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Sunrise swimmers start the day in the sea

By Crystal Wu & Marilyn Ma


At 5.45 am, before dawn has really broken and many are still wrapped in their dreams,  a dedicated few are already out and doing their stretching exercises by the shore. They exchange greetings and chat before dipping into the sea for their daily morning swim as the sun slowly rises over the horizon.

Chan Hak-chi, 70, has been coming to the shore area in front of the Tai Wan Shan Swimming Pool in Whampoa every day since 1977. He and his wife, 67-year-old Li Kit-hing prefer to swim in the sea, without the limits of time and space, rather than in the adjacent indoor pool. They started swimming here four years after they arrived in Hong Kong from the Mainland – swimming from Shenzhen in a signal number nine typhoon to escape the Cultural Revolution.

Chan recognises the area he chooses to swim in is not an official swimming spot permitted by the government. Therefore, he holds himself responsible for the risks he encounters and the accidents he has experienced. On occasion he has swum out further into the open sea, and come across mainland cruise ships and dredging vessels that often show no intention of slowing down when passing areas where there are swimmers.

Unless the sea’s surface is covered by oil due to an oil spillage, nothing can stop Chan  from swimming, not even a typhoon. He remembers one time a foreigner was amazed to see him swimming during a typhoon and took pictures of him.

“I am quite stubborn, sometimes when the wave hits the shore, it scares off some of the swimmers, but for me, I will still swim,” says Chan. He says the waves in the area are much bigger than in Victoria Harbour but still cannot be compared to the weather conditions he endured when he and his wife swam down to Hong Kong all those years ago.

“The waves were as high as the height of one floor of a building,” Chan says. “I was quite young at the time. I tried to swim out of the wave when it hit me, but in the end, I hit my face on rock fragments behind me.”

His experience of swimming to Hong Kong to flee the Mainland helped him to bond with other morning swimmers in the area who had similar experiences of escaping. They often go to “yum cha” together after swimming in the morning.  One of Chan’s swimming buddies of many years is Lee Fu-po, who has been swimming in the sea for decades, ever since his psychologist recommended it as a way to treat his depression.

Lee says that over his years of sea swimming, he has encountered nine dead bodies in the water, not all of them drowned. He even discovered a floating suitcase that turned out to contain a corpse. He recalls that after he got the suitcase ashore, he “used my feet to kick the suitcase, and some blonde hair peeped out from it.”  Judging from the smell, Lee thought it must be a dead body and urged a taxi driver to call the police.

Bonding and friendship can also be found among morning swimmers in Approach Beach in Tsuen Wan, where they have developed their own community with established routines, habits and ways of communication.  For instance, they greet everyone, including newcomers and visitors, wait for a group of around 10 to form before diving in and plan strategies for their swim. Afterwards, they eat apples to recharge.

Morning swimmer Wu Chi-kong used to swim in pools, but he switched to Approach Beach four years ago because he found swimming pools were too crowded, dirty and full of chemicals. Besides, he felt more buoyant in the sea. He says that as Approach Beach is not a curved bay, there is more flowing water there that makes the water quality better.

Every morning at 6 a.m., Wu and his friends warm up on shore and then dive into the sea together to swim countercurrent. This way, when they swim back, the current will help them.  “After I came here, there was no going back to the pool,” says Wu.

During these four years, the 57-year-old swimmer has built up friendships with others who swim with him every morning. Besides swimming together, they often have dim sum in Tsuen Wan and even go hiking and on holiday together. Wu says their recent trips have been to Xinjiang and Vietnam.

Hui Siu-kin has been swimming at Approach Bay for 12 years. He says sea swimming is challenging but most swimmers persist in doing it every day.  He does if for health reasons.   “You don’t usually notice it, but on that one day when you didn’t swim, you will feel sore and pain all over your body,” he says.

He adds newcomers join them constantly, many of whom are not strong swimmers at the beginning. More experienced morning swimmers from the Lai Chi Kok Swimming Association usually volunteer to teach them.

Leung Kwok-ping, 60, is a member of the association and began swimming every morning at Approach Beach three decades ago. He was attracted by the good water quality and wider swimming space, as well as the challenging environment brought about by changing weather conditions.

Apart from teaching newcomers, Leung says members of the association often take on the role of lifeguards, rescuing drowning swimmers and administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Leung says it is rare to see swimmers between 40 and 50 years of age among the Approach Bay swimming community, let alone younger people. He says his daily swim and the friends he has made here have made him a happier person, and he hopes some youngsters will join them.  “Young people would like to sleep more and rest more, but because of this, they might have less time to exercise, but exercise is something we should do throughout our lives,” he says.

Edited by Chloe Kwan