Boat instrument panel with Horn and Horn button in focus

Classic Hong Kong junks drove Aberdeen’s economy for years: now it’s time to make more space for boats, says District Councillor Paul Zimmerman

“Money can’t buy happiness,” as the song goes, “but it could buy me a boat”. And if Paul Zimmerman’s ambitious harbour extension plan gets the go-ahead, the neglected waterways of Aberdeen could once again be awash with boats, and the jobs and money they bring.

Aberdeen has seen difficult times of late, perhaps best symbolised by the (hopefully temporary) closure of floating landmark Jumbo Kingdom, the last of what used to be dozens of neon-lit floating restaurants serving a thriving community of shipyards, fishing boats, water taxis (sampans, in the vernacular) and leisure craft. The majority of fishing vessels today, the government says, are family-owned and operated but use mainland-hired deck crew; and while Aberdeen is a productive fishing port, less than half of Aberdeen’s workforce now work in the district or at sea. Most shipbuilding or repair is handled by yards in China.

The navigation light of a junk in the southern

Aberdeen has seen its economy shift away from the harbour with new residential projects

Back in 2013, District Councillor Paul Zimmerman created a plan to expand the harbour and bring Aberdeen out of the doldrums. The government squeezed the life out of it. “I put it to the Marine Department – it’s not their responsibility, they keep boats safe but they’re not interested in fighting for increasing the harbour, because they’re not driven by economics,” he says.

Zimmerman touted the plan around Tamar but found doors closed at Transport, Housing, Development (“it’s not land”) and, their last hope, the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau, which Zimmerman says was “singularly focussed on tourism, trade and finance support and, more lately, is taking up Beijing’s call to support the Greater Bay Area and Belt and Road – so they had zero interest in looking at the districts.”

With that, the plan went into a drawer and was all but forgotten.

But in 2019, fresh from his fifth local election victory, Zimmerman was picked as chair of the Southern District Council’s Economic and Development Committee, with a mandate to boost jobs – dovetailing perfectly with a new government “district-led” approach to economic growth.

“The government says it is going to refocus its thinking and look for opportunities within each district and will work with district councils to come up with ideas for growing local jobs,” says Zimmerman. “So, I thought I should put the harbour plan up again. Every district should be digging in their own district for job opportunities.”

Boats equal jobs

The plan itself is simple. “The multiplier is boats,” says Zimmerman. “The more boats we can have, the more jobs we can can have. So we need more sheltered space.”

Map plan of a new harbour proposal, taking out two old breakwaters and adding two new breakwaters further south - map shows Ap Lei Chau, Aberdeen and Ap Lei Poi in Hong Kong

A jobs plan for Aberdeen: shifting two breakwaters could create a huge new sheltered space for boats

The most ambitious of Zimmerman’s three proposals would see two new breakwaters built at the southern tip of Al Lei Pai, on the west, and Ocean Park to the east, and the removal of two existing breakwaters south of Jumbo Kingdom. The plan would create about 5.7 million square feet of new harbour space: a resource that would bring in more boats, more employment, and could even reestablish Hong Kong as a boat-servicing centre again. “A lot of the big work is now done in the yards in China, but the know-how is still available here,” says Zimmerman. “Government willing, there’s a lot of good arguments to put this forward… as far as I’m concerned, every boat in the harbour has a boat boy and a captain, somebody repairing it… while for the super yachts obviously a lot more comes with that.”

Zimmerman says the focus, to start, would not be the huge luxury vessels with their helipads and international attention. “That doesn’t give you a lot of local appeal, that’s just rich people. Why put in a breakwater just for rich people?” he says. “So we’ll focus on the smaller boats, under 50-foot, and if we wanted to make size adjustments later there could be more discussions.”

Zimmerman says boats, water taxis and marine traffic should be at the heart of all new reclamation work, in any case. He says his own group worked hard, for example, to include a marina in the Tung Chung West expansion plan. “If you look closely at the first layout for reclamation, there wasn’t a marina in there,” he says.

“But we suggested that, and we’ll continue to suggest that for every reclamation, because it’s so much easier to do it at the time you’re doing the reclamation rather than later on. So we’re calling for them to always put in a sheltered water area in all these proposed reclamations: Ma Liu Shu, Kwu Tong, Tuen Mun.”

For Aberdeen, the proposals are still at a very early stage, but Zimmerman is committed to the idea as an local economic solution for the town.

“It’s not an immediate job generator,” Zimmerman admits. “But at least you put hope into the market for the people in that area – many of the people who work and live in the area, they and their families have been there for many generations, the harbour really is their local jobs generator.”

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