When I was in Hong Kong for a day in early May, as usual I went on my idea of hot date – hanging out in a bookshop, and somehow found myself losing most of an afternoon in a book I no longer remember the title of (I think it might have been Reluctant Heroes: Richshaw Pullers in Hong Kong And Canton, 1874-1954, but have a feeling it was a female author) a history of rickshaw workers in Guangdong and Hong Kong from the late 19th Century until they were banned by the Communists in 1949 and replaced by the still-ubiquitous three-wheeled bicycles-utes.
Amidst the transfixing socio-political life of the pullers, alone reason enough for me to should have bought the book, were a quite startling series of photographs of Guangzhou across the Pearl River to Shamian Island and downstream. Today this tributary has little traffic besides the hallucinogenic tourist cattle-boats and the low-slung blue barges, but in these old pictures, the river was congested to choking with small wooden boats, structurally almost ancestors of the modern industrial scows. It took a couple of weeks to find out from one of my performers the residents of the boats were called Tanka or Danjia (a discussion on the various names in Chinese, some perjorative – 蜑家, 蛋家, 艇家, or 水上人), who once lived their whole lives on rivers from Chaozhou in western Guangdong down to Vietnam.
I stumbled across this forum post 水上人家 a couple of days ago. I’m not sure if these are the same people, but nonetheless, beautiful photos of people living on the river of whom there are now very few.