The last of the boat dwellers at Causeway Bay's typhoon shelter
Yeung Kwai-chun was born and raised in Causeway Bay's typhoon shelter. Growing up in a bustling community of boat dwellers (水上人家), the 70 year-old spent all her life calling Victoria Harbour home.
Four decades ago, there were almost 40,000 people living on boats in the typhoon shelter, creating a thriving, distinct subculture. Today there are only about 30 residents, many of whom also have homes on land. Little remains of their traditional way of life, which is mostly remembered by diners who frequent restaurants serving "typhoon shelter cuisine" (such as Wanchai's famous Under Bridge Spicy Crab).
"I have a great connection with this typhoon shelter, of course," Yeung says. She began working on the family's sampan when she was just 12 years old and has witnessed the changes in the surrounding area. "The shore was just a piece of vacant land when I was a little girl, and I spent my time on the boat or just playing hopscotch nearby," Yeung recalls. "The things from my childhood are all gone now and most of the people I know have moved to homes on land."
The shore today is a mass of traffic lanes and the typhoon shelter itself is occupied by anchored luxury yachts. Only the handful of old sampans and walla-wallas hint at the shelter's past.
Yeung makes her living by ferrying people from the shore to their yachts for a few dollars. She will also take passengers out to the Causeway Bay marina island barrier to take postcard-perfect photos of Hong Kong's skyline for HK$100 a pop. Situated a fair distance away from the shore, the island barrier provides one of the best vantage points for viewing both sides of the harbor.
But Yeung is worried that her business will be seriously hampered by the construction of the Central-Wan Chai Bypass.
"What can I do?" Yeung asked. "I have tried to reach the department in charge of the construction, they said that it was not their business as they are working out in the sea while my business is with the passengers from the pier."
These passengers may no longer use the Causeway Bay pier once construction starts at the end of 2010. "Our district councilor and the representative of the boat dwellers also said they couldn't help. I knew that the fishermen had compensations in one of the reclamation projects in the past as they have their union -- but we don't."
Yeung's daughter, known as Ah Yee, also works in the sampan business with her mother. "We moved on land when I was 11 years old," Ah Yee said. "It was much more comfortable living on land of course -- at least I had a bed to sleep on -- but I miss the atmosphere of living on the water."
"When we were kids, there were sounds from the entertainment boats at night. It was the singers. The restaurant boats, or the visitors on board would hire them, and they would row by and sing for them."
In the 1970s, Causeway Bay was a prosperous harbor with a lot of floating restaurants and entertainment. The old boats and sampans that remain have a kitsch charm in the daylight, when their makeshift covers from discarded advertisement banners and the tell-tale signs of their age can all be clearly seen.