Hong Kong: Tourism keeps fish tradition alive in Tai O

By Jim Eagles

Every kind of vessel imaginable floats on the waters off Tai O fishing village. Photo / Jim Eagles
Every kind of vessel imaginable floats on the waters off Tai O fishing village. Photo / Jim Eagles

Exploring the Chinese fishing village of Tai O feels like walking through a bowl of fish soup.

The air in the little lanes, running between houses built on stilts either side of a small stream, is thick and humid and rich with the smell of fish.

Certainly all the ingredients you'd need for fish soup are on display in the stalls which line the main alleyway: dried seafood of every kind from shark fins and fish bladders to puffer fish and oysters, along with a few vegetables, herbs and spices.

And there's more fish on the sleek craft tied up to the piles along the stream bank and on the motor-powered junks moored at the mouth of the stream. Some of it freshly caught, the rest spread out on woven platters to dry.

Tai O is on Lantau, one of the islands of Hong Kong, and it has been an important fishing village since time immemorial. Today, despite the pressures of the modern world looming at nearby Hong Kong International Airport and the gleaming glass towers marching round the coast of the island, the fishing tradition continues.

The evidence of eyes - and noses - showed fish continues to be landed here, dried in the sun and cured with salt, harvested from salt pans in the surrounding marches.

But some things have changed. Most of the people living in the village are elderly. The laborious task of transporting goods from the roadhead, at the village entrance, through the narrow lanes and bridges into the village itself, seems to be done entirely by spectacularly wrinkled women pushing flatbed trolleys. The men working on the boats are stooped and weatherbeaten.

Queried about this, guide Fred Cheng agreed young people were abandoning the hard work of fishing for the easier life in the glass towers. "But," he said, "most of the young people do still live here, they come home at night."

Furthermore, it is obvious tourism is becoming an important part of the village income. Many of the stalls now sell souvenirs as well as fish and some provide European-style snacks. I watched in fascination as an old man used a blowtorch to cook a waffle, which he doused in a sweet syrup, for a waiting blond-haired tourist.

Best of all - from my perspective - some of the boats are no longer used to fish but to take visitors on sightseeing tours. At just HK$20 (less than $5) this is great value because Tai O is a village built on water and so a boat trip is the best way to see it.

Puttering up the stream which serves as the main road provides a great view of the houses sitting high above on their spindly piles, mostly clad in corrugated iron and with bamboo balconies. Several homes had flourishing gardens on the balconies which provided splashes of green amid a prevailing tone of grey. On one balcony a man was fast asleep on a chair, head back, mouth open, dead to the world.

On another two old men, watching the world go by from the comfort of their chairs, smiled and waved, indicating that we should photograph them. An elderly woman, presumably the wife of one, frowned and held her hand up to indicate the opposite. Eventually a compromise was reached and she put a towel over her head so the photography could proceed.

Each house had at least one boat and most had several, some tied to the piles, others dragged up the muddy banks. On one small craft a man in a woven conical hat was working on the engine. A couple were obviously preparing to take another boat fishing.

As we passed a young man bounded agilely down one of several ladders laid across across the slippery bank, a huge woven tray laiden with fish balanced in one hand, and laid it in his boat to dry.

After the tour of the village the driver indicated they were taking us out to sea to view white dolphins. Unfortunately the dolphins were not on display but the trip provided a chance to see the village from a different angle and to check out the larger boats, motorised junks, anchored nearby.

There was no commentary on this trip but at one point, as we motored slowly round the adjacent rocky coast, our captain left his tiller, and walked down to tap me on the arm, point at a cluster of rocks and say, "Buddha. Buddha." Unfortunately I couldn't see anything but I took a couple of photos to keep him happy.

Back on land I strolled back through the village, watching with fascination as a visiting group of Chinese women, marked as outsiders by their smart clothes, haggled with an old woman over the fish she had laid out in a couple of baskets beside the footpath.

They had obviously made the journey from Hong Kong to buy fish but they didn't get any change out of this old girl and eventually moved on looking for better deals elsewhere.

That demonstrated two things to me: first, that Tai O's reputation as a good place to buy fish has survived into the 21st century; and secondly that housewives are the same the world over.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies direct from Auckland to Hong Kong 10 times a week. See cathaypacific.co.nz

Where to stay: The Harbour Grand Hong Kong is a magnificent new hotel with views over the harbour and cityscape from every room.

Further information: There's a section on Tai O at the Hong Kong Tourism Board website.

Jim Eagles visited Hong Kong as guest of Cathay Pacific and the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

- NZ Herald

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