My early days as a tally clerk in Tawau
Published on: Sunday, March 29, 2020
By: Nicholas Chung
Text Size:

Tawau wharf and Customs warehouse, built after World War II.
AFTER the 2nd World War, the Straits Steamships and other coastal shipping companies reestablished their regular weekly service to the Malayan and British Borneo Ports. 

The ships  they employed were purpose-built ships designed to navigate to the relatively shallow ports. 

The ships would carry a full load of consumer goods from Singapore to discharge at Kuching, Sibu, Miri and leaped frogged to Labuan, Jesselton (KK), Kudat, Sandakan and Tawau. 

On the ships return trip, they would retrace their steps, but instead of carrying manufactured consumer goods, they would stack their holds full of primary produce. 

This would then be cleaned and washed in Singapore before being put onboard ocean going ships to be consigned to the industrialised countries for manufacturing into consumer goods. 

To manage such complex tasks of the ships, the crew they carried must also necessarily cater to the needs of the ships. On an ocean going ship, an average complement needs a deck-crew and engine-room crew to make it operational. On a Strait Steamship boat, for example, apart from the deck and engine-room crew, it also carries a cargo crew headed by a comprador. 

This Officer was responsible to the captain to manage the systematic accounting and stacking of all goods received into and discharged from the ship. 

To assist the comprador, whom the Hokkian referred to as The Chin Chew (shipowner), he had a team of clerks including tally clerks. 

The number of tally clerks required on a ship would depend on the number of cargo holds she had. The rule was that one clerk would serve one cargo hold. 

On a ship the size of the M.V Kimanis which had four holds, she would then have with her 4 Tally clerks. 

In those days, the shipping companies which called at Tawau regularly, aside from Straits Steamships from Singapore were the Indo China Navigation Company, and the Tai koo Shipping Company from Hong Kong also had a comprador system. 

As these ships were all medium to small size freighters. 

The rickety wooden Wharf of Tawau was able to berth them, one at a time. 

The shore Agent for the ships were Harrison & Crosfield in the case of Starts Steamships and Indo China Navigation Company, the Borneo Company, in the case of Tai Koo Shipping Company. 

The Agencies used to employ shore based tally clerks to record and account for the cargo going out and into the ship. 

A simple job which provided part-time work for a team of secondary school students including this writer. 

In 1956, through the introduction of a classmate who had a relative who was the shipping clerk of H&C, I was drafted, (yes drafted as there were not many who were willing nor needed to work part-time). 

Soon I became a regular free-lance tally clerk working not only during weekends or holidays but sometimes weekdays as well.

This was because whenever a ship had to urgently complete work within a time frame, it would work not only overtime but through the night as well. 

These meant the tally clerk had to be present to discharge his duty. 

Apart from ships working alongside the Wharf, we also attended large ocean going ships working at midstream or at Wallace Bay at the Western end of Sebatik Island. 

When this happened, the agents would send us a-board the big ship lying in Tawau Harbour before she proceeded to her loading point. 

For this type of ship, the cargo were round logs harvested from the surrounding forests. 

Once the loading was done, the ships would pull her anchor and steam back to Tawau Harbour where the agent would be waiting in a motorboat to pick us up to take us ashore and home. 

The duration for a large ship to fully load a shipment (such as Japanese one) we would normally onboard for 4-5 days. 

For other ships, especially European or Australian ones, the shipment were usually smaller taking only a few dozen specially graded upmarket logs. The ships would only stay for a day or two or even just a few hours. 

In the 1950s, the ships usually seen in Tawau were steamships with triple expansion engines.  

Many of these ships were remnants from the war and air conditioning was unheard of. 

The crew had to live and work in a very humid and hot condition. Most of these ships were described as rust buckets. 

But toward the 1960s, modern motorships started to appear especially the Japanese ones. 

By 1959, I had applied and was appointed to a civil service job and stopped my career as a tally clerk. Thus ending a very exciting and eye-opening period of my young life. 

Among my fellow tally clerks, the job not only provided us with pocket money but also enabled us, if we have so inclined, to augment the family’s daily income.

But it was never meant to be permanent employment, so all of us either returned to further studies or other more secure jobs. 


Other News

Follow Us  

Follow us on            

Special Reports - Most Read

What the people say
December 20, 2014