Living on a boat in Hong Kong: you can’t forget to buy sugar, everything must be planned and you may need a sampan to get to shore
They are an escape from city bustle and high rents. But houseboats also require a lot of work, and come without the sort of utilities and safety that land dwellers take for granted
Going by Hong Kong’s astronomical property prices, airline worker David Jones (not his real name) scored the deal of a lifetime.
For HK$2 million (US$255,000), he bought a 1,500 sq ft Aberdeen property with a rooftop and balcony three years ago. But here’s the catch: home for Jones, 42, his wife and two children is a floating Chinese junk. On land, the sum he paid would get him no more than a 300 sq ft studio flat in the area.
Living on the water appeals to some, but remains legally ambiguous, with some lawyers saying it is unclear if it is even allowed. That explains why Jones and several others interviewed preferred not to be named in this report.
There is no official figure, but experts estimate that between 1,000 and 2,000 people live on boats, many of them expatriates seeking a comfortable living space without the pain of Hong Kong flat prices.
There is a squeeze on places where boats can be moored, and difficulty securing clean water, electricity and sanitation services. It is uncertain where boat dwellers will go if more choose this living option.
Living on a boat in a place hit frequently by tropical storms is risky too. Mangkhut, Hong Kong’s most powerful typhoon since records began in 1946, wrecked hundreds of boats in September.
“It’s not for everyone,” said Jones, who has been working in Hong Kong for 11 years. “A lot of people wouldn’t like the lifestyle because there are a lot of constraints. But some of us do. We accept all the cons and enjoy the pros.”
Three years ago, he and his wife decided to buy a home of at least 1,000 sq ft, after eight years of renting flats.
But the cheapest option would have cost about HK$10 million, which meant a down payment of HK$5 million. They could not afford it.
That was when they decided to live on a boat. For HK$2 million, they bought a 15-year-old Chinese junk with a living space of 1,500 sq ft, a top deck and a balcony that added another 800 sq ft, and got a mooring space in Aberdeen typhoon shelter.
The shelter is about 10 minutes’ walk from Wong Chuk Hang MTR station, just a couple of stops from the city’s business centre and close to the children’s school.
“It’s comfortable,” Jones said. “You get a lot of space for the money, which you will never get in a flat in Hong Kong. It’s like you are living in a floating village. It’s very quiet, but right next to town.”
Trade-offs for the lifestyle
Veteran maritime lawyer Christopher Potts believes buying a boat is a bad investment.
“If somebody comes to me saying that they are buying a boat to live on, I try to dissuade them from doing it,” he said. “Mostly they are a depreciating asset.”
Given the shortage of space for boats, he also pointed out that mooring spaces outside private marinas do not come with utilities, safety regulations or policing, so families will have to provide for themselves and watch out for health and fire risks.
Many of those drawn to living on boats are expatriates with comfortable jobs as pilots, teachers, lawyers and junior bankers, said a boat broker who did not want to be named, to protect his clients.
“Among a lot of Westerners, like the French, British, Australians and Americans, there is a culture of living on the water,” he said.
David Robinson, owner of maritime magazine Fragrant Harbour, estimated there were about 500 boat families, who include traditional fishermen, as well as middle-income expatriates staying on pleasure vessels such as yachts and cruisers.
The fishermen are found mainly around typhoon shelters in Aberdeen, Cheung Chau, Yau Ma Tei and Shau Kei Wan, while the modern houseboats are at two private marinas as well as in Aberdeen and Sai Kung’s Hebe Haven.
The space squeeze is acute and set to get worse.
The private Discovery Bay Marina Club on Lantau Island recently told about 200 boat families to leave by year-end because the club is renovating. The families have not been told if they will be able to return.
The Gold Coast private marina in Tuen Mun has stopped issuing new houseboat berthing permits and ceased renewing existing ones.
Neither marina responded to requests for comment.
Only three of the 44 government typhoon shelters and sheltered anchorages have space for boats, and they are far from towns or infrastructure.
Marine Department statistics showed there were about 10,000 licensed pleasure vessels last year, with only about 5,000 public and private mooring spaces.
It can take up to five years to get a government mooring, brokers said.
Boats also require running maintenance and cleaning, and owners pay more than on land for electricity and water supply. Jones said these expenses added up about HK$20,000 a month.
Owners pay the Marine Department a monthly fee for mooring and, in a grey market of sublet spaces, some end up paying more.
Boats cannot be used as an address, so owners must find land addresses for official correspondence. Jones, for example, pays HK$5,000 a month to share a small flat with a colleague in Tung Chung, near Hong Kong International Airport.
To get to and from shore, he and his family must take a sampan, with each three-minute trip costing about HK$7 per person.
