Fishing Association of Sarawak — at Padungan to help other newcomers settle down and fight to protect their interests.
In 1947, to better represent themselves, the association changed its name to Kuching Chinese Kotak Association. At that time, it only represented the kotak fishermen in Kuching.
In the 60’s when the government reclaimed Petanak for town development, some of the fishermen there moved to Sungai Apong while others stayed behind.
“That gave rise to the Sungai Apong kotak fishing community. The remaining Petanak group eventually also gave way to development by moving to Bintawa in the 60’s and 70’s where they formed the Bintawa fishing community,” Law recalled.
The KCKA did much more than helping Chinese kotak immigrants settle down in Kuching.
Between 1960-70 when the association was at its peak, it helped develop the Sungai Apong and Bintawa fishing villages as well as build schools for the children from the community.
Although Law and Lau had been using kotaks for two decades before switching to more modern fishing vessels (with a sharp bow), the transition did not pose them much difficulty. And they do not regret the move at all.
On the kotak, Law said its distinctive feature is the bow which is flat like a box.
“Perhaps, that’s why it is called kotak (box) fishing boat,” he added.
As the bow is flat, the kotak can ride choppy waters better but, as Law pointed out, a flat bow also reduces the speed of the kotak – so it cannot move as fast as vessels with sharp bows which produce less water friction.
“We have made comparisons. The new type of fishing boat is three times faster than the kotak,” said Law who started fishing in the kotak when he was only 17.
Apart from speed, small size is another reason why the kotaks are being abandoned. The modern fishing boats, measuring 60-feet long and 18-feet wide, are twice the size of the kotaks which are just 36-feet long and 10-feet wide.
“With bigger boats, we also have bigger storage for our catch. The kotak is really too small and too slow,” Law said.
However, in the 60’s and 70’s when the kotaks were the workhorse of the Henghua fishing community, even the number of colours painted on the boats was significant.
The kotaks from Sungai Apong and Bintawa were distinguished by the number of their colour stripes. The hulls of Sungai Apong kotaks were painted with seven colour stripes that radiated from the centre.
It could be any colour — red, green, black, white, yellow or blue – and arranged according to sequence. For example, red-green-white-yellow-white-green-red.
For the Bintawa fleet, the colours must consist of five shades, of which the first and last must be red.
Kotaks from both communities had a big wooden round eye fixed on each side of the front hull near the bow. And there must also be a sculpture of a fish on each side of the bow as well as that of a white anchor on the flat bow itself.
“The eyes mean clear sight whereby fish can be spotted quickly and clearly. The fish sculptures on both sides of the bow project our hopes for a bountiful catch everytime we go out to sea,” explained Lim Chiew Kek, 56, a fisherman from Sungai Apong and also the last of the kotak fishing boat builders.
Transfer of skills
Lim’s father brought his boat-building skills with him when he migrated from Putian prefecture within Fujian province, China, to Sarawak in the 1930’s.
Eighty per cent of the kotaks which dominated the fishing scene in Sarawak during their heyday were made by the Lim family.
When his father passed away, his boat-building skills were not only inherited by Lim and his brother but also passed down to their Malay employees, some of whom have worked for them for up to five decades.
“Some of our long-time Malay workers also acquired the skills of building kotaks. They were responsible for 20 per cent of the fleet. But like us, they grow old, and when they passed away, there was no one to take over from them.
“The skills of building kotaks will vanish much faster than the boats themselves. The existing ones can last another 10 years. My brother and I have stopped building because there is now no demand.
“Moreover, our children are not picking up the skills because like most children of the kotak fishing communities, they have ventured into other fields,” Lim said.
But not all the children of kotak fishermen have abandoned their families’ boat-building tradition.
William Tan from Sungai Apong is one who has decided to stick to being a fisherman.
He stopped schooling at Form Two to help with his father’s fishing business because they couldn’t hire any workers. And he has been a fisherman ever since and will continue to be.
“Even though I’m just 20, I have been a fisherman for about six years already. I know the children of most fishermen do not follow in their parents’ footsteps.
“In fact, I’m the only young fisherman in Sungai Apong. It’s hard work but I have no regrets about giving up my studies to be fishermen,” he added.
For veterans like Law, the kotak is already a thing of the past. He sees no point in retaining this fishing boat of yore.
“It’s less effective and practical compared to modern fishing boats,” he said.