12 August, 2013
News has come that the popular golden threadfin bream has grown scarce and fish lovers should avoid eating those that are caught in the wild. Another local favourite, yellow croaker, has already been on the ‘Avoid’ list in the World Wide Fund’s sustainable seafood guide for some time.
Big Lai and Yiu Gor know these painful facts by heart. They don’t need any seafood guide to tell them what’s going wrong in the oceans. For us, eating a particular type of fish is a matter of choice; for them, scarcity of fish is a matter of livelihood. They are two fishermen we feature in this edition of Urban Diary.
Big Lai and Yiu Gor have been fishermen for more than half a century, and their families have been catching fish in Hong Kong for at least the past three generations. The two men have witnessed and are shouldering the fallout land-hungry development brings to the fishing community.
I learnt from them that the top culprit behind the fast-declining fish stock is reclamation.
Talking to the two fishermen made me realise I have never looked at our city from a fishermen’s perspective. For a long time, most Hong Kong people neglected the rights and welfare of the fishing community despite the fact that Hong Kong started life as a fishing village. The younger generation no longer wants to be fishermen, and the youngest fishermen Big Lai and Yiu Gor have ever met are already in their 40s. Both believe Hong Kong will not have any more professional fisherman 10 years from now.
Therefore, in this edition, Urban Diary tries to look at Hong Kong and her shoreline from the sea. On top of writing their stories, we filmed Big Lai and Yiu Gor in action. We get on their fishing boats, experience fishing, and assess the ongoing reclamation of the harbour together with them.
Big Lai's hands are big, thick and firm. Every time I look at his hands, I try to picture his life out at sea.
Full name Lai Shui-shing, his grandfather and father were fishermen, and the 60-year-old said he has been fishing ever since he learned how to walk. Growing up on a fishing boat that took him wherever his family could sell their catches meant he never went to school, but that doesn't stop him from formulating insightful views on a range of subjects, starting with sustainable fishing.
Big Lai is very careful with how he catches fish. For instance, he uses a fishing net with a big mesh to avoid bycatches, and throws baby fish and crabs back to the sea. I saw this scene myself as I was among a filming crew that went to catch Big Lai in action for a short documentary on fishing. "There will be no more fish to catch very soon if we are also taking the children fish," he said when I asked why he was religiously giving up part of every haul that he catches.
His concern for the state of Hong Kong's fishing industry was clear from the first time we met. "Hong Kong used to be a fishing village. It seems that our government has forgotten our roots. None of their policies helps the fishing industry; in fact, they are killing us. The obsession with reclamation is especially damaging for marine ecology. Life is tough for fishermen but the rewards are low. The youngest fishermen are in their 40s; we have no new blood. There will be no more fishermen left when those from my generation retire," he lamented.
Listening to what he said, I realised I have never looked at reclamation from the fishing community's point of view.
I told him that I used to write rather extensively on reclamation. Sometimes I wrote about the need to respect natural coastlines and marine ecology; in other instances I focused on the importance of public space and why we should appreciate Hong Kong's harbourfront. But I have never approached reclamation from the fishing community's perspective, nor have I ever heard any critics of reclamation examine the issue as a fisherman would.
Big Lai bought an apartment on Ping Chau in the 1970s. Since then, his family has continued to make a living from the sea but they chose to live on the land so that his children could go to school. His fishing boat, which is a four-metre long sampan, is moored just a few minutes away from his home.
Big Lai and his wife set sail every morning at four. "The sky is still dark, the fishes can't see us. It is the best time to catch fishes," he explained. His boat is small, so he only fishes inshore.
Now that his children are all grown-ups, the burden on him and his wife has been eased, so they spend only three hours out at sea every day before returning to sell their fresh catches at Ping Chau indoor market which is only several minutes walk from their home.
They usually close their stall at noon, regardless of how much fish they can sell, and retreat to have lunch and take a nap. They eat some of what they caught in the morning and freeze the rest. Big Lai only eats fish fresh from the sea: "We eat fish and vegetables. We don't eat meat. We don't like meat."
Every afternoon, Big Lai sits at the seafront, with a beer in hand, and banters with his younger brother and neighbours.
In Ping Chau, there are only 14 fishing boats and while Cheung Chau has a lot more, around 300 according to Big Lai, only 100 of them are still active, with the rest having turned into leisure boats for tourists on fishing trips. Those active ones are sampans like the one Big Lai is using, so they only fish in Hong Kong waters.
Most of the fresh catches from Hong Kong's waters go to the mainland market because business across the border offers more competitive prices; Big Lai estimates that only 20% of what's locally caught remains in the domestic market. Most of the sea fish we eat are in fact farmed outside Hong Kong and not freshly caught from the wild.
The couple goes out to the sea every day, even when there are thunderstorms. It makes no difference to them whether it is weekends or weekdays because they have no labour holidays.
They rest when there is no fish. The low-season comes in late winter and early summer. So they work a total of about eight months per year.
He explained that reclamation creates vertical sea walls, which means the elimination of bays. Young fish and other marine creatures need the calm and safe environment of bays to grow up. Bays are essential for the sustainability of marine habitats.
The project to reclaim land for the airport at Chek Lap Kok alone cost over 18 km of natural coastline in the 1990s. Not long after, the Hong Kong Disneyland project reclaimed another 2.8 sq km of land off the coast of Lantau. Now Big Lai doesn't go to Lantau to fish anymore.
