Plots on the landscape

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 May, 2012, 12:00am


It's dusk on a muggy Friday evening deep in Sai Kung Country Park and the air is heavy with a coming storm. A rumbling of distant thunder reverberates across a huddle of old village houses isolated in a valley and surrounded on three sides by heavily wooded hills.

A cacophony of chirping crickets and clattering cicadas and the regular deep, loud and hollow moo of the bullfrogs provide the springtime soundtrack for what, from a distance, looks like just another deserted New Territories village.

As the sun sinks lower behind the hills, however, the wilderness sounds are broken by a trundle of wheels and rattling of metal. A teenage boy approaches on the narrow path leading into the village, pushing a trolley loaded with supplies for the weekend.

A few steps behind him follow a man and a woman dressed for the city. They chat as they walk, swinging bags of provisions, and seem oblivious to the incongruity of their appearance in this setting.

Over the next hour, more people arrive: another boy, this one in a school uniform and carrying a laptop, then a mother with a young daughter; and finally, when the last light has disappeared from the sky, a smartly dressed man emerges from the gloaming, carrying a torch.

As darkness envelops the village, it is possible to make out other sounds above those of the wildlife: children playing, voices and music. One by one, lights come on and the village is illuminated like a picture postcard.

The village of Pak Sha O could have died years ago, when the last of its indigenous residents moved out. A 10-minute walk from the nearest road, it is accessible only by a footpath that winds through woodland and abandoned paddy fields.

In many ways it is no different from the scores of villages scattered around remote areas of Hong Kong that have been left to fall into ruin as residents abandon their rural past for high-rise modern urban living. However, it stands as Hong Kong's last living, undeveloped Hakka village. No houses have been built here since 1965. There are no three-storey modern villas. Sai Kung town and the nearest shops are a 30-minute bus ride (on top of the 10-minute walk) away.

With the exception of a lick of paint, the exteriors of many of the houses have remained unchanged since they were built about 100 years ago. They boast original features such as heavy wooden doors, wall paintings, coloured stucco decorations, distinctive tiled roofs and galleries and wooden staircases.

The village owes its survival to an unusual combination of circumstances and the determination of a group of outsiders who moved in when the indigenous villagers moved out in the 1970s and 1980s.

Fourteen families live in Pak Sha O, most of them expatriates. About half stay in the village full-time, in houses rented from the descendants of the Hakka families who founded the village sometime around 1860. The remainder use the village as a weekend escape from city life.

A STORM OF another kind is gathering on the Pak Sha O horizon. The uniqueness of the village is under threat from a planning battle that looks set to rumble on through the summer and which may ultimately decide the future of the village.

In March, one of the residents found a piece of paper lying near a ruin in the village. They picked it up thinking it was rubbish but discovered it was a planning application lodged by a Tai Po firm to build two three-storey houses in the village. The application had been placed there, the site of the proposed buildings, by the Lands Department.

If the application succeeds, these houses will be the first new buildings in almost 50 years, the first three-storey properties in the village and its first examples of modern architecture. The residents fear these new houses will mark the beginning of the end for Pak Sha O as they know it, and that more development will follow.

'I love it here. I love the raw, down-to-earth and natural feel of the village,' says Christine Tsang Kwan-ting, 65, who has lived in Pak Sha O on and off for 28 years. 'My friends think I am insane. They feel so sorry for me. They say, 'Christine, why do you live here? You must be very poor. Do your children not look after you?' But I am happy here.'

Tsang, who is of Hakka descent and the only local Chinese resident of the village, has joined the fight to preserve the character of Pak Sha O.

By the time the deadline for objections had been reached, at the end of March, the Lands Department had received 44 valid objections, including those from villagers and from the Designing Hong Kong group. The objections are varied but share common concerns regarding the threat this development poses to the wildlife, the environment and the unique charm and heritage of the village.

'The reason we love it here is that it is so beautiful and quiet and because of the wildlife,' says Meredith Cox, a retired nurse from the United States who moved to the village with her husband, John, six years ago. 'We see all sorts of animals - civet cats, porcupines, feral cattle, wild boar, many species of birds and butterflies, and lots of snakes.

