PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 September, 2005, 12:00am

Hong Kong's outlying islands paint an inviting picture - remote, lush and sparsely populated. For weekend tourists anxious for a break from the city, trips to these islands are both adventure and escape. For island residents they are home, joined to Hong Kong proper by a fragile lifeline of sampan services.

While access to the more popular islands is via legal ferries, or kaido, getting to and from more remote settlements is fraught with more than a little government red tape in the interest of water safety.

The Marine Department appears to have stepped up its enforcement of a law, which has effectively outlawed the use of sampans in these areas. The requirements that operators be licensed and ply only specific routes and destinations make a legal business operation practically unworkable for all but a few island destinations.

The outcry from isolated villagers needing transport for things such as medical care has been vocal. And there are other interests, such as a major rehabilitation centre, which is threatened by the law's enforcement. A common thread of complaint is that the government has been too eager to enforce the law without providing adequate alternatives for affected areas.

The Marine Department continues to show little sympathy and is prosecuting unlicensed sampan operators it catches transporting passengers of any kind.

The dwindling and ageing residents of these fly-speck outposts see ready access to the islands as a question of life and death for their own way of life.

As sampan owners continue to run the gauntlet, some remote island residents remain unaware that their sole mode of regular transport, which their families have used for generations, is actually illegal.

Someone who is all too aware of what it will mean if sampans are stopped from island hopping is Chan Siu-cheuk, principal of the Christian Zheng Sheng College in the remote Chi Ma Wan Peninsula of Lantau Island.

He said it was simply a case of no sampans, no centre. 'We can't operate without sampans,' said Mr Chan, adding that the rehabilitation and education centre for young drug addicts had for 20 years relied on the sampans to carry students between Chi Ma Wan and Cheung Chau, where there is a skills-training centre, shops and hospital.

On August 4, sampan owners Kong Lai-yu and Leung Loi-fok appeared in Eastern Court and were convicted and fined $200 and $350 respectively for carrying the centre's students from Cheung Chau to Chi Ma Wan Peninsula without proper licences.

They could have been fined between $4,000 and $5,000 under the law, but a letter of appeal from Cheung Chau district councillor Kwong Kwok-wai explained that there was no alternative for the island.

This was Mr Leung's second prosecution for the same offence. The first was last year, when he was prosecuted for 'illegally carrying passengers' - 18 locals - and fined $5,400.

Concerned about the future of the drug rehabilitation centre, Mr Chan and Mr Kwong requested a meeting with the Home Affairs Department, Transport Department and Marine Department.

This led to the Transport Department calling for tenders for the operation of a ferry service from Cheung Chau to Ha Gan of Chi Ma Wan. The deadline passed without submission of any tenders.

'Ferry companies can't get their expenses back from such a small group of customers such as our school provides,' said Mr Chan. 'They all know if their prices are too high, people will choose illegal sampans.'

When approached by the South China Morning Post, a Marine Department spokeswoman suggested passengers between Cheung Chau and Chi Ma Wan 'make use of licensed passenger craft to travel between the two areas instead of taking the illegal sampan services'.

In fact, there are no legal passenger vessels currently operating there.

'The department's patrol launches inspect all water areas within the territory daily to ensure that vessels are properly operated according to relevant shipping and port control rules. Vessel operators who have violated these rules will be prosecuted,' the spokeswoman said.

'Complaints are received from time to time from the general public and operators of passenger vessels on sampans operating illegal kaido services. A total of 284 small craft were inspected in the last six months in Cheung Chau and nearby waters.'

The Transport Department said it did not have an exact number of how many villages were affected with transportation problems because of a lack of legal ferry services. 'It's hard to calculate,' said its spokesman, adding that the villages, where there were few people, could definitely not be covered by the services. 'Public transportation should serve a certain number of people,' he said.

Cheung Chau has become the focal point of the surrounding outlying islands, developing comprehensive services, including shops, supermarkets, a hospital, public library and government offices. Apart from nearby residents, villagers who need to go to other islands also utilise Cheung Chau as a transfer station.

Mr Kwong said that there were about 40 so-called illegal sampans - without licences permitting them to carry passengers - on Cheung Chau, serving residents or workers who lived or worked on nearby outlying islands, including Peng Chau, Hei Ling Chau, Lamma Island and Dai Siu Ap Chau.

For the people whose demand cannot be satisfied by the schedule of a ferry service and the residents living in remote villages which aren't covered by any ferry service, sampans are, and have always been, the only choice. Cheung Cheung-hou, who has lived for all of his 69 years in Dai Long Village on Lantau Island, said villagers had to go to Cheung Chau by sampan every two days to buy food or whenever they needed to see a doctor.

'If the sampans are not allowed to carry passengers, we will be trapped here and starve,' he said angrily, pointing out that the village had no land access or scheduled ferry service.

As it was, he said, villagers could hardly afford illegal sampans. 'A return trip costs $100. We often gather four or five people to go together and share the cost; however, it's still a burden.'

He is one of eight elderly people living in this remote village. Most have been there more than two generations, but their children have moved out because of the transport difficulties.

Fan Kiu, 73, has lived in Dai Long for 50 years of her married life. Since her husband died, her children - three sons and four daughters, who all live on Hong Kong Island - have been asking her to live with them. 'They are worried that if anything happens to me in this isolated place, no one will know about it,' said Ms Fan. She travels to Cheung Chau by sampan once a month to see a doctor and get medicine.

Off the east coast of the New Territories, an hour's sampan ride from Sai Kung, lies Leung Shuen Wan and Tung Ah Village - population: 11 families.

The only 'legal' way off the island is the weekly kaido service, which operates on Wednesdays, and costs $400 for a return trip to Sai Kung.

'Very, very inconvenient!' said 71-year-old K.S. Chan of the service which had been running since June this year. He said he could not afford the price of the ferry, and sometimes asked fishermen to take him out - a practice that is also illegal.

Mr Chan, whose family has lived in Tung Ah since the days of his great-grandfather, said everything about living in the outlying island was better than in the city, except transport.

'I was considering buying a boat to get myself out, but I heard later that people above 60 years old were not allowed to apply for licences,' he said. Tung Ah village representative, Tony Kong Sai-ying, said the younger generation all went out to work because of the inconvenience of living on outlying islands, especially after the village primary school was closed last summer. 'Families with children all moved to Sai Kung, the only people left are those around 60,' he said.

Although doctors were sent there two times a week now, Mr Kong was worried that the government would reduce the frequency of visits.

For many sampan operators, running against the law is a choice they can't afford not to take.

'We often wait at the pier for five to six hours without business, and once we have some customers, we come across the Marine Department and get fined,' said Mr Leung, who didn't want to apply for a proper licence because it would limit him to set routes.

Mr Kwong said with remote communities occupied by small numbers of inhabitants, sampan operators found it difficult to recover expenses such as fuel and crew.

Besides, 60-year-old Mr Leung said the sampan operators had to pass a written test and learn to read maps to get a proper licence. He said this was impossible for most of them because they were illiterate.

Mr Kwong said the sampans in Cheung Chau actually made transportation to nearby outlying islands more convenient, by operating like taxis. He said the sampan operators made little profit every day and what they did could hardly be called a business.

'The government should issue licences to them according to circumstances rather than cracking down suddenly,' he said.

A 47-year-old sampan owner, Leung Cheung-kan, who has been carrying passengers for 16 years, said the younger generation was not taking part in the sampan business. 'It's hard to make money now,' said Mr Leung, who lost his right leg in a fishing boat accident 30 years ago.

With a family of two sons and two daughters, Mr Leung said he didn't know how he would make a living if he was forced to give up his business.