An iconic part of Hong Kong’s heritage, sampans are getting harder to find and are being replaced by bigger and faster boats. To honour the ones remaining, we look into the history of sampans in Hong Kong.
We all know Hong Kong’s transport system is one of the most efficient in the world, and also possibly one of the most diverse. Although you can’t beat the convenience of hydrofoil ferries and the face-paced MTR, let’s not forget our glorious sampans that you can still spot in Sai Kung, Aberdeen, and Stanley. We look back at the history and cultural significance of sampans in Hong Kong.
A history crash course on sampans in Hong Kong
Sampan translates to three planks in Cantonese because it’s a boat built with one plank base with two other planks on both sides. Back in the 1950s, sampans were one of the major modes of transportation in Hong Kong and, in addition to navigating the harbour, locals also lived aboard sampans. That’s right, they cooked, slept, and worked day in and day out inside sampans. If you venture to Aberdeen, you’ll still find descendants of the Tanka and Hoklo tribes who fish for a living via their sampans.
Different people sold different things inside their sampans so locals would buy their necessities from each other and the whole network of these small boats formed a floating village that would light up at night.
But soon after the rapid development in import and export, larger ships became the norm in Hong Kong and the manufacturing of sampans slowly started to decline.
Reasons why sampans in Hong Kong are vanishing
In addition to the manufacturing shift to building faster boats and larger ships, it’s also become more expensive to maintain a sampan ($30,000 to $40,000 per repair). With typhoons becoming more severe, sampans are more vulnerable to damage and, due to the cost, some of those that are damaged are sent to scrap rather than being repaired. On top of that, there are only three repair facilities for sampans in Hong Kong and there’s not enough manpower at these facilities to make repairs on all the sampans that need them.
Plus, younger generations have often preferred to move to more urban areas to be closer to work.
So yes, the sampans you see now are all we’re going to have.
How to show some love to sampans in Hong Kong
When you go to Sai Kung, there are multiple ways to get out to the outlying islands. In addition to the kaito ferries and speedboats, you can also hail a sampan instead. It’s usually older people operating them and, in all honesty, being closer to the water and feeling the movement of the waves makes for a more thrilling sampan experience.
If you’re strolling by the dockyard in Aberdeen, be sure to look out for Mr Lau who cooks amazing noodles in his own sampan. For just $30 a bowl, you can pair your rice noodles with either roast duck, Chinese BBQ pork, fish balls, pig’s ear, or duck gizzards (talk about variety!). And whilst you’re there, why not hop on a sampan harbour tour? It costs as little as $10 and lasts about half an hour. The tour takes you around Aberdeen Harbour, past the Ap Lei Chau Bridge, and all around the docked junks, boats, and cargo vessels.
And if you ask me, a sampan ride sounds like a romantic date night but maybe because I’m an old soul (pretty sure I’m not the only one)!