Last operator happy hand-pulled Tai O ferry may return to service
The last operator of a hand-pulled punt in Tai O says she is happy to see a government plan to bring the ferry back, but she is too old to return to the work again.
Although she finished with the ferry service in 1996, Cheung Mei-ho still keeps her little wooden boat behind her stilt house, the land covered with debris and weeds.
Ms Cheung, 77, used to take residents and tourists across the 15-metre creek dividing the fishing village. The ferry, once the only means to 'cross the sea', as the villagers put it, was replaced by a HK$15 million cantilever bridge in 1996. The ferry was said to be the cheapest form of transport in Hong Kong, charging only 10 cents when Ms Cheung first started in the late 1970s. The fare increased to 50 cents later.
The government has recently suggested reviving the Tai O punts as part of revitalisation measures.
'If the government is willing to do this, perhaps I can offer some advice, but I won't be working any more,' Ms Cheung said. 'But first it has to make sure our fellows will get paid.'
Ms Cheung said the ferry service brought respect and employment to her family, despite the tough work. 'The later days were particularly busy. Lots of people came to see Hong Kong before the 1997 handover, and also to see this place.'
Ms Cheung's husband was a fisherman and grocery store owner, and she operated two boats with her brother, sister and neighbours. The operators assembled the boats themselves.
Each boat required three pairs of hands, two pulling the rope and the other collecting fares. Ms Cheung collected the fares.
The business earned one hundred dollars on a lean day, and several hundred on a holiday. A monthly fee was paid to the local rural committee, which tendered the service.
'We worked under the sun, in scorching summers like today, sending people to work or to visit this place. Everyone said we did a good job for Tai O.'
The ferries ran from early morning to midnight. The night shift catered to locals returning from work in the city.
After the bridge was built, several attempts to revive the rope ferry on public holidays failed because of poor business.
Ms Cheung's husband, Wong Ngau-chai, was sceptical over the ferry's return. 'Things are so convenient with the bridge now that no one would want to waste time with the ferry. And it is not profitable.'