Hong Kong’s Discovery Bay houseboat saga: bad investments, First World problems, or a callous destruction of homes?
Supporters argue small but growing trend of living on boats could be part of answer to city’s housing woes, but others say it is not feasible and legalising practice could open Pandora’s box
In the calm waters of Discovery Bay Marina Club, houseboat owner Shirley Lam is checking that her cabin windows are latched and loose items on the open deck of her 55-foot yacht are cleared.
The marina is a typhoon shelter, and most owners are hunkering down for the approach of Super Typhoon Mangkhut, expected to be the biggest on record faced by the city. But even if their vessels weather the mega storm, their long-cherished way of life may be sunk by another looming threat – eviction.
“All of us here are already under a lot of pressure the past couple of days,” Lam says.
A former human resources executive, Lam plonked HK$6 million into buying her yacht when she was looking for a new home in 2015. It provides 1,000 sq ft of floor space and includes three levels: a middle floor which functions as a living room, with a kitchen and dining room upstairs and two bedrooms below deck.
Beside a couch on the cosy main deck, photos of her son, who is studying in Canada, and other family members line a cabinet.
Three years ago, the 54-year-old Hongkonger and single mother bade goodbye to her small flat in Fo Tan and, freed from paying notoriously high rents in the city, happily embraced a more idyllic lifestyle on the water.
“I couldn’t afford a flat of the same size,” says the retiree, who is supporting her son in university. “If I had bought a decent place with every bit of my savings then, I would have gone broke just from the down payment.”
Lam is among a small but growing group of middle-class families and young professionals who do not want to be tied down by hefty mortgages and have chosen to live on boats as an alternative to the crowded city lifestyle.
To join Hong Kong’s boat-dwelling community of about 200 vessels, she paid a one-off debenture fee of HK$500,000 to berth at the Discovery Bay Marina Club on Lantau Island. She pays HK$1,500 a month in subscription fees and HK$7,500 monthly for maintenance and cleaning.
Still, she says, it costs less than having a flat of the same size in the world’s least affordable property market. A flat with the same floor space in the New Territories would have cost at least HK$11 million – the down payment alone would have been at least HK$5 million and she would be saddled with a monthly mortgage of about HK$22,000 for 30 years.
That was why choosing to live on a boat seemed like a smart move. With her son overseas, Lam lives alone on her boat, just a 10-minute walk from the grocery store in the club’s plaza.
When the weather is fine, fresh air and open views of a rugged coastline are readily available from her boat.
“The scene and the peaceful environment take my breath away, this is my heaven on Earth,” she says.
There are no official figures for the number of people who live on boats in Hong Kong, but the Marine Department recorded a total of 18,712 licensed vessels in 2017, an increase from 13,519 in 2007. Auxiliary powered yachts, cruisers and open cruisers, also known as class four vessels – the type owned by all boat dwellers at Discovery Bay – made up 9,948 of the total last year, a 25 per cent rise compared with 2012.
David Robinson, proprietor of maritime magazine Fragrant Harbour, estimated there could be up to 1,500 people in the city’s houseboat community, with about 80 per cent of them expatriates.
The Discovery Bay Marina Club is the city’s largest boat settlement and home to about 150 families.
On August 31, the boat community was shaken by an eviction notice telling members they had until the end of the year to move out, as the club would be closed for extensive repair, renovation and maintenance work.
It was unclear whether the owners would be able to move back, as their debentures expire by the end of the year. Some have reached out to Hong Kong Resort International, the company which owns the club. Boat owners were told they could expect a response by September 11, but as of Friday they had not received any news.
With only four months left to ship out, the families were scrambling to relocate, but they do not have many options because of a squeeze on space for vessels.
From sea to land, and back to sea
Living on boats is not something new in Hong Kong. Decades ago, before high-rises sprouted up over Victoria Harbour, fishing boats, junks and sampans were a common sight on the waters at Causeway Bay. Some of the vessels were home to fishermen and their families.
That was a time, in the 1960s, when Hong Kong’s vibrant fishing industry exported seafood to Japan, Europe and North America. Part of that history remains at Aberdeen Harbour, where there are still fishing vessels and families living on houseboats.
For another small segment of the population, who are better off and choose living on boats instead of the high-rise city life, there are a few private mooring areas aside from Discovery Bay and Gold Coast in Tuen Mun.
“Living on boats used to be associated with the low life, smuggling, poverty and it had a bad image,” says magazine proprietor Robinson, 61, who moved to Hong Kong from South Africa in 1982. “It’s different now, it gives people an independent way of life.”
For more than five years, he lived on the water – first on a 35-foot sailing boat in Aberdeen and then on a 41-foot wooden harbour craft in Sai Kung.
