The big feast afloat

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 February, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 February, 2005, 12:00am

Every Lunar New Year seems to be the same - Hongkongers consuming some 200,000 chickens to mark a new beginning. But while I was feasting with my relatives, I began to feel nostalgic about how my family, mostly fishermen, used to celebrate the festive season off Tolo Harbour.

They have been catching fish for a living in the waters around Tai Po since my grandfather's generation. Back in the 1950s, I grew up on a 40 sq ft vessel with 10 siblings. I began helping my father to fish in the South China Sea when I was only 10 years old.

At that time, there were still more than 200,000 fishermen in Hong Kong, compared with about 7,000 now. Every year, our work slowed several weeks in advance of the Lunar New Year, because it was low season for us.

To prepare for the big feast, we would try to catch eels and cook them so that they would keep longer. This was how we stored fish because we did not have a fridge. Usually, the fried eels would keep for up to eight days.

On the second day of the New Year, it is traditional for fishermen to rock their boats and splash water on them. The ritual, which is still practised today, is a symbol of getting ready, and of a smooth year ahead.

As most people were poor, the Lunar New Year was almost the only time that we ate chicken. I also got the chance to meet my relatives from the other families who were all in the same industry.

Since we seldom got the chance to taste chicken, my siblings and I attended Lunar New Year performances of Cantonese opera, as the organisers would distribute pieces of chicken to the children.

After the festive season was over, life returned to normal and the children went back to their school studies and to helping their parents catch fish.

During my four decades of life as a fisherman, I learned how - by watching the sky, stars and waves - to predict when there would be large numbers of fish in the vicinity.

After it had been windy, we knew that it was time to cast our nets, as huge shoals of fish would appear almost every time.

Another golden opportunity was when the sky started to change colour and the clouds rolled in. On one of these occasions, I must have caught more than 10,000 fish.

On another occasion, I nearly drowned. I was 10, and my family had taken me into the middle of the South China Sea to fish. However, the sea was rough and the waves rocked the boat so hard that I fell overboard. I yelled, but my parents did not hear me. I struggled through the water for 10 minutes before I finally got back to the boat.

Over the years, the life of a fisherman has evolved, and today there is an increasing reliance on technology. We no longer watch the stars but, instead, have an electronic aid which detects where the fish are gathering.

As education became compulsory, many fishermen's offspring attended formal schooling and, as a result, chose to live ashore. Today, there are fewer and fewer families who live on the boats.

Parents increasingly head out to sea to fish on their own. Families no longer fish in clusters, preferring to work independently. The alliance among fishermen has grown weaker. Fewer young people, like my three children, for example, are interested in pursuing a career in fishing.

I still miss the days when everyone who fished for a living felt a strong bond with each other. We were all 'brothers'. Those days are now history, and I can only sail around Tolo Harbour on my own.

Wong Yung-kan is a legislator representing agriculture and fisheries