Barely staying afloat

Hong Kong, once home to thriving fishing communities that helped shape its culture and cuisine, has witnessed rapid decline since a government ban on trawling last year

By Issam Ahmed  /  AFP, HONG KONG

Wed, Dec 04, 2013 - Page 12

He comes from a proud line of fishermen, but 23-year-old Ng Ka-Ho is unsure of his future nearly one year after a ban on trawling in Hong Kong hastened the local industry’s decline.

Standing on the deck of one of his father’s two ageing boats moored among picturesque houses on stilts in the fishing village of Tai O, he says Hong Kong should appreciate men like his father. “But I will not choose to be a fisherman,” he added. “It will be a waste that I cannot apply my knowledge in my future career.”

Hong Kong was once home to vibrant fishing communities that helped shape its culture and cuisine. But before the January ban, the industry had long been in decline following the city’s economic transformation in the post-war era that saw it become a center for manufacturing and later international finance.

Peaking at roughly 10,000 boats in the 1960s, today there are fewer than 4,000 as fish stocks declined rapidly in the 1980s.

The government ban on the use of trawlers within Hong Kong waters in response to the declining number of fish was welcomed by wildlife groups, but has left some fighting for their livelihoods.

“It’s basically not possible to carry on fishing, especially after the suspension of trawling,” Ng Kwok-Kit, 53, told AFP.

Forced to ply his trade 20 nautical miles beyond Hong Kong waters, Ng says he cannot fish as often, his yield is lower and his income has dropped by a third. He says he was inadequately compensated for his loss of earnings.

“Hong Kong has been known as a fishing center since its port was opened for trade, but now the government is not paying much attention to the fishermen,” adds Ng, who was given HK$150,000 (US$20,000) in a one-off payment — roughly a tenth of his yearly revenue prior to the ban.

“In places like Taiwan, fishermen receive subsidies from the government but there is nothing like that in Hong Kong,” he says.

RISKY BUSINESS

Sometimes known by the name Tanka, Hong Kong’s fishing communities traditionally remained on board their boats with their families. Those that remain today populate coastal villages in further-flung corners of the territory.

Speaking a dialect of Cantonese, the Tanka people were historically stigmatized by Chinese society.

“They lived separately for many years. The people on the land refused to marry their daughters to them. There was a cultural and social separation,” says Professor Liu Tik-Sang of The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, who himself grew up in a fishing community.

The older generation still recall tales of childhood bullying and condescension at the hands of non-fisherfolk.

Many have given up their former vocation, with some happy that that era is over as they shift to tourism-related jobs.

Chow Shing, a tour guide in his fifties who takes tourists to see dolphins in the area, says he was a fisherman for over 30 years, moving to a home on land when he was in his twenties.

“There wasn’t much fish left in the waters so I chose to work as a boat driver. I missed the days as a fisherman when I quit, but now I am fine with it,” Chow says.

Others agree that their lives have become easier. Like many of her generation, one 80-year-old woman calling herself Cheung lived with her husband and family on board their fishing boat, coming ashore only to sell salted fish, a signature Hong Kong delicacy.

“It was a really hard life before. We would go out fishing at sea and it was a dangerous life,” said Cheung. “We do not miss that.”

CHANGING SUPPLIERS

Today Hong Kong gets the bulk of its supply from Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, the territory imports 85 percent of seafood consumed there, including popular species such as the Tiger Grouper and Leopard Coral Trout commonly found in the city’s wet markets. Others are determined that the legacy of Hong Kong’s earliest primary industry remains.

Ming Cheng-Wah, who was a fisherman until 2004, now helps run a floating fishing village where tourists can try their hand at traditional fishing.

The 55-year-old’s boat was home to him and a family of 12 people spanning three generations until 1980.

“It is very important to preserve what we have.

“Normal people and the government do not pay much attention to what fishermen contributed to the Hong Kong story. Before I die I want more people to know about this.”

Last year, fishing contributed less than HK$1.9 billion to Hong Kong’s GDP of HK$1.89 trillion and for many there is no doubt that the local industry is in decline.

Professor Liu is critical of the manner in which fishermen have been “bought out” with one-off payments, saying such a system can lead to alienation.

Helping fishermen to continue fishing will contribute not only to societal diversity, but could also give the city an economic fallback should conditions ever change, Liu argues.

“A good, healthy society should have a diverse culture. So we have to help people keep their traditions. “Hong Kong is a financial center now, but we don’t know what will happen in the future.”