Hong Kong's damned villages

Posted:
 

Near the western tip of Hong Kong Island, between Kennedy Town and Aberdeen, lies a fairly unassuming village, which has been minding its own business for more than 150 years. That is, until October this year. Pok Fu Lam suddenly hit the headlines after being ranked alongside the likes of Venice and Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam on the 2014 World Monuments Watch list. This list, compiled by US non-profit organisation World Monuments Fund, highlights 67 cultural heritage sites across the globe deemed to be ‘under threat’. Pok Fu Lam was suddenly ‘under threat’.

The big announcement sparked debate over whether we should develop on or try to preserve our SAR’s villages – and it’s been raging ever since, with many Hongkongers expressing surprise at Pok Fu Lam’s inclusion on the list in the first place. After all, the village’s appearance is a far cry from Venice, with metal-roofed squatter dwellings lining its narrow paths rather than grand buildings. Yet this somewhat belies the village’s unique history. It’s the only surviving indigenous Chinese village on Hong Kong Island, with the late Qing Dynasty village pattern still pretty much intact. And Pok Fu Lam was also the location of the first dairy farm in Hong Kong, set up in 1886, which employed thousands until its closure in 1983. 

The ramshackle appearance of the village is due, partly, to the fact that a third of the houses are designated as squatter residences, after the government’s squatter control survey in the 1980s, which registered these abodes and then banned them from upgrading with any new materials, such as bricks or concrete. Unfortunately, there is still no sewerage system – some 2,500 residents share four public toilets.

 

 

Regardless, the village retains features such as the traditional village shrine, an octagonal cowshed, the Béthanie sanitorium (now used by the HKAPA) and a Western-style house previously used as staff quarters. It also famously hosts the only surviving in-situ village Fire Dragon Dance every mid-Autumn. But while individual buildings can be listed as monuments in Hong Kong, there’s currently no way for a cultural landscape such as this to garner protection. “Pok Fu Lam is prime land!” claims Dr Hoyin Lee, one of the founders of Hong Kong University’s Architectural Conservation Programme. “The government would definitely like to clear the residents so that it can be sold for more high value redevelopment.”

“[The WMF list] is not a beauty contest, it is a warning!” Lee continues. “Those who say we should not save Pok Fu Lam, they are really barking up the wrong tree. If you look at Hong Kong Island, how many of these historical villages are still surviving?”

Taking a walk through Pok Fu Lam’s alleys, you easily get a sense of the history that lies beneath the corrugated metal facades. “The air here makes us immortal!” beams lifelong resident Yu Mui, who tells us she is 103 years old. Her neighbour, Ms Tong, recalls how the Japanese soldiers took the villagers’ chickens and eggs during the Second World War. “They were really hungry!” she laughs, before becoming serious. “This village is older than Hong Kong [itself]! Not much has changed. I hope it’s not going anywhere, but it’s hard to tell what the government is going to do.”

 

Stephen Chui is a third-generation villager in Pok Fu Lam and a conservationist who helped it to be nominated for the WMF list. He is representative of a wave of younger villagers who are determined to conserve their heritage. “Inclusion on the WMF list is a good thing, but it’s only a warning notice,” he says. “We’re not out of sight of danger.”

There have been concerns that, if the squatter status was lifted, the villagers may choose to develop village houses and then cash in. But Chui rejects that suggestion. “Around 60 percent of the land in the village is [already] privately owned. They have the right to rebuild their house,” he says. “[The villagers] have stayed in the village from generation to generation. They love the place and they love the living style.”

With appropriate planning, Pok Fu Lam could become a genuine tourist attraction, perhaps similar to Tai O. “From here, [the outcome] depends on the village,” says Dr Lee. “The most important stakeholder always makes a difference – in the case of Tai O’s revival, it was the people living there who said that something needs to be done.”

Pok Fu Lam is far from the only village under threat in Hong Kong. Over in Sai Kung, the tiny Pak Sha O remains Hong Kong’s last undeveloped, inhabited Hakka village. Surrounded by Sai Kung West Country Park, it was founded in 1860. The houses are more than a century old and retain many of the original features. The last time a building went up was in 1965. A handful of families reside here – mainly expats who rent from the Chinese owners. They moved in and repaired the houses when the original owners abandoned them in the 80s. “[Pak Sha O] is very quiet,” says Meredith Cox, who has lived in the village for eight years. “There’s very little pollution, which is why many of us moved here in the first place. We have porcupines, wild boar, butterflies, civet cats, snakes… but all of that is changing.” 

 

The spectre of development has finally caught up with this village. A Tai Po-based developer has applied to demolish two of the historic houses and hopes to build three new village houses, plus septic tanks on the plots. This would be next-door to a grade-one listed building, known as the Ho Residence. It’s come as a huge shock to the residents, who have spent a lot of money renovating the original features of their rented houses. Cox tells us the historical village paddy fields are also being planted with crops by the developer. “They often play loud music,” she says. “We were on the patio 200 yards away and we could hear it, so I asked them to turn the music down. They told us the music was to help the plants grow.” 

Village life, amazingly, still exists in Hong Kong, but it’s slowly vanishing as our population and housing needs increase. Dr Lee hopes that villagers will start to be more proactive in conservation. “The thing that saddens me as a conservationist,” he says, “a lot of times it is the villagers themselves who ask for redevelopment. They prefer to make a fast buck. This kind of situation isn’t going to work because it is the original villager who can make the difference.”

Hopefully Pok Fu Lam and Pak Sha O can attract the attention they need to avoid becoming another row of glossy new builds. “Hong Kong needs diversity in the environment to make it attractive as a place to live, a place to work, a place for tourists to visit,” argues Dr Lee. “We can see that kind of diversity is already rapidly disappearing – we are seeing a more homogenised environment, catered towards one kind of rich tourist. Hong Kong is losing its appeal to many of the people who would bring money to the city.” Anna Cummins.

Learn more about Pok Fu Lam at pokfulamvillage.org.

Add your comment