Hong Kong’s Skyline Icons: Typhoon Shelters and Their Rollicking History

In the spring of 1970, civil servant James Hayes paid a visit to the Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter. He was there with a friend to visit the friend’s grandmother, who lived in a boat. Fascinated as he was by Hong Kong history — he published six books and dozens of articles on local history while working for the colonial government — he made quick work in gathering the mother’s life story. 

“The old lady belonged to the indigenous boat population of Hong Kong Island,” he reported in a letter to the Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, for which he would later serve as president. The grandmother had been born on a boat in 1890, just as her own father had been, and several generations before him. Aside from the occasional trip to the Shau Kei Wan market, the family and other indigenous boat people lived separately from land dwellers. “Theirs was not a symbiotic relationship. Even when they lived together in the same locality, they kept apart; the villagers in their houses and the boat people on their little family boats just offshore,” wrote Hayes. 

That was no longer the case when Hayes made his visit. As Hong Kong swelled with newcomers from mainland China, so did the typhoon shelters, which became vast floating villages that helped sustain the on-shore economy while also offering a loosely regulated world of restaurants, casinos and brothels. In the early 1980s, an estimated 40,000 people lived in typhoon shelters. These days, there are many typhoon shelters in Hong Kong, and they remain an important part of the landscape, a place to safely moor watercraft in a city so often buffeted by bad weather. But there’s far more to them than their utility: a fascinating history lies behind their innocuous appearance.

As Hayes relayed in 1970, people have been living on boats in the waters of Hong Kong for centuries, taking shelter in coves and bays when storms blew in. But the typhoon shelter is a relatively modern piece of infrastructure. The first was in Causeway Bay. It was built in response to a devastating typhoon in 1874 that damaged or destroyed nearly every vessel in the harbour, ripped the roofs off many buildings and injured up to 2,000 people, with an unknown number killed. (Typhoons were not given names until 1945.) At the time, the land where Victoria Park now stands was a shallow bay already used to shelter boats during storms, and it was reinforced in 1883 by a simple breakwater. 

The New Yau Ma Tei Typhoon Shelter, which opened in the 1990s following the West Kowloon land reclamation scheme

Not enough boats could squeeze into the Causeway Bay shelter to make much of a difference during a typhoon. After another particularly severe storm blew through Hong Kong in 1900, business and political leaders began calling for more shelters to be constructed. In 1903, a Legislative Council member named Gershom Stewart noted that keeping commercial vessels safe would have many economic advantages. “The harbour is after all the reason of our existence here,” he said in an address to the council. But he also made the argument that it was the government’s moral duty to protect boat-dwellers. “I think it is right and proper that we should afford all the protection and help we can to an industrious and hard-working section of the community,” he declared. “We must remember that these people in numbers, men women and children, have nothing between them and the next world but perhaps a half-inch plank when it may be blowing a hurricane in the harbour.”

The government responded that it was committed to building a new typhoon shelter in the west end of the harbour, but it needed to wait until it had enough funding to do it. That remained the situation for the next three years. It took disaster to force the government’s hand, and even then, it was slow to act. In September 1906, a typhoon swept over Hong Kong with just 15 minutes of warning, killing 10,000 over the next several hours – a staggering proportion of the city’s inhabitants, who numbered around 370,000 at the time. 

“None of us are likely to forget the scenes of that morning,” then-governor Matthew Nathan told the Legislative Council. “Crowds of helpless shipping drifting to the east before the wind, then the whole scene was wiped out by the blowing sheets of rain, and an hour later the atmosphere being again clear, we saw that the junks and small craft had disappeared and that many of the larger ships were aground or in distress. What had happened to the Chinese boats was evidenced by the appalling scenes of desolation along the prayas or the Kowloon shore.”

The government had already passed its budget for the following year, so Nathan proposed raising money for the typhoon shelter by increasing light dues, the fees levied on ships to pay for lighthouses and other pieces of maritime infrastructure. Remarkably, despite the death and destruction caused by the 1906 typhoon, the head of the Chamber of Commerce objected to any increase in fees, going so far as to cast aspersions on the usefulness of a typhoon shelter in the first place. He was rebuked by Legislative Council member Ho Kai — a prominent barrister, physician and intellectual whose son would go on to develop Kai Tak Airport — who echoed Gershom Stewert’s argument from three years earlier, that the government had a moral obligation to keep Hong Kong’s seafaring people safe during typhoons. Nathan agreed and vowed to lay the groundwork for a shelter within a year.

