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From ethnic group to an occupation – The Tanka girl Miriam Lee who does not fish

Anthony Leung Po Shan is an art critic, Island Studies enthusiast, co-curator of the public art project ‘Lamma Mia’, and author of Mo Tat Then and Now: Historical and Social Research of Mo Tat Wan, Lamma Island.

Miriam Lee is a Tanka girl from the Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter community. She has a master’s degree in English literature. Currently working in the field of sustainable development and conservation, she is also the author of the Facebook page Strolling Tanka. (facebook.com/strollingtanka

I once heard a ‘Tanka girl’ explaining ‘boat dweller’ terms in a cultural tourism seminar. I then searched on Facebook and found Miriam Lee, author of the page Strolling Tanka. For at least seven generations, members of her family have been making a living in Hong Kong waters not by fishing, but by providing services to foreign trading companies, naval vessels, and bosses(1). Miriam, born in the 1980s, has only ever lived on land. Because of her Tanka parents, however, the Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter is like her hometown village. She often bumps into relatives when she’s in Causeway Bay. 


Due to overfishing, wage hikes, and endless maritime construction projects, many consider fishing in Hong Kong to be a sunset industry(2). Because Hong Kong is surrounded by the sea, however, people are still needed to work on the water. Although many Tanka people no longer fish after moving ashore, they continue to pilot or maintain cargo ships, yachts, or motor boats, especially the men. As indigenous inhabitants of Causeway Bay and the keepers of their traditions, older generations of the Tanka people have passed down their ‘water’ knowledge and networks to their descendants. This is why Miriam has a licence to operate a boat as well as one for a car. Her unique sense of the sea and the memories that past generations in her family have shared are what feeds her writing. She is now the insider-storyteller for these harbour stories.  


Hong Kong is known for its deep-water harbour, a key factor in its development as a port city and a colony. As Hong Kong entered the post-industrial age, all the military, industrial, and commercial facilities originally located in the coastal areas were replaced by taller, value-added real estate projects or recreational spaces. After the Second World War, global shipping patterns changed. Then in the 1970s the Cross-Harbour Tunnel opened, the first MTR lines began service, and the Kwai Chung Container Terminal was completed. Ferry routes were significantly scaled back in places such as North Point, Shau Kei Wan, Hung Hom, Jordan, Tai Kok Tsui, Lai Chi Kok, and even densely populated industrial and residential areas in Tsuen Wan and Tuen Mun. The car ferry services also disappeared. All the piers, warehouses, and power plants in Whampoa, Taikoo Shing, Victoria Park, and West Kowloon were replaced by luxury housing estates and leisure or cultural facilities. In the 1960s, the Hong Kong Government also resumed the naval dockyard’s land in Admiralty and expanded the central business district(3). All the naval and cargo ships that had once lined up in Victoria Harbour were relocated to areas near Stonecutters Island and Tsing Yi. Hong Kong people might appear to be getting closer to the sea, from the seafood on their plates to the never-ending waterfront promenade, but the actual value of what remains is nothing more than an ornamental sea view. The current in Victoria Harbour has become faster due to its narrowing neck, and the variety and density of marine traffic passing back and forth has experienced a gradual decline. For those born after the MTR was built, Admiralty and Tsim Sha Tsui are simply the names of two connecting stations. The notion of ‘crossing the harbour’ has become an outdated concept. 


Indigenous people from Causeway Bay 

The day Miriam took us on a return visit to the very first typhoon shelter in Hong Kong(4), we started from the footbridge that connects Victoria Park and the Noon Day Gun. During the nineteenth century, Causeway Bay stretched from East Point to Tsat Tsz Mui promontory; its Chinese name, Tung Lo Wan(5), came from the bay’s resemblance to the shape of a gong. Fishing vessels docked there because of two rivers that originated in Tai Hang and So Kon Po and discharged into the bay. Thus, both the sea- and land-based communities along with their different cultural landscapes overlapped there. The bund walls that became the salt field, for example, were given a new name and function after the British mapped the area in 1842. Although the Chinese name of Causeway Road was transliterated as go si wai, the area itself retained the name Tung Lo Wan. Miriam said her family had been in the business of resupplying ships, providing port transportation, and driving and maintaining yachts (the latter occupation carried out by the young men known as ‘boat boys’) since Hong Kong first opened as a port, thanks to all the trading companies, factories, and naval dockyards near the bay. Despite being Tanka, they had different roles to play than the Tanka from Shau Kei Wan and Aberdeen who fished for a living, and this fact improved both her family’s standard of living and their social status. 

