Witness to a paradise lost | South China Morning Post
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  • Jan 30, 2015
  • Updated: 3:43pm

Witness to a paradise lost

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 October, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 October, 1996, 12:00am

Old ways of life sometimes vanish without trace in Hong Kong. Buildings disappear overnight and new ones sprout up quickly on land reclaimed from the sea.

But even so, it is difficult to imagine that the concrete jungle of Tsuen Wan once yielded sweet and delicious morsels such as pineapple and sea snails.

Understanding Tsuen Wan's past is a passion for Dr Graham Johnson, a Canadian academic who has spent the past 30 years studying its changes and reliving its history as a Hakka enclave, agricultural village, and textile town.

If you go to Tsuen Wan, he says, you can still see traces of what went before.

Not only is the academic an expert on Tsuen Wan's transformation, he has also lived in the area on and off since 1968.

He speaks and writes Chinese and knows the locals - many of them Hakka descendants - well.

When greeting them in perfect Cantonese - Ah-por jo sun, Ah-suk yum cha la? - he sounds more like a local Tsuen Wan villager than a bespectacled Western intellectual.

The native Canadian arrived in Tsuen Wan as a young student in the 1960s with his young wife and child.

He intended to study rural transformation in China, but it was impossible to travel to the mainland or obtain decent material in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution.

So Hong Kong became the centre of his studies instead.

His wife, Elizabeth shares his interest in the changing countryside.

She carried out doctoral research on the life of women in Kwan Mun Hau Tsuen.

Dr Johnson, in turn, decided to study the changes in Tsuen Wan.

'What intrigued me was that thousands of people moved in for industrial opportunities in the 50s and overnight a town grew up.

'In the 50s there were 80,000 people living in Tsuen Wan. In the 60s there were 200,000 and today 800,000.

'It was incredible growth. How did something grow so fast and hold together? That interests me,' said Dr Johnson, who is a visiting fellow at City University.

'Tsuen Wan is special because it is a post-industrial town that's got a rural embryonic.' Dr Johnson said Tsuen Wan had changed immensely since his first visit.

In the 60s it was an industrial town with dyeing and preserved food factories.

The tallest building belonged to the Far East Bank, a site now dwarfed by towering residential blocks.

Walking past Luk Yeung Sun Chuen on a tour of the area, Dr Johnson said: 'Now we are walking on the Tsuen Wan field.' In front were concrete blocks of residential buildings.

Not so long ago, the brick-red road beneath the doctor's feet had once been a rice field.

Homes at Luk Yeung Sun Chuen were built in the 80s. Dr Johnson said the area marked a change in the area's development.

'When the industrial revolution was completed in the 80s, middle-class housing emerged.' Traces of the textile boom in the 50s are difficult to spot as the factories have long been demolished.

But Dr Johnson said the name of the Nan Fung Centre revealed the past.

'Nan Fung was a textile mill. The factories have given way to a shopping centre,' he said.

Nan Fung was among the textile mills built by Shanghainese entrepreneurs who flooded into Hong Kong after the civil war in China.

They brought in skills and capital as well as looms and textile equipment that transformed Tsuen Wan from a Hakka enclave into a little Shanghai.

Dr Johnson is also interested in the indigenous Hakka people. How did they cope during these changes? Some of the answers lie in two plaques engraved in the Tin Hau Temple.

'One plaque is a list of names, telling how much they donated for the renovation of the temple,' he said.

'And the next plaque [lists] natives gone abroad which tells where people were. They are all over the world.' Some of the original villagers worked in gold fields in Africa and North America.

Others went to Australia and Singapore.

Tsuen Wan was a Hakka enclave with the purest, ethnically homogenous people in the New Territories.

But today the Hakka culture is all but gone.

'This generation doesn't speak the language. The Hakka songs are lost,' said Dr Johnson.

'Women used to sing them when they worked in the mountains.

'The Hakka belt, apron and the distinctive black curtain hat are all gone.' The indigenous people have been engulfed by development and the Government negotiated the removal of many villagers in the 60s.

The first villagers were moved out of Tsuen Wan in 1935 when the Jubilee Reservoir was built and by 1985 almost all the central villages in the area had gone. Today, one village, Sam Tung Uk, a typical Hakka compound, has been rebuilt and preserved as a museum.

Despite these changes the indigenous people still play a significant role in the community.

They run the Tin Hau Temple and gather to worship the Tin Hau Birthday Festival.

'There is change - but there's a sense of being and identity,' said Dr Johnson. 'It is still very strong and potent and people still recognise themselves as Hakka and Tsuen Wan villagers.' The study of Tsuen Wan does not end there.

Dr Johnson is eager to follow any changes beyond 1997.

'My plan for the next three years is to systematically look at the consequences of resumption of sovereignty by China,' he said.

His studies also extend beyond the border. Dr Johnson is now seeking funding for his research into rural transformation across the delta region in China, where he will focus on five areas including Dongguan, Shunde and Taishan.

'It's absolutely fascinating to study the development of a town,' he said.

'And there are real parallels between Hong Kong's towns and the transformation in China.'


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