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What is Sampan in Hong Kong?

Tags: Hong Kong tours

Sampan refers to a type of watercraft rather resembling a punt. It is mostly found in Hong Kong, but also seen on waterways in mainland China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Bangladesh and other places in Southeast Asia.


The term “Sampan” derived from the Cantonese word “三板”, which pronounces Sam Ban and literally means “three planks”, pretty much explaining the structure of the watercraft. It comprises of a flat plank at the bottom, conjoining two planks on each side. The watercraft is usually 3 to 5 meters long. This plain structure drastically reduces the vessel’s weight, making it very easy to be steered and perfect for short-distance commuting, conveying light goods and shuttling among busy, crowded docks and shallow-water area.


As is probably well-known, Hong Kong (learn more via guide of Hong Kong travel) is a coastal city used to depend heavily on fishery before it became one of the major financial centers in Asia. In the 1960s and 70s, tens of thousands fishermen were fishing far out at the ocean, making one of Hong Kong’s supporting economical pillars. So as to save fuel costs, the fishing boats basically only came back to shore once a month, Sampan has arisen to be the most advantageous form of transportation under this backdrop. Every day, before dawn, fishes would be wrapped with ice and delivered to the morning markets ashore by Sampan.


Over time, Sampan became the major habitation for most of the fishermen and their families even when they were not out on the ocean, with of course simple shelters and reinforcements added on top and inside the Sampans. In the heydays, couples hundreds of Sampans were parked along the dock so tightly that people could just jump around from one onto another. Mini stores selling appliances, household utensil, vegetables, fruits and other necessities were set up on certain Sampans, therefore the fishermen families were generally forming their own society on the water and this was one of the most characteristic scenes of that age.


As time changes, the number of fishermen is inevitably dropping radically, so is Sampan’s significance, despite the fact that today’s Sampans are motor-propelled and much more well-equipped, contrary to the ones propelled by poles and oars in the past. The local government is endeavoring to preserve this unique feature of Hong Kong, by handing out special allowance to fishermen and including Sampan rides in history classes to school children. Nowadays more and more vacant Sampans are for hire or featured in tourist itinerary.

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