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A book on the harsh lives of Hong Kong Fisherman

Book cover, book by Cheng Hing (鄭興), a local Hong Kong fisherman , titled ‘The Harsh Lives of Hong Kong fishermen’ (漁民辛酸史).

I was recently venturing around Oxfordshire after submitting my essays. Whilst writing up those graded-papers (I just need a ‘pass’), my mind was heavily swayed by many of the unheard of ideas I read from a book published recently in Hong Kong. It was a book by Cheng Hing (鄭興), a local Hong Kong fisherman, titled ‘The Harsh Lives of Hong Kong fishermen’(漁民辛酸史).

An Unexpected book: written by a Shau Kei Wan Fisherman in Hong Kong

It has to be emphasized: it is not a book you could typically find in a normal bookstore around Hong Kong. It was a marvellous coincident to have discovered this book; a lovely consequence of an inquisitive mind venturing around the island area: the book was a recommended reading by one of my several heartfelt mentors, let us refer to him as Mr S. S always teach me to learn the beauty of laziness, to be selectively high-profiled and to ‘wander around’ with style. I knew S when I almost graduated from my bachelor’s degree, and he only started replying to my emails (which contained unfiltered and somewhat vulgar youthful thoughts) when I sent him my hand-drawn ‘business card’. It was this same S who happened to be ‘wandering around with style’ near the Shau Kei Wan temple area in Hong Kong (since he was somewhat stuck in Hong Kong due to the pandemic), and he stumbled upon an advertisement about an inauguration of a nearby newly renovated temple. S then met a local Hong Kong fisherman, Mr Cheng, who was selling a book he recently published about his life as a Shau Kei Wan fisherman. It was utterly rare and admirable to have fisherman in Hong Kong who are willing to share about those less-known experience. 

Reading the book inside S’s library, with the Burmese cat sleeping on my arm.

The Boat People (Tanka疍家)

We often refer the Tanka people  (疍家) as the ‘Floating People’, or ‘Boat People’(水上人), directly translated as ‘people living on the water’. These days, the younger generations of the Tanka lineage are mostly living on lands: since they no longer live on a junk and lead a life of a fisherman like their ancestors, they are not considered the bona-fide member of the floating population. The Tanka is often juxtaposed with the Hakka people, they are essentially two of the most common but different ethnic minorities in Hong Kong. According to an indigenous Boat People I met in Sha Tau Kok earlier this year, he proposes that although some Hakkas (客家) know how to fish, they are mostly living on fortified villages and their diets are mainly crops from on-land agriculture. The word ‘Tan’ (疍) was used since the Song dynasty by a geographer called Lo Sih (樂史), where he describes these floating population as drifting along the Canton and towards Hainan. Meanwhile, the Tanka people tend to speak Cantonese, but they also speaks dialects such as Hoklo, Szeyap and sometimes Hakka.

When the Tanka says someone is ‘Not Eating’ anymore

The author, Mr Cheng, talks more extensively on the actual cultural significance of the Tanka people, occasionally by paralleling the Boat peoplewith the Land people. He mentioned how the Boat People envy the Land People and how they were nicknamed by people from the land due to their different ways of living. But there’s also something quite fascinating, from a socio-linguistic point of view, where the Tanka people use certain vocabulary to signal family traumas and immense changes. Say, if Mrs B, a Tanka fisherwoman, claims that her husband, Mr B,is ‘no longer eating anymore’ , people in the Tanka community will immediately show care by asking her what she needs in continuing her life. Some Tanka, presumably living near her, upon receiving the news, will react with shock, and then take necessary folk rituals to avoid unnecessary ‘distraction’ to the ‘spirit’. They will try to offer money, or sometimes emergency supplies to Mrs B if she can’t work, and to show emotional supports. If it is from people outside of the Tanka community, they will be fairly perplexed as to why they all reacted drastically to the phrase ‘my husband is no longer eating’. Cheng mentions how the Tanka boat people, unlike the bluntness of the land people, will say ‘Someone is not eating’ to indicate a person has passed away. Now this is making more sense to us, the ‘land people’.

