Neighbourhood Sounds

Aberdeen: Sea life going under as tide turns

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 September, 2012, 11:36am

The Chinese name for the Southern district enclave of Aberdeen is Heung Kong Zai or 'Little Hong Kong'. The name is also a synonym for 'Hong Kong Boy', and one who can claim that title is 53-year-old Leung Siu-yung, a fisherman born and raised on Aberdeen Harbour.

'If you are an Aberdeen fisherman, you will always stay in Aberdeen,' says Leung, who operates a trawler with his younger brother with the help of deck hands hired from the mainland.

A visit to Aberdeen Promenade today makes it apparent that the gaudy seafood eateries, such as the Jumbo Floating Restaurant, and its harbour teeming with luxury yachts and sightseeing sampans have overshadowed the fishing vessels that gave Aberdeen its claim to fame.

Leung comes from a line of fishermen stretching far back to his great-grandfather, but the family tradition will end with him. His greatest wish is for his two sons to find a career less rough than fishing, and to his delight, his 22-year-old eldest son graduated from Polytechnic University this year and is now looking for a job - on land.

'My two sons aren't interested in fishing, and I wouldn't want them to be because life out at sea is too taxing,' says Leung of an occupation now almost entirely dominated by men. 'I would say the 40-somethings are the last generation of fishermen in Aberdeen.'

According to the Hong Kong Fishermen Consortium, there are more trawlers in Aberdeen than in other major fishing communities such as Shau Kei Wan, Tuen Mun and Cheung Chau. At the last count, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department found trawlers - which catch fish by dragging a net through the water - made up 70 per cent of the 600 to 700 fishing vessels in Aberdeen.

A spokeswoman for the consortium said the trawling ban in Hong Kong waters - which takes effect on December 31 - will affect Aberdeen most profoundly.

In light of the changing times, the government's Aberdeen Fisheries Offices has held a series of seminars in the past few months for fishermen who rely on trawling to develop new skills in sustainable fish farming or tour guiding. But most fishermen are either minimally educated or illiterate. Leung himself left school in Primary Three.

The face of Aberdeen is also changing. Southern district councillor Vincent Wong Ling-sun, whose office in the Abba Commercial Building overlooks Aberdeen harbour, says its residents are ageing. 'Many of the fishermen's children have grown up and moved elsewhere.'

The burgeoning residential sites have also gentrified the area, with a rising number of foreigners calling Aberdeen home.

The cluster of districts around the harbour that once relied on mariculture includes Aberdeen, Shek Pai Wan, Tin Wan and Ap Lei Chau. A relic of its maritime past lies in the temples dedicated to Tin Hau, the sea goddess worshipped by fisherfolk and seafarers.

There is a also shrine to the deity aboard Leung's vessel. 'When you are caught in a storm at sea, you feel frighteningly vulnerable and many of us have to lean on a supernatural power for help. We would say a prayer to Tin Hau whenever there was a brewing storm, and I would point a broomstick toward the sky for good luck.'

Leung operates a pair of trawlers that catch predominantly hairpin fish in mainland waters. He leaves on expeditions with his younger brother's vessel, and their two boats drag a net through the water.

He sells his catch out at sea in mainland waters, and does not make transactions at wholesale fish markets operated by the Fish Marketing Organisation, as required by law for locally caught fresh sea fish. 'The Hong Kong market does not allow for enough fish variety and also doesn't have the capacity to buy up my catch.'

About 25,500 tonnes of fish and seafood passed through the Aberdeen Wholesale Fish Market in 1983 - when the authorities first kept count - but only 16,700 tonnes were recorded last year.

In the short term, Leung says he will not be affected by the trawler ban because he rarely fishes in Hong Kong waters. 'But when I get older and can only fish on shorter trips in coastal areas, I would wish that the option of fishing in Hong Kong was still available.'

Sadly for a man who has spent his whole life in the industry that put Hong Kong on the map, Leung's biggest wish is for his sons not to 'smell like fish' and to stay away from his 'non-respectable' work.

According to Michael Ingham's 2007 book Hong Kong: A Cultural and Literary History, Aberdeen flourished as a port from the 14th to 17th centuries when sandalwood was brought there in junks from Lantau Island and around Sha Tin.

According to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, Hong Kong has 4,000 vessels on which 8,500 fishermen work. The most common fishing method is trawling, mainly in the waters of the continental shelf of the South China Sea. 0Despite the gruelling labour, life at sea carries some incomparable joys for Leung.

'We usually catch about 20 to 30 catties of fish, but one time we caught 400 catties - it was so heavy that the pillar holding up the net toppled over. The sheer satisfaction and joy is immense - even more than a good hand in mahjong,' says the beaming Leung, spreading his arms wide to illustrate the catch. 'It's not even about money, it's the feeling of success.'

But the occasional joys are not enough to dispel the long periods of boredom.

'I'm away from my family for 10 days at a stretch, sometimes even up to 30 days, stuck in a cramped space. It's better now that we have a satellite phone and we can call our loved ones or fellow fishermen.'

A 50-year-old woman with the surname Lo, who prefers to go by the name Ah Mui ('Sister' in Cantonese), has been operating the five-minute, HK$1.80 sampan service connecting Aberdeen and Ap Lei Chau for the past decade.

'This service must have around 40 years of history now, before they built the bridge to Ap Lei Chau. When I was young, this was the only way for people to get home.'

Growing up in a family of boat people, Ah Mui recalls the good old days of visiting neighbours by jumping onto their boats. 'We had quite a tight-knit community, and all the kids would jump into the water to swim. Now, no one lives on boats any more, and the water is filthy.'

As Ah Mui approaches the Aberdeen pier, she slows the sampan to give way to a pristine white luxury yacht on which stand three lithe Caucasian women in swimwear.

'Look - bikini girls!' she exclaims cheekily. The yacht sails past majestically, casting waves that leave Ah Mui's small sandalwood vessel bobbing in its wake - a clash of cultures that may soon disappear in a land-bound age.

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