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.
Q: What do you like the most about Hong Kong?
A: I can live out at sea. The sea is quiet and spacious. The sea is freedom. I can go fishing as far as the Ninepin Group (or Kwo Chau Islands, which lie several kilometres off Clear Water Bay). It is very difficult for you to get there. For me, only 30 minutes.
Q: What do you dislike the most about Hong Kong?
A: Reclamation and tall glass buildings. Reclamation has completely altered Hong Kong’s coastline. It is very bad for people living on the water. We just have waves after waves of reclamation. The tall glass buildings make Hong Kong very hot and stuffy, and the air very polluted. In the past, the highest temperature would be no more than 30 degrees and there were summer breezes.
Q: What does Hong Kong have to do to be sustainable?
A: We have to stop reclamation and stop further damaging the sea. In the past, there were corals in Victoria Harbour. But after many rounds of reclamation, and with the construction of new water pipes plus the three cross-harbour tunnels and MTR lines, the seabed and Victoria Harbour have been seriously damaged.