“You can’t just go to a store and forget to buy sugar. You have to plan everything in advance,” he said.
Before Typhoon Mangkhut, he secured his boat and everything on it, and the family sought shelter in a nearby boat club. His vessel had only minor damage compared with some others. One had its roof torn off.
All the costs add up, but Jones said he was spending less than if he rented a flat of the same size.
“You won’t recover the monthly costs, but they help you maintain the value of your property, and they go into the lifestyle,” he said.
Hulda Thorey, 44, lived on a boat with her husband and four children for five years until 2016. Their 60ft-long catamaran was moored mainly at Hebe Haven.
Thorey, director of maternity clinic Annerley, said the family had to take a dinghy to shore to go to school or work.
“It was quite challenging sometimes, but it was exciting that way,” she said. “A house is more predictable, solid and stable.”
The costs mattered less than waking up to a view of the sun rising over the bay.
“It’s the absolute absence of anything busy,” she said. “You are just so in tune with nature.”
Robinson, who lived on the water for five years in the 1990s and hoped to do so again in future, said: “Why should we spend our entire lives paying landlords and obsessing about property, when there is so much more to life to enjoy?”
Legal, fire and hygiene concerns
Living on a boat may have its attractions, but it remains a legal grey area.
Under a law instituted in 1983, yachts, cruisers and open cruisers are supposed to be used exclusively for pleasure purposes and it is not legal for such vessels to be used solely as a dwelling.
From 2013 to August this year, there were 60 prosecutions for using a pleasure boat not exclusively for pleasure purposes, a Marine Department spokeswoman said.
Lawyers such as Potts argue that terms such as “pleasure purposes” and “dwelling vessel” are open to “very liberal interpretation”.
Transport sector lawmaker Frankie Yick Chi-ming said Marine Department officials had told him enforcement was difficult because it would be hard to establish whether a family was living on a boat or just spending some nights on it.
In the 1950s, about 100,000 people lived on the sea at Aberdeen, Causeway Bay, Chai Wan, Shau Kei Wan, Yau Ma Tei and off outlying islands. Many lived in poverty on tiny boats.
It was around that time that the government began moving the poorest of these people to low-rent public housing, to reduce the number of houseboats in typhoon shelters because of safety and hygiene risks.
Anna Pong Kit-ho, 63, lived on a fishing boat for about 10 years from the mid-1950s and remembers how her family of eight shared the small boat with another family of seven. They lived in the Yau Ma Tei typhoon shelter, which has since been filled in.
Each family had a room of only about 100 sq ft. They bathed with salt water and used the sea as their toilet.
In 1966 her family was relocated, first to a squatter area and then to a resettlement area.
“Life did get easier in the resettlement area, because there was a toilet, water and electricity,” she said. “But my parents still preferred living on a boat. They were used to it.”
Retired maritime studies professor Jimmy Ng Jim-mi, said the government genuinely intended to improve the living conditions of the boatpeople.
“There were some serious fires in the overcrowded typhoon shelters at that time,” Ng said. “When fire broke out, it spread from one boat to another very quickly.”
In 1986, a blaze raged through hundreds of boats in the Aberdeen typhoon shelter, leaving at least two people injured and more than 1,000 homeless.
Fire and hygiene remain a concern, and some houseboats get water and electricity diverted illegally from land. Potts said: “The illegal provision of electricity through underwater cables can cause fires on boats when the systems get overloaded.”
He said in a case handled by his firm, a boat owner was unable to claim insurance compensation for fire damage to his vessel, partly because of his illegal electricity supply.
Jones, the airline worker, brought up the issue of sanitation, when he said high tides would flush all the human organic waste out of the typhoon shelter. But flushing their toilets directly into the sea posed health risks, Robinson pointed out.
“Sanitation is a serious issue,” he said. “If you don’t have a holding tank and you just pump out into the harbour, then come on. Nowadays we don’t do that.”
Jones said he would be happy to pay an infrastructure fee if the government legalised boat living, provided enough mooring spaces with utilities and enforced a set of safety and hygiene standards.
“I know the government’s priority is to look for more land to build more towers, but Hong Kong ... [has] got a fantastic coastline,” he said. “I think live-aboards have a place there.”
The Marine Department declined to comment, when asked if it would study the feasibility of legalising boat living.
Living on boats was not among the 18 options included in the government’s recently concluded five-month public consultation on how to plug a shortage of 1,200 hectares for long-term housing and economic development.
Potts said boats were unlikely to be a housing option for the city.
“The average families here in Hong Kong don’t have an affinity to the water,” he said. “If they get the option to live on shore they’d rather live on shore.”