Folk Customs of the Fishing Community


The Dragon Boat Festival and Lunar New Year are two very important festivals to the fishing community. On these days, fishermen take extra time off to celebrate. Dragon boat races are held for the Dragon Boat Festival. The fishing way of life was dull in the past and these races were annual highlights that took their mind off the hardship at sea. They are also great opportunities to unwind. Fishermen believe dragon boats are soulful. A good race will bring good fortune and good health for the coming year.
Religious Rituals and Ceremonies

Most fishermen have religious faith. Faced with unpredictable weather and catch, they tend to worship traditional deities, hoping that religious rituals and ceremonies would bring blessings. Shrines of many traditional deities can be found on fishing boats. The most important statue is placed on the "Main Altar" and consecrated by a Taoist priest. They belief the main altar is the most spiritual spot, while the bow of the boat is most sacred and must not be trodden on or crossed by pregnant women. When there is a funeral on a boat, neighbouring boats would cover their bows with gunny sacks or wicker baskets, and then sail away to avoid inauspiciousness or bad luck. In the old days, fishing boats always lit fire crackers before setting sail. It was a gesture to wish for good fortune. In recent years, this custom has been substituted by a worshipping ritual at the bow and incense offerings.

Tin Hau, Hung Shing and Kwum Yum are most respected by fishermen. To them, these three deities have the highest power over the sea. On the birthdays of Tin Hau, Hung Shing and Kwum Yum, fishermen gather at the temples with giant incenses. After paying homage, one of the burning incenses is put out with water and brought back to the boat. When there is danger at sea, the incense would be lit to beg the deities for salvation.
A Changing Way of Life

In the past, fishermen were reluctant to receive medical treatment in hospitals. A doctor would be asked to make "house call" on the boat. They very rarely leave the fishing boat. It is a place to live and die, and even funerals are held onboard. Fishermen are very filial to their elders and attach great importance to ancestral worship. For this reason, they prefer to lay the deceased to rest by burial. There is a designated burial ground near every fishing anchorage. For example, departed fishermen from Aberdeen are usually buried on Lamma Island and Luk Chau.

Most fishermen in Hong Kong are Cantonese who speak the Canton dialect. It is a common misconception that fishermen speak the Tanka dialect. The truth is there is no such thing as Tanka dialect. The difference between their speech and that of people on land is resulted by a lack of contact. The situation has improved after the war. As fishermen and land people had more chances to communicate, mutual understand and acceptance have developed. The prime reason is probably that the majority of fishermen have settled ashore, and this contact has eliminated past estrangement and conflicts. Moreover, many fishermen's children are now going to school ashore. This also helps them integrate into the society.

Fishermen of Aberdeen lived at sea in the past. They had vast waters to fish and catches were abundant. If not for the lack of advanced equipment and the poor consuming power Hong Kong's small fisheries market back then, they would have done much better than just making ends meet. Those were tough days for the fishing community. There was no way to improve life and children were deprived of education. Fishermen are simple, honest people working hard for a living. They are contented with what they have. In the difficult years before public housing appeared, it had never crossed their minds to settle ashore.

Later, industrial and commercial development in Hong Kong led to the decline of the traditional fishing industry. As factories sprouted up in Aberdeen, some members of the fishing community were attracted and changed profession. Meanwhile, fishing became automated with the introduction of mechanical tools. This greatly improved the economic situation of Aberdeen fishermen. The development of public housing estates also encouraged many fishermen to move ashore to seek alternative livelihoods. Some of them accepted relocation by the government. Others bought their own properties and lived on the boat during the fishing season then on land for the rest of the year. They became a unique kind of "amphibian" residents.

Today, Stanley's fishing industry can only be remembered, and Aberdeen is the only fishing anchorage left in the Southern District. Having said that, Aberdeen's fishing industry still plays a key role in Hong Kong and accounts for more than one third of total fresh fish production.

There are many fishermen's groups in the Southern District which dedicate themselves to promoting amicability and cooperation amongst fishermen. Thanks to their efforts, fishermen are enjoying much closer relations as well as greater teamwork and solidarity.

Feature Story - Life of a Fisherman

We in Hong Kong are fortunate to have fresh seafood everyday. Yet when you enjoy the delicious catches from the sea, have you ever thought about how they came about? To find out what a fisherman's life is like, we interviewed Mr. Cheng Muk Shui who has been a member of Aberdeen's fishing industry for many years.

