Tanka elder shares stories of life on a boat in heart of the city
The hustle and bustle of Causeway Bay is mere minutes away as a small community of Tanka keep their traditions alive by living on traditional junks in the typhoon shelter.
By Vicky So
Ho Yau Fung, 67, is a proud member of the Tanka community and she has lived her life on boats since she was born. She has eight siblings and she recalls her days as a boat dweller.
Her wrinkled and tanned hands reveal the hard work she has endured throughout her life.
Living conditions were poor as their boat was so small. She started to work when she was four to help take care of her younger siblings. Fung woke up every day at 4:30am and prepared to work with her mother. Fung’s dad worked on a yacht and her mum was a hawker selling ice lollies, which was tough because she had to carry a large amount of ice. Yet she only earned HK$3 for nearly 100 ice lollies – that was the price 60 years ago.
In the 1960s, industrial development was just starting to rise in Hong Kong. In a bid to earn extra money, Fung would make plastic flowers with her sisters after dinner. They would sit around a “hot pot of water” and soften the plastic while listening to the radio. Listening to the radio was the only entertainment on the boat at that time.
“We were really poor at that time and life was hard,” she said. “I remember sharing food with my elder brother and sister. They told me that they were older, so that they could have a bigger portion. I was younger, so that I could only have a smaller portion.
“I thought that was so unfair to me! Of course, I realised it was only a joke and we all love each other. But we just cherished our money. We would rather eat less to save it.”
There are a host of differences between boat dwellers and urbanites. Living on a boat means there is no constant water and electricity supplies on the boat. Fresh water is purchased in bottles from the Causeway Bay Water Selling Kiosk and the family stores it on the boat. For power, they use a battery that must be recharged once it runs out of electricity, so they send it to the garage.
Despite Fung no longer living on the boat now, she still owns one. She always takes a break on the boat after she is done with work for the day as a yacht cleaner. Advanced technology means Fung has installed solar panels for a more stable electricity source.
But extreme weather is always a concern. During the monsoon season, they faced heavy rainfall and typhoons, so for safety reasons, they sent their kids ashore to stay with be looked after by relatives because they were too little.
“When Typhoon Wanda and Super Typhoon Rose hit in 1962 and 1971 repsectively, they were utterly destructive. The situation was so awful that we stayed wide awake all night to protect our boat,” said Fung.
“No matter how freezing it was and how painful it was when the rain drops hit us, we didn’t give up because the boat is our home and all our properties is here. We tried our very best to save it.”
The Tanka still feel the sting of discrimination today with many urbanites assuming they have low culture and lack education.
“Our next generation is really lucky, and our times are different. They have many more opportunities, and better standards and a higher quality of life,” Fung said.
She devoted her life to her family and did not have the chance to receive an education, which was common when she grew up. Being illiterate had caused trouble and inconvenience for her. “Sometimes I don’t even know how to take the bus to my destination since I only know a few words,” said Fung.
Nevertheless, Fung is proud of herself for the contribution she has made to the prosperity of Hong Kong society.
“I got married at 16. It was a pretty young age to get married comparing to nowadays. Then, I started my job as a yacht cleaner. It is the best occupation with a stable salary and good welfare. I also gained respect and appreciation from my employer because of my hard work,” said Fung.
“With all those experiences, I learnt to communicate with them in simple English as many of them are foreigners. I love this job, and even until today, I’m still working. I haven’t thought about retiring because I don’t want to lean on others when I still have the ability to earn money by myself.”
“Though the government had few policies to improve our lives back in the days, but we made it through all the hardship. My husband and I are glad we used our own hands to raise our four kids. It is a success for me to have a great family. My daughter is a kindergarten school principal and one of my sons is a university graduate. I am proud of their success, too.”
Although Fung left her life on a boat 30 years ago, she misses it and hopes the spirit and hard work of boat dwellers can be passed on.
“Of course, it is such a shame that there are less than 10 families living on boats nowadays while there used to be over a hundred families in the old days. This amazing cultural heritage is fading. But I would like to offer better living conditions for my children. I won’t force them to inherit this life.
“They should choose to live their lives, not like myself. As a mother of four, I just hope them to be happy,” she said with a smile of satisfaction.