What’s next for Hong Kong houseboat community facing eviction from Discovery Bay Marina Club?
The Post explores city’s history with boat dwellers and legalities behind homes on water for troubled residents fighting to keep their only investments
On August 31, some 200 boat owners, most of whom also live on board, were told they only had four months to ship out of Hong Kong’s Discovery Bay marina, leaving families in despair and facing financial ruin.
Affected owners, whose berthing permits at Discovery Bay Marina Club will be terminated by December 31, are negotiating with the club management to extend the deadline.
As the owners continue their fight, the Post answers some common questions about boat living in Hong Kong.
Who lives on boats in Hong Kong and where are their vessels berthed?
Houseboats were once common among fisherman, but that changed in the 1980s and 90s when boats were often associated with illegal activities including prostitution, according to David Robinson, proprietor of maritime magazine Fragrant Harbour.
“That’s why living on board had a bad name,” he said.
But now, the trend is “quite normal”, according to Robinson, who cites the prevalence of people living on water in Australia, New Zealand and Britain, among many other places. “People love the romantic lifestyle,” he said.
While there are no official figures locally, Robinson estimated there could be up to 1,500 people in Hong Kong’s houseboat community, with 75 per cent of them expats such as pilots and from middle-class families.
Marine Department statistics showed there were 9,948 licensed pleasure vessels last year, but there were only around 5,000 public and private moorings and dry berths in areas like Aberdeen, Gold Coast, Sai Kung and Discovery Bay.
There is a long waiting list for moorings. Of the 44 private mooring areas available in Hong Kong, only three remote locations have space available – Hei Ling Chau on the south of Discovery Bay and in the remote far east of Hong Kong at Chek Keng Chau harbour and Wong Wan.
Those who cannot secure a proper berthing place usually moor somewhere in the harbour or at typhoon shelters.
Is it costly to live on a boat and why do some do it?
To berth at a typhoon shelter – through gaining a mooring spot from the Aberdeen Boat Club for example – it would cost approximately HK$80,000 (US$10,000) in a one-off debenture fee and about HK$1,000 in monthly club fees.
There are a variety of monthly and annual costs for boat owners and those looking to rent one. The cost of boat rentals is about HK$40,000 a month, including mooring. For boat owners, mooring fees can range between HK$10,000 and HK$15,000. Such prices depend on boat size and condition.
Other monthly costs include HK$1,500 and HK$10,000 in maintenance fees for the vessel and the marina. These apply to boats made of fibreglass and in relatively good condition. Wooden ones may cost more to upkeep.
There is also an estimated HK$500 in weekly cleaning costs and a HK$5,000 annual marine licence charge. Insurance costs can be about HK$10,000 annually.
But in Hong Kong, notorious for its soaring rents and property prices, living on a boat can be generally cheaper than staying in a flat of the same size.
The average floor areas of houseboats range from about 600 sq ft to more than 2,000 sq ft.
Is living on boats allowed?
A requirement for a permit was introduced in 1983, when the colonial government asked all dwellers on vessels to register or face criminal charges. But no new permits have been issued in recent years and there are now only four holders of such licences in Hong Kong, who all live in the Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter.
The Marine Department did not respond to the Post on when the last permit was issued and why it stopped.
Some houseboat owners told the Post they used a land address for issues that needed proof of residence, such as applying for boat licences, buying insurance and registering as voters.
While all types of boats, including former fishing vessels, are used as homes, yachts are specifically cited by the Marine Department as something that cannot be used for anything other than “pleasure purposes”.
On Tuesday, as houseboat families at Discovery Bay demanded transparency over their eviction, a spokeswoman for the department said no person should use a vessel as a dwelling place within Hong Kong waters unless a licence had been issued.
In 1983, when the permit was launched, then secretary for economic services Piers Jacobs explained to the Legislative Council that it was a way to “control” and “contain” the growth of dwelling vessels in typhoon shelters and mitigate safety and hygiene risks.
In rare fashion, the bill was both introduced and passed on April 13, 1983. Jacobs said this was to “prevent a sudden rush of vessels into the shelters by owners wishing to beat the deadline”.
What will happen next for houseboat families at Discovery Bay?
A group of 208 affected members of the Discovery Bay Marina Club are now jointly asking the management to extend the deadline to the middle of next year, as the notice was too short.
Some owners said they faced bankruptcy if they could not find a mooring place elsewhere, as the value of their investment in the boats and club debentures would be wiped out.
What does the marina say and who is helping those affected?
Hong Kong Resort Company, the developer of Discovery Bay and a principal subsidiary of HKR International, which owns the marina and the bay, said club management would directly handle all matters related to the private marina, and that the company had no further comment.
The boat owners’ group said the club’s director told them Hong Kong Resort Company would reply on Friday to their request to extend the deadline.
The Marine Department said on Monday that living on boats was not permitted in Hong Kong, when asked if it would follow up on the issue.
Additional reporting by Alvin Lum