'We worry any development will affect the wildlife and destroy the peace here. We can't imagine what would happen to the village if a road was built. But then if they don't build a road, how will they get all the building materials out here?'

John Cox, a careers and university counsellor, fears a road would sound the death knell for the village and within five years it would become just another ugly settlement, a mess of old and new houses, strewn with dumped vehicles and devoid of character.

'It has been the same for the past 50 or 60 years. Any building work which does not conform to present village structures will permanently change the village and its unique heritage will be lost for future generations,' he says.

PAK SHA O HAS been recognised by the government's Antiquities and Monuments Office (AMO) as having buildings worthy of preservation. In 2009, a number of the buildings and the Immaculate Heart of Mary Chapel, which stands at the back of the village, were included on a list of 1,444 historic buildings drawn up for grading purposes.

Its history can be traced back to before 1860, when Hakka families moved to the area from Yantian, in modern-day Shenzhen, and switched from fishing to farming and lime production. In the early 20th century, one of the families, called Ho, made some money through a successful venture recruiting workers for foreign steamship companies. The money was invested in the village and a family compound was built, comprising a watchtower, an ancestral hall with an open courtyard and adjoining houses. It is these buildings that are listed by the AMO and which still form the heart of the village.

During the second world war, the watchtower was occupied by a garrison of Japanese soldiers stationed in the village to help quell resistance fighters who were active in the area.

Current village head Danny Ho, 53, a descendant of the Ho family who founded the village, left in the mid-1970s, when he was 17, to study. At one point, he recalls, there were about 200 people living in the village.

'It was a very beautiful village but it was very remote. There was no road to Sai Kung so we never went there. We would go by boat to Tai Po about two or three times a year.

'I was quite happy as a child growing up. I remember fishing in the river. It was much bigger then.'

The exodus, says Ho, occurred after the High Island Reservoir was constructed. Water was diverted from the area to the reservoir, leaving the village stream almost dry.

The village could have slowly died as, year after year, more villagers abandoned farming and headed to Tai Po.

Then, in the 1980s, Pak Sha O was discovered by expatriates who began renting a house as a weekend bolthole. Tsang moved here in the mid-1980s, when the path from the road flooded calf-deep with muddy, leech-infested water during heavy rains.

Vilma Pegg and her husband arrived 14 years ago, just before Christmas 1998. The couple were living in a modern apartment in South Horizons, Ap Lei Chau, and had intended to renovate part of the Ho residences as a weekend retreat. However, they fell in love with the village and moved in full time.

Originally, their living space covered about 2,000 square feet but, over the years, they have added two of the Hakka houses to their home, which they now share with three children. Pegg has been involved in the renovation of 12 houses in the village, including that of the Coxes. She says it was her appreciation of the historical value of the village and its environment that inspired her to take on the projects, repairing broken roofs, windows, doors and cracked walls, and replacing flooring.

'The original features of the buildings - the bare green brick walls, murals, carved panels, solid pine beams - the village church, paddy fields, the orange trees ... all make the village very special, but most of all it's special because it represents a real Hakka village,' she says.

'I know from the comments made by people who walk through the village that a lot of Hong Kong people appreciate this historical village and it fascinates them that it's being lived in. Often people congratulate us for being in such a lovely place and express their appreciation of the work the residents have put into maintaining it. Of course, some of them wonder why we live in such an inconvenient place, with the mosquitoes, the snakes and the walk.

'They are curious about the families who lived here and I am always happy to share the history of the village and the things I have gathered from the ruins. Some of it, such as old pottery, I use as ornaments in the garden. But the more meaningful stuff I put in one of the houses. I hung a picture of the late Mr Ho and his wife there and I point out to visitors an old red cloth hanging on the main beam which has handwritten good luck wishes. I tell them, 'He is Mr Ho, the father of them all.'

'I have poured my heart into this village. We and our neighbours have worked very hard to maintain the village and its character. It is a very beautiful village. It has a lot of history and the special thing about it is that it is being lived in,' she says.

Pegg says she understands that the owners of the land have a right to build but feels some sort of preservation order should be given, to prevent the old houses from being significantly altered on the outside and to ensure any new building is in keeping with the character of the village.

Danny Ho says the plots involved were sold many years ago to a developer by villagers who no longer live here.