Photo: Miriam’s father and uncle in their boat, installed with a self-made sail, having fun in the Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter. Behind them are the then new residential buildings on Paterson Street. At the time, Gloucester Road had not yet been extended into the area. (Courtesy of Miriam Lee)

Although the dish called ‘Typhoon Shelter stir-fried crab’ had long since moved ashore to a spot under the Canal Road Flyover, by the 1990s, Causeway Bay’s Tai Tat Tei (‘big piece of land’) floating market was gone. Take a ride on the hoi-mai driven by Auntie Fong(6), though, and you can still learn something about the social order of maritime life in days gone by. From west to east, the boats docked near the Admiralty dockyard and the Royal Yacht Club are mostly yachts. In the middle are a few dozen ku tsai (small boats equipped with fine-meshed fishing nets) and sampans, which are used for resting and fishing near shore. A row of newly renovated ‘floating restaurants’ are moored in front of the water kiosk of the Water Supplies Department, ready for business as soon as the pandemic is over. Next is the Triangular Island Goddess of Tin Hau Shrine of Peace. Moved from its original location in the Pearl River Delta to its current location in the 1950s, it is the only floating temple in Hong Kong. Plans to relocate it to an onshore site beneath the Island Eastern Corridor are currently pending. The former dock and repair plant at the present site of East Coast Park are now closed down, but there are still barges with slips for smaller vessels. Because there is no need to travel to far-off fishing sites and most things are available in the typhoon shelter, Lee’s daily life consists mainly of travelling from point to point, shuttling between Admiralty, North Point, Shau Kei Wan, and Aberdeen. Exceptions to this are an annual trip to the Tin Hau Temple in Joss House Bay and the Tam Kung Temple in Shau Kei Wan, or an occasional family trip to take the children to swim near Clear Water Bay. 

Photo: The Triangular Island Goddess of Tin Hau Shrine of Peace, soon to be relocated to an onshore site. (Photographed by the author)


From ethnic group to an occupation

It’s impossible not to laugh while scrolling through Miriam’s Facebook page Strolling Tanka, which is full of posts made vivid with text and photos. On one occasion, she visited the Hong Kong Asia Society, located on the site of the former explosives magazine of the British army. She took several photos of a boundary stone with a boat anchor on it, and took them home to show to her mother:

I was curious, and asked my mother, ‘Have you ever seen a boat anchor on any of the boundary stones at Tamar?’

My mother calmly replied, ‘Oh, there’s one in front of the common-door.’ 

I was puzzled. ‘Common-door?’

My mother explained with a smile, ‘That’s how your aunts said it. It means the Commodore. Back then in the front yard of the commodore’s quarters, there was a stone like that marked with a boat anchor.’ I had no idea it had such a history! 


The side party girls who moved between East and West

In the past, Tanka families used to have lots of children. A person might assume they didn’t receive much education, especially the girls, but because of what their jobs required, all of the older generations in Miriam’s family spoke fluent English. This was particularly true of a dozen or so of her aunts who used to be ‘side party girls’. ‘Side parties’ were the unofficial personnel who provided supplies to the naval vessels and helped to maintain them. Because these large ships had to drop anchor far from shore, women who lived on the water and were equipped with local knowledge became go-betweens, moving between the sea and land, the upper and lower class, and the English and Cantonese communities. At their peak, there were over 70 of them. They maintained the respective turfs for their sampan boats by providing supplies and clearing garbage: Mary Soo handled the American naval fleet; Ah Kam Susie took care of the escort vessels, minesweeper ships, and the Tamar fleets; while Ah Mee and Ah Moy provided their services to the British Royal Navy and the submarines. Their most important task was to touch up the paint on the hulls of the ships(7). Ever diligent and highly capable, Tanka women frequently took care of the whole family’s basic needs, yet when it came to life on the fishing boats, they were secondary to the men. Only by leaving the fishing business could they achieve something bigger, and even make waves abroad. At the 1971 London Boat Show, a dash of foreign culture was added to the regular exhibits to attract more visitors. Miriam’s aunts Susie and Annie became Hong Kong’s ambassadors, rowing a scull in a temporary pool in the Earls Court Exhibition Centre. That was true beauty and muscle! In an old photo taken in front of Westminster, the pair are shown dressed in cheongsam. Even Miriam’s mother earned the school fee to complete her secondary education as a side party girl. Their high spirits are evident in old photos. 


Photo: London 1971 – Miriam’s aunts Susie and Annie represented Hong Kong to travel to London as ambassadors to present Hong Kong’s culture of on-water community. (Courtesy of Miriam Lee)

The Chinese character for tanka uses the radical that means insect, and for many, this indicates that the Tanka people are a separate ethnic group. But for Westerners, Tanka are simply Chinese, and they don’t discriminate against them like the locals do. When Miriam first set up the page Strolling Tanka, some readers argued that she should change the name to Fishing Folk or Boat Dwellers to avoid the stigma attached to ‘Tanka.’ But anyone who has read all of Miriam’s posts knows that not all Tanka fish. Reclaiming the self-identifier ‘Tanka’ from its stigma is more than just a demonstration of the author’s gift for words. It also reflects how marginal communities crossed cultures to climb the social ladder in colonial times(8). As an English literature major, Miriam’s skilful writing about her unique family history in Cantonese, Shui Lo Wa (the language used by boat dwellers), and English has earned her over 3,000 followers on Facebook. 


