A 400-year-old port, Macau has long been closely linked with the sea. As recently as the 1950s, Macau children would have grown up knowing they would likely become fishermen or shipbuilders: both industries were riding a wave, with nearly 10,000 fishermen and more than 30 enormous shipyards dotted across the tiny territory. The coastal villages were thriving and the ocean was teeming with fish, crabs and oysters.
But the fishing and shipbuilding industries collapsed in the 1990s. Not only were the territory’s waters becoming increasingly polluted as China’s Zhujiang Delta began to develop, but Macau’s handcrafted wooden ships couldn't match the competitive prices from mainland China. And, since hand making a wooden fishing junk would take one team about two months, their craftsmen could not compete with the efficient production of metal boats.
Once a buzzing shipbuilding hub – carefully crafting everything from shrimp-trawling junks with their billowing, fan-shaped sails to long, slender dragon boats made of teak – the last ship yard, Lai Chi Vun Shipyard, made its final vessel in 2005. Today the once-proud workshop comprises decaying building materials, washed-up trash and a few abandoned boats.
However, while Macau is now cruising on a new current of casinos and property development, a few enterprising residents have taken it upon themselves to keep the city’s maritime traditions afloat.
Former shipbuilder Leong Kam-hon resides next to these eerie, empty docks in Coloane, a village on Macau’s southern coast, where he runs Hon Kee Coffee (Estrada de Lai Chi Vun, +853-2888-2310). Despite its humble appearance, the small cafe is deceivingly successful, drawing regulars and tourists daily to sample its signature sweet and frothy coffee.
Leong began a career in shipbuilding in 1972, which was cut short 14 years later when he wounded his arm on a saw. “At the time, my hand was injured but there were still a lot of boats being made, so I thought I’d sell coffee and bread to the nearby workers and the fishermen going out to sea,” said Leong. “Now I feel empty because the industry is gone.”
But it seems that the ghostly docks next door may see life once again. The Macau Government Tourist Office recently proposed plans to repurpose the forgotten Coloane docks into a museum dedicated to preserving the traditions of shipbuilding and fishing – although there’s no confirmed timeline as of yet.
In the meantime, local resident Tam Chon-ip, whose father and grandfather were both shipbuilders at Lai Chi Vun Shipyard, is offering tours of the site in collaboration with the Cultural Affairs Bureau on 28 November and 12 December. The tours will cover the past, present and future of shipbuilding, featuring historical anecdotes passed on from Tam’s family, the history behind the shipyard and an introduction to the tools used for shipbuilding.
Having grown up at the docks, Tam uses his knowledge of ship construction to design to-scale models of traditional Macau junk boats, which he will display in a studio outside of the Lai Chi Vun Shipyard next year. He also visits universities and schools to teach young people about Macau’s shipbuilding heritage, and is working on an oral history project of the shipbuilding industry.
Another passionate boatbuilder is Wan Chun, ex-chairperson of the Macao Association of Shipyard Workers, who draws on his decades of experience to hand-craft meticulous miniature replicas of Chinese junk trawlers.
“Boat making is a traditional craft and I make these model boats exactly the way you would a normal fishing boat – from the materials to the tools and techniques,” said Wan, who spends about 120 hours creating each ship. He can usually be found sitting in the shade on the porch of the Macau Historical Archives, where he regularly exhibits his work.
Wan grew up in a fishing family, and remembers his parents being away for long stretches every day of his childhood. “They would place me at a [friend or relative’s] home near the pier, and I would spend the rest of the day anxiously waiting for their return,” said Wan. “I remember the wait vividly. When it was high tide, that’s when I knew they were coming back.”
Will the next generation even be aware of how boat makers in Macau built boats?
When Wan was 18, his father began dismantling old boats and selling the wood as firewood. He learned how to take the vessels apart, and was fascinated by their complex structure. Just 12 months later, Wan started his training as a boat maker. It was intense, typically requiring three years of apprenticeship – but Wan finished in half that time, quickly moving on to build shrimp boat engine rooms and exteriors, and constructing more than 300 boats during his career.
Retired for 20 years now, Wan looks back gloomily at the demise of the boatbuilding industry. “I was chairperson of the union at the time, and it was sad to see the industry slowly disappearing under my watch,” said Wan. “Boat making is a culture. Will the next generation even be aware of how boat makers in Macau built boats?”
Chan Yat Fung, president of the non-profit History and Culture Association of Port of Macau (HCAPM), which aims to keep seafaring traditions afloat by holding exhibitions and leading tours, agrees. “Macau city dwellers have largely lost that deep connection with the ocean,” he said.
Coming from a long line of fishermen, Chan started the HKAPM in 2013 after returning from university in South Korea. At the time, his father was organising boat tours about the history and culture of Macau’s fishing industry, and this work inspired Chan to find new ways to preserve and share this aspect of Macau history.
Chan’s grandfather, Chan Kwong Yuk, was 10 years old when he first arrived in Macau from Guangdong Province after World War II. Chan Kwong Yuk spent most of his childhood on a junk boat around the Pearl River Delta, learning from the adults and helping them with casting, knitting and mending the nets. “I was born on a houseboat. I grew up on a houseboat. I grew old on a houseboat,” he said. “I’ve only been living on land for the past 10 years.”
To celebrate this long legacy of shipbuilders and fishermen, the HKAPM organises shipbuilding exhibitions and tours of the inner harbour, and provides oral history and educational seminars. In 2016, the organisation is planning a fashion show to showcase what fishermen wore at sea.
“Most of us [young people] have little knowledge about ocean tides and the weather,” said Chan. “Skyscrapers have blocked our view to the sea, and when we think of boats, we just think of those that run between Hong Kong [and] Macau.”
Having spent much of his own childhood living on the family fishing boat, Chan hopes to preserve these memories of the seafaring culture by publishing his father Chan Meng Kam’s memoir about life as a fisherman as well as his grandfather’s oral history, which will be published in collaboration with the Macau Archives. He’s also planning to publish another book in 2016 that offers a general introduction to Macau shipyards and fishing history.
“I remember the nights during the fishing trips – when you look ahead, you see nothing but never-ending darkness,” he said. “As a child, it was quite terrifying. Now that I’m older, I think of that experience as serene and peaceful, as something you can no longer find in the city.”
Additional reporting by Sin Yan Chan and Alan Yu.