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Uniquely HK

History Matters

Tai O Fishing Village

Fishermen’s houses on stilts at the water’s edge. Courtesy of Valery Garrett


Tai O has been called the Venice of the East, but it’s not such a well known tourist spot.


Off the beaten track, at the western-most tip of Lantau Island, the historic hamlet of Tai O is a backwater, a microcosm of life in old China. The oldest fishing village in Hong Kong, it is a popular location for local films set in the past.


Shrimp paste laid out on trays to dry in the sun. Courtesy of Valery Garrett


Life here has settled down to a steady rhythm formed over centuries. Fishermen sit folding nets in readiness for the afternoon’s sail to distant waters. A sampan speeds out of the inlet, a stocky fisherwoman squatting at the prow. An old man carefully folds paper around each dried fish. Next door, a woman brings out steamed buns made from peanuts, sugar and sesame seeds, ready for children returning from school.


In the distance, the sweep of mountains resembles a Chinese painting, with shades of grey deepening from pearl to charcoal. The tide is out, the air heavy with the smell of fish, and egrets flutter and dive in the muddy effluent. Huts of grey sheet metal stand on stilts in the rocky estuary. These are home to the Tanka fisher folk, said to be descendants of ancient sea going gypsies. They have lived around these shores for centuries.


The Hung Shing Temple. Courtesy of Valery Garrett


Inside a hut, the morning’s chores over, housewives play mah-jong, the rattle of tiles accompanying the steady thump of piano keys across the way. Never idle, an old crone in a black samfu squats in the doorway, shelling shrimps for supper. The discordant warble of Chinese opera wafts from an open window. Nearby, old men sit silently under an ancient banyan tree, the aerial roots hanging down like coarse brown string.


At the entrance to the village, a steel footbridge has replaced the rope ferry, once the only way to cross the inlet dividing the village in two. As well as the million dollar renovations and modernisation triggered by the disastrous fire of July 2000, even bigger changes are afoot. Under discussion is a new bridge linking Hong Kong, via Lantau, with Macau. There is also a suggestion a container port be built here on the western shores of the island. If either goes ahead they will bring undreamed of changes to the village.


Fishing boats moored offshore. Courtesy of Valery Garrett


The villagers are mindful of their traditional way of life, which continues to survive, despite constant redevelopment in the rest of the territory. They recently assembled a collection of old artefacts – a rice grinding machine, a salt rake, traditional clothing and other memorabilia. This is all on display in a little museum in one of the old shops.


A narrow lane meanders through the village and emerges at the headland where the creek spills out to sea. The Hau Wong temple has stood here since 1699, built to honour a loyal general to the last Song emperor. Opposite the temple, on the other side of the creek, are the disused saltpans, looking like a muddy, stony field today. They are reached by a rickety wooden bridge, which crosses the inlet in the heart of the village. Here houses overlooking the water have tiny balconies where families sit and call across to each other. Tai O was once the centre of salt making in Hong Kong, a 2000-year-old industry ending when the saltpans finally closed in 1969.


Back at the village square, a path runs west along the coastline, skirting the fish market where a man arranges scallops to dry in the sun. At a bend in the path is the Hung Shing temple, built in 1748. Worshipped by all who go to sea, legend has it he is the Dragon King of the Southern Seas, helping all who venture out on them.


The acrid smell of fermenting shrimp paste heralds the village specialty. Shrimps and salt are being fed through a mincing machine, and the mixture stored in tall blue plastic tubs. Men scoop out the pink slurry, slop it onto rattan trays set on trestle tables, and with a sweep of the hand, spread the paste to dry in the sunshine. Bottles are sold in the village - a tiny helping of the paste adds piquancy to a dish.



  The old Police Station, now a boutique hotel.


At the very end of the path, near the once busy ferry pier, stands the Tai O Police Station. Built in 1902, it was one of the oldest in the New Territories until it closed a decade ago, due to a declining population. In its heyday in the 70s and 80s, lookout posts were constantly manned when scores of freedom swimmers and illegal immigrants came ashore. The Police Station was listed as a Grade III historic building in 1988, and as a Grade II historic building in 2009. The government sought ideas for the use of the building and, after consideration, they accepted the redevelopment proposal of the Hong Kong Heritage Conservation Foundation to convert it into a boutique, nine-room Tai O Heritage Hotel. Perhaps the hotel will help to put Tai O on the tourist map.n


Richard Garrett has lived in Hong Kong for more than forty years and is the author of numerous articles on people and places in Hong Kong, Macau and China. See www.richardjgarrett.com



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