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Tuesday, November 3, 2015, 09:29

Scrap value

By Chitralekha Basu

The 2009 convention on ship recycling, though unenforced, is often cited as a template for marine safety. It also draws attention to HK’s once thriving ship-breaking industry. Chitralekha Basu reports.

Scrap value
The last of Hong Kong’s scrapping yards was in Junk Bay, which shut down in the late 1970s.

In September, two ship recycling facilities in Alang, on the west coast of India, were awarded certificates by ClassNK, one of the world’s leading classification societies dedicated to the safekeeping of the marine environment. It was a landmark event. This was the first time the standards at any recycling facility in South Asia had received the stamp of approval from a global watchdog, monitoring marine safety. In the popular imagination the ship scrap yards in Alang — the subject of dystopian documentaries and the setting of Max Brooks’ zombie apocalypse novel World War Z — are commonly associated with some of the world’s most hazardous, and horrifying, work environments. So getting a thumbs-up from a reputed, world-class, invigilator of marine pollution was no mean achievement.

There is a Hong Kong connection here. The Statements of Compliance (SoC) issued by ClassNK, certifying that the facilities in Alang have passed muster, are benchmarked against the Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, drafted in 2009. Although the Hong Kong Convention is yet to become enforceable — and it is doubtful if it ever will, with only three countries (Norway, France and Congo) ratifying it so far, as against a minimum of 15 required to make it statutory — its significance becomes increasingly apparent. When Tokyo-based ClassNK uses a set of regulations drafted in Hong Kong as a template to validate the safety standards practiced in the scrap yards of India, it’s evident that the battle for safe recycling of marine

vessels transcends national and even regional boundaries.

Scrap value
Left: A shipbreaking yard at Rennie’s Mill, Hong Kong, in 1963. Right: Shipbreaking at Gin Drinkers’ Bay in the 1960s showing a vessel in different stages of demolition. (Photos PROVIDED BY Ko Tim-Keung / Industrial history of Hong Kong)

A lost world

The dredging up of the Hong Kong Convention 2009 to mandate Alang’s scrap yards also points to a chapter in Hong Kong’s maritime history that’s all but forgotten. There was a time when end-of-life ships from the world over would wash up on the shores of Hong Kong. On the Industrial History of Hong Kong website, Hugh Farmer refers to the March 1961 edition of the Journal of the Geographical, Geological & Archaeological Society , which indicates “ship-breaking in Hong Kong goes back to at least 1861 when the Bombay (now Mumbai) built Minden was sold for demolition here”. “In 1961 there were 23 ship-breaking companies registered with the Marine Department, representing a total investment of HK$100 million and employing over 4,000 people,” he quotes. “By 1959 Hong Kong had the largest ship-breaking industry of any port worldwide and ships were being brought here faster than they could be dealt with.”

A Marine Department journal, The Port of Hong Kong , published in 1966, corroborates the idea that Hong Kong might indeed have been the world leader in ship scrapping at the time, especially in the first flush of large-scale construction of affordable public housing. “Ship-breaking is an important industry in Hong Kong, because the market for scrap is geared to the building industry, where the demand for mild steel bars may be as high as 16,700 tons a month. To meet this demand as many as 30 vessels, each averaging 7,000 gross tons, may be in process of demolition at any one time. In addition, there is a demand in Southeast Asian countries for mild steel rods and bars, and this is met, in part, by Hong Kong.”

The once thriving ship scrapping industry in Hong Kong seems to have sunk without a trace. The scrap yards in Cheung Sha Wan, Ngau Tau Kok, Gin Drinkers Bay, Kwun Tong and Tsuen Wan — where laborers routinely exposed themselves to old fuel oil, asbestos and toxic oil paint — have all but vanished. The last of these, at Junk Bay (Tseung Kwan O), became inoperative in the late 1970s.

Ship scrapping in Hong Kong has gone for 35 years and nobody mourns its loss. It seems to have been a marginalized activity, even while it supposedly was booming. Even a self-proclaimed “dockyard kid”, like the poet David McKirdy, who grew up playing hide-and-seek between the moored ships at Whampoa in the 1960s, had only vaguely heard about ships lined up on the shore at Junk Bay, awaiting their turn to be dismantled. Not only are Hong Kong’s once bustling ship scrapping yards relegated to a footnote in history, there is no effort to memorialize their past. As Stephen Davies, former director of the Hong Kong Maritime Museum, says, “If you’re looking for relics of ship scrap, the spine of that ship (which would normally remain intact, even as the rest was chopped to pieces) is 4 meters under reclamation.”

Davies has watched keenly the rise and fall of the city’s ship scrapping enterprises. He remembers stumbling on to the remains of the ship on which he arrived in Hong Kong from Britain in 1947 — the RMS Strathnaver — dismantled on the shores of Ngau Tau Kok, in a photograph. Ironically enough, scrap yards had to make way for buildable land in the wake of the housing boom — the very houses that were being fortified with reinforcement bars rolled out of ship scrap.

“Hong Kong was running out of places to break ships that were also close to the steel re-processing units, which in their turn, were under pressure because of rising land values and rents and (if slowly) growing awareness of the need to zone industries, especially those potentially polluting,” says Davies. “The rapid growth of light industries also inspired a lot of workers to move on to do less hazardous jobs. They started working in construction.”

In the absence of a government initiative to subsidize the operation, “Hong Kong was structurally and in policy terms ill-placed, to profit. The work went mainly to Taiwan, which was the main player in the huge 1980s scrapping boom,” Davies adds.

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