The keepers of Shau Kei Wan’s maritime past

[South China Morning Post]

Pockets of Shau Kei Wan’s maritime past remain, but you have to dig deep. Joyee Chan meets some determined locals keen to preserve those memories.

Isaac Wong King-yip called the Shau Kei Wan typhoon shelter home for the first three years of his life. He played on the deck of his family’s austere wooden houseboat, while his grandparents taught his parents how to pack preserved fish for sale at a wet market.

Several times he fell into the sea. “My father and grandfather had to dive in to rescue me,” says Wong, 31, a pastor.

When his grandparents retired in 1984, they sold their floating home and moved into a high-rise apartment. Many other families did the same, becoming dry-land neighbours.

But the former boat dweller hasn’t forgotten his roots, and he doesn’t want others to either.

Last October, Wong used his talent for design and writing to launch a free, fortnightly magazine, titled Paper Shau Kei. The aim is to help locals appreciate their vibrant culture, and each issue focuses on a different topic. It costs him HK$2,000 a month to produce.

He has also recently written a book, Boat Dwellers of Shau Kei Wan, which offers insights into the fisherfolk’s unique parades to celebrate sea deity Tam Kung’s birthday in May, contrasts life on houseboats and hillside shacks, and delves into other local topics.

“I don’t want the descendants of fisherfolk to forget their traditions, chain stores to replace family-run businesses, and luxury apartments to take the place of old tenement buildings where many boat people now live,” says Wong.

There is a lack of historic landmarks in Shau Kei Wan, Wong says. It is the fishing culture, boat dwellers and close-knit community that give the district its character.

One of the first people his editorial team approached was Wong Kwai-chuen, owner of the 60-year-old Perfect Shipyard, located on the habourfront near the wholesale market.

It has been a decade since Perfect Shipyard built a fishing boat. It now repairs whatever vessels come its way, from gaudy yachts to ferries, as long as the downsized premises can accommodate them.

“I don’t dare take on large projects because I don’t have the manpower and materials,” says Wong Kwai-chuen.

He has lost experienced hands to retirement and better-paid industries, and the younger generation has little interest in the trade. In the 1950s, he employed 24 workers. Now he has just a handful – all in their 50s.

“On several occasions, I’ve had no choice but to ask boat owners to go to shipyards on the mainland,” he says.

One of the two trawlers under repair at the shipyard will be sold to the Agricultural and Fisheries Department. It can no longer operate in Hong Kong waters because of the trawling ban that came into effect at the beginning of the year.

“The less the fishermen venture out, the less wear and tear to the vessels, and less business for us,” says WongKwai-chuen, who inherited the business from his father.

Shau Kei Wan’s shipyards used to stand on what is now Nam On Street – about 800 metres inland. Following extensive reclamation, 12 shipyards settled near the typhoon shelter in the early 1990s. Two decades later, only half of them remain. The others have been converted into garages, car parks, travel agents and a collection point for electronic waste.

It would take two months to build a 30-metre vessel, according to Wong Kwai-chuen, and every year up to eight new boats would be launched from Perfect Shipyard. Half a century ago, it could accommodate as many as three 30-metre boats at a time. Today, the business can only house one.

“Our business is the product of a lifetime’s effort. But the truth is, even if my two children inherit it, they will have a hard time hiring workers. I might have to lease the shipyard like the others did,” Wong Kwai-chuen says.

Gone too are the shops that sold nets, ropes, anchors and sampans on Main Street East. The last one, 60-year-old Wong On Kei, relocated to a two-storey house in nearby A Kung Ngam village, and is on the verge of closing down.

The house’s ground floor is leased out and operates as a garage; a metre-tall coil of anchor line sits at the entrance. The dimly lit second floor is packed with more lines, shackles and anchors. Store owner Wong Hin-on says he had to sell his rope-spinning machine because it couldn’t fit into the house; the rest of his fishing gear is stored on his houseboat, at the wholesale fish market and on the mainland.

Wong Hin-on has no idea what to do with the unsold tackle. He has already lowered his prices and makes little profit. “Some clients pay the deposit and still owe the rest of the payment after they receive my goods,” he says.

Lai Hing Kei Blankets, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, is another sign of the changing times. The shop used to specialise in elaborately hand-embroidered bridal gowns and handmade blankets.

“Boat-dwellers take Chinese wedding traditions seriously,” says third-generation owner Mr Lai, whose two upstairs apartments used to be his home, factory and storage space.

“They’d come to us for gowns, blankets, pillows and umbrellas before buying coconuts and pastries at the wet market on Kam Wah Street. Our handmade blankets are just as warm as machine-made ones, but more durable.”

Today, the gowns are kept in metal boxes in one corner of the shop; a bride will occasionally rent one for her big day. The majority of the space stocks modern bedding, mosquito nets, towels and straw mats.

“Now that couples have turned to Western-style weddings, and people can find pillows and bedding easily at other stores, Lai Hing Kei Blankets has had to diversify to survive,” Lai says. “Customers who have moved to other districts are surprised to see us still standing. Our neighbour, an old Chinese medicine shop, is gone because the landlord increased the rent. We’re lucky my late grandfather bought our shop.”

On a brighter note, the changing face of Shau Kei Wan includes its makeover as a centre for food-lovers, thanks to the reputation of its market and numerous restaurants, Isaac Wong says. In this, the district’s fisherfolk roots can still be seen.

Housewives from Chai Wan and as far as Shek O and Stanley, come to the bustling open-air market on Kam Wah Street for daily grocery shopping. Fishmongers and butchers bellow out their daily specials. In the afternoon, freshly caught lobsters, shrimp and starfish are laid out in baskets on the floor.

Every day for the past 10 years, fishmonger Ng Fung-ho has arrived at the wholesalers in Aberdeen at 7am to pick 300 catties (180kg) of the freshest seafood for her store on Kam Wah Street. Until 8pm, she will be busily descaling fish, opening razor clams and checking on the health of her crabs.

“I don’t think my job is mundane or stressful,” says Ng, 52, who lived on houseboats in Aberdeen’s typhoon shelter until part of the harbour was reclaimed for a private housing complex in Ap Lei Chau in the 1990s, when her family moved to Yiu Tung Estate.

Seafood has been getting increasingly expensive, she says. Two catties of clams and rice shrimps plus a black porgy can easily cost HK$500. But the fishmonger tries to keep the price low to hang on to loyal customers. “We make only 20 to 30 per cent profit,” Ng says.

Before she rented the stall, she hawked frozen fish. “Once people of the sea, always people of the sea,” she says.

Nevertheless, more change is coming to Shau Kei Wan. The government has announced that Ming Wah Dai Ha public housing estate on A Kung Ngam Road will be redeveloped into 4,000 rental flats. So-called luxury apartments such as i.UniQ Grand have replaced old tenement buildings. Meanwhile, Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital is set to build a medical centre a stone’s throw from the Wong On Kei fishing tackle shop in A Kung Ngam village.

“Change is unavoidable,” Isaac Wong says. “It’s okay as long as the people of Shau Kei Wan are able to tell the positive changes from the negative, and fight for what they believe is historically and culturally important.”

Read the original story ON SCMP.COM.

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