The Tanka people (蜑家 daan6gaa1) or Boat Dwellers


“The Tanka are among the earliest of the region’s inhabitants. They call themselves ‘Sui Seung Yan’, signifying ‘those born on the waters’; for they have been a population afloat as far back as men can remember — their craft jostle each other most closely in the fishing port.”[1]





Origins and lifestyle

The Tanka people (蜑家 daan6gaa1), or boat dwellers, are an ethnic group of Southern China who have traditionally lived on junks, shrimp boats or sampans in coastal parts of Guangdong, Guangxi, Fujian, Hainan, and Zhejiang provinces, as well as in Macau and Hong Kong. The term ‘Tanka’, although most widely used, is considered derogatory, and is not used by the community itself but by shore-dwellers for the community; preferred terms include 水上人 seoi2seong6 jan4 ‘on-water people > people of the water’ (preferred by the Tanka), or南海人 naam1 hoi2 jan4 ‘people of the southern sea’, or in scholarly treatments, ‘boat dwellers’.[2]

The Tanka are amongst the earliest inhabitants of Hong Kong, accepted as having been here since prehistoric times.[3] Most scholarship postulate that the Tanka’s origins lie in the Yue people (a term that refers to all barbarians or aboriginals of southern China) who inhabited Hong Kong in Neolithic times, before the Han Chinese moved in; other accounts describe the Tanka as a Yao tribe, or mixed descendants of Mongols. Constantly facing political, social, and economic discrimination, the Tanka were traditionally not recognised as part of Hong Kong by the Chinese government – classified as being of the mean class (beijian zhi liu) in Qing Dynasty edicts (1729), the Tanka were not allowed to settle on shore – and oppression from the British colonial government in the 1950s involved plans to destroy their stilt homes of the Tanka people.

The Tanka historically have lived on small boats grouped together to form colonies, inhabiting fishing towns, and managing the commerce of the sea, in the roles of fishermen, longshoremen, coolies, and coxswains. In Hong Kong, they were traditionally found in Aberdeen on the southwest of Hong Kong Island, Shau Kei Wan on the northeast of Hong Kong Island, Tai O on the northwest of Lantau Island, and the island of Cheung Chau, and typhoon shelters in the harbour areas. In the middle of the 20th century, some 200,000 were anchored in Hong Kong. Their boats, 7m in length, and rowed by the Tanka women, are also called tankas (or tankias). In the village of Tai O, some 300 years ago, the Tanka built stilt houses over the tidal flats, not being comfortable about settling on land.

Historically considered the lowest of classes of the Chinese and outcasts, the Tanka did not intermarry with other Chinese. Tanka women in the prostitution industry is much noted, their catering to the foreigners during British rule, and gaining the reputation of  ham sui mui  ‘salt water girls’.

Their peculiar origins, their exclusion from mainstream — indeed, onshore – political, economic and social life and culture, in particular association with Han Chinese, meant that the Tanka continued as a group unto itself, preserving their own customs and practices, which also includes their linguistic practices.


The Tanka language

The Tanka language spoken in Hong Kong is considered a sub-dialect of Yue Chinese. Because the Tanka are traditionally involved in the fishing industry, it is hardly surprising that their language encompasses special terms – as well as world views – related specifically to fishing or more generally to the sea, which are not known or understood by the majority HK Cantonese speakers.

The Tanka term 邪氣 ce4 hei3 ‘evil air’ is a waterspout 海龍捲; Tanka 針 zam1 ‘needle’ refers to the tail of a waterspout海龍捲尾; and 開saang1 in hoi1 saang1 is a boat’s sail開船.[4]

A traditional song sung of the Tanka community is 鹹水歌 haam4seoi2 go1 ‘sea water song’, whose lyrics are intelligible only to the Tanka community, is sung on different occasions such as wedding ceremonies, friends’ gatherings and fishing (e.g. to classify different kinds of fish). It was particularly important to sing it at wedding ceremonies, and those who delivered their compliments by means of this song would be considered to be exhibiting genuine sincerity.[5]


“牙帶出身 游曬白肚”


“黃花出水 頭帶金銀”

“立錐出身 游作個竇”



Largehead hairtail becomes white in color after death,

Yellow croaker has a golden yellow head,

Moray eel makes a shelter, when it gets older,

Weather loach ties itself when it is in danger.’


Contemporary linguistic challenges


Urbanization, mobility. In the past, the Tanka community was small, closed, and tightly-knit, with immediate and extended family and community living in close quarters, on boats moored together or in small villages. Network ties were dense and multiplex, and language and culture was maintained, certainly carrying some sense of solidarity. While some Tanka still live on traditional fishing junks, most of the younger generation have moved away from the traditional communities, relocating onshore and living in more urbanised areas, for access to modern amenities and better job opportunities. Such a splintering of the community does not support the maintenance of the language.

Traditional livelihood. Much of the language developed around the ecology and practice of fishing. With such small-scale family-run fishing industry practically obsolete, and with the young generation not continuing in their grandparents’ and parents’ line of work, such specialised vocabulary and discourse – and the knowledge associated with them – serve little purpose, and start being lost from the community’s repertoire.

New economy. Some older generation Tanka continue working in a similar context, for instance, on a sightseeing sampan in Aberdeen or as a tour guide in Tai O. While this may keep them in a similar or related industry and ecology, language shift does occur, in particular to English, for better communication with tourists, and specialised Tanka vocabulary and song genres are not practised.

Attitudes. Most Tanka have a less than positive view of the Tanka culture and language. With the community having been discriminated against in the past, a loss of the language and the associated identity as Tanka is not regarded with regret. Community members also feel that speaking in the Tanka language and singing Tanka songs, such as the Sea Water Song, are practices that are as old-fashioned and outdated, and refuse to do so, even if they may still like their songs.


Further resources

Ho Wing Lun Vienna, Carrie Lam Ka Yee, Jerome Ng Tik Lun and Phyllis Wong Wing Sui. 2010. The Tanka community. LCOM3001 Cultural dimensions of language and communication project, School of English, The University of Hong Kong.

Rogge, Michael. 1980. Hong Kong: the life of a boy in 1980.

[1] Martin Hürlimann (1962) Hong Kong. Viking Press. p. 17.

[2] The term ‘boat dwellers’ was proposed by Dr. Lee Ho Yin of The University of Hong Kong in 1999, and it has been adopted by the Hong Kong Museum of History for its permanent exhibition.

[3] Grolier Incorporated (1999) The Encyclopaedia Americana, Vol. 14. Grolier Incorporated. p. 474

[4] Ho Wing Lun Vienna, Carrie Lam Ka Yee, Jerome Ng Tik Lun and Phyllis Wong Wing Sui. 2010. The Tanka community. LCOM3001 Cultural dimensions of language and communication project, School of English, The University of Hong Kong.

[5] Ho Wing Lun Vienna, Carrie Lam Ka Yee, Jerome Ng Tik Lun and Phyllis Wong Wing Sui. 2010. The Tanka community. LCOM3001 Cultural dimensions of language and communication project, School of English, The University of Hong Kong.