In this excerpt from Street Life Hong Kong, Aberdeen harbour fisherman Kwok Shu-Tai talks about his life and work in his own words. The interviews in the book were carried out by Nicole Chabot and are accompanied by photographs from Michael Perini.

I KNOW EVERYBODY IN ABERDEEN and everybody here knows me. They call me by a nickname – ‘Ah-Q’, after the character in the old TV series, ‘The True Story of Ah-Q’… It’s a funny story: my hair was very thin back then and someone told me that if I cut it, it’d grow back thicker. My older brother began cutting my hair, but, part of the way through, I changed my mind, which left me with bald patches. My new ‘do’ made me look a lot like Ah-Q, and I’ve been called the name ever since.

Like a fish to water

I’ve been a fisherman since I was a child, and all the generations that I’ve known have been fishermen too. In fact, I was born on a boat and used to live on the water, though we went to a primary school on land.

During the school holidays, we’d swim to the rocks and catch oysters and sea snails to eat; and we’d also fish. After primary school, I didn’t study any more. I was apprenticed by my father, and when I was of age, I took the boat exams to get my licence, which allows you to operate many different types of vessels. You also need to have boat licences for Hong Kong and the Mainland, and there’s a ‘mass fishing licence’ which you need to catch fish.

After you marry, you have to have a place to live – you don’t want to have your wife and children living on a boat, right? Actually, in my case, even before I was married, I had a home on land, though I mostly slept on the boat. My wife used to live on the water in a boathouse like me, because her mother and father were fishermen as well. Even today, I prefer being on the boat because I’m used to it. If I’m ashore, I never turn on the air conditioning.

This is a fishing boat, and it’s co-owned between the ‘brothers’. We had it made in the Mainland four years ago, simply by giving the dimensions we wanted to the shipyard. We share the labour. I drive the boat; my brothers cast and pull the net; and, in the Mainland, we have another five workers.

The Mainlanders are responsible for the nets. We pick them up from Lingding Island [in the Pearl River estuary in Guangdong], and, while there’s no rule about how long they stay, they usually go home for festivals and holidays. Right now, it’s Mid-Autumn Festival so they’re back home. Once it’s over, they’ll come back out. For Chinese New Year, they go home for longer. When they’re away from home, they live on the boat.

Mapping the schedule

Most of the time, we stay close to the shore to fish. This could mean a day trip, or sailing just outside this bay in Aberdeen, but sometimes we’re more flexible and go for two or three days, depending on the destination. If we go to places nearby, such as Po Toi Island [3 km off the southeastern tip of Hong Kong], then we leave at 4 p.m. and return the next day. If we go further, it could take seven to eight hours just to get out there, so we stay away for two to three days.

How often we go depends on the weather and season. In the summer, we go out more – it’s less windy; and unless there’s a typhoon, we go out most of the time. In the winter, it’s quite windy… It depends on the geography as well. Certain areas are less windy and have a greater yield. If there’s likely to be only a low yield, we won’t go out…

Mahjong is a very popular form of entertainment which is used to kill time. In the past, people would round up and play pai kau [a group game played with domino pieces with a minimum of two people] in the holidays; but my generation doesn’t gamble any more because it hurts morale. On land, we play football; and, in the summer, we dragon boat. I used to win a lot of awards for dragon boating. I’ve represented Hong Kong three times at international dragon boat competitions, though my athletic prime has now passed.