Study Buddy (Explorer): ‘Father of the fishermen’ Charles Thirlwell put Hong Kong dragon boat racing on the global map

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  • Check your reading comprehension using the questions below or in the linked Kahoot! game
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Charles Thirlwell has left his mark on Hong Kong’s Tanka people and its dragon boat culture. Photo: SCMP

Content provided by the British Council

Read the following text and answer questions 1-9 below:

[1] There is no official memorial in Hong Kong to commemorate Charlie Thirlwell. No parks, roads or public buildings bear his name. But his legacy is remembered to this day.

[2] This Hong Kong-born lighthouse keeper campaigned vigorously for the socially marginalised Tanka, the ethnic group of indigenous people who traditionally lived afloat in junks and earned their living from fishing. He also founded several fishermen’s associations, started sports programmes, and put the traditional Tanka sport of dragon boat racing on the international map.

[3] Charles Beatty Allenby Haig Thirlwell was born in Hong Kong in 1918. Thirlwell was the second eldest of 10 children. After a dockyard apprenticeship, he joined the lighthouse service in 1937 at Waglan Island. It is there that his interaction with the fishermen of Chai Wan began. Thirlwell went fishing with the younger men, teaching them signalling and basic English.

[4] The 1960s and 70s were a transformational time for the Tanka, who were then living in boats in the typhoon shelter and working as fishermen. In the 1960s, there was a big reclamation programme, and the government was trying to move them ashore. Thirlwell obtained assurances from the government that the typhoon shelter would be reconstructed so that junk dwellers would be protected, and that flats would be provided for those who chose to come ashore.

[5] He initiated the establishment of fishermen’s recreation clubs in Chai Wan, Shau Kei Wan, Stanley, Lamma Island and Tai Tam. The clubs’ purpose was to act as a bridge between the fishing community and government departments.

[6] It was around this time that Thirlwell recognised the potential of dragon boat racing, which was then only done by the fishing community, to enhance the social status of the Tanka folk. Despite its long historical associations, dragon boat racing had a very low public profile in the 60s.

[7] Thirlwell invited influential people to the dragon boat races. The first international tournament was held in Shau Kei Wan in 1979. By the early 80s, the Hong Kong Tourist Association realised dragon boat racing’s potential, and it blew up. After his retirement, in 1973, Thirlwell took local dragon boat teams on tour to Japan, Australia and Taiwan, and devoted his spare time to Tanka community issues.

[8] He was fluent in Cantonese and Tanka dialect, and he penned a dragon boating anthem. The song was first performed in 1985, the year of his passing away, as a tribute. Years later, at the opening of dragon boat races, Hong Kong is still singing it.
Source: South China Morning Post, February 25


Play a Kahoot! game about this story as a class or with your friends by clicking on the link here.

Or play on your own below to test your understanding:

1. Which of the following are named after Charlie Thirlwell according to paragraph 1?
A. public parks
B. two major roads in Wan Chai
C. two government buildings
D. none of the above

2. Who are the Tanka people mentioned in paragraph 2?

3. How many younger siblings did Thirlwell have according to paragraph 3?

4. Read paragraph 3, and decide if the following statements are True, False or Not Given. (4 marks)
(i) Thirlwell was the only one in his family who became a lighthouse keeper.
(ii) He took up a lighthouse apprenticeship before joining the service.
(iii) Some of the local fishermen learned basic English from Thirlwell.
(iv) The local fishermen taught him their dialect in return.

5. Find a word in paragraph 4 that means “great change”.

6. What was the result of Thirlwell’s actions in paragraph 4?
A. The typhoon shelter was expanded so more Tanka could stay in it.
B. Tanka children were able to live in the city and go to schools.
C. Tanka people still had a home regardless of whether they chose to move ashore.
D. The government agreed to build another typhoon shelter for the Tanka.

7. Which of the following statements about dragon boat racing from paragraphs 6 and 7 is false?
A. Dragon boat racing helped to promote the social status of the Tanka.
B. The first local dragon boat race was held in Shau Kei Wan.
C. Dragon boat racing teams started touring foreign countries in 1973.
D. In the 1980s, the Hong Kong Tourist Association learned that dragon boat racing could be popular.

8. What did Thirlwell do after he stopped working as a lighthouse keeper according to paragraph 7?

9. According to paragraph 8, what two events happened in 1985? (2 marks)

Charles Thirlwell (centre) works on nets with brothers Cheng Muk (left) and Cheng Ngan in 1982. Photo: SCMP


1. D
2. They are an ethnic group of indigenous people who traditionally lived afloat in junks and earned their living from fishing.
3. eight
4. (i) NG; (ii) F; (iii) T; (iv) NG
5. transformational
6. C
7. B
8. He took local dragon boat teams on tour to Japan, Australia and Taiwan, and devoted his spare time to Tanka community issues.
9. Thirlwell’s death, and the first time the dragon boating anthem he wrote was performed

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