Header image courtesy of @kinwayick (via Instagram)
It’s a routine sight: When the weekend rolls around, throngs of city-weary locals and tourists flock to the city’s quaint coastal communities for a restorative escape from the urban bustle, a way of life that has become virtually synonymous with Hong Kong. While many of us now associate local water-based hamlets like Tai O, Sai Kung, and Cheung Chau with weekend getaways and day trips, it’s only in recent decades that this has been the case.
Once upon a time, long before Hong Kong became a buzzing metropolitan city and the agreed-upon financial heart of Asia, it predominately thrived on the bounties of the sea, finding its humble beginnings as a sprawl of fishing villages. Let’s rewind the clock and take a deep dive into Hong Kong’s fascinating fishing heritage, uncovering its significance to the DNA of our culture and history.
While there is little recorded history of the early days of Hong Kong’s fishing heritage—or of the entire territory before the arrival of the British in 1841, for that matter—archaeological studies have revealed that our city’s bountiful salty coasts have been a hub for fishing activities since as far back as the stone ages, long predating the city itself. In fact, there are a number of ancient rock carvings that have been uncovered along our coastlines in recent years and listed as declared monuments.
Although the precise origins of these thousands-year-old drawings are unknown, they are believed by historians to be talismans intended to keep bad weather and angry waves at bay, suggesting the presence of a water community in Hong Kong from the very beginning of human civilisation.
It was in the Song dynasty (960–1279 AD) when the backbone of Hong Kong’s fishing heritage as we now know started coming into its own, as immigrants began trickling into Hong Kong from southern China. The early settlers can largely be divided into four distinct ethnic communities—the Punti, the Hakka, the Hoklo, and the Tanka. Among them, both the Hoklo and the Tanka were historically fisherfolks, the former called “the river people” while the latter was known as “the sea gypsies.”
Both the Hoklo and the Tanka naturally carried on with their vocation of fishing when they found their new home in Hong Kong. Even the Punti and Hakka, who were traditionally farmers and land-tillers, rode on the wave of Hong Kong’s flourishing coastal landscape and participated in fisheries to supplement their main income of agricultural work.
Fishing continued to be a principal economic engine over the centuries, but it’s fair to say that they were mostly scraping by on a meagre living, as local fishing operations were simple and rudimentary. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the local fishing industry experienced exponential growth.
Anchored by the “eight big fishing villages” of Aberdeen, Shau Kei Wan, Tai O, Cheung Chau, Castle Peak Bay, Tai Po, Sha Tau Kok, and Sai Kung, the sea-based business further prospered in the twentieth century with the mass influx of immigrants from China post-Qing dynasty and the advent of modernised fishing techniques.
At its peak, the Tanka represented a whopping 40 percent of the local population, playing a prominent role in shaping the fishing villages that we proudly brandish as a part of our unique heritage.
Hailing from up and down the coast of southeastern China, these sea nomads were known to live in sampans—narrow, wooden boats typically propelled by oars—where they cooked, ate, worked, and slept. They principally engaged in fishing, also dabbling in a bit of oyster-farming and pearl-diving. However, the latter was considered a rather risky business and was ultimately banned in 1972 after too many drowning casualties.
In the early days, the Tanka people lived their lives almost exclusively on water, but many eventually moved into over-the-water stilt houses along the edges of Aberdeen, Tai O, Sai Kung, and other low-lying coastal areas, where they could enjoy a more stable homesite without sacrificing workplace convenience.
Given the humble nature of their livelihood, one would be correct to assume that the Tanka were a resourceful bunch. But even so, you may be surprised to learn that the initial prototype of the quaint stilt houses you see today in places like Tai O and Ma Wan was made from broken and out of service boats!
The other indigenous group that thrived by way of water was the Hoklo from the Fujian province, who mainly settled in Cheung Chau and the eastern reaches of Tai Po. Though constituting less than 10 percent of the floating population, the Hoklo have nonetheless established a culturally significant presence in Hong Kong.
