Wan Fook-ming glances at the grey sky from the porch of his stilt house in Tai O. Like many of his neighbours along the waterways of this sleepy fishing community of 3,000 on the west coast of Lantau, the 72-year-old has been keeping a close eye on the weather. Wan doesn't want to see any more rain on the Tai O Tuen Ng Waterway Parade. Last year's event was virtually a washout - landslides on Tai O's only road link to the outside world prevented many of the port's city-based relatives from returning to celebrate their home traditions and links to the sea. 'This is an important ritual for us fishermen,' says Wan, a thin, deeply tanned retiree who first fished with his parents at the age of seven and then became a seafood buyer in Kowloon in his forties. 'This year we also hope swine flu will stay away from us.' Tai O's Tuen Ng traditions are unique in the region, locals say. While Hong Kong's other fishing communities mainly commemorate the death of the patriotic poet Qu Yuan with dragon boat races, the 600-year-old Tai O community holds a similarly vibrant but more religious waterway parade. The festivities begin at 8am when members of three local fishermen's associations carry statuettes of Hau Wong from Yeung Hau Temple in the northwest of town to the outlying Tin Hau, Kwai Tai and Hung Shing temples. From 10am to noon, the procession continues in sampans, which are towed by ornately carved dragon boats in the waterways of the 'Venice of the East'. 'Tai O is the only place in Hong Kong that practises the dragon boat deities parade ceremony during the Tuen Ng [dragon boat] Festival,' says Cheung Siu-woo, the associate director of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology's South China Research Centre, who taught in the port from 1984 to 1986. Tai O's stilt house residents burn paper offerings as the dragon boats pass by in the belief that the ritual will pacify wandering water ghosts and protect them from illness. The water parade concludes with the ceremonial return of the statuettes to the temples and a late-afternoon banquet for villagers. Tai O residents say they have no record of when their festival began, because most local fishermen were illiterate. But Wan, a fifth-generation Tai O resident, estimates that the custom must have existed for more than a century because his grandfather used to tell him about the parade when he was a child. 'The customs have been passed from generation to generation,' says Wan, who like many of Tai O's elderly only learned to write when he retired 10 years ago. The villagers must observe certain rules during the parade. Women are not allowed into the boats and the dragon boats towing the deity-carrying sampans must remain at a consistent speed and cannot pass each other in convoy. Craft must avoid touching the stilt houses while on parade, for doing so might bring bad luck to their inhabitants. 'We were once scolded by [a respected elderly woman] for several hours because our boat touched her house,' Wan says. 'Paddling along the narrow waterways has always been challenging and requires great technique.' Such ritual knowledge depends on the recollections of village elders such as Wan who are too old to paddle, but sit on the event-organising committee The fishermen say they try to adhere to these old rituals. 'When we took part in the parade when we were younger, the senior folks monitored us closely,' says Wan. 'They wanted to make sure we followed every custom. We'd get told off if we didn't. 'Now we pass our knowledge on to the young people because we have to rely on them to continue the tradition. But we don't tell them off. We're more liberal.' Organisers admit that some parade traditions have changed with the urbanisation of Tai O, and budget cuts have prevented fishermen from parading with hand-embroidered silk umbrellas costing several thousands of dollars. Former fisherman Fan Sum-kee admits the festival used to be more vibrant. 'When we were kids, we used to look forward to the event because dragon boating and playing football were our only sources of entertainment,' says the 60-year-old, who now runs dolphin-watching boat trips. 'I squeezed myself into the boat but my father threw me into the water because I was too young to help out.' The festival used to stimulate economic growth in Tai O because teams of fishermen from the community would compete to earn the most money in the three months after the Mid-Autumn Festival, with the winners appointed to run the Tuen Ng parade. 'It was a great honour for us to chair such an important event,' says 65-year-old Wong Kwong-chuen, who fished for 30 years before he set up a dried seafood store in the port. 'We set sail whether it was sunny or a thunderstorm. There was big motivation for us to work hard.' But such keen competition has been replaced by a lucky draw as Tai O's fishing industry has shrunk to just seven large boats and sampans operated by semi-retired elderly fishermen. Tai O's population is now about one-tenth of its size before the 1960s, thanks to competition from the mainland and the exodus of the young to better jobs in Hong Kong, says Tai O Rural Committee vice-chairman Lou Cheuk-wing. 'Only old people stay in Tai O because there are no job opportunities [here] for young people,' he says. The community's seniors worry that their traditions will fade if the community's young don't help preserve them. Fund-raising is also a problem as the community's elders rely on their out-of-town relatives to help them meet the event's HK$300,000 budget. 'Most of us are retired and we can't afford the donation,' Wan says. Yet such traditions are an important part of Hong Kong's intangible cultural heritage, says Liu Tik-sang, director of the South China Research Centre. Having spent his childhood in Tai O, Liu admits he used to think the festivities were superstitious. But he now realises the tradition is a key event reflecting the social, cultural and economic development of Tai O's close-knit community. 'In the past when the fishing industry was thriving, the fishermen donated their salary to support the religious practice,' Liu says. 'It served as a key event forging community spirit among fishermen of different associations.' As the fishing industry faded out, the event connects those who left town to their native roots, he says. Students from the university and Tai O's Buddhist Fat Ho Memorial College will also learn more about the parade's customs by paddling and assisting in the running of the event, Liu says. The university and the Hong Kong Heritage Museum will also organise a field trip to Tai O to explain the customs to tourists, he says. Residents also hope that the government's plans to revitalise Tai O will bring more tourists to the port. Although it is packed with day trippers during the holidays, Tai O is almost deserted on weekdays, Wong says. Lou says Hong Kong 'doesn't have many tourist spots. But Tai O still retains the characteristics of a traditional fishing village and our natural landscape such as mangroves are a good attraction for city dwellers.' He also hopes the disused salt pans can be restored to highlight a local industry that thrived until the 1960s. Such developments might stop Tai O's brain drain, Wong says. 'We hope the changes will boost our local economy so that young people might be tempted to stay,' he says.