Stemming the Tide
Times have been tough for Tai O, a remote fishing village on Hong Kong’s Lantau Island where an aging population clings to the traditions of their forbears. But will tourism give the community a new lease on life?
Photographs by Josephine Rozman
At the westernmost edge of Hong Kong, with the bright lights of Macau’s casinos visible across the Pearl River Delta on a clear night, the stilted fishing village of Tai O takes the brunt of any typhoon plowing in from the South China Sea. It’s a near-forgotten corner of Hong Kong, set on a leafy, rocky elbow of Lantau Island, just eight kilometers or so from Hong Kong’s high-tech international airport and the concrete cluster of residential skyscrapers that consti-tutes the “New Town” of Tung Chung. Yet that short distance separates the ever-morphing face of one of Asia’s most modern cities from scenes that have changed little since Tai O established itself as a bustling settlement toward the end of the Qing dynasty.
Today, seafood stalls line Tai O’s narrow streets, filling the air with the odor of salted fish, duck eggs, and air-dried shrimp. There are no cars. It is not uncommon to see women walking by in traditional Hakka headgear—a wide-brimmed straw hat with a veil of sorts to keep the sometimes-fierce sun at bay. Down at the creek that separates the Lantau mainland from a small mangrove-fringed island, stilt houses—known in Cantonese as pang nguk —cluster above the tidal flats, some rising two or three stories on stout columns of charcoal-hued ironwood. Tai O’s original inhabitants came from a floating population of fisherfolk who lived on crowded sampans along the Hong Kong coast, eventually moving ashore at places like Po Toi and Yau Ma Tei. But only in Tai O have their stilt houses survived.
It is, however, a precarious existence. While fishing has been the mainstay here for generations, the introduction of motorized fishing boats and nylon trawl nets in the 1950s resulted in heavy overfishing; the catch of yellow croaker, which once contributed almost half of Tai O’s total harvest, slumped from 546,000 kilograms in 1954 to just over 20,000 in 1958. The industry has still not recovered, although a recent ban on trawling in Hong Kong waters aims at reviving decimated fish stocks.
A similar fate befell Tai O’s erstwhile salt trade. In its heyday, the village farmed 28 hectares of saltpans that, through sand leaching and seawater evaporation, produced hundreds of tons of salt annually, mostly for export to markets elsewhere in China. But the industry fell into decline after the Japanese occupation in Hong Kong ended in 1945, and ceased completely with the building of the Tai O Road in 1969, which dramatically improved access to the village but also cut off the sluice systems in the salt fields.
As young residents fled to the city in search of better jobs, higher pay, and excitement, Tai O’s population dwindled—and fast. From a height of more than 30,000 residents, only about 2,000 people call the place home today. On a recent visit, I was invited into the home of Soh Loi-man, who introduced himself as the “head of the fishermen” of Tai O. The building consisted of four linked stilt houses, with a floor of well-varnished hard wood that reverberated with the rattling of plastic mah-jongg tiles from a back room where some middle-aged ladies were setting up a game. Apart from that, the place was empty. “On the weekends all my kids and grandkids come back for a barbecue,” Soh said. “But only then.”
Still, tourism is helping to keep Tai O afloat. Lantau Island, with its Big Buddha and cable car and Disneyland, is attracting more visitors than ever, and many of these make their way to Tai O for a sampling of its rustic charms. Tai O is also the launch point for boat trips to see the few remaining Chinese white dolphins (a.k.a Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins) that populate the murky brown waters of the Pearl River Delta; the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society estimates their local number at about 300.
A drawbridge linking the two sides of Tai O is also a major, well, draw. Known as Sun Kee, it was only built in 1996; prior to that, an old woman ferried villagers from one side of the narrow channel to the other in a flat-bottomed boat, hauling it across with a rope. And for those looking for an olfactory adventure, Tai O’s pungent shrimp-paste factories continue to be a source of fascination.
Tai O native Liu Tik-sang, a humanities professor at Hong Kong’s University of Science and Technology, credits the village’s re- silience to a sense of “communal vigor” that has survived—if not become more robust— with its transformation into a tourist attraction. Religious activities such as the annual dragon-boat water parade, he believes, are more vibrant than ever.
It’s doubtless, however, that Tai O will need new initiatives to survive, which is why last year’s debut of the Tai O Heritage Hotel came as such a shot in the arm. First established as a marine police station in 1902 in a bid to keep marauding pirates at bay, the immaculately renovated building is set on a forested hillside overlooking the waterfront, with only nine suites available for guests. It’s the brainchild of Daryl Ng, grandson of the founder of the Hong Kong–Singapore development company Sino Land, who established a nonprofit foundation to oversee the heritage conversion.
“I am hoping that this project achieves three aspects,” Ng said. “To allow visitors to experience the delights and charms of a local Hong Kong village, to appreciate the heritage and history of Hong Kong, as well as ecotourism.”
At night, guests can hear crickets chirp, and view stars that are scarcely visible from Central or Kowloon. Another draw, perhaps, is knowing that at least part of their expenditure will trickle down to the local economy; half of the hotel’s 34 staff are Lantau residents, and its glass-roofed restaurant uses local produce whenever possible, from shrimp-paste marinades to a cheesecake seasoned with mountain begonia blossoms.
Yet even here, amid sturdy arched colonnades and vintage photos of old Tai O, the village’s future can seem uncertain. One hotel employee, who tells me she adores the peace and quiet of Tai O, is concerned that the 29-kilometer-long Hong Kong–Macau–Zhuhai Bridge currently being built offshore will ruin the marine environment, not to mention the views.
“The government doesn’t seem to care about the dolphins,” she said. “We have got four years left to enjoy the sea. Only four years.”
Originally appeared in the April/May 2013 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Stemming the Tide”)