Living on a boat is “quite a trend nowadays”, he says. “Owners have more control over their own home, whereas when you rent a flat, that’s just a place you return to after a long day of work.”
Five years ago, expatriates Casey Kiihfuss and her husband, who works in the aviation industry and prefers not to be named, decided to move out of their two-room, 700 sq ft flat in Discovery Bay because they were planning for a third child and the place was too small.
Given the daunting property prices, the couple decided to buy a 40-foot boat at HK$8 million and have been living at the Discovery Bay Marina Club since 2013.
“We invested in this boat so that we can enjoy sufficient room for all our children,” says Kiihfuss, 36, a stay-home mother whose children are now three, five and eight years old.
Things worked out well for the family until the club’s eviction notice arrived last month.
Alternative berthing space is in short supply. The demand for moorings and dry berths in Hong Kong far exceeds supply, according to official government data. There are more than 9,000 licensed pleasure vessels, but only about 5,000 public and private moorings and dry berths.
At present only three remote locations have space available – Hei Ling Chau on the south of Discovery Bay, and in the remote far east at Chek Keng Chau harbour and Wong Wan.
If they cannot find another spot, Lam, Kiihfuss and many of the others affected say they face huge losses. Those who spent their life savings and are still paying for their vessels could face bankruptcy.
Worried that she may lose her possessions, Lam says: “It’s not that we are reluctant to move out, we don’t have anywhere to go.”
Given the limited mooring slots available, Kiihfuss and her husband, who have 15 years on the mortgage for their vessel, are bracing for the worst.
“Our vessel will lose its value because no one would want to buy it due to the lack of berthing spaces in Hong Kong. The money we already invested on the boat will go down the drain,” Kiihfuss says.
The Marine Department has told boat owners there are 300 spots at Hei Ling Chau but these are not guaranteed. Even if some land a place for their vessels there, families with children studying in Discovery Bay may be cut off because of a lack of connecting ferries or shuttle buses.
Transport sector lawmaker Frankie Yick Chi-ming urged the government to help members of the marina club.
“They need spaces for their boats regardless of whether they live inside,” he says.
Last year, Yick tabled a question to the Marine Department about the city’s shortage of moorings.
The government replied that it was considering setting up temporary private moorings at underused typhoon shelters.
“The government is currently discussing an expansion plan to add more than 1,000 mooring spaces at Tso Wo Hang in Sai Kung Country Park and also the Pak Sha Wan area,” the lawmaker says.
But he says he does not know when the administration will go ahead with its plan.
The Marine Department has not responded to a question on this.
A solution to the housing shortage?
Though the community of boat dwellers has grown over the years, Hong Kong law actually prohibits people from living on vessels.
In 1983 the colonial government made it a requirement for all those who live on boats to register and get a permit or face criminal charges. No new permits have been issued in recent years and, by the end of last year, there were only four licensed dwelling vessels, according to the Marine Department. They were moored at the Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter.
Lam and Kiihfuss’ boats are licensed as pleasure vessels, but the law does not stipulate how long a boat owner can remain on a boat.
Robinson says this is a loophole in the regulations and the 1983 dwelling vessel law is generally not enforced. He suggests updating the law to make it legal for people to live on boats.
“If houseboats are properly regulated, I don’t understand why such a lifestyle should not be encouraged,” Robinson says. “Living on a boat is a solution to the housing crisis.”
Pointing out that there is plenty of underused space at Hong Kong’s 14 public typhoon shelters, including in Kwun Tong, he says: “Just let people live on the ocean and not disrupt the environment.”
Legislator Yick agrees more needs to be done.
Other than reviewing the law on the licensing of these pleasure vessels, Yick welcomes the suggestion of looking into the possibility of officially legalising houseboats.
“To start, I think it would be good to take reference from other countries to see if it is actually feasible and ideally suited for Hong Kong to also adapt to boat dwellers,” he says.
But Professor Eddie Hui Chi-man from Polytechnic University’s department of building and real estate says he believes it is not practical.
“Hong Kong has been building vertically to cope with limited land supply. These boat communities go outwards meaning they take up more space while housing fewer people,” he says. “It will also bring up environmental and security issues.”
He says living on vessels should be limited to fishermen..
“Boats are like cars,” Hui says. “Their values depreciate once they hit the water, whereas for a flat, you not only own the property but also the land it sits on.
“As property prices rise, it is just a better option to own as an investment in the long run.”
Meanwhile, Lam says she is aware her community’s eviction woes may come off as problems that are hard to sympathise with, given they are perceived as better off.
She says: “Even if outsiders see us as more fortunate than others, it doesn’t mean we deserve to have our homes taken away from us.
“I used all the money I had to get this boat so I will have somewhere to stay until I die.”