Mr. Cheng owns a fishing boat. The vessel was designed and built by him and his younger brother nine years ago. He has since then bought a flat ashore near Aberdeen but going out to sea is still a daily routine. "I set sail in my fishing boat every night, usually to Lamma Island, Po Toi or Sai Kung, and return in the morning. Unless there is a typhoon or weather conditions are really bad, I never skip a day of fishing," says Mr. Cheng. But that means no holidays. Mr. Cheng says with a smile, "It's true we don't have public holidays that others enjoy, but we have more freedom." With more frequent typhoons and worsening marine water pollution in recent years, Mr. Cheng's production has dropped 20-30%. While affecting production, adverse weather conditions also endanger personal safety. "I've been lucky. I haven't had any really desperate situation. To us, it's no big deal to fight high winds and raging waves. It's vital to keep the boat stable during a storm or you'd easily lose control."
Emergencies can happen anytime, both at sea and on land. Mr. Cheng's most unforgettable experience was when he had acute appendicitis. He had severe pain in the abdomen. Luckily he got ashore in time for treatment or the consequence could have been fatal. "Thanks to modern technology, fishermen can call the marine police nearby for help in case of accident or emergency." Emergencies? What about the pirates who allegedly rob fishing boats? Has Mr. Cheng met them? "No. I've heard stories but they turned out to be rumours after all. I've met burglars though." One night when he was fast asleep onboard, he was woken up by the incessant barking of his mongrel Fatso. When he got up to see what was happening, he saw some burglars in a dingy were just getting ready to board his boat. Fortunately he got up in time to drive them off. "It's common for fishermen to keep dogs. We can't stay alert all the time. We have to rest sometimes. Dogs are loyal and they'd protect their masters," explains Mr. Cheng.

For generations, fishermen have worshipped traditional deities to wish for blessings. Mr. Cheng is no exception. He always light incenses on the 1st and 15th day of each lunar month. Compared with the old days, religious rituals are much simpler now. "People have different religious faiths. Not all fishermen worship Chinese deities. Some are Christians. I've heard that a fisherman who was gravely ill actually recovered after he became a Christian." Are funerals or weddings still held onboard now? "Funerals are not held any more but some people still have their weddings onboard. My wife and I had our wedding on the boat, followed by a banquet in a restaurant ashore near Aberdeen."

A fisherman for nearly 50 years, Mr. Cheng has witnessed all the changes in Aberdeen over the decades. He says, "The biggest change is the highrise towers on both sides of the harbour. These public housing estates provide homes to fishermen who had to sell their boats and switch profession because of unstable income and manpower shortage. This kind of housing helps a great deal. The fishing population has really dropped considerably in recent years. Many old fishermen have retired with no-one to succeed their operation." Speaking of retirement, does Mr. Cheng have any plans? "My children have been trying to persuade me to retire yet I'm very dedicated to my work. When times got tough, the idea of quitting did cross my mind, but I just couldn't leave my job. I have my wife to look after anyway, so I'm carrying on. I first went out to sea with by father when I was 13. It's been more than 40 years now." Do his children help out onboard? "Youngsters in Hong Kong are reluctant to join this industry. It's tough and income is low, and it gets very lonely at sea. My four children are not willing to succeed my operation, neither are my nieces and nephews. But they sometimes come aboard for fun, like barbecuing or squid fishing."

Like many of his fellow fishermen who have no next generation to succeed their trade, Mr. Cheng is getting hired hands from China. Board and lodging are provided on the boat for these crew members. Mr. Cheng says, "In 30 or 40 years, very few fishing boats would remain in Aberdeen. The only ones left would probably be the sightseeing sampans ferrying tourists in and out of the typhoon shelter." While nursing a tinge of regret, he does agree that the growing number of visitors to Aberdeen is a good thing. "I grew up in the Southern District. I surely want to see this district develop and prosper." As for the development of fishing, is the government offering assistance? "The government is offering low-interest loans to fishermen to help them through the fish ban period. I applied for a loan to maintain my boat. There are many fishermen's groups in Aberdeen which provide services to the fishing community, such as the Fishermen's Mutual Aid Association, Fish Merchants' Association and Fishery Alliance. They help us with documentation and formalities, like the application for admission visas for hired crew from the mainland."

While quality of life is indeed greatly improved for today's fishermen, social developments and changing times are resulting in the gradual decline of fishing nonetheless. Once a pivot of the Hong Kong economy, the fishing industry has made significant contributions and created beautiful collective memories for locals and visitors alike. We thank Mr. Cheng for broadening the public's understanding of the fishing industry by answering many questions about a fisherman's life. His hardworking spirit and generous mind are truly admirable. I believe the next time you feast on fresh seafood, you will be reminded of the stories behind them.