Away with the tides of time

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am


Here's a question for your next quiz night: what was Hong Kong's most important economic activity until the late 1940s? Certainly not banking and financial services, much less shipping or tourism. And while textiles, plastics, food processing and other light manufacturing industries were increasingly important, they didn't really get a look in until the early 50s. Fisheries then led the local economy - and by a wide margin.

It's now effectively a dead industry due to massive overfishing and - for many years - a near-complete refusal by the government to bring in sustainable management policies. But for several centuries, fisheries were the economic mainstay of the Pearl River Delta's coastal islands, including Hong Kong.

Enormous expansion of delta fisheries was linked to tremendous population growth, particularly in the West River and around Canton (modern Guangzhou), from the 18th century onwards. Today's regular animal protein sources in the Chinese diet - such as chicken, duck and pork - were everyday foods only for the rich until recently. For everyone else, these foods were luxuries reserved for weddings, birthdays, funerals and religious festivals, and animal protein mainly came from haam yue ('salted fish').

Salting enabled highly perishable fish to be transported considerable distances inland in the days before refrigeration. In Europe, meat was preserved throughout winter as hams and sausages and, although they're no longer necessary, people developed a taste for them and they're still used in many recipes. It is much the same with haam yue and other hoi mei ('dried seafood') products, such as prawns, scallops and squid, used in home-style Cantonese dishes.

Salted egg yolk was a curious by-product of the salt-fish trade. Fishing boats carried hens on board in coops, as egg whites were used to starch natural fibre nets and keep the trawls stiff in the water. The birds were fed fish entrails and their egg yolks were salted and sold to land-dwellers, who used them in mooncakes and 'typhoon shelter' dishes.

Photographs from the mid-40s show local dried-fish shops displaying marine specimens almost as large as the shopkeepers. As a quick look around any wet market will make abundantly clear, fish available locally these days are simply not that large any more - and those that are caught are sold fresh, rather than dried.

The powerful Chinese monopolies that controlled the wholesale and retail sale of fresh fish, mainly through credit schemes to fishermen, were broken up in the late 40s. Further developments in local fisheries came about in the early 50s, when the Colonial Development and Welfare Fund was instituted by the post-war Labour government of Clement Attlee in Britain. For the first time, direct British government investment was made in overseas primary resources, and extensive funding from 'C, D and W' (as the scheme was popularly known) enabled the Hong Kong fleet to swiftly mechanise to diesel engines and away from sails.

Effective co-operative marketing programmes were also established to enable fishermen to receive fairer prices for their catch. The Fish Marketing Organisation controlled marketing and transportation, and also brought in welfare schemes for fishing families. FMO schools were established in remote fishing communities for boatpeople and, for the first time, a generation of fishing families could receive a basic education. As a result, many left the sea for land-based trades and a centuries-old way of life swiftly vanished.

Correction: in last week's column, we ran a picture of Cecil Clementi instead of one of his uncle, Cecil Clementi Smith.

A look around salt-fish wholesalers illustrates the decline of local fisheries. Much of what is sold here today comes from the Bay of Bengal.