SAMPAN OPERATOR To Sang waits to take hikers and locals from Wong Shek Pier to remote areas and islands off Sai Kung. He also keeps watch for any marine police. As the sun dips into the cool, green waters and shadows lengthen over rolling hills, campers appear at the pier. This is peak time for To, 58, who has been waiting for hours offshore. 'Sampan,' he cries. 'Where are you going?' But before the walkers can negotiate a price, a police boat speeds into view. Wasting no time, To revs the sampan's motor and takes off, alone. However, as soon as the police officers leave after distributing flyers urging people not to take sampans, he returns to pick up passengers. Two teenagers wanting to spend the night in Chek Keng clamber aboard. They've missed the last ferry from Wong Shek Pier that stops at this isolated village in Sai Kung East Country Park and they don't fancy making the two-hour hike there. In running his illegal service, To - like about 40 other sampan operators in the area - continues to be a thorn in the side of authorities who are trying to ensure people use only the Tsui Wah Ferry Service (TWFS) for transport. He faces the threat of arrest and fines but refuses to stop plying his trade, saying he is providing a much-needed service to hikers and the 400 people living near the pier who count on him and his colleagues for transport. They also argue that they cannot survive on their original source of income: fishing. 'I can't even catch enough to feed myself,' says To, explaining that the area has been overfished and blighted by pollution. The divorced To, who lives alone, adds that he has been a sampan operator since 1989, when he first supplemented his fast-disappearing income by taking passengers to and from Wong Shek Pier, a hub for islanders and others wanting to go into Sai Kung town. Even then he faced arrests and fines, though these were seldom enough to be a mere annoyance. But now the frequency is a burden, To says. Since TWFS took over two ferry routes in 2000, plus a third the following year, To says he and his colleagues have suffered several forms of 'harassment'. There are police checks at the pier three to four times a day, To says, adding that officers moor their launches there at weekends and, armed with megaphones, exhort passengers to take only the ferry. There are sometimes 'high-speed' chases at sea when authorities spot a sampan carrying passengers, To says. 'Sometimes we have friends and family in our boats but still we're stopped,' he says, highlighting the fine line authorities face between carrying out duties and being seen to be overstepping the mark. 'There is no road around here, so if there's an emergency or if the ferry service stops, how can we get around?' TWFS runs three routes from Wong Shek but, except for the Tap Mun-Ko Lau Wan-Wong Shek run, its service is infrequent and ends early (4.50pm on one route). For about $20 per person (though it can be more for anyone who is unskilled in bargaining), sampan operators will go to Tap Mun, or places the ferry misses or calls at only a couple of times a day, such as Wu Lei Kiu and Long Hill and Chek Keng (the latter two villages are home to just one resident each). TWFS assistant manager Florence Au Yin-fan says the company has complained about the sampans to police because 'it affects our business. People want to take sampans because of the convenience', she says, adding that those who want to reach areas beyond the normal ferry route would have to spend $1,000 to $3,000 to charter a vessel, whereas a sampan costs $60 to $400. 'If other ferry companies or sampan operators can run the same service in the area, it makes our licence meaningless,' Au says. The police, meanwhile, say the main purpose of their action is to maintain law and order for 'public interest', not 'the interest of [the] individual private sector'. To and his colleagues' sampans are registered under P4 licences, which allow the vessels to be used only to deliver fish feed, tools and to carry a maximum of four people, including the helmsman, in 'fish culture zones'. The seven-metre fibreglass boats with outboard motors are not supposed to carry fare-paying passengers because the Marine Department considers them unsafe. Indeed, police flyers warn that 'life-saving equipment on [sampans] has not been inspected and approved for the carriage of passengers', a point To refutes. He argues that he and his fellow operators' vessels have adequate safety equipment that police and Marine Department officials check 'occasionally'. Last year, four accidents were reported, one of them a horrific collision between a speedboat and a sampan in which a man and an eight-year-old girl, both in the sampan, died. The speedboat, towing a wakeboarder, crashed into the sampan - which was overloaded with 12 people - off North Lantau. Since 1998, 128 sampan operators have been fined for illegally carrying passengers, 29 of them in the waters near Wong Shek Pier, according to marine police. While To acknowledges that some of the fines have been for overloading, he claims his colleagues have been 'forced to [break the law] because of their small incomes'. A spokesman for the Marine Department, however, says the fishermen's livelihood is not its concern, arguing that the department's priority is the 'safety of passengers'. He adds that taking sampans is also a risk because passengers are not insured in case of accidents. But there's the rub. The sampan operators - backed by the New Territories Fishermen Fraternity Association (NTFFA), which in 2000 started petitioning the government to legalise sampans - say they are willing to buy insurance to comply with safety requirements for commercial vessels, but insurance companies turn them away because they don't have the necessary licence. And the department only issues these licences to owners of kaitos or launches. NTFFA vice-chairman Leung Kwong-yung says: 'The fishermen are all experienced boat drivers but most can't read, so how can they pass the written tests?' He adds that few would be able to afford kaitos. That includes fisherwoman Ho Yung-kiu from Deep Bay, who has never learned to read or write. 'We have no choice [but to make money from our sampans],' she says. 'We're old and know nothing, so how can we get jobs?' Seven years ago, unable to earn enough from fish farming to feed their 12 children - eight of whom are dumb - she and her husband, Shek Choi-chor, began taking trippers at Wong Shek. Ho has been fined more than most operators, about 10 times in the past two years, and last month alone was penalised $1,500. Still, she continues to defy the authorities, saying she needs the $300 to $1,000 she makes every month from passengers to supplement her monthly old-age allowance of $625. 'Sometimes I sit in my boat and cry [about my poor situation],' she says. Thanks to the police presence near Wong Shek Pier, sampan operators sometimes have to hang around for half a day before getting their first customer. Ho Yau-shing, 64, who often has a six-hour wait, says: 'After the police leave, we have to queue for customers, and sometimes I don't even get one . . . My heart skips a beat whenever I take in someone. I am always afraid the police will spot me.' Some hikers are puzzled by the ban on sampans as well. An Australian tourist remembers police stopping her and her friends from taking a sampan to Wong Shek Pier after a day's walk in the country park recently. 'We couldn't fit on the ferry and there were half a dozen sampans near the jetty, wanting to take people, but a police boat came and stopped them from doing so,' she says. 'Some of the 30 or so people waiting were quite angry and asked the police, 'Why don't you leave the sampan owners alone? They're just trying to make a little extra money?' '