Mr Fan

Fan Kwei Sum, or Mr Fan to wooden boat owners in Hong Kong, was born in Canton not long before his family moved to Hong Kong in 1936. His father set up a slipway in Stanley and, with three generations of shipwrights before him, became a noted builder of fishing boats on Hong Kong Island.

Then came the Japanese occupation and the yard’s use for military purposes. The Fans moved back to China but returned after the war to continue business with their first pleasure junks delivered in the 1950s. The yard built some 24 pleasure junks that were exported to San Francisco and Miami in the US.

Back in January 1988, Fragrant Harbour featured Mr Fan’s operation in a two-page article, with references to the Tahiti ketch, Atoll, built in the yard, various pleasure junks, and renovation work on Graeme Large’s Mystic Islander sloop, Ariki III, and local sampan.

Since then, nearly three decades have passed and Mr Fan is still working, not much in the Fan Lam Kee yard in Stanley, but more on location. He is now 85 years old, yet manages to travel to Sai Kung and Discovery Bay to work on wooden boats like Koala. He is also busy with the restoration of an L class dinghy, My Belle (L6), in the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, Central. This has taken a month or so and will earn him HK$80,000.

Mr Fan is amazingly active for his age, and can rightly be considered a living treasure, respected for his work and contribution to pleasure boating in Hong Kong. He is also a keen historian and has many stories to tell about the south side of the island and the notorious Chui Ah-po (The cave, FH January 1993).

Probably Mr Fan’s biggest concern — as it was back in 1998 — is the availability of good workers. A carpenter is now asking HK$1,300 a day, he says, and expects meals to be included. Both Labour and Immigration Departments are very strict and are no help when it comes to importing foreign labour – sadly, a complaint heard from many local businesses. “If you advertise for a University graduate,” he says, “you get 10,000 applications. But if you advertise for a carpenter, you are lucky to get even one reply.”

Other costs have risen. In our January 1988 article, we reported teak costing HK$200 a cubic foot – now, Mr Fan says, it’s hard to even find teak and, if you do, you’ll be paying around HK$1,000 for the same cubic foot! Consequently, he uses mainly yakal and marine ply these days.

One area where Mr Fan is enjoying some respite is his yard. For now, the government is unlikely to take it away from him. They have invested too much in the area around him, he says, and he gets away with paying HK$200 a day. By the way, when his father started Fan Lam Kee Junk Builder, the cost was HK$100 a year!

Mr Fan is one of the last wooden pleasure boat specialists in Hong Kong. Sadly, his son will not continue the family business. So, in the meantime, if you want work done on your wooden boat, call 2813 0425 or 9016 0352. Mr Fan and his wife both speak good English and Cantonese.

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