South China's Boat People Adrift on Uncertain Tides

By Daniel Plafker, June 1, 2018

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“There’s seven things that a Tanka lives and dies by,” Lin Hongyang tells us. The old man’s back is to the village’s narrow rows of modest houses. His eyes fix on a point beyond the muddy riverbank that forms their doorstep, past the line of battered wooden fishing boats that bob in its ebb, across the quick and murky waters of the coursing Bei River and towards the distant shore.  

“The weather,” he starts to intone, “including the skies and tides; the place he works – its geography and water quality; the tools of the trade, be they boat, nets or engine; his diligence; his boldness; his skill; and,” perhaps most importantly, “his luck.” 

Looking around the garbage-strewn stretch of waterfront in northern Foshan, where Shuishang village sits, it’s hard to say whether Tanka people’s luck might be starting to run out.

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Lin, the tall, thin, aged man who recites the ‘seven words’ from memory, is certainly one of the fortunate ones. Though born to a fishing family, Lin managed to become one of the few Tanka of his generation to receive a formal education, ultimately securing work as an English teacher at a nearby rural middle school. Together with the proverbial ‘seven words,’ he is also able to recite surprisingly true-to-form English translations of decades-old speeches by Chairman Mao. 

But despite Lin’s impressive career in village linguistics and countryside education, his boat has always remained close at hand.

Said boat, along with several dozen others, sits hauled up on the deep mud with more floating just offshore. The distinctive wooden craft has long been the defining article of Tanka life, a symbolic and literal vessel that has for centuries contained and carried their unique, river-bound culture across the tides of time.

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Professor He Jiaxiang, a researcher at Sun Yat-sen University, has studied Guangdong’s Tanka communities for nearly two decades. He tells us that prior to the establishment of the People’s Republic, there were several hundred thousand such people living on the province’s bays and rivers. Here, as well as in Fujian and Hainan, both of which still contain significant Tanka communities, these boat-dwelling fisherfolk have constituted a sort of segregated sub-caste for countless generations. 

The origin story of the culture remains as murky as the waters that give it life. But Professor He agrees with the prevailing view that the Tanka people were descended from the ancient Yue inhabitants of today’s South China, later banished to boats by Han invaders. “We can probably regard the Tanka people as the aboriginals – or the first settlers anyway – of this piece of land. That is, of course, until immigrants came from the north,” Professor He explains. 

“The newcomers later divided the land of Guangdong into three parts. One part was to be inhabited by the so-called Guangfuren – the most powerful immigrants from the north who actually established and still inhabit the city and area of Guangzhou. Another part went to the Chaoshanren, or Teochew people of the east. And still another part went to the Hakka. The aboriginals, who we now know as the Tanka people, actually did not get a share. They were marginalized in this process of resettlement.”

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Whatever their precise origins, the lives of countless generations of Tanka people have been colored by hardship, poverty, stigma and social exclusion. Modest reforms in the early 18th century abolished some of the legal framework for their formal economic marginalization, but the exile of Tanka life to the waterways proved deep-rooted with farming, education and marriage to outside groups remaining beyond reach for most, especially in Cantonese-speaking areas. 

Like many of China’s poor and dispossessed, the material conditions of the Tanka people began to improve dramatically following Liberation in 1949. Thousands were resettled into land-based housing, communities were targeted for health and literacy programs and new opportunities were made for participation in fields of economic production outside of fishing. 

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Even the name ‘Tanka,’ a fraught term, which is used in this English text after much critical reflection, began to fall into question. “The term Tanka can really be considered quite derogatory,” Professor He points out, noting centuries of stigma. “Many prefer the more neutral term shuishangren, which simply means ‘people on the water.’” 

While this latter term emphasizes Tanka people’s humanity and is widely accepted in Hong Kong, it is not in common use on the Chinese mainland and is ultimately too generic to capture the regional and cultural specificity of these unique communities. Meanwhile, as Professor He points out, by fixedly associating Tanka people with the watery realm, shuishangren implies a lack of belonging on the land; as if the river is somewhere Tanka people are from rather than a place they were displaced to. 

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But despite these semantic debates and impressive material gains, the post-liberation improvement in Tanka people’s lot only went so far. Many were left behind, cultural prejudices remained entrenched and, partly due to not receiving official recognition as an ethnic minority group under the government’s sanctioned taxonomy, the rich water-faring culture, cultivated over centuries of boat-bound life, was given no institutional outlet for expression or preservation and has, in some places, faded.

