Inter-island Festival 2023: A Tango with Kaito – a love triangle between kaito, island and humans (English caption)


“Kaitos’ are junks serving the local passenger transport needs of the relatively remote parts of Hong Kong, especially in the New Territories and the outlying islands where demand does not justify the more conventional means of public transport or which are unreachable by other means of transport.”

Transport Department 1983 document

“‘Kaito’, ‘kaito’ – that’s the kai-fong ferry.”

Uncle Bin, Chuen Kee Ferry

“Kaito” does not refer to a specific type of boat, but is a manifestation of the colonial government’s administrative approach to integrate and coordinate the autonomy of local Chinese society. In 1979, there were 40 regular kaito routes in Hong Kong, according to the statistics published by the Marine Affairs Department that year. Unlike the major ferry services that orient people towards the city centre, kaito connects villages, market towns, factories and the city, spread out like a constellation upon the waters around Victoria Harbour. The kaito flourishes in the coastal communities, carrying not only people but also livestock, farm and fishery produce, industrial raw materials and products; some are operated by the local boat people, some by villagers or local organisations, some are tendered or managed by the main temple association or the rural committee. The frequency and stops vary according to the local population and livelihood. In the post-war years, kaitos reached almost every coast on Lantau Island and the nearby islands that was suitable for farming and fishing, including many headlands that are deserted nowadays. 

For example, Chek Lap Kok, Tai Long Wan and Yi Long Wan (now Sea Ranch) in Chi Ma Wan, the coastal area of Tsing Chau Tsai Peninsula from Ta Pang Po to Pa Tau Kwu on Lantau Island, and Tai A Chau and Siu A Chau to the south of Cheung Chau, were all once inhabited.

Peng Chau began to further industrialize after the war. Other than the islanders, workers took the kaito from the city to work in Peng Chau. The external transport in Peng Chau t has always been managed by the Kaifong Association (the later Rural Committee), who offered the business to the highest bidder; profits were used to maintain the power plant, street lights, village guards, scavenging coolies, etc. 

(Overseas Chinese Daily News. “Peng Chau Kai To Bidding Buzz.” December 21, 1968.)

In the 1970s, over a hundred villagers resided in Tai A Chau where a school was built. In 1978, the villagers raised HK$65,000 to buy a modified kaito to travel to and fro Cheung Chau. Tai A Chau was later acquired by a big corporation, and a temporary detention centre for boat people was built. It is now uninhabited.

A Small Island in Southwest Hong Kong: Remote and Desolate Tai A Chau. Subheading:
A new kaito began operation yesterday, improving external transport

 (The Kung Sheung Evening News: May 15, 1978.)

(Overseas Chinese Daily News. “Peng Chau Kai To Bidding Buzz.” December 21, 1968.)

Kaito became a vital form of transport for islanders, taking workers to factories and construction sites and city dwellers to the countryside for fresher air. Some of these sites included the Ng Fuk Black Lead Mining Co. on Mo To Chau, Cheoy Lee Shipyards in Penny Bay, the matches, cowhide and steel pipe factories in Peng Chau, as well as the large-scale development projects after the 1980s, including Tai Pak/Discovery Bay, Ma Wan/Park Island, Chek Lap Kok/Hong Kong International Airport. Industrialisation also means more demand for leisure and entertainment, attracting more tourists. Weekend tourists to the islands crammed onto the kaitos that normally served the few local residents, causing sailing risks. The most severe accident happened in 1974, when the 14-year-old son of a boatman picked up tourists from Ma Liu Shui with a renovated kaito which capsized, causing three deaths. The tragedy prompted the government to regulate kaitos. The condition and capacity of a kaito had to be certified by the Marine Department. Since July 1983, kaito operators had to apply for an operation license from the Transport Department. 

Tai Kung Pao, February 25, 1974.

Tragedy Yesterday in Waters Near Ma On Shan. Sudden Rupture of Kaito Capsized, Causing 3 Deaths and 16 Injuries.

Tugboat and other kaitos rescued four dozens

(Overseas Chinese Daily News. “Peng Chau Kai To Bidding Buzz.” December 21, 1968.)

Kaito Lines

Shau Ki Wan Area (Regular)

Cheung Chau Area (Regular)

Cheung Chau Area (Irregular)

Aberdeen Area (Regular)

Yau Ma Tei Area (Regular)

Castle Peak Area (Regular)

Castle Peak Area (Irregular)

Tai Po Area (Regular)

Tai Po Area (Irregular)

Sai Kung Area (Regular)

The above only includes regular services and some irregular kaitos, and does not include the 79 irregular kaitos in Sai Kung District.

#  Kaito routes that still exist, the stops slightly varying.
8 The number indicates the passenger capacity of the vessel.