Boasting strong traditions in fishing and salt-making, they spearheaded the dried seafood business, awakening local palates to the inimitable umami flavours of shrimp sauce, shrimp paste, and salted fish, which have seamlessly embedded themselves into Hong Kong’s mainstream cuisine.
Culinary influences aside, the Hoklo peoples’ unique rituals and customs have also made an important imprint on Hong Kong culture, the most notable being the Cheung Chau Bun Festival. Observed annually in early May, the week-long ceremony began as a means for the local fishing community to pray for peace and placate the spirits of villagers who were killed by the plague or vicious pirates that notoriously roamed the nearby seas in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.
A whole host of events are held during the festival, from dragon dances and colourful parades to the famous bun-snatching contest, which involves participants scrambling up a bun-covered bamboo tower and trying to bag as many ping on buns (平安包; peace buns).
Although the Hoklo and Tanka did not always see eye to eye with each other, mostly keeping to their own separate communities and developing their own customs, one uniting force among these fishing communities was their mutual admiration of Tin Hau, the Chinese goddess of the sea.
With over a hundred Tin Hau temples peppered across Hong Kong’s waterfronts and inland districts that were once on the shore before modern land reclamation, the pervasive influence of this revered sea deity can be felt even to this day—there's even a whole neighbourhood and MTR station named after her!
Having been around Hong Kong since the Song dynasty, Tin Hau was almost universally worshipped by local seafaring folks. Those who lived ashore would fervently flock to dedicated Tin Hau temples to make their offerings and pray for protection and good catches, while others who lived on boats would set up temporary alters onboard to pay their respects.
The elaborately celebrated Tin Hau Festival is also a product of the city’s fishing traditions. To this day, each year for the Tin Hau’s birthday on the twenty-third day of the third lunar month, fragrant fumes of burning joss sticks ascend from Tin Hau temples all across the city and worshippers assemble to put on street parades, dragon dances, and displays of colourful floral floats for their patroness.
Among the most iconic festivities is the three-hour-long Shap Pat Heung (18 villages) procession in Yuen Long, which features massive fa pao floats (花炮；paper floral tribute) that’s raffled off after the parade as an auspicious prize to take home.
Up until the mid-twentieth century, fishing was one of the main pillars of Hong Kong’s economy, with over 77,000 fisherfolks at the height of its prosperity in the late 1930s.
Following the slump that ensued from the Second World War, the colonial government started heavily redeveloping the industry in the 1950s, implementing new policies aimed to better the lives of local fishermen. It encouraged the use of more efficient fishing methods, replacing wind-powered junks with mechanised boats and introducing modern trawlers.
This initially contributed to a rapid comeback of industry, but the sudden boom was perhaps a little too explosive. It wasn’t long before things took a turn for the worse, and the intensive fishing ways led to a problem of overexploitation. Marine resources were depleting at a much faster rate than they can be replenished, making it increasingly more challenging for fishermen to keep their businesses afloat.
The damage of mass fishing was exacerbated in the 1960s with the blossoming of Hong Kong’s light industries. Factories were built in the vicinity of major fishing towns like Aberdeen, polluting the nearby waters and deteriorating the quality of its fish. At the same time, this opened the doors to a world of career opportunities in a more lucrative field, driving many young people ashore for a new life on dry land.
By the 1970s, the number of local fishing fleets dropped by nearly 50 percent compared to the mid-1960s. Over the course of the next few decades, the majority of the fishing population eventually ditched their traditional waterborne lifestyles and the industry was pushed to the sidelines of the economy.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century, fisheries only account for an inconsequential sliver of our total GDP, yet its tangential bearing on tourism and local culture is far from negligible. Fortunately, even as much of Hong Kong has transformed into an urban financial hub, the small, tight-knit fishing communities that remain have managed to preserve their strong traditions, saving the city’s maritime roots from fading into memory.
Today, if you venture out to the coastal fringes, you can spot clusters of rickety sampan vessels docked along the pier, selling baskets of fresh fish and crustaceans. While the future landscape of local fishery is a big question mark, what can be said is that, for now, there are still some ten thousand local fisherfolks holding tightly onto their generational practices, working diligently to feed the city’s hungry appetite for seafood.