Adrift on Troubled Waters

Today, the community is facing yet another period of flux and transformation. Though thousands continue to call the river home, fish populations have collapsed across the province in the face of industrial pollution and overfishing. For the younger generation of Tanka people, who have had the benefit of basic education and some knowledge of Mandarin, the grueling, dirty, cramped conditions of fishing work is an increasingly unattractive prospect. Like so many of their rural peers elsewhere in the country, they are moving in droves to heed the clarion call of migrant wage labor, leaving behind the lines and nets of their parents’ fishing boats for the factory lines and internet of the Pearl River Delta’s sprawling metropolises.

Back on the riverbank in Shuishang village, though, it’s clear that this migratory vanishing act is not an option for everybody. We meet Chen Azai while he is painting his boat. At 83 years old and 5 feet tall, the man’s dark, lined face cuts a sharp silhouette against the grey of the gathering clouds. A lifetime of fishing work has left its mark on his well-worn body. He’s the kind of man that’s unlikely to maneuver for a late-in-life career change. 

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The annual four-month springtime fishing ban, introduced less than a decade ago to try to manage the rapidly diminishing fish population by giving the creatures a chance to spawn without harassment, has just begun and the villagers can be seen in force on the beach, mending their nets, patching their hulls and oiling the boards of their wooden boats to keep out rot. Not far from Chen and his bucket of bright blue paint, his wife chops wood with a ferocity that belies her advanced years. 

The pair have plied the waters of the Bei River for as long as they’ve lived. “I was born on boats,” the old man tells us in a toothless Cantonese. “I’ve been fishing ever since I was teenager, nearly every day for more than 60 years.” 

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Chen and his wife came here a decade ago from Lubao, about 30 kilometers upriver. By leaving that floating community behind for a house on dry land, Chen hoped to secure a better education for his grandchildren. Prone to gummy smiles, the muscular grandfather appears to be taking the move in stride.

The boat he is painting was bought then for RMB300 – part of a downsize to a smaller vessel since his housing was otherwise accounted for. Today, the same craft would sell for 10 times that price – and it’s not the only costs that have skyrocketed in Tanka-country in recent years.

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“The government pays us RMB9 a day per person during the enforced fishing ban to compensate for our lost income, but it’s not nearly enough.” On top of this, Chen’s family gets an additional RMB800 a year in diesel fuel subsidies, a sum that varies greatly based on boat-size and engine power.

“Of my four sons,” Chen tells us as a light rain begins to fall, “only two have decided to stay on boats and continue the fishing tradition. The rest have left the area to find work elsewhere. There are fewer and fewer fish than before, it’s not as easy to make a living.” 

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Adding to difficulties, subsidies and lost-income compensation are not paid out till the end of the ban period, leaving families to rely on savings in the interim. “We sell what we can to the wet markets and wholesalers,” Chen explains. Tanka boats have an area of the hull where holes are drilled so fish can be kept alive in transit. “What we can’t, we dry and eat ourselves during the ban.” Chickens and ducks that forage on the bank supplement the local diet and income but Tankas have rarely turned to farming. 

The steady drizzle that has been falling on our heads while we talk has turned to full downpour but the busy people on the beach appear unfazed, continuing their work of mending and maintenance. “We’re used to working in all weather,” our happy companion shrugs. Finally though, the rain becomes too heavy to ignore and we hurriedly help Chen cover his half painted boat with a plastic tarp before beating a hasty retreat to the couple’s brick-and-mortar home. The narrow lanes of the shoreside village are now veritable rivers of their own and it’s not easy to keep up with Chen’s hasty shuffle. 

His wiry, white-haired wife pulls up the rear, heavy axe still in hand. Once we are safe and settled under the roof the family’s modest, landbound home, a not-so-well-kept secret about Tanka economic life quickly emerges. 

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For the second time in as many hours, we hear that in the face of the tightening profit margins, rising cost of living and falling fish populations, some in the community are turning to poaching during the fishing ban as a way of making ends meet. 

“They go out at night,” Chen says between drags of a slightly damp cigarette. “They electrocute the fish with special equipment, then scoop them up quickly with nets.” This method of fishing is illegal any time of year, and criminally so during the fishing ban. If caught, poachers will have their nets and boats confiscated, a devastating blow to a Tanka fisherman. Elsewhere in the village we hear of steep fines and even prison labor sentences imposed. 

Because electro-poaching doesn’t discriminate between valuable big fish and unsellable small ones – not to mention killing off countless mothers before they have the chance to spawn, it can decimate fish populations and speed the spiral of ecosystem collapse that drives some Tanka fisherfolk to the practice in the first place. It’s no wonder that Chen’s sons, and so many others like them, have chosen to leave these odds behind to try their all-important Tanka luck elsewhere.

