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Harboring Contentment

Despite brighter prospects on the shore of this Far East boomtown, an old boatman decides to stay in the water

Author Cain Nunns Illustration Luci Gutiérrez

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HONG KONG – On the shore of Hong Kong’s Aberdeen Harbor, Leung Loh-Man hunches over his houseboat’s intransigent outboard motor and hisses abuse. All around are scores of similar sampans, framed by a crush of lurid towers and a huddle of superyachts, their gleaming hulls incongruous among the shabby trawlers and junks.

“It’s too old,” says Leung, who is wearing cargo shorts and cracked flip-flops, his frustrated grimace revealing a partial set of nicotine-stained teeth. “Like me, I suppose.” As if on cue, the boat sputters to life. Leung stands frowning at the engine for a moment, as if daring it to cut out again, then steers the boat into the open water.

For his entire adult life, the 58-year-old Hong Kong native has scraped together a living ferrying passengers around local harbors or fishing for butterfish and sea bream in the waters of the outlying archipelago. He is part of a fading tribe, its centuries-old traditions and techniques lost in the roar of the City’s frenetic boom.

Not so long ago, people lived, worked and played on these waters. “We used to have floating classrooms, medical clinics, restaurants and bars,” Leung says. “But there wasn’t much point after people moved onto the land.” He glances at Hong Kong’s bristling skyline, puffs his cigarette and shrugs. “I guess that’s progress.”

Which isn’t to say that the harbor is any quieter these days. Leung has grown adept at dodging container ships, cruise liners and the odd aircraft carrier.

“Collisions and wake waves are the biggest dangers, because larger boats don’t always see me,” he says. “But nothing ruins a night faster than a tourist who decides it’s a good idea to jump in for a late night dip.”

Like his father and his father’s father, Leung will live out his life plying these waters, but he is keen to stress that the vocation isn’t as romantic as it may sound. “It’s tough out here,” he says, gunning the engine and heading for shore. “It’s fine for me, but I want my boys to work in an office.”

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