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Humans of Hong Kong: Coming out of your shell with Chan To-ngan, oyster farmer

By Tommy Yu 20 February 2023

For hundreds of years, oyster farming has been a cornerstone of Hong Kong heritage. Deep Bay is the locale of choice for this industry, its waters uniquely suited to oyster seed growth, but the trade’s heyday has waned in the face of rapid urbanisation and environmental negligence. Chan To-ngan, lovingly referred to as Cheong Sou, is the matriarch of one of the only remaining oyster farms in Hong Kong. Join us as she fills us in on the trials and tribulations of cultivating the sensitive bivalves we know and love.

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“According to some old oyster farmer, my great-grandfather was hit by a storm when he was shipping roof tiles to Foshan, and he threw the tiles into the water. Afterwards, when he lifted his shipment from the sea bottom, he found oysters, and that’s how our family business started. Like my great-grandfather, my father and brother also eked out a living from this trade. We picked oysters, hammered them open, and removed the shucks.

“I heard from my parents that during the war, oysters helped and saved many lives. The oysters that year were very plump. [People at that time] had nothing to eat, so everyone ate oysters. You don’t need to care much about them, and they will grow on their own.

“I never thought about leaving this trade. I worked in the city for a year, and I hated being under other people. I must do what I am most capable at—oyster farming. Oyster farming is an obsession. I don’t understand its magic but I still love doing this business a lot.”

Photo: Chris Yau

“I had a deep connection to oyster farming. As a kid, I followed the adults and travelled out to sea, coming back home only once a month. I was always operating a vessel. I didn’t know how to sew, but I had a strong passion for everything nautical.

“Back then, before I was married, people had two career paths—agriculture or oyster farming. I didn’t want to be a farmhand. I knew that I would never marry a farmer. I thought I would rather be alone if I couldn’t find an oyster farmer. Did you know that oysters are a must-have for weddings? No matter when the ceremony is held, everyone in the family must have oysters, either to celebrate Chinese New Year or as wedding gifts.

“We string together the biggest oysters to make an oyster ring. It has to be done beautifully. We used red paper to wrap it up, but nowadays we use floral paper. Walled villagers order them from me. Not many people know how to ‘twist’ the string. It’s a shame that no one is making these anymore. And it’s hard to find the bamboo stick to make the oyster ring.”

“We rely on nature’s bounty for food. Nothing we can do to change its course. You can only prepare the worst when there’s bad weather, and try your best to secure the oyster rafts. We cannot estimate heaven’s power. We can do nothing against nature.

“We’re most scared of the storm on the third day of the eighth lunar month. One year, we had a severe storm, and all the oysters died. My children were very small, and my parents-in-law were old. The anvil of responsibility was parked on me and my husband.

“I ended up working as a plasterer. All the oysters were gone. What else could we do to support the family? I could only do plasterwork. I worked hard to learn the trade. My boss praised me and wanted me to stay but I said no. I had to go back to farming oysters.

“One day, my husband and I carried buckets of oysters to Aberdeen for sale. On our way home, we took the MTR but the passengers could not bear the stink and pinched their noses at us. I thought, ‘We don’t steal. We don’t rob. We work hard, and I don’t care whether you love the smell or not.’ I have a resolution, that is, a resolution to myself.”

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Photo: Chris Yau

“Tai Po, Tsuen Wan, Tung Chung—there are many outlying islands around Hong Kong, regardless of their sizes. But only Lau Fau Shan has water that is suitable for growing oysters. Oysters can feed, live, and procreate here in this area on their own.

“I want to continue and preserve this trade. Our history is exceptionally long—I don’t want it to disappear. If the government auctions off this swathe of land to the developers, then our culture will be lost. We’ve still got old oyster farmers to pass down the knowledge to younger people, but we’re past 70. At 80, we cannot teach oyster farming. You cannot learn how to arrange the oyster rafts from a textbook. It has to be taught by someone with experience.

“I especially want to keep the houses built with oyster shells. It’s where my great-grandfather lived. I also want to keep the oyster rafts so future generations can understand our history. But Hong Kong needs land. You can’t stop young people from building their homes here. My children are slowly taking up the mantle of this trade but technical mastery requires experience. Only time will tell whether they can master the tricks of the trade.”

Photo: Chris Yau

“Before the twenty-third day of the third lunar month, there must be a few storms. You can’t avoid them. After Chinese New Year, I’ll check the rainfall. If it rains later than usual, I’ll keep that in mind. I check the water on the shore every morning.

“One time, we ended up in the middle of the storm; the boat struck a rock, and soon it sunk halfway into the water. We immediately threw everything off the boat; we just threw all our products out. Another time, my children were helping out on the boat but they were quite small so my husband looked after them. It was the second lunar month, and the spring drizzle quickly turned into a big storm. My husband insisted on plying to the deeper water. 

“Even though it was sunny, I could tell a storm was on the horizon. I said, ‘No! A storm is coming. We can’t cross the water.’ My husband said, ‘Don’t worry! We can cross the region before the storm hits after passing the deepest waters there.’ And I said, ‘No! We must turn around!’ He didn’t listen and carried on to deep waters. I said, ‘If we were to die here, our son and daughter and their mother will die first!’ At that time, I was so scared that I sobbed. He’s got big balls, I don’t. I am fierce on the outside, but timid on the inside. So I carried my son and daughter in my arms, and yelled at him, ‘Turn around! The water is really, really rough, and the boat is tossing. If this were to happen in deep water, the boat would capsize with two children aboard. My husband can rescue our son and daughter, but can he rescue me?’ And just like that, we steered around a big trial in our lives.”

Photo: Chris Yau

“I always feel inferior. I can’t read or write, and it is humiliating. I work extremely hard to make up for that. If I need to write down people’s last names, like ‘毛’ (mou4; “feather”), I will draw a hair on the head. My phone book is full of drawings. If I need to write ‘楊’ (yeung4), I will draw the head of a sheep (羊, which sounds similar to 楊). If I need to write ‘朱’ (jyu1), I will draw the head of a pig (豬, which sounds the same as 朱). When I need to specify the size of the oysters, I use stars, circles, crosses. For the contacts of my friends and relatives, I must find a way to understand them, so I’ll add alphabets. I work around things.

“[If I weren’t an oyster farmer,] I would have been a manual labourer. Can you name other jobs that an illiterate person can do? Only labour.”

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Photo: Chris Yau

“I think the toughest time for me was when my eldest daughter was born. She came into this world, and we had no money, not even HK$20. We had just moved to Hong Kong from the China mainland, and it was a really hard time for us. It was difficult to make a living at the time. But my children were good and they listened to me. I didn’t spend much time with my kids—they went to school and cooked food by themselves.

“It’s a motherly responsibility. I really want to dedicate myself to my children, and I often feel like I owe them something. When they were young, I was working, and didn’t spend time nurturing them. I didn’t provide much help in their study, either. I admit my negligence.

“When I go to the hospital, I see students who are becoming doctors. I really envy their mothers, since they can provide for their children to go to university. They must have been smart and successful too. I admire people who are good at studying. I tried my best, but I still couldn’t send all my children to university. But while I was working, I thought about my daughter entering university, and I felt really happy. Even if I could afford to buy a house, I wouldn’t feel as happy as sending my children to university.”

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Tommy Yu


​​A free, intuitive, and mischievous spirit, Tommy loves travelling, fortune-telling, any kind of arts, or paranormal stuff. You will find him binge-watching every episode of Kangsi Coming, improvising a few lines from Wong Kar-wai movies, or finally getting someone’s zodiac sign right after guessing it wrong for the eleventh time.