'I would like to see any new buildings being built in a way that would be in harmony with the old buildings in the village,' says Ho. 'But I don't know if the government can impose any conditions on the developers. Once they have the consent, we can't stop them.'

According to John Cox, who makes a daily trip from the village to the Aberdeen school where he works, there are other things at stake here as well as heritage and wildlife.

'The village is located along a river, which is a major feeder into the Hoi Ha Wan Marine Park. Any construction and new septic systems may well endanger the marine park,' he says. 'I am also concerned about the legality of it all. The application has been made by a corporation, not an indigenous villager, so this is in fact a developer at work who has no intention of occupying the houses himself.

'I understand that the government has not ruled on the legality of buying or selling the rights to build a New Territories Exempted House (the name given to houses built under the Small House Policy and on old house plots). Any such development should wait until this issue is settled.'

Designing Hong Kong, a non-profit group dedicated to protecting and enhancing the living environment of the city, has put forward similar arguments in its objection. In a letter to the District Lands Officer in Tai Po, it points out the adverse environmental effects of allowing 'urban sprawl to encroach on conservation areas and country parks' and draws attention to the possible pollution of underground waters by sewage.

It also points out that Pak Sha O is adjacent to a country park and, although not yet covered by statutory plans, will be protected or included in the country park in future, as promised in the Policy Address of 2010.

'We urge the Lands Department to immediately stop accepting and processing land grant and licence applications until after these areas have been duly considered and planned for by the Town Planning Board and Country and Marine Parks Board,' says the group.

Like the gloom of an oncoming storm, there is a sense among the residents, however, that the odds are stacked against them. First, because of the planning application procedure, which allows only 14 days for people to lodge objections; and second, because all objectors have to attend an interview if their views are to be considered. Failure to turn up for the interview results in the objection being withdrawn. Those who attend the interview will be asked to give permission for their names to be released to the applicant, which worries those residents who fear the information may affect their future leases.

In a statement, the District Lands Officer in Tai Po said the procedure in posting a notice of application had been followed and that no names would be disclosed to the applicant without permission of the person objecting.

But there is something else which may go against them, says semi-retired banker Tim Kay, a weekend resident of the village for 14 years.

'I expect the developers will go to the Lands Department and say these objections are from a bunch of gweilos - and it is nothing to do with them,' he says.

Kay rents the watchtower with his wife, Gail, and recently spent HK$200,000 retiling the roof in the original style. He believes few Chinese people are interested in preserving the (agrarian) past because it is too recent.

'All I can say is that we genuinely want to preserve it for future generations. In two or three generations, they will be at that stage where they say, 'We should have persevered more and kept more of our past.' It doesn't really matter to us if those two houses go up or not. It won't affect our life. But we are objecting because we want to preserve the village for Hong Kong people. It really would be tragic to see it disappear.'

The company behind the applications is Xinhua Bookstore Xiang Jiang Group. Its director, Lau Ming-shum, refused several requests to answer questions about the proposed houses or give any reassurances about retaining the character of the village. In an e-mailed response sent through an employee, Lau said: 'This is not the right time to give any comments.'

According to the Companies Registry, Lau is the director of a number of companies, including the Treasure Group, which shares the same Tai Po address as Xinhua Bookstore. The Treasure Group website says it is a licensed moneylender that specialises in financing, mortgages, the sale and purchase of land and the construction of village houses. It credits itself with building more than 1,000 village houses in Sha Tin, Tai Po and Sai Kung. It also features a gallery of photographs of the kind of houses it has built. They are three-storey blocks, with smooth plastered walls, ornate wrought-iron railings, flat rooftops, balconies and ordered landscaped gardens.

They are not the kind of buildings that complement the natural charm and untamed wilderness of Pak Sha O - which is why the eccentric mix of residents who kept the village alive while dozens around it died feel so united in fighting the application.

'Here we have the last remaining authentic New Territories village left in the country park, if not the whole of Hong Kong. To allow a developer to destroy this unique village without regard to the permanent damage is intolerable. An important part of Hong Kong history will be lost forever,' says John Cox.

Tsang says she is prepared to take the fight beyond words if need be: 'I'll happily lie down in front of the bulldozers.'