Forgotten Hong Kong Icon: The Art of Life-Saving in Hong Kong

It is 31 degrees according to the large digital clocktower on Deep Water Bay Beach, which alternates between the time and the temperature. The sea is calm, the occasional cloud reflected on its dimpled surface. On the horizon, you can see the cable cars of Ocean Park moving up and down like little marbles rolling over the mountain. You can also see more double-decker buses driving over the ridge, ready to deliver beachgoers right up to the shore.

Most people are in the water, while others hide from the sun in the ample shade provided by a thick row of trees. I want to jump into that cooling water, but for the time being I am on terra firma, just like the lifeguards, who patiently watch the scenes unfolding in front of us. A bunch of kids start throwing stones into the water, garnering an immediate complaint from another swimmer who approaches the lifeguard station: “Please tell them to stop.” A small boy is bouncing off the shoulders of his grandfather, splashing into the water again and again. Some swimmers have made it out to the floating platform and are sunbathing away from the crowds. Others are swimming slowly but consistently, with full face masks to protect them from UV rays.

lifeguardsWe meet Vincent Ho Wing-yin, the senior lifeguard on duty – or as the government officially calls him, the Senior Artisan of Deep Water Bay Beach. A whole flock of small sparrows surround us as braver black starlings jump onto our feet. “It’s like they have become our pets,” laughs Ho.

Since peak beach season is here, it’s only appropriate to learn more about the “art” of life saving in the city and the men and women working to provide it. They’re the ones we ignore until we need them (here’s hoping that we will never need them) but who bring an immense sense of security every time we feel the sand drop off beneath our feet.

Ho has been a lifeguard for more than 20 years. He is one of the senior permanent lifeguards in the city, a task force managed by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. He took his first district council class and certification in life saving when he was only 15 years old. At the time, the minimum age requirement was 14, and together with a school friend, he decided to join on a whim.

“I didn’t actually start swimming seriously and training until the idea of taking the life-saving exam started,” he says. “After that, I was so proud to have passed that I wanted to keep on going.” The Royal Life Saving Society was established in 1960, and had the sole right to award certificates in Hong Kong before the handover. “When you are 15 years old and you get a medal engraved with your name all the way from the UK, it is pretty special,” says Ho. “I decided I wanted to try my hand at doing it professionally.”

LifeguardsIn 1994, when he was 18 years old, Ho passed the additional part-time lifeguard exam, which allowed him to work summers. The positive hands-on experience and satisfaction from being able to help people in need pushed him even further down this path.

“You have to be really determined to qualify as a lifeguard,” says Ho. “It takes at least five to six months of training before you can even take the initial exam that will enable you to then take the official lifeguard exam. Plus, you have to cover the costs upfront yourself.” Even part-timers, who make up the majority of lifeguards, have to take multiple exams such as aquatic first aid, basic first aid, canoe and surfboard specialties, before they can qualify. Only if you become a permanent lifeguard does the Leisure and Cultural Services Department cover any additional training you may need afterwards. “It is a big investment of time,” says Ho.

All lifeguards in Hong Kong are required to renew their certification every three years. “But I make sure we train and practice our skills all the time instead of waiting for the three years to expire,” says Ho. “In low season from September to October, when the beaches are more quiet, we do even more training sessions to make sure procedures become second nature to our team.”

Most beaches in Hong Kong need a surge of lifeguards during the peak season of June to August. That’s when the Department hires the most part-time guards to help with the increase in number of beach goers, especially during school holidays. Deep Water Bay is one of the few beaches, and the only one on Hong Kong Island, that is guarded 365 days a year. Many lifeguards who are part-time will do other work in winter, while others may be students. Currently, as of June 2017, Hong Kong has 1,960 public lifeguards on duty in total, covering all 38 gazetted beaches and public facilities such as pools and water parks.

The period from November to March is relatively quiet, as most beaches are not officially guarded; only a few hardy swimmers brave the cooler climes. Deep Water Bay is especially popular with the older generation as they can make their way to the beach directly with public transport and no stairs. Early in the mornings, you can often hear them shout as they jump into the cold current, fearless and tough.

A permanent lifeguard like Ho has to pass additional management certificates as well as pre-hospital training. “The first 15 minutes to one hour after an accident are crucial – it can make a big difference in the patient’s recovery and avoid long term impacts,” he says. Senior lifeguards also have access to the Lifeguard Union, of which Ho is a member. Their monthly meetings and Whatsapp group allows them to build a stronger network and exchange safety information, lessons learnt as well as establishing common goals and directions. “It is a great support for each other,” he says.

A crucial part of their job is to be prepared for any scenario. Ho’s main role is to coordinate the manpower available for maximum efficiency. All life-saving equipment is constantly checked and all medical materials are also monitored for expiration dates and proper assembly.

lifeguardsIn the 14 years he has served as a full-time lifeguard, Ho says things have changed for the better. Hong Kong now has more women beach lifeguards than before, and official life-saving training underwent a shift in 2000, when requirements became more difficult. There is now stronger emphasis on preventive and pre-emptive action. “There has been a significant drop in casualties since 2000, because we have moved much more towards preventing incidents, instead of purely observing,” explains Ho.

Some challenges of being a lifeguard may seem evident, such as knowing how to engage with a panicked swimmer from behind, or how to approach a strong rip tide or current, but there are also other factors that may surprise the average swimmer. “You know one thing people never think about? Suntan lotion! It makes victims extremely slippery, sometimes we cannot get a good grip on them,” laughs Ho. “In Chinese, we say they are like a type of slippery fish – siu2 ngan2 jyu4 (小銀魚).”

Ho says the best thing about being a lifeguard is the feeling of preventing a tragedy. “Often victims are super grateful,” he says. “Even those who have left in an ambulance, it is wonderful finding out afterwards that they are fine. I think like many professions, people always appreciate you more if they have had contact with you, or have been on the receiving end of your services. The most important thing is whether you yourself feel that what you are doing is valuable. If you do, then you should go ahead and do it,” says Ho.

“We are proud of what we do. I never find this job boring,” he adds. “The beach landscape is always changing and our team spirit is really good; you need to be able to count on each other when you work together on a crisis.”

Looking out at the gentle waves lapping up at the shore, it’s hard to argue: this is a pretty sweet office – and indeed life-saving seems to be a craft all of its own.

Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese. 

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