The ‘Big King’ in the Sea

Meanwhile, the Tanka fishermen often found the ‘Big King’ in the process of fishing, and normally when they see a ‘Big King’, they will enshrine them on the boat. The ‘Big King’, or ‘Dai Wong Gong’ (大王公), equates to a human corpse floating on the sea. People on the water have great respect for the ‘Big King’: not only will they salvage the Big Kings to the fishing junks or watercrafts, those who were picked up at sea are likely to be treated like the fisherman’s own ancestors. The Tanka will offer incense in the morning and evening, worshipping the Big Kings with bowls of fish, meat, as well as joss papers. Mr Cheng mentions that the people on the water believed that the ‘Big King’ would ‘follow’ the boat and tend not to leave; hey ho, imagined you have drifted on the sea for extended period of time, and finally somebody picked you up and worship you like their own family. Wouldn't you still want to leave...?

Notes about the book (in Chinese) – these are notes made for the purposes of using them in a university essay about Hong Kong fishing junks.

Pricing of Fish and ‘Seafood Appraisers’

It is normal for fishermen to catch fish, but the number of days after the fish is caught also permit the pricing of fish. According to Mr Cheng, the fish caught for one day are called ‘True Fish’  (or ‘Zenlou Fish’, Cantonese: 真流魚); the second to seventh day is called ‘Separate Fish’ (or ‘Galou Fish’, Cantonese:隔流魚) and the fish that is more than seven days old are called ‘Old Fish’ (or ‘Gou Fish’, Cantonese:‘舊魚’). The ‘Buyers’ (買手) of fish, which Mr Cheng calls ‘Seafood Appraisers,  will use their non-uniform and opaque standards to verify the quality of seafood, using industry terms such as ‘Zhi’(支), ‘Shen’ (神), ‘Dou’ (斗), ‘Su’ (稣), ‘Ma’ (馬), ‘Ling’ (令), ‘Hou’(候), ‘Zhang’(張), ‘Wan’ (灣), ‘Xiang’ (響), to express prices – these jargons are still very difficult to understand even as a local indigenous Tanka people according to Cheng. More intriguingly, when these fish are weighed on the scales, these tailor-made scales have special codes. The ‘buyers’ must touch the texture of these scales with their bare hands to know which scales to use - but for the fishermen, it is utterly confusing and hardly transparent. Mr Cheng criticizes how it was essentially impossible to get a fair deal because they have no idea what principles their fish were being weighed and priced on.

Tong-ka, and the Burning of the Book of Debts

The fishermen are very dependent on the Tong-ka, or ‘master’ (東家) - during their life, whether they are married, have children, fall ill, engage in serious trade, or borrow money, etc., the fishermen will report to the Tong-ka and ask for their permission.The Tong-ka is like the ‘host’ and the fishermen are like the servants to the Tong-ka. Another story Mr Cheng told us is the burning of the Book of Debts (燒數簿), which is to be taken in its most literal sense. Many Tanka fishermen borrowed money from the Tong-ka because it was very unlikely for Tanka fishermen to afford new fishing junks or fishing tools given their humble background and cross-generation inheritance of unfair trade deals.The Tong-ka might, subject to the situations of the fishermen and the moral callings of individual Tong-ka, sometimes opt to burn the Book of the Debts in front of a diety, old debts will be then considered written off in one go and the fishermen will never be held accountable. However, it is worth pondering over why the Tong-ka could afford to burn the Books.

Wrapping Up

As an inexperienced youngster who is certainly ignorant to the harsh lives of Hong Kong fishermen, I would like to give thanks to Mr Cheng, for his dedication to publish this book during these turbulent times. Cheng displayed his unyielding strength of a resilient Hong Kong fisherman – the Hong Kong spirits. His willingness to share the bitterness of the past and to tell first-person stories about the hardships of local fishermen is admirable. I am no fishermen, but I am truly grateful to be a Hong Konger who are given the opportunity to gain first person contact to several Tanka fishermen in Hong Kong, including Mr Cheng. His book will stay on as a cumulative cultural property of the Hong Kong Tanka’s fishing culture.
If you are interested in reading this book, you can find Mr. Cheng directly and click here for the link