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We leave Shuishang village and head north, bumping along winding riverbank roads with questions knocking against each other in our heads. With collapsing fish populations and a rapidly modernizing regional economy, how viable is the old life for Tanka people who continue to eke out a boat-bound living? For younger Tanka abandoning ship for work in China’s low-end labor market, what chance is there for meaningful ties to their ancient riverbound heritage?

Shifting Currents

We hope the town of Datang can offer some answers. This midsized township seat, not far from the border with Qingyuan prefecture, appears no different from any other rural hub. Dingy restaurants, sleepy hardware stores and a noisy market give way to tightly packed brick houses which, in turn, end abruptly at fields of wandering water buffalo. Beyond, the land slopes gently towards a high earthen embankment, erected to keep the river, and all that it contains, safely at bay. 

It’s a poignant dividing line and the symbolism is hard to miss, because when this grassy berm is crested more than 200 wooden boats and Tanka cooking fires come into view.

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The Datang community is one of the region’s largest and, unlike in Shuishang, the families here have no house but their watercraft. The modest wooden boats bob in tight clusters like floating relics of another century while cars zipping overhead on a modern freeway bridge and a steady stream of passing steel freighters strike a strange anachronistic contrast. 

Here, too, the seasonal fishing ban is in full effect, and the long sandy beach remains a hive of activity. Wicker baskets and woven traps are sifted for clams and river snails; speedy, sunbrowned fingers fly through folds of netting, checking for tears; gas generators sputter; welders straddle overturned boats, scattering sparks; steam rises from countless pots as evening meals are prepared and dogs and chickens root among the sand and pebbles.

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On the far end of the beach we find another Mr. Lin (no relation) squatting by the waterline aside his dissembled engine block, hands coated in motor oil. Though approaching middle age, he’s one of the younger fishermen still living full time in this floating community.

“Very few people under the age 40 have stayed in Datang to make their living as fisherfolk,” the busy man tells us. Lin holds our gaze casually while he speaks but the flying wrench in his hand doesn’t slow for an instant. “It’s better to have a job in the city – the income is more stable, the conditions are safer and you have better access to services.”

It’s easy to see what he means. The scream of a nearby generator provides some of the floating homes with electricity, (the price of gas is a constant source of conversation) and children can row to a nearby school, but lodging is cramped and the work is hard.

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“My children have already left to find work elsewhere,” he states frankly. “They come back once a year to help me with the busiest part of the fishing season but otherwise the youth here are few.” Lin says he hopes his grandchildren will get a good enough education to be able to avoid this kind of work altogether. 

His understandable desires highlight a challenging dilemma for the waterbound culture’s survival. Though widespread and ancient, the Tanka way of life lacks official recognition as an ethnic nationality and the associated benefits that come with it. Though the traditions and customs of Tanka life are rich and varied, they are also tied very closely to fishing as a field of economic production and the houseboat as a place of dwelling. When a young Tanka person leaves these things behind, and assimilates into a land-dwelling life (the lack of a distinct language or dialect, in contrast to other Guangdong subcultures, makes this more possible), what is there to stop her from leaving her Tanka identity behind, too? 

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Centuries of stigma and discrimination make many reluctant to volunteer their Tanka heritage when entering the formalized workforce. Even Henry Fok, a billionaire and politician ranked by Forbes as Hong Kong’s ninth richest tycoon, only rarely admitted to humble Tanka beginnings.

One young student we met on our journey along the Bei River, two generations removed from fishing life, thought of his grandfather as Tanka but not himself. As the Pearl River Delta continues its march from global manufacturing hub to future-tech megalopolis, it’s easy to see this well-worn patch of the region’s cultural fabric fading away altogether.

Finding Safe Harbor

The story of the Hong Kong’s Tanka community may offer some solutions to the dilemmas of those on the mainland. As in other Cantonese-speaking areas, the lives of Hong Kong’s Tanka people were long characterized by stigma, poverty and exclusion from land-based life. Their position in the island’s harbors, however, made them some of the first local people the British colonizers encountered and their profound alienation from their shore-dwelling neighbors made some more than happy to profit from collaboration with the European newcomers. Many accounts indicate that, due to alleged unwillingness on the part of mainstream Cantonese prostitutes to service foreign patrons, Tanka women enjoyed a near-monopoly on sex work with Hong Kong’s Westerners throughout the 19th century. Some maintain that this preference was so strong that many of the territory’s ‘Eurasian’ population today are the product of these early commercial encounters.