Plans were drawn up for a new shelter on the sandy shores of Yau Ma Tei, which at the time was an increasingly populous market village. But nobody in the government could agree on how it should be financed. Nathan was opposed to taking out a loan and instead suggested raising taxes, which was unpopular with the business community. All of this dragged on for years, until enough typhoons had caused enough destruction — and there was enough political pressure mounted on the government by outraged political leaders — that funding was finally secured by way of an import duty. The Yau Ma Tei Typhoon Shelter finally opened in 1915.

Along with the Causeway Bay shelter, which was relocated further into the harbour when the bay was reclaimed in the late 1940s to make way for Victoria Park, the Yau Ma Tei shelter became a thriving city on the sea. “It was more bustling than you can imagine,” says Chan Kwong-yiu, who owned a cha chaan teng facing the shelter, and whose recollections were documented in the Hong Kong Memory oral history project.

Every evening, crowds gathered on the waterfront before streaming into the typhoon shelter on a makeshift boardwalk that ran between boats; it was nicknamed Shanghai Street, after the nearby main street on land. The whole place had a carnival atmosphere, with floating hawkers offering stir-fried seafood, steamed fish and sampan congee (teng5 zai2 zuk1 艇仔粥) filled with a mix of fish, pork and peanuts. (So-called “typhoon shelter crab” likely wasn’t on the menu; according to historian Ho Pui-yin, it likely emerged in the 1980s as a local variation on Singaporean chilli crab, its rebranding a nostalgic reference to the heyday of typhoon shelter entertainment.) 

Many visitors were met by teenage girls dressed in traditional straw hats known as Tanka hats, after the Cantonese name (daan6 gaa1 蜑家) given to indigenous boat people. They escorted them to boats festooned in flowers, where they watched singers accompanied by traditional Chinese instruments like the erhu. Some visitors made their way to gambling boats they indulged in a guessing game called fan tan (faan1 taan1 番攤). Many others visited the typhoon shelter for carnal reasons; prostitution and live sex shows were ubiquitous. 

But the relationship between boat people and land-dwellers was not one-sided. Although the typhoon shelter was largely self-sufficient, with its own floating markets selling fruit, vegetables, rice, fresh water and boat-raised chicken, boat people regularly hired sampans to take them ashore for a day of shopping and eating. Chan remembers boat people being some of his best customers: because they often worked hard physical jobs, they had big appetites, and “they spent generously.” 

The bustling days of the Yau Ma Tei Typhoon Shelter began to wane in the 1970s, when land reclamation projects — notably that of Ferry Point, a new cluster of high-rises next to the Jordan Road Ferry Pier — began eating away at the shelter. In the 1980s, the government began relocating boat dwellers to public housing. By the time the entire typhoon shelter was wiped out by the enormous West Kowloon land reclamation scheme in the 1990s, part of the Airport Core Programme, few people still lived on boats. 

Today, there are 14 typhoon shelters around Hong Kong, most of them built after the 1960s to house fishing boats and the many vessels, such as tugboats and crane barges, that serve the port. Compared to the past, they’re fairly workaday places. But vestiges of the old days remain. There is still a floating restaurant in the Causeway Bay Typhoon Shelter, helmed by chef Leung Hoi. Journalist Doug Meigs described the scene in a 2013 article for China Daily – a testament to the way their culture lives on, despite all the changes around them: 

The aroma of chopped garlic pervades Leung’s kitchen; it wafts from plates held aloft by waiters, scurrying over wales and decks, straight from wok to table. A pile of shrimp, massive razor clams, groupers heaped in a deep-fried crispy pile, and scallops topped with vermicelli (and more garlic) are brought in succession. There’s a plate of vegetables, then congee, the noodles, then come mollusks, squid, and spicy clams drenched in savoury sauce. When the crab finally arrives, it’s buried in fried garlic and fermented soybeans. Steaming shells crack, revealing white flesh in all its succulence.

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