Two Months on a Ferry Boat in the South China Sea
On a recent Saturday morning I took a ferry from Hong Kong to Cheung Chau Island to visit old friends and have a seafood lunch together.
As I wrote in an earlier post, I lived in Cheung Chau many years ago after I first came to Hong Kong. It had been a few years since I’d been back for a visit.
As I boarded the ferry boat in Hong Kong’s Central District near the IFC center, I was hit by a flood of memories. The atmosphere aboard the ferry and the sights, sounds, and salty smell of the bustling harbor were all deeply familiar, because I had been a regular commuter on this line for more than ten years.
I once did a rough calculation of the total amount of time I had spent on that route over the years I lived on the island, and it came to something like 2 months. That’s a long time to spend on a ferry boat.
The one-way trip in those days took one hour. Now they have faster ferries as well, which take only 30 minutes.
In super convenient, compact Hong Kong, a one-hour commute was considered quite long, especially in those days. There is something civilized, however, about having an hour to read, relax, think, write, talk with friends, and drink a cup of coffee or tea. Meanwhile, terns and brahminy kites fly overhead, and all sizes and shapes of shipping vessels pass by, putting you in a good frame. of mind for the day of work which awaits you. It is a very relaxing form. of commute, especially compared to sitting in a traffic jam.
Fishing junks from China were common sights and immediately noticeable because they were still older-style. teak vessels under (often red-colored) sail. Many of the smaller junks from mainland ports near Hong Kong has not yet entered the diesel engine age.
In the late 1970s, it was not unusual to see rickety little wooden boats packed with Vietnamese refugees, either making their way slowly towards Hong Kong harbor, or already under tow by the Hong Kong Marine Police.
There was a huge variety of commercial shipping vessels, ranging from small coastal steamers and tankers plying the Pearl River Delta area to large container ships, although they pale by comparison to the size and speed of today’s giant container vessels.
The HK-Macau ferries were a common sight, including the slow overnight ferry. High-speed jetfoils, produced by Boeing and initially deployed in the Hawaiian islands, were a brand new phenomenon in those days.
Occasionally we would see pods of the small pink dolphins which inhabit the Pearl River estuary area, now an endangered and protected species.
So the ferry ride was not only relaxing, but a kind of window into the historic changes which were taking place in South China in the pre-Open Door and Reform. era, setting the stage for even bigger changes to come.
Cheung Chau has been a fishing port for more than a century. Early in the 20th century its fishing fleet numbered nearly 1,000 boats. By the mid-1970s the fleet was only a fraction of that size, and most of the remaining working fishing boats were large trawlers designed and equipped for long distance fishing trips of one month’s duration or more, to more productive fishing grounds in Southeast Asia. Hong Kong’s inshore waters had been largely fished out.
长洲港 / Cheung Chau Harbor
As you boarded the ferry in Hong Kong’s Central district, you bid farewell to the gleaming, crowded downtown canyons filled with pin-stripe-suited, high-flying business executives. As you arrived in Cheung Chau, you were greeted by the wafting aromas of shrimp paste, stinky beancurd and salted fish; with gaggles of rattan-hatted vendors along the waterfront hawking fresh seafood, local veggies and cooked snacks; on a vehicle-free island where the main roads were paved paths and the skyscrapers were three stories tall.
The contrast between these two enormously different environments — separated by only one hour’s boat ride — was a tonic, especially because one was so frenetic and the other so laid back.
Although fishing was still the mainstay of the Cheung Chau economy, local tourism was just beginning to emerge. Historic temples, clean beaches, and the annual Bun Festival were a draw for people from other parts of Hong Kong, as was a cave associated with the notorious Qing Dynasty pirate Zhang Baozai, not to mention great fresh seafood at very reasonable prices.
Apart from fishing and tourism, and some local agriculture, smuggling was said to be a growth industry as well, especially in the pre-Open Door era when China still imposed high import duties on a wide range of products including consumer electronics and appliances.
In the pre-Open Door and Reform. era, Hong Kong’s fishing community was in many respects more connected and integrated with China than any other sub-group in Hong Kong society. Many if not most had to obtain dual fishing licenses for mainland as well as Hong Kong waters, which brought them into a regular orbit with the mainland.
By contrast, the general business community in Hong Kong — with the exception of foodstuff and commodity importers and the small and big-scale trading houses — had little interaction with China. An active role in China trade for the lawyers, accountants, bankers, and service sector was a hypothetical future development at that stage.
In those days, returning from a trip to China, one could expect oohs, ahhs, and very curious questions from people in Hong Kong, almost equivalent to an astronaut returning to planet Earth.
Cheung Chau’s relatively flat, dumbbell shape leaves it exposed to the prevailing Northeast monsoons in the winter months and southwesterly winds the rest of the year.
Sounds form. an important part of our memories of places from our past. One of the iconic sounds I associate with Cheung Chau is the whispering of the wind through the casuarina trees, a long-needled pine-like tree which thrives in sub-tropical coastal environments. Another is the deep bass-noted humming of the frogs — bull frogs and tree frogs — which began each Spring and continued until the cooler winter weather set in.
Even though Cheung Chau now has fast ferries; government housing estates; more and wider paved roads with small police, fire and construction vehicles; an indoor versus open-air wet market; McDonalds, supermarkets and convenience stores; and other trappings of modern lifestyle, I found on my recent homecoming that in essence it really hasn’t changed that much.
Change is relative, and the pace of work and life has accelerated so dramatically these past 30 years that it is not only desirable but necessary for health and well-being to retreat from time to time to slower-paced “islands” with a quieter lifestyle. If you can manage to do that on a daily basis, all the better.
I have no regrets about the two-month long ferry ride. On the contrary, it was the best commute I ever had.