I recently took a visitor from Singapore to a floating restaurant – actually a row of small sampans tied together – in Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter, where we had a delicious seafood meal made by a Tanka cook.

Listed as one of the four native communities in Hong Kong, with the Punti (literally “local”), Hakka (“guest people”) and Hoklo (whose forebears were from Fujian or Hokkien, hence the name), the boatdwelling Tanka are found up and down the southeast Chinese coast, from as far north as northern Fujian all the way to the island of Hainan. Their origins are uncertain, but historical conjecture and their own folklore suggest that the Tanka and Han Chinese were separate peoples. It is generally accepted that they were originally groups of indigenous people of southeast China who, due to their displacement by the invading and colonising Han from the north, from the Qin dynasty (221-207BC) onwards, began dwelling on boats in coastal waters.

Despite being Sinicised to the extent of losing their own language, the Tanka were for centuries despised by the land-dwelling Han. The prejudice runs so deep that many of the Tanka in Hong Kong even take umbrage in the appellation “Tanka” and prefer to be referred to as “boat dwellers” or “people living on the water” instead. However, many Tanka, like most of the Hakka and Hoklo, have been completely assimilated into the predominant Cantonese culture in Hong Kong.

 

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