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Hong Kong’s houseboat community

On 31 December 2018, a unique slice of Hong Kong died when the Discovery Bay Marina Club closed its doors, affecting around 200 expat families with houseboats moored at the facility. Some of those families had been living on the marina for 30 years. It’s a compelling expat story that captured the interest of international media including Time magazine, the Financial Times and Bloomberg. Given only about 100 days to relocate in a city facing a mooring deficit of more than 5,000, many of those families now face dire financial times and the reality of leaving the country.

Needless to say, the Christmas of 2018 was a challenge. But the shining light in the whirlwind of activity was the tight-knit community – one that is, sadly, now dispersed across the region. Some boats remain in Hong Kong; others have relocated to Phuket, Singapore and beyond.

Our Hong Kong editor, Rebecca Simpson, reflects on her time as part of that community.

Marina
Discovery Bay Marina Club

What brought you to Hong Kong and when?

I came to Hong Kong for work over a decade ago. Like so many expats, I came on a 12-month contract with short-term ambitions and yet find myself still here 10 years later. I met the love of my life, another Australian, and we’ve since had two beautiful girls.

How did you come to be part of the DB Marina community?

We bought our boat in 2013, when I was pregnant with our second child. We viewed a few boats and this one immediately connected with us. The space was perfect for our young family.

Joining the marina community was a new era in our Hong Kong story. We transitioned from couple life in the Mid-Levels to family life in Discovery Bay (DB). I wasn’t completely sold on DB at first, but the marina community offered a unique escape from DB life. In hindsight, I’m glad we moved over; it’s been a beautiful place for our children to feel a part of.

Bec Simpson

What is the neighbourhood like beyond the marina?

The marina sat as part of Discovery Bay, a development on Lantau Island. There are two international schools in DB and lots of restaurants along the waterfront, about a 15-minute walk from the marina. The area is really changing. It was a nice little neighbourhood nook of Hong Kong for a long time, but it seems they’re modifying that original feel. It’s much more developed now.

Talk us through some of the logistical challenges of marina life.

I won’t lie, boats do offer another level of complexity to family logistics – especially, for us, when the kids were very small. But our girls are very used to being on board. Families sail across oceans with small children, so life in a marina is very easy in the grand scheme of yachting.

Becs Boat Hong Kong

For each additional logistical challenge, there is a benefit. We have many fond memories of school runs in the dinghy, sunset kayaks and impromptu fishing trips. We’ve seen stingrays as we’ve strolled the docks, met turtles and befriended groupers that come into the marina. We’ve watched birds swoop down and catch fish with their claws and fly away. Nature is amazing and we’ve had a front-row seat.

The experience taught our kids a lot about marina life. They’ve lived through typhoons, and the aftermath of typhoons, and learned about phosphorescent algae as the seasons have changed. It’s a constant teaching moment; we took it for granted at times.

What are the best aspects of life on the water?

The quiet and the community. We could hear fish jump as we lay in bed of a night; it’s a special kind of quiet I don’t think you get anywhere else in Hong Kong. There’s no one renovating or laying pylons in the marina, so it’s a beautiful place to rest without all the white noise the city was constantly throwing at us.

The community has been my highlight. Two hundred lovely families were centred around that piece of infrastructure. Marina life is not for everyone; it attracted a certain type of personality and that made for a beautiful group – I’ll be forever grateful that my children were a part of that. Our neighbours were amazing, we made great friends, and the kids learned to be independent and responsible in a unique environment, surrounded by like-minded adults. It’s a shame the developer never recognised that.

Becs Boat Hong Kong kitchen 2

Tell us a bit about your boat and its interiors.

The boat is similar in size to a village house. It spreads across three decks. Below are three bedrooms, a bathroom and a small play area for the kids. The middle deck is the centre of our family space, with an open kitchen and family area, plus a small balcony. The top deck has an open office space and a TV room that opens to an entertaining deck with a built-in table.

It’s been a great place to host family when they visit. We’ve done Christmas on the boat and lots of family stays. The additional space has allowed us to have guests spend more time with us, rather than staying at hotels.

Becs Boat Hong Kong bedroom

Are there two or three specific pieces in your home that you love most or that have special significance?

I love a modern line and that’s what really sold me on our boat. So much of the furniture and storage is built-in, but it’s a very clean design that can be added to. The teak detailing was also a favourite. Everything from the office desk to the shower block, the wardrobe doors and railings across the boat have a teak accent.

We accessorised with some local favourites, like our beautiful solid eco-teak coffee table from TREE. It’s quintessentially Hong Kong, I’m glad we invested in a functional piece that will also mark our time here if we ever move.

I’m a big fan of stools, both ceramic and soft furnished. They are used for everything in our family, from side tables to bathroom accents to ottomans (read: jumping pontoons), and more. I bought some pretty ceramic ones from Chinese Whisper, who also have a nice range of ginger jars.

Becs Boat Hong Kong lounge room

What’s your favourite spot on the boat?

The kitchen is my favourite spot. Also, my daughter’s bedroom – I would have loved to have that room when I was little! Her room has a raised bed, right next to the portal; it’s so cosy and settling. And the foot of her bed is a teak storage box. Every little girl needs a secret chest to place her most precious possessions.

I remember the first time I stepped on the boat, the kitchen and living room were an immediate nod to an Australian lifestyle I was missing. It was a tiny stab to my heart and made me feel very homesick.

As a new mum, I was yearning for the type of open-plan living that’s common in Australia. I like to cook, and Hong Kong apartments rarely offer an open space between the kitchen and living areas. The boat’s Western-style kitchen and large countertops meant we could socialise and be a functioning family on the kitchen deck. So many good memories in that space.

girls room on boat

With the closure, where to now?

We will remain based in DB. Our girls are young and very settled in a lovely school, so relocating to a new part of Hong Kong wasn’t a reality for us. 2019 will be a more settled year. No more surprises!

Ten years on

In December 2018, Hong Kong was treated to a rare sight, a seemingly endless procession of DB boats through Victoria Harbour. Those working in the city’s famed high rises or strolling along the Harbourfront would often catch another DB boat, dwarfed by the skyline and larger working vessels, on its journey to a new mooring or to be placed in storage.

Among the expat families on the move were the Hendersons. They took the opportunity to capture their journey and mark the end of a chapter in their Hong Kong story, by referencing a photo taken during the delivery of their boat in 2009 and recreating that image almost a decade later.

See more in our home section

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This article first appeared in the February/March 2019 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.