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Despite these enterprising adaptations, conditions remained poor in Hong Kong’s ‘floating villages’ and, through much of the 20th century, low literacy, poor health and overcrowding continued to plague the community. As maritime regulations grew tighter and the fishing industry became increasingly formalized, Hong Kong’s government began to corral Tanka households behind newly erected ‘typhoon shelters’ to keep them off the seas. In the 1960s and 1970s militant political movements, Catholic missionary work and infectious disease alike found fertile ground in these aquatic ghettos. 

Hong Kong’s Tanka people needed a way to make a living outside of fishing that was still rooted to their heritage and deep connection to the region’s bays and harbors. The community fell upon an unlikely solution: tourism.

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Today, the quaint wooden houseboats of Hong Kong are more closely associated by the land-dwelling class with pleasant weekend cruises and floating seafood lunches than insurgent leftist militancy and tight-packed squalor. 

Zhu Yanping, a lifelong resident of her houseboat in Aberdeen on the island’s southern coast, has even managed to learn Mandarin from ferrying mainland tourists across the narrow strait to Ap Lei Chau. She’s visited distant relatives in Tanka communities in various parts of Guangdong and recognizes that Hong Kong’s Tanka live a very different way of life.

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“Shuishangren on the mainland,” Zhu tells us, using Hong Kong’s preferred term, “are mostly making a living as fisherfolk. Here in Hong Kong, many of us are now using our boats for tourism. We park our boats here and, all day long, we try to recruit tourists to come aboard for tours of the harbor. That’s been our business since I was young: ferrying tourists. We’ve never once gone out to sea for fishing.” The modest rowing vessel received an engine when Zhu, now 66, was still a muscular youth. Both she and her sister promptly obtained pilots’ licenses. The community here is one that’s used to moving with the times.

Zhu’s children moved ashore at the first opportunity and now have families of their own. “They’ve all been educated,” she explains, “it’s what we want for the next generation, we want them to go ashore and at least see what it’s like.” But her landlubbing sons still visit their mother’s boat frequently. Public transportation is close at hand and the harbor-dwelling generation is able to live in sanitary, dignified conditions without having to choose between abandoning their children or heritage. Meanwhile, art-installations in the vicinity pay tribute to Tanka culture rather than sweeping it under the rug.

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It feels like a positive model for a balanced transition to a new mode of economic participation that doesn’t require cultural traditions be thrown overboard. But Professor He warns of the pitfalls of ‘Disneyfication,’ cautioning against the lure of packaging a culture into easily digestible performances that can be consumed by curious tourists. 

“Nowadays, in Zhongshan and in other areas here in Guangdong you can find a kind of a rehearsed version of the traditional way of life, demonstrated in a touristic way. You can listen to songs that are alleged to be sung by Tanka people. I really sense a kind of danger in this; in the commercialization or commodification of traditions.”

While there are more promising and optimistic examples of adaptation to a touristic economy, namely restaurants and other food-related initiatives that center fishing as a traditional practice while bringing higher value to its output, Professor He’s concerns seem well-founded. Indeed, the difficulties in reconciling cultural preservation with ongoing economic viability may come down to something even more fundamental.

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“Tanka people’s marginalization,” the professor explains “can be traced back to the traditional emphasis placed on agriculture. In the long past, agriculture meant stability, immobility. And the Tanka people went from place to place, they were always on the move, and they were not easy to control. Their traditional way of life was actually in sharp contrast to the dominant forces at that time.” 

While agriculture is no longer as central to China’s society, it’s certainly true that an untethered, difficult to control population is neither desirable nor particularly profitable for the dominant forces in China today. Unless these contradictions can be resolved, it’s difficult to imagine traditional Tanka culture flourishing in an undiluted way in the years to come.

Thinking back to Lin Hongyang’s ‘seven words’ on the riverbank, it’s striking how many of the old standbys are fading fast. The previously reliable weather is, in the age of cataclysmic climate change, no longer so predictable. The waterways, after damming and ongoing pollution, are less recognizable than ever. Tanka people continue to give up the tools of their trade, selling or abandoning boats and nets for new work in the new economy, while the all-important skills of the fishing profession find few inheritors in the younger generation. It seems that the future of the Tanka people will have to rely on the remaining three: their diligence, their boldness, and – perhaps more than anything – their luck.

[Images by Tristin Zhang and Daniel Plafker]

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