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.
His full name is 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.”
Q: What do you like the most about Hong Kong?
A: We have freedom in Hong Kong as long as we don’t touch politics.
Q: What do you dislike the most about Hong Kong?
A: Living conditions are too crowded. It is very sad to see people live in sub-divided flats. Hong Kong is a very rich city; we have money, and we can build more public housing.
Q: What does Hong Kong have to do to be sustainable?
A: It is also very sad that there’s very little manufacturing, agriculture or fishing left. A city can’t rely on finance and the property market alone. It is very dangerous that all the food we eat is imported.