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Spirit of Hong Kong

History buff dives deep to protect Hong Kong’s underwater past

Engineer Rick Chan Kei-yip wants more effort and funding put into preserving city’s heritage as a maritime trading hub

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 May, 2017, 2:53pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 May, 2017, 8:34pm

The words “heritage conservation” normally bring up images of old buildings around Hong Kong, but we do not think about cultural preservation underwater very often.

That is the sort of mindset engineer Rick Chan Kei-yip wants to change. He believes that Hong Kong needs to gain a better understanding of the city’s cultural identity as a trading port, and that we should do more to learn from and appreciate the past. That is why he spends a lot of his spare time with his friends diving for artefacts in the seas around Hong Kong.

“After we finished a few projects, we wanted to keep going to see how much we could find in Hong Kong waters because not many people are doing this. Maybe they have found something, but they don’t know how to record it or deal with it,” he said.

Why so little of Hong Kong’s underwater heritage has been preserved

Chan, 46, first became interested in underwater heritage when he took a course in nautical archaeology and found out just how much the seas have played a part in the city’s history. His growing interest led him to establish the Hong Kong Underwater Heritage Group with his friends in 2009.

Dedicated to preserving the city’s cultural past as a maritime trading hub, the group has found and lifted hundreds of artefacts from Hong Kong waters. These projects are only sporadically funded by the government even though they turn in all the objects and research findings to the authorities.

Among the items recovered is an anchor stock – the top part of an anchor – believed to be from the Song dynasty. More than 1,000 years old, the anchor stock was discovered near Basalt Island. There is also a carronade, or cannon, that was found off High Island. It weighs one tonne and is believed to be from the 1830s to 1850s.

The group’s underwater discoveries have been documented with scientific precision on its website, a first step towards building a complete marine map of Hong Kong, something that many countries around the world already have.

Chan hopes that by making the discoveries public, they will encourage more Hongkongers to become interested in underwater heritage and treasure it.

He is keen to get the message out because he does not think the government values nautical preservation enough. He says that surveys for shipwrecks and other heritage sites are done only when the government wants to reclaim land or open up a new shipping route.

Hong Kong’s sunken treasure: ancient anchor and cannon reveal our rich maritime history

“We know there are a lot of groups that are already funded for the protection or preservation of buildings on land. Most of the heritage projects are on land.

“There’s nothing or almost no projects on underwater heritage. There are only a few of them every few years, so we think the government should put more effort or funding into underwater heritage.”

Chan’s work has gained him the recognition of his peers in the industry, in particular the Hong Kong Maritime Museum. The museum has nominated him for the South China Morning Post’s Spirit of Hong Kong Awards in the Cultural Preservation category – something Chan hopes will help get the word out on how important underwater heritage is to the city.