Night at the Typhoon Shelter

On a pleasantly warm evening last November, my thoughts wandered over to the nighttime activity at the Sai Wan pier and I wondered if the same sort of thing happened at the nearest bit of waterfront to my apartment, the New Yau Ma Tei Typhoon Shelter. I grabbed my camera, stepped out of the door, and twenty-five minutes later — after walking through the crowded streets of Mongkok, over a series of footbridges and past the gigantic housing estates near Olympic MTR station — I reached the water.

A couple of dozen people milled about. There were teenagers sitting by the water’s edge, legs dangling off the concrete seawall. Middle-aged couples strolled hand-in-hand down the waterfront promenade. A few elderly people swung their arms, walking backwards, doing strange old-people exercises. Next to the water’s edge were a few small boats, their engines running, operators sitting onboard, killing time. Every so often, one of the boats would leave the typhoon shelter and return with a single passenger.

The New Yau Ma Tei Typhoon Shelter seems a poor heir to the sensational legacy of its predecessor. First opened in 1916, the Yau Ma Tei Typhoon Shelter was designed to protect Kowloon’s fishing boats from heavy summer waves, but it also sheltered a thriving community of Tanka people, who had made their livings in the coastal seas of South China for generations. They had their own language, their own food and their own wedding rituals, all of which, naturally enough, were centred around the sea. For centuries, they were considered non-Chinese barbarians by land-dwellers, and it wasn’t until 1731 that the Chinese emperor emancipated them from this status. But they still suffered discrimination whenever they set foot on land, so they continued to live most of their lives at sea.

The Tanka community in Yau Ma Tei thrived for most of the twentieth century, but as local fishing stocks declined, life became increasingly difficult. The typhoon shelter’s waters were atrociously polluted (there was no garbage collection and waste from the boats was dumped directly into the sea) and the boat-dwellers had limited access to health care and education. By the 1950s, the boat dwellers had turned their attention towards land, and the typhoon shelter became a destination for the hungry and the debauched — boats were converted into seafood restaurants, brothels, casinos and drug dens in the 1950s. The population of boat-dwellers swelled, and by the 1970s, there were more than 2,000 houseboats in the Yau Ma Tei shelter.

Yau Ma Tei Typhoon Shelter in the mid-1970s


With the 1980s came a push to resettle the boat-dwellers on land, part of a larger drive to eliminate the many shantytowns and informal settlements that had emerged around Hong Kong. Today, only a small handful of people still live in the typhoon shelters. The Yau Ma Tei Typhoon Shelter ceased to exist in 1990, when it was filled in to create land for a highway and rail line leading to the new Chep Lap Kok Airport. The teeming life of the floating village has been replaced by a rather uninspiring collection of housing estates (which you can see for yourself on Street View).

The new typhoon shelter is used primarily by out-of-service ferries and boats that unload cargo from container ships. Unlike the old typhoon shelter, whose presence dominated the waterfront neighbourhoods of Yau Ma Tei, Mongkok and Tai Kok Tsui, the new one is cut off from the city by the expressway and rail line, out of sight and out of mind, except for the few who still visit on warm evenings to sit by the water and gaze at the reflection of the city beyond.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Saturday February 05 2011at 01:02 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, History, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

2 Responses to “Night at the Typhoon Shelter”

  • JC says:

    My opinion on what could be done would be to reclaim part of the shelter, recreate the old harbour front of Central with neo-colonial building on the waterfront with retail space. Have a boardwalk that connects to the soon-to-be WKCD. Would be a nice walk. WOuld probably imply redesigning the shelter to extend the sea vista, as they did in Dubai.

    Might be too ‘fake’ for the purists.

  • It would be a pretty nice place for a promenade lined by restaurants and different types of small buildings, wouldn’t it? Cheung Chau in Kowloon. But I’m not too fond of the idea of replicating any old structures from Central. That’s a recipe for ending up with stuff like the new Central Pier, which is meant to evoke the original 19th century pier but ends up looking like something you’d find in a heritage-themed strip mall in the North American suburbs.