**Published on Sunday MingPao on 3 July, 2022.**

  1. Boat dwellers call the customers who hire them for leisure boat rides ‘bosses’.  

  2.  Many believe that fishing in Hong Kong is a sunset industry, but Law Ka Fai does not agree. He argues that despite the drop in the number of fishing vessels from over 10,000 in the 1960s to about 4,000 in the present, the volume of fish caught actually peaked in the 1990s. It then entered a downturn, but bounced back after 2010. The steady decline in the fishing-dependant population is a fact, but the number of fishing vessels and volume of fish caught have not decreased. This shows how the fishing industry has been transformed by factors such as motorization, large-scale production, and cross-border fishing. See Wong, W. L. & Lo, K. F., Memoryscape: Aberdeen Fishermen Oral Histories [in Chinese] (Hong Kong: Joint Publishing HK, 2015), pp. 297–315.

  3. The Hong Kong Government resumed the land in 1959 by paying the British War Department HKD 24 million, but the land was not returned until after Harcourt Road was built in 1962. See Peter J. Melson, ed. White Ensign – Red Dragon: The History of the Royal Navy in Hong Kong 1841–1997 (Hong Kong: Edinburgh Financial Publishing, 1997), p. 89.

  4.  In 1874, a typhoon hit Hong Kong and killed 2,000 people. It caused grave damage to the ports and warehouses near East Point. In response, the Hong Kong Government built the first causeway in 1883, and Causeway Bay became the first typhoon shelter in Hong Kong. See Ho Pui-yin, Challenges for an Evolving City: 160 Years of Port and Land Development in Hong Kong [in Chinese] (Hong Kong: Commercial Press, 2004), pp. 99–104 and Gillian Chambers, Eastern Waters, Eastern Winds: A History of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, 1993, p. 23.

  5. 高士威 (go si wai) is the transliteration of  ‘causeway’ in the Chinese name for Causeway Road, which can easily be confused with Tung Lo Wan Road. The latter, however, was built on the original causeway near Tai Hang and was once part of Shau Kei Wan Road. See YIU Kau Tsoi, Hong Kong Place Names and Local History: Hong Kong Island and Kowloon (Vol. 1) [in Chinese], p. 98–109.

  6. Todrive a boat means to operate a motorized vessel rather than propelling it by hand. A ‘hoi-mai is a sampan operated as a ferry between the shore and larger ships in the typhoon shelter. Both terms are from the Shui-lo language spoken by boat dwellers.

  7. See ‘Jenny and the Side Party Girls’, Peter J. Melson, ed. White Ensign – Red Dragon: The History of the Royal Navy in Hong Kong 1841–1997, p. 115–118.

  8. For changes in the Tanka people’s occupations, see Ya-Ciao Chang, Dan-Hu’s Career in the Ming and Ching Dynasties [in Chinese], Humanities and Social Science Research 8, no. 1 (2014): 79–97. https://doi.org/10.6284/NPUSTHSSR.2013.8(1)4.  For whether boat dwellers should be considered a separate ethnic group, see Lui Wing Sing, Floating Society: The History of Boat Dwellers and the Fishing Industry in Early Hong Kong [in Chinese] (Hong Kong: Conservancy Association Centre for Heritage, 2019), p.16–23.

Cover Photo: Miriam Lee and Auntie Fong, who is driving her sampan ferry in the typhoon shelter. (Photographed by the author) 


  • Chambers, Gillian. Eastern Waters, Eastern Winds: A History of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, 1993.
  • Melson, Peter J., ed. White Ensign – Red Dragon: The History of the Royal Navy in Hong Kong 1841–1997. Hong Kong: Edinburgh Financial Publishing, 1997.
  • Wong, W. L. & Lo, K. F., Memoryscape: Aberdeen Fishermen Oral Histories [in Chinese]. Hong Kong: Joint Publishing HK, 2015.
  • Ho, P.Y., Transitions: Harbour and Land Development of Hong Kong in 160 Years [in Chinese]. Hong Kong: The Commercial Press (H.K.), 2004.
  • Lui W. S., Floating Society: The History of Boat Dwellers and the Fishing Industry in Early Hong Kong [in Chinese]. Hong Kong: Conservancy Association Centre for Heritage, 2019.
  • Cheng P. H., Taste of Hong Kong: Hong Kong’s century-old dining scenes [in Chinese]. Hong Kong: The Commercial Press (H.K.) 2021.