Hong Kong's vanishing heritage

By Jim Eagles

Jim Eagles discovers Hong Kong villagers fighting to preserve their way of life.

An abandoned family home near Fanling, Hong Kong. Photo / Jim Eagles
An abandoned family home near Fanling, Hong Kong. Photo / Jim Eagles

The walled village of Lo Wai has successfully repelled marauding bandits and rapacious warlords for more than 600 years but it looks as though it is having a hard time withstanding the incredible growth now sweeping across the New Territories of Hong Kong.

The farmlands surrounding the village, where generations of farmers have raised their vegetables, ducks and pigs, are now disappearing under painted villas and vast apartment complexes.

Several of Lo Wai's most important buildings have been declared national monuments and the village itself is part of the Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trail.

But nevertheless chunks of the enfolding brick wall have been demolished to allow for growth, many of the traditional homes have been knocked down to make way for modern villas and the village has been so swamped by outsiders that it recently banned sightseeing.

This historic settlement is clearly facing the greatest threat since it was founded in the dying days of the Yuan Dynasty, by a royal branch of the powerful Tang clan, so who knows what will remain 10 years from now.

I wasn't actually supposed to go to Lo Wai myself. The plan had been to climb high into the green hills of the New Territory to explore the Sha Lo Tung Valley, enjoying its wildlife, traditional villages - some of them abandoned - and amazing scenery.

But the forecast was for heavy showers and occasional thunderstorms and Fred Cheng, my guide for this expedition, felt it would be "unwise to be up on the mountain if there is heavy rain and maybe some lightning".

That sounded like good advice so instead I opted to walk the rather more urban Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trail and to touch on a couple of other heritage areas in the New Territories.

It proved to be a wise plan. It was drizzling in Hong Kong as we took the subway to Tsim Sha Tsai station and, by the time our East Rail train pulled into the city of Fanling in the New Territories, rain was falling steadily.

The heritage trail starts on the edge of the city, where a bridge crosses the Ma Wat River and wends through narrow rural lanes past a contrasting mix of new apartment towers, box-shaped villas and a lone field where crops were still being grown.

We passed a few stone tablets which are apparently erected at the site of traffic accidents to ward off evil spirits - a sort of Chinese version of our roadside crosses - an art deco church built by the Society of Basel Mission in 1926, an abandoned mansion peering over the encroaching foliage and the entrance gate to Ma Wat Wai walled village, where a dog stood guard over what little remains of the original settlement.

The focal point of the trail, however, is at Lo Wai, the oldest of a cluster of villages established in this area by the Tang clan, where visitors are welcome to inspect the ancestral hall - where the clan still holds formal ceremonies - a Tin Hau Temple in honour of the goddess of heaven, the impressive ceremonial entrance gate and the rather more humble working entrance to the village.

The ancestral hall, built about 500 years ago in honour of the clan's founding ancestor, Tang Chung Ling, is an impressive structure, decorated with carvings, painted murals and plaster mouldings, and the largest of its kind in Hong Kong.

Its massive wooden doors are painted with ferocious depictions of two Taoist saints, great warriors in their lifetimes, who these days are seen as protective spirits. But, just in case that doesn't work, just inside the door a uniformed female security guard lurks in an office.

The main hall is the venue for clan ceremonies including, guide Fred explained, a lantern lighting ceremony for new-born boys, festivities to mark the arrival of spring and an annual festival to honour ancestors.

Behind it is a a further hall, divided into three chambers, where the Tang clan's soul tablets are displayed. The central chamber holds tablets representing clan ancestors, the one on the left is for distinguished clan members and the one on the right, according to Fred, holds the tablets of righteous clan members.

What, I wondered, did one do to be considered righteous? By way of explanation Fred pointed to the tablet of a brave servant, honoured because when his master was kidnapped by bandits the servant pretended to be the eldest son of the household, offering to stay with the kidnappers as security while a ransom was raised. After his master was freed, the servant jumped into the sea and drowned, saving the need for any ransom and earning himself the posthumous title of "Loyal Servant".

Close by the hall is the clan's Tin Hau Temple, superbly decorated with carvings, relief sculptures and murals depicting important historical moments.

Inside are the figures of Tin Hau, resplendent in gold, and her bodyguards, Chin Lei Ngan, whose eyes could see things a thousand miles away, and Shun Fung Li, whose ears could hear things as far away as heaven.

Under Fred's tutelage, I made a donation and took three joss sticks, bowed three times to the goddess - for heaven, earth and man - lit the joss sticks, bowed three times more and placed the sticks on the altar.

Unfortunately, whatever it was I asked the goddess for it couldn't have been good weather, because around this time the rain started absolutely bucketing down.

There were several more walled villages, ancient gates and heritage buildings along the trail but in the face of the deluge we made our way back to Fanling and took refuge in the Fu Lin Restaurant, at the bottom of one of the city's giant apartment blocks, which was packed with families enjoying a dim sum lunch.

The food here was amazing and we had a huge feast - shrimp, pork and dried scallop dumplings, barbecue pork, fried radish cake with chilli sauce (particularly nice), steamed garlic spare rib, mango pudding (yummy) and jasmine tea - for roughly $16 each.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies direct from Auckland to Hong Kong 10 times a week.

Where to stay: The Harbour Grand Hong Kong is a magnificent new hotel with views over the harbour and cityscape from every room.

Further information: You can find out about Hong Kong's heritage trails at discoverhongkong.com.

Jim Eagles visited Hong Kong with help from Cathay Pacific and the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

- NZ Herald

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