Tanka People of Hong Kong

Submitted by JayneRB on Fri, 05/20/2022 - 14:46

Hello wonderful forum. I have enjoyed the amazing info people contribute here and really hope to get a conversation going.

I'm presently working on a photo project I started back in 2014 and have exhibited; interviewing and collecting stories of the Tanka people that lived round Hong Kong. I have now moved forward with the project to concentrate on the changes of their lives- 100's of years on the water ending in one generation with sweeping government changes.

I've started talking some folk in their 80's now that moved with their young children to housing estates or took up BNO passports to move to the UK mainly Scotland.

If theres any of you out there with Tanka links I'd really appreciate a talk to build a narrative of the significant changes of  the 1950's/60's/70's/. What was going to school like? What was the strongest memories you have of living on the water, going to live on land, cooking on board the boat, what were your favourite foods etc?

The aim is to produce a work for my final project BA(Hons) Photography course. Further to that, I have a journalist helping to put these storys in a definitive collection that anyone involved in will have access to. Also, anyone wanting to tell a story and be photographed will get a set of the photos taken. I have a translator so no problem with Cantonese (assuming the Tanka dialect faded from use as a consequence of these changes). Could be a change for you to record your familes oral history too!

Please feel to contact me if you want to be involved or at least have a conversation on here.  I really think Tanka history is lacking.


Jayne R

Hi Jayne,

This is a valuable project. As you say, the change has been very quick and it is important to capture these memories before it is too late.

If we look at an active present-day port like Aberdeen, are many of the people working on the boats from the Tanka community, or has that connection been lost?

What have you found most interesting as you've talked to the older generation about their lives?

Regards, David

Thanks David, yes I was surprised to find that it seems that some kids may not even know that their grandparents were on boats it's been that forgotten.

Aberdeen seems to still be the strongest connection with some people who are still tanker working there but there are still lots of small pockets around. Significantly though there's no one really living in the same way that they used to. The boat licenses have been changed they were given public housing and the kids were put in regular school changing the future of the group. 
given the research of already done I expect that I will get on the project together within the next few months so I'll update with a summary of the findings.



Dear Jayne,

Barbara E. Ward did research on the Tanka people in the Sai Kung area starting in the 1950s. Part of her work, "Kau Sai, An Unfinished Manuscript" has 92 pages of very readable information. It used to be available on line. If you can't find a copy, email me at finbetta@gmail.com and I'll past on the PDF I once downloaded.

Warm regards,


Since posting here, I have amassed an extraordinary collection of info on the 'On Water People'.

I will start posting some info once I finish fact-checking as I am keen to build the information. Its an important part of the history both pre colonial and during British rule. It is also very much interwoven with the history of industry in HK in the 60s thru 80s particularly the plastics industry. 

I have approached the history photographically and don't want the collated information I have to be otherwise wasted. 

Back soon and obviously I open this up to any first-hand stories that could fill out the history. The government rebranded them as Fisherfolk mixing them in with Hoklo and Hakka fishermen and speeding up the end of their individual culture.

So much still to be said. A collab with a current Anthropology Uni student looking for a project would be my ultimate goal.