People have lived on boats in Hong Kong since its establishment as a fishing village before written records. Hong Kong’s long association with the sea, first through fishing and then as a trading port, has made this city synonymous with water and boats. Iconic images of the Star Ferry and sailing junks with their traditional red sails lead many people to believe that the life aquatic is commonplace. In fact there are probably less than 200 liveaboards in Hong Kong, spread out from Tuen Mun’s Gold Coast Marina to Aberdeen’s Pak Sha Wan Typhoon Shelter, to Port Shelter in Sai Kung.
Traditional wooden junks are still a popular choice for liveaboard vessels, although three-masted sailing ships have given way to more efficient motorised versions. Made of slow growth teak or yacal wood, today’s junks are spacious, well appointed, versatile and ideal for coastal cruising and weekend getaways to secluded bays. At the other end of the spectrum are the ultramodern fibreglass vessels with showflat interiors, among the most serious seagoing ships. Many are designed for image over performance, and other than the occasional maintenance trip are seldom moved.
Living on a boat is a lifestyle choice. There are sacrifices and there are benefits, but to those who like adventure and who want to belong to a community of likeminded people there simply is no better choice than living on a boat. Compared to other major cities, living afloat in Hong Kong is affordable and safe. There is easy access to shipyards for maintenance and repairs and with the exception of typhoon season the weather is conducive to indoor/outdoor living all year round.
Older liveaboard boats can be reasonably priced for the space they provide, and aside from ongoing payments to government for mooring provisions (which are inexpensive and largely static) there are no management fees. One of the first things people tend to notice is the lack of the “Hong Kong Symphony”: no jackhammers or pile drivers, just nature and the occasional outboard motor buzzing past.
Generally speaking there are two types of moorings: pontoon, a floating pathway from boat to shore, and floating, which requires sampan transport. Sampans have a charging system based on the size and age of the sampan, the age of the driver, the weather and the premiership football results, but expect to pay $5 to $7 per trip on average. Having to use a sampan, or your own dinghy, to get to and from shore may be a trial for some but it soon becomes routine and a once the sampan skippers know you they can be a good source of knowledge, humour and late night beers.
The main advantage to having a family on the water is that there is never a dull moment. Standing on the aft deck barbequing dinner often means seeing dragon boats practising, jet skiers and wake board boats jostling with fishing boats, or a shared joke with passing barges or sampan skippers.
With nature, or a lack of it, such an issue in Hong Kong, children are able to thrive in an environment close to nature with caring neighbours nearby. There is something magical about watching a red kite or sea eagle swoop out of the sky and catch his supper just metres away, leaving parent and child wide-eyed with excitement. Watching a jellyfish making its way along the boat can keep kids amused for ages.
Boats, even houseboats, are first and foremost vehicles. They depreciate from new at rates comparable to luxury cars. Anybody looking to invest in a liveaboard would be wise to look at used boats in good condition. Only a crazy person would buy a used houseboat without a professional marine survey. Due to recent market trends the value of good quality, well maintained older vessels is on the rise, but at nowhere near the land-based equivalent.
Much of this rise is due to the scarcity of moorings in Hong Kong. Private clubs have large marinas but these are full and all have waiting lists. Government typhoon shelters are less than ideal as liveaboard venues due to large amounts of industrial traffic and the lack of basic services. Plans are afoot to provide many more public berths but innumerable obstacles are still blocking construction.
But the numbers are where liveaboard really makes its case. A well-designed 60-foot Junk will typically offer 1,500 to 1,800 square feet of living space, with outdoor areas on the roof and foredeck. A standard layout will feature a master cabin with ensuite, and one or two smaller rooms with a shared bathroom. Open plan kitchen and dining rooms often merge into lounge areas, and a short aft deck serves as a back porch or veranda.
Water and electricity are supplied from shore services and most liveaboards use mobile phones and wireless broadband connections. Pets are common, with dogs and cats being the more traditional and popular choices. Cats in particular earn their keep scaring off water rats and cockroaches. In Aberdeen garbage is collected daily from the rear of the boat and there is even a floating chachanteng that delivers fresh noodles, duck and char siu right to your door.
In the used boat market a quick survey of local websites shows around 15 to 20 vessels currently available ranging in price from $700,000 to $5.5 million, converted fishing trawlers to custom built, one-off steel and fibreglass floating homes. Selecting one is a matter of budget and personal taste; some will prefer the look of a chic new apartment, spacious and minimalist, while some prefer solidly built ocean crossing ships with strong engines and plenty of structure to grab onto when the weather gets rough.
Houseboats in Hong Kong offer a unique lifestyle at an affordable price. For all the small differences, life aboard is much the same as life ashore, replete with bathtubs, toilets, washing machines and refrigerators — with the added benefit of being part of Hong Kong’s maritime history.