[The residents of this floating village are members of the Tanka group, an ancient people scattered across southern China who have survived on coastal waterways, and on the margins of society. But Guangdong is a caldron of manufacturing and urban growth. Cities have engulfed once-quiet towns, and the Tanka way of life is disappearing.]
By Chris Buckley and Adam Wu
Residents of this floating village in Datang are members of the Tanka group,
an ancient people scattered across southern China who have survived on
coastal waterways. Credit Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times
DATANG, China — For six generations, Chan Kuai-hung’s family has worked and lived on the rivers of southern China, roving on wooden boats that served as fishing vessels and homes. But Mr. Chan said his generation would be the last to take up this floating life.
“They don’t fish anymore,” said Mr. Chan, a 55-year-old with craggy, stone-hard hands from a lifetime of rowing and hauling fishing nets. “No one in the family is taking up this tradition.”
He was among a dozen men and women living on the river in Datang, a town in Guangdong Province, who had gathered to light firecrackers to celebrate a recent marriage. About 200 boats from their community floated offshore, and on the riverbank families sorted catches of fish and clams. But the newlyweds, like most young people from here, had no plans to join that life on the water, Mr. Chan said.
“Our culture is on the verge of extinction because young people under 30 head into the city for work,” said a woman who had overheard our conversation. She was shy about talking to outsiders, like many residents here, and gave only her surname, Lam.
“Look at our hands; you can see that we do hard manual labor,” Ms. Lam said, extending her calloused fingers. “Our life depends on the weather and the waters.”
The residents of this floating village are members of the Tanka group, an ancient people scattered across southern China who have survived on coastal waterways, and on the margins of society. But Guangdong is a caldron of manufacturing and urban growth. Cities have engulfed once-quiet towns, and the Tanka way of life is disappearing.
A cement plant on the shore opposite the village in Datang discharged fumes into the air. Apartment blocks have risen along the riverfront. The briny, tidal water of the Bei River, the residents’ lifeblood, has been dredged and is polluted, overfished and crowded with ships.
“Many Tanka people who have settled onshore haven’t told their children about their Tanka background,” said Wu Shuitian, a professor at Guangzhou University who studies the Tanka people. “The Tanka life on the water is disappearing, and it’s also disappearing as a culture.”
Yet Tanka people rarely voiced regret for the passing of their old ways. Their dislocated lives left little room for nostalgia or even for remembering their folk songs, called saltwater songs. Fishing and living on boats, many said, were a means of survival, not cultural preservation.
“We have no choice but to hang on to our old way of life, because it’s the only skill we know,” Mr. Chan said. “I don’t want our tradition to be preserved if the younger generation doesn’t want to keep it.”
Drivers speeding over the expressway bridge across the river in Datang can glimpse a seemingly random crowd of fishing boats and larger houseboats for families of four or more.
But the Tanka community here forms a tight web that spans the river and the shore. The riverbank is a jumble of fishing nets, poultry coops and shanties. Chickens and ducks, which families raise for extra food, strut along the shore. Each family seems to own one or two dogs.
Some residents were mending their handsomely simple wooden boats ahead of the busiest fishing season. They honed planks of hardwood into panels, and used glue and plaster to fill cracks on the 12-foot-long hulls. The fishermen now use outboard motors to move up and down the rivers here or out into bays, but their boats looked like relics from a previous century.
“I didn’t really learn from anyone; I just picked it up along the way,” said one of four men repairing a boat. He gave only his surname, Lam. Like most of their fishing boats it had holes drilled into the front of the hull, creating a space where fish could be stored alive and sold for a higher price at the market. But he had not even tried to pass on fishing skills to his two sons.
“My dad said there’s no future in fishing,” said Chan Kin-chor, a 25-year-old electrician who had dropped by to help his father-in-law fix a boat. “When you walked through here, how many people born after 1990 did you see?”
On the water, families slept, cooked and watched television on houseboats, some big enough for a family of four or more. Small stoves onboard dull the winter cold. Often the owners are older people caring for grandchildren whose parents are away, working in factories or stores.
“We pull the firewood from the water,” said Leung Kwai-mui, 56, who was minding her grandchildren on a houseboat. “If we go up into the hills to collect it, the folks on shore don’t allow it.”
She added: “Now there are fewer fish. Life is hard. But we’ve got no education. All we can do is fish.”
These days, many Tanka prefer to call themselves “water-faring residents” — the term used in official documents — because the traditional word for them (“danjia” in Mandarin) can seem demeaning. Their origin is unclear, and theories abound. One traces them to ancient migrants from Southeast Asia.
Unlike most Chinese people, even in Cantonese-speaking Guangdong, few Tanka speak Mandarin, the dominant national language, and converse easily only in Cantonese.
“People onshore used to very much look down on the lives of the people living on boats,” said Xie Diying, a retired cultural affairs official in Guangzhou, the provincial capital of Guangdong, who has spent decades recording and preserving traditional Tanka saltwater songs and promoting their revival.
“This has left a big shadow in their hearts,” she said. “Many young people don’t know that their own parents were water-faring people.”
Until the 1950s, the Tanka were much more numerous along the south Chinese coast, and about 100,000 lived around Guangzhou. Besides fishing, they made a living rowing goods and people along the waterways around Guangzhou.
After the Communist Party came to power, there was talk that the Tanka might be listed as one of China’s official ethnic minorities, alongside Tibetans and other groups. They were instead categorized as an impoverished subclass of the Han majority, and the government began to move them onshore and put their children in schools.
But the Tanka on their boats remain a people apart, an underclass in the region’s economic boom. A few thousand of them still live on the water across southern China, although precise counts do not exist.
Many of them in Guangdong shuttle between small apartments and their houseboats, which they move up and down the coastal rivers to be near the best fishing.
“Before we could sing the saltwater songs, but very few people know them now — I don’t,” said Tam Wing-keung, 60, a fisherman. But he said fishing was in his bones. “Even if you threatened to kill me, I couldn’t do anything else,” he said. “This is my only skill.”