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SUNDAY MORNING

Then & now: life on the ocean wave

Hong Kong's history reveals the city's deep-rooted connection to the sea, writes Jason Wordie

 

As a major international port city from the beginning of British rule, Hong Kong has always lived by the sea. Whether through fishing or other associated enterprises, its connections to the water have been vital.

Hong Kong men had "gone down to the sea in ships" since the colony's beginnings. Many of those who would form a prominent early local elite were of Tanka, or boatpeople, origin - on one side of the blanket or the other: many were illegitimate Eurasians.

More than a few were virtual pirates, and some - having worked with or otherwise facilitated the British during the first Anglo-Chinese war - found it a little too "hot" to remain in China and decamped to Hong Kong.

For several decades, most crewmen on shipping lines that passed through Hong Kong were Lascars. Now largely forgotten, "Lascar" was a generic term for Asian Muslim seamen; while most were Bengalis, some were Malays and Javanese - who formed a minority within a minority in Hong Kong.

Upper Lascar Row and Lower Lascar Row, just below Central's Hollywood Road, recall those men's presence. Lascars mostly vanished from the late 1940s, as other ethnicities became more broadly represented within shipping lines. The Philippines - an island nation with abundant internal shipping routes - now supplies a significant proportion of the world's merchant seamen.

The Blue Funnel Line, based in Liverpool, England, and with services to the Far East and Australia, generally employed ethnic Chinese for its deck and engine room crews. This was, at least in part, because the owner, Alfred Holt, preferred for safety reasons that his ships be manned by teetotallers - as many Chinese mostly were, and remain. Lascars, by contrast, were known to "cut loose" when on shore, and binges were commonplace. For decades, the Blue Funnel Line had a dedicated terminal on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront, known as Holt's Wharf.

The Hong Kong Sea School in Stanley was set up in 1946 to provide basic education and job training for boys, usually from underprivileged backgrounds. The local fishing industry's steady decline from the early 50s meant that many who would previously have been absorbed into that way of life had to find an alternative livelihood. With limited education, their employment options beyond the maritime fields were few and many were getting into trouble with the law.

The exponential growth of shipping and manufacturing in Hong Kong in the 50s led to an increase in employment opportunities, which would be met, at least partially, by providing more training for local men and boys.

Hong Kong's enormous development in shipping from the late 40s was, in part, a direct consequence of the Chinese civil war. Unlike factories and real estate, ships are eminently shiftable; in turbulent times they can just be sailed away to a different port and registered under a different flag. That was exactly what happened with large numbers of Shanghai and Ningbo-based fleets.

Given Hong Kong's importance as a port, disturbances to shipping or cargo handling operations were always a major concern. Hong Kong was - and remains - a net importer of food, and any prolonged disruptions to shipping movements and associated logistics could be disastrous in terms of social instability.

Central's new Hong Kong Maritime Museum gives a superb overview of the development of the local shipping industry, mainly from the perspective of major industry operators.

 

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