Circle Irregular routes travelling in the Bay Area


“Locals who operate kaitos do it for a living, but there is more of a human touch here. As a kai-fong business, we have to be more meticulous, more careful with the elderly.”

– Wong Hon-kuen, Peng Chau Kai To Operator

During the time when fishing and industries flourished, the Peng Chau bay was far livelier than it is today. Aside from an assortment of fishing boats, there were cargo boats commonly referred to as “Big Eyed Chicken”, as well as countless ”scrapers boats” and sampans. In the 19th century, the Hang Yick Kaito mainly travelled between Tsuen Wan, Cheung Chau, Hong Kong and Kowloon; Tai Shun Kaito and Sheng Hing Kaito headed to Chan Tsuen and Tai Ping via Pearl River. At the beginning of the 20th century, more kaitos joined the fleet, including Li Hang, Tak Sang, Luen Wo, Kung Wo, Tai Yau, and the subsequent Tai Hing, connecting Hong Kong Island and Peng Chau. Between 1938 to 1939, Yaumati Ferry added the new outlying island routes, including the Peng Chau-Mui Wo-Cheung Chau route. It was not until 1949 that direct routes were set up. Before the pier was built in 1954, vessels with deep drafts had to rely on connecting boats to pick up cargo and passengers. The residents of surrounding islands mostly travelled to Ping Chau by private boats in the early days. 

Among the routes currently running between Peng Chau and Lantau Island, only Peng Chau Kaito operated by the Wong family can be considered as the real “kai-fong ferry.” Brothers Wong Hon-kuen and Wong For-chun grew up on the kaito with their parents. They would carry a denim bag and help collect the fare, and later learned to drive the kaito on their own. The Wongs have served the islanders for 40 years. In the 1960s, Mother  Wong transported cargo with a sampan from large ships in Peng Chau. Later, she bought a fishing boat, and converted it into a kaito, carrying cargo in the bow and people in the stern. Old kaitos were usually modified by their owners or built by experienced shipbuilders. They were then inspected by officials of the Transport Department, who would measure the vessel’s capacity and inclination on the sea surface, and set a limit to the number of passengers each could carry. In the 1960s, Peng Chau Kaito measured only 40 to 50 feet, carrying 20 to 30 people at the maximum. Each ride cost 50 cents. Aside from the regular farming products, it also transported milk to the local confectionery stores and cha chaan tengs,  and to the city via Yaumati Ferry in an ice box. Mother Wong also drove another kaito under the name of Our Lady of Joy Abbey (then known as Trappist Haven Monastery) not only to transport milk but also to pick up the clergy and islanders.

Peng Chau in the past used to have lime kiln factories, match factories, steel pipe factories, furniture factories, etc., making it an important industrial town which provided employment to villagers from the other shores. In the late 1970s, the construction of Discovery Bay began, resulting in more than a thousand workers commuting back and forth Peng Chau every day. The old kaitos could no longer meet the demand, so the Wongs purchased ferries. In the late 1980s, the outlying islands slowly transformed from manufacturing bases to leisure destinations. Without farmlands, factories and ranches, the only passengers were the holiday tourists. The three operating ferries of Peng Chau Kaito can each carry 200 passengers, but as there were only around 500 tourists during the weekends, in 2018, the Tai Shui Hang route was terminated. Only the Peng Chau-Discovery Bay-Mui Wo route, known by the islanders as the “student boat”, continues to serve the students, residents and tourists commuting between the islands.

Inter-Island, Island within lsland (Panel C)

“Of course Peng Chau is closer!” said the villagers of Tai Bak and Lim Shu Bay unanimously. 

From the left: Tai Shui Hang, Cheung Sha Lan, Nim Shue Wan. Tai Bak (today’s Discovery Bay) is behind the mountain on the right. Peng Chau used to be the economic centre of the villages here. (Wei, Kit-ling. Tung Wan, Peng Chau 坪洲東灣. Photograph. Hong Kong, 1959. University of Hong Kong Libraries. Special Collections.)

City dwellers often use g words like “small” or “detached/outlying” to describe islands. Modern maps portray the land and sea masses with the bird’s eye view. Islands are therefore seen as independent entities, their relations overlooked. Being surrounded by the sea is actually an advantage of islands: Roads only lead to fixed points, but boats can reach endless destinations. 

Lantau Island is almost twice the size of Hong Kong Island, covering an area of 142.2 square kilometres. To connect the coastal communities round and about the islands, boats are the most versatile. Apart from indigenous villagers, asylum seekers sought refuge in the coastal areas such as Lantau Island, Peng Chau and other islands during the post-war years, living by lumbering, farming, fishing or shepherding with limited resources, exchanging goods when needed.