But he is facing a new threat closer to home: he is very angry with the government's proposal for reclamation around Ping Chau. "It seems like the government only cares about creating land for developers to build sea-view properties."
A 2012 Lands Department proposal identified 25 sites in Hong Kong for reclamation. One of them would see Ping Chau conjoined with Hei Ling Chau, the island which is synonymous with the drug rehab centre on it. He tried to explain his exasperation at the scale of the plan by taking me to the seafront: he stood there, pointing at the sea, and drew a circle to make me understand what could be reclaimed: Hei Ling Chau lies a full 13 minutes away by ferry to the south in probably one of the quietest corners of Hong Kong.
To stop the government from further damaging Hong Kong's remaining natural coastline and ailing marine ecology, he has joined rallies to protest the proposed reclamation plan.
Big Lai said the government's marine policies are characterised by laziness. He supports the trawling ban which came into effect at the end of 2012, but thinks it is far from enough of what's needed to restore fish stock and build sustainable fishery.
"They should have a law that specifies the size of the net and the size of the fish that we are allowed to take from the sea. There should be police patrols and random checks to make sure people are obeying the law. The mainland has a 10-week fishing ban in the South China Sea every summer, and it looks like the Hong Kong government wants to follow the mainland. However, a fishing ban alone is not going to work because if there's no law to stop people from catching baby fish, all the fish will go very quickly as soon as the ban is lifted."
When traditional fisherfolk in Hong Kong talk about emigration, they are actually talking about death. For them, if someone has ‘emigrated to the US', it means the person has kicked the bucket. Similarly, ‘moving to Britain' is a roundabout way to relay the same message. My instant reaction when I heard these euphemisms for the first time from Yiu Gor was: "But what would you say when people are actually emigrating?" To that, he said, matter-of-factly: "The same. Whether they are actually moving to the US, or have died, they are not coming back."
Yiu Gor's full name is Chan Yiu-wah. Like Big Lai, the 65-year-old comes from a fisherman's family. He was born at Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital in Happy Valley, and he stressed that back in the old days the famous private hospital wasn't an exclusive place for the rich.
His early childhood was spent on the Chan family boat which was moored near St Paul's Hospital in Causeway Bay. Later reclamation of Victoria Park in the 1950s relocated them to where Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter is today. He remembers that he used to sell fresh catches to police officers stationed in the old Wan Chai Police Station which was smack on the harbourfront before the reclaimed Gloucester Road separated it from the water forever. "I put the fishes in a basket; they stood at the balcony and pulled the basket up."
He told me how he used to sail to the islands (now predictably connected to the urban mainland as a result of more reclamation) near the present-day Tseung Kwan O Industrial Estate to catch fish and enjoy water sports like water-skiing off the beaches at weekends.
Yiu Gor explained that reclamation hurts marine ecology in various ways. Waters in the western part of Hong Kong has become the dumping ground of sludge, and the dust that comes with it kills many habitats in the sea. Whether it is siphoning or dredging, all underwater operations that rock the seabed can destroy marine habitats. Because of reclamation, waterways in Hong Kong are getting tighter and tighter, leading to stronger currents which make it very difficult for fish to swim into Hong Kong waters.
He told me that Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter used to be a self-contained community. "You could buy fried noodles, congee, vegetables, and snakes at the typhoon shelter. Not everyone made their living from fishing. My wife's family sold water in big plastic tubs to other fishermen. There were floating restaurants where boat people held their wedding banquets. The only thing missing was clothes, so we had to go on to the land for new clothes. Some people made their living by selling groceries to big ships that were transiting in Hong Kong. They sailed out to the sea and sold food and electrical appliances to the sailors."
Although Yiu Gor had already abandoned fishing as a career even before he turned 18, he still makes his living from the sea up to this day. He joined a wealthy family as a sailor when he was 17. A few years later, he got a captain license and he went on to skipper the yacht of his employer's family for decades until his retirement. During his sea captain days, he would go to catch fish after work to earn extra income for his family.
For the past 10 years, Yiu Gor has earned his living organizing leisure fishing trips for city dwellers. In his own leisure time, he hangs out with friends and makes fishing baskets, which he hooks to his boats at the typhoon shelter before sinking them into the water to catch fish for his own consumption.
He said I shouldn't be worried about the hygiene of the fish he eats, however, because sea water at the typhoon shelter is much cleaner than waters elsewhere along the southern Chinese coast. "The fish I catch here is much healthier than those you get from the market," he added, casting doubts about the quality of fish caught in mainland waters.
Although the government allocated a public rental unit to Yiu Gor and his family at Shau Kei Wan's Yiu Tung Estate in the early 1990s, he still spends most of his time in his five-metre long resting boat (one of 11 boats that he owns with his wife) at Causeway Bay typhoon shelter. He explains: "I like living in the sea. I have friends at the typhoon shelter, the air is fresher and cooler there; I can't breathe on land."
Yiu Tung Estate is also meant to be where a number of Yiu Gor's neighbours from the typhoon shelter live. But like him, they prefer the boats, leaving their government-subsidised rental flats to their grown-up children. Today, about 30 of them live in their resting boats at the typhoon shelter.