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Uniquely HK

History Matters

Sam Tung Uk

Aerial view of Sam Tung Uk.


An 18th century Hakka village in the heart of a new town


With its factories, housing estates and shopping malls, Tsuen Wan isn’t quite where you’d expect to see a 200-year-old walled village. Yet a mere 25 minutes from Central on the MTR, a remnant of Hong Kong’s rural past gives a fascinating glimpse into a lifestyle long gone.


Back in 1786 a group of Hakka people, the Chan clan from Fujian province, settled at Tsin Wan by the coast in Kowloon. Surrounded by farmland, they built a walled village, Sam Tung Uk, literally “three beam dwelling” to house the clan and to protect them from pirates along the coast, then right on their doorstep.


The entrance to Sam Tung Uk


The Hakka people are a distinct ethnic group but are considered to be part of the Han Chinese. They originated in north and central China but waves of emigrants gradually moved south. Because in many areas they had been preceded by other groups, they often had to make do with the least productive land. Their name is loosely translated as “Guest People” which indicates that the previous inhabitants barely tolerated them. Indeed their villages were often fortified and in Hong Kong this took the form of a walled village where the gates could be locked at night to keep out intruders. The term Uk meaning house or dwelling suggests a single structure and walled villages often include it in their name indicating their close-knit nature. Indeed many villages were inhabited by a single clan descended from a common ancestor. The males stayed put, but to avoid inbreeding they took wives from other villages. Hence most if not all shared the same surname.


 The Ancestral Altar.  Courtesy of Richard Garrett.


The Hakka people seem to have been particularly resilient, perhaps because of their migrations, which didn’t end at Hong Kong but in later years extended to other lands. Many Hakka became famous and examples include the nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen, former Chinese premier Deng Xiao-ping, former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kwan-Yew, and actor Chow Yun-fat. However, the Chan clan apparently lived a simple life farming the land, rearing animals and doing a little fishing.


In 1898 the British leased the New Territories of Hong Kong and Tsuen Wan, as it is now known, came under British administration. This had little effect as the New Territories were largely unchanged; however, after World War II, owing to the Civil War in China, textile manufacturers set up factories here, many of them fleeing Shanghai after the Communist takeover in 1949. The population swelled as the workers moved there and Tsuen Wan was designated one of the new towns in the late 1950s; housing estates and shops were built for the rapidly increasing population. It is now a heaving mass of humanity, but Sam Tung Uk remains a quiet oasis right in the middle.


A dining area. Courtesy of Richard Garrett.


When the MTR was extended to Tsuen Wan in the early 1980s, there were fears Sam Tung Uk would be torn down. Thankfully, with much local support, the walled village was saved and plans were made to move the Chan clan to new three storey housing blocks nearby. When word reached the Chans, almost 350 “family” members crammed into the walled village in the hopes of becoming eligible for rehousing. Perhaps the terms of the compensation were too good, but at least there was no resistance to the move. The village was taken back by the government and was designated a declared monument. It was later carefully restored as a 2000 square metre museum.


Five minutes from Tsuen Wan MTR station, high-rise apartment blocks now surround Sam Tung Uk with its whitewashed walls and black tiled roof. But a photo in the Orientation Room gives a clear picture of how the area looked in the 1970s, with paddy fields around and fung shui woods behind. There’s much to see and enjoy, and detailed bilingual captions explain a way of life now gone forever.


A sedan chair used for weddings. Courtesy of Richard Garrett.


The houses occupied by Mr Chan and his sons and their families contain displays of rustic furniture, much of it sourced from Hakka villages on the mainland since the more recent occupants would have had no use for the primitive pieces. Peer into the tiny kitchens, where food in the woks was heated by wood burning fires. Rooms at the sides contain farming equipment such as rice grinders, a winnowing machine for getting rid of rice husks, and a screen where bundles of rice were threshed after being harvested. A video display in one of the rooms shows how they were used.


At the heart of the village is the ancestral hall and the clan’s ancestral tablet where ancestors were worshipped and weddings took place. Being a Hakka clan, there is a single tablet, unlike in Cantonese ancestral halls which have separate ones for individuals. In the side halls there are more displays and behind, in the large hall an exhibition Tsuen Wan Then and Now gives a fascinating look at how Tsuen Wan has developed over the centuries. Overall it is an excellent way to see what life in rural China was like in the past.


To get there take the MTR to Tsuen Wan station and use exit B3 from where it is a signposted five minute walk. Sam Tung Uk Museum is open 9am-5pm daily except Tuesdays and some public holidays. Free admission, tel 2411 2001. www.heritagemuseum.gov.hk


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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