The terrestrial spatial imagination sees the ocean as a barrier or an empty space. Islands surrounding the northern waters of Lantau Island like Peng Chau and Cheung Chau, though unnamed, exchanges between humans and nonhumans have been ongoing. They can be divided into two categories: 


Tai Bak, 1958.
Ng, Bar Ling. Tai Pak Wan Tsuen, Lantau Island. Photograph. Hong Kong, 1958. University of Hong Kong Libraries. Special Collections.

Tai Bak villagers and their children with Wing Lee Grocery paper bags after replenishing supplies in Peng Chau. The journey home via the kaito powered by an oarsman took about an hour, still more convenient than the rugged mountain route to Mui Wo. (Photo provided by Tai Pak Fellows Fa Paau Association. Year unknown.)

Today’s inter-island ferries circulate between Peng Chau, Mui Wo and Cheung Chau. However, the triangle relationship between the coastal communities began way earlier. Densely populated historical Cheung Chau established itself as the main market town of the area, followed by Peng Chau. The commute from Chi Ma Wan or Tai Bak to Mui Wo via the mountain route would be like commuting from Kennedy Town to North Point. Therefore, villages in these areas all rely on the island on the opposite shore as the economic and transiting point: Villagers of Shui Hau, Pui O, Shap Long, Man Kok Tsui, as well as Tai A Chau would take the ferry to Cheung Chau, while those of Kau Shat Wan, Tai Shui Hang, Cheung Sha Lan, Nim Shue Wan, Penny’s Bay (Cheoy Lee Shipyards), Tai Pak as well as Hei Ling Chau head towards Peng Chau. Vegetable and fish products, fumigated boats and mountain herbs are all unloaded and sold on these two islands. Surrounded by water of higher salinity, Cheung Chau had for a while after the war still relied on ferries to purchase water from Lantau Island and exported “night soil”, giving back to vegetable fields on the other shore, extending the farming technology and production and marketing networks to Peng Chau. Mountain water and well water aside, the feng shui between islands are also smoothly connected like a thread of water flow. According to myths, the chimney of the lime kiln factory on Nai Gu Island (now  Hei Ling Chau)= erected before the war led to the mysterious deaths of the men of Shap Long village. There was also a saying that the mountain waters of Tai Shui Hang threatened Peng Chau. After the establishment of Our Lady of Joy Abbey, which stopped the water flow, Peng Chau’s feng shui began to thrive and things then began to change. Today, Discovery Bay has become Peng Chau’s closest town. Many students attend Wai Lun School or transfer to Tung Chung by bus, while adult villagers mostly work in the service industry. 

Island Within Island

Close to the Pearl River Delta, the historical market town Tai O has been connected to Castle Peak and Hong Kong Island via ferry since the early 20th century, and is the economic centre of Shan Shek Wan, Sham Wat, Yi O and Fan Lau Village, connected by water. (Hong Kong Government Records HKRS1138-17-6)

The Tin Hau statue, relocated from Tung Fook Tong in Tak Bak Village to Peng Chau, protects the villagers on land and sea to this day.

Boats became the main mode of transport to access remote coastal communities on the same island, which are like “islands within island.” For example, Tai O and Mui Wo each have kaitos travelling back and forth the city, and their economic networks and social organisations rarely overlap. Even small islands like Cheung Chau, Da Kai and Sai Wan are connected by kaitos. In 1952, Nai Gu Island was designated as the Hei Ling Chau leper colony. Villagers thus had to move to Tai Pak, Shap Long and Ngau Kwu Long on Lantau Island. Later on, Tai Pak was rebuilt into Discovery Bay, and Tai Pak villagers again moved to Peng Chau, near the Tung Wan area. To this day, the Peng Chau Rural Committee still keeps the seats of Tai Pak, Nim Shue Wan and Cheung Sha Lan. The so-called “island within island” refers to the separate communities on the island, as well as clans or communities that have migrated to other islands. 

“Opportunity knocks but once”: Boats are like a portal that mediates the openness and closure of an island. Modern city planning inserts repulsive facilities on the islands and at the same time shapes them into a paradise on earth. Heaven or hell, it is still out of bounds.  On the one hand, facilities such as the Chi Ma Wan Correctional Institution, Kau Shat Wan Government Explosives Depot, Penny’s Bay, Tai A Chau Detention Centre and Hei Ling Chau Correctional Institution are inaccessible to the general public. On the other hand, Disneyland, Discovery Bay and Sea Ranch are consumer’s heaven. Sometimes the “island within island” is experienced during special time periods. For instance, even though Tai O can be accessed by land, the tourist-packed buses still deter islanders from travelling during the weekends, making them feel stranded on the islands. 

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