What Is a Tongkang?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A tongkang is a type of ship once widely used in Southeast Asia during the 19th century. The ship had a lightweight construction ideal for navigating shallow waters like those found in rivers, allowing captains to bring their boats up rivers to access inland communities as well as sailing them along the coastline. Some examples of this design are still extant, and in some regions communities may maintain tongkangs for historical interest and use in activities like historical reenactments and films set during the era when this design was in common use.

Woman posing
Woman posing

This ship design was primarily seen in the Malay Archipelago, the sprawl of islands lying between mainland Asia and Australia, where many communities rely on boats of all sizes for trade, fishing, and related activities. Early models were small, but scaled up to larger sizes toward the end of the 19th century. The tongkang could be powered by rowers, punters, or small sails, depending on the size and where it was used. In later years, engines and tugs were available to move these small ships around.

In the case of tongkangs with sails, several different rigging styles were used, including junk and ketch rigging. The body of the boat was made from lightweight wood, with a shallow keel design to prevent the boat from running around in shallow water or on shoals. The tongkang design was suitable for moving a variety of goods for trade between communities, and the crew size varied.

Like many ships plying the waters in this era, the tongkang's seaworthiness was variable. Some ships were better maintained than others, with crews who regularly cleaned and repaired their craft to make sure they were still functional. Others were allowed to break down and decay, exposing crews to the risk of sinking or swamping in rough water that the ship wasn't equipped to handle. The temptation to overload in order to fit more goods was also a common issue, as exceeding the weight capacity could put the ship at risk of foundering.

Images of these ships can be seen in works of art from this region of the world that depict life on the water in the 19th century. In Singapore, the tongkang was even commemorated on banknotes at one point. Museums in the region may also have images as well as specimens available for inspection by members of the public with an interest in historic boats of Southeast Asia.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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