New bamboo to build on Tai O's traditions

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 October, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 October, 2005, 12:00am

Architects believe using indigenous cultures for inspiration attracts visitors more than tailor-made facilities

Salted fish and squid dangle from a bamboo canopy that stretches hundreds of metres over the old market at Tai O, while underneath, locals demonstrate the skills of fish skinning and making shrimp paste.

This is the vision of a group of young architects who want to revamp the Lantau fishing village to preserve its unique traditions and geography.

The group, Re-Architecture, is discussing the project with the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

Team member Henry Leung Ki-cheong says indigenous cultures are far more attractive to tourists than specially built tourist facilities.

'Handcraft-making, salt farming, seafood drying and salted marine products have been the dominant domestic activities in Tai O, and stilt houses the unique architectural features of the place,' says Mr Leung, 28, an architectural designer.

'The use of bamboo is involved in almost every area of the livelihood of Tai O people. As such, we chose to use bamboo as the material of the project to create an intimate relationship between our architectural structure and Tai O.'

The bamboo canopy would act as a bridge connecting the real Tai O with outsiders.

To the locals, it would be a place to sun-dry their sea food, a new focal point for chatting with their neighbours, and a shaded market to sell their homemade snacks and handcraft products.

The group has also proposed building bamboo canopies in five other zones - a museum zone, memorial zone, bridge zone, heritage zone and a conservation zone - to protect the ecological and cultural heritage of Tai O.

The memorial zone, next to the town's remaining stilt houses - a third of which were destroyed by fire in 2000 - would include a display to explain the history of the houses.

The museum zone, on land adjacent to the disused Tai O salt pans, would explain the history of salt production in Tai O. A major industry in the village before the 1970s, it gave rise to the production of salted marine products for which the village is renowned.

Every October a Cantonese opera festival is held at the village in a temporary bamboo shelter, which is demolished once the festival is over. The bamboo sticks left over are traditionally taken home by villagers for their own use. The group proposes to recycle the bamboo sticks and erect a canopy on the site as a heritage zone.

In these zones, the bamboo canopy would serve as a community centre for interactive workshops including salted fish production, bamboo furniture making and story-telling, all involving local people.

Kin Leung Ka-kin, another team member, hopes the bamboo canopies will help Tai O evolve, and grow together with its history and culture in a sustainable manner.

'Tai O is old, and that is what makes it unique. The old stilt houses, old salted fish-making traditions, old bamboo structures, and old people in the village, they all carry the unique traditions and creativity of Tanka people,' Mr Kin says. 'Sadly, in this city, anything deemed 'old' is considered useless and worthless.'

He said the government seemed to have a list of building requirements for developing an area, without considering the unique characteristics of the area involved.

'Promenades, outdoor plazas and cafes, are all essential items for the government in developing seaside areas, like West Kowloon, Tsing Yi, Sai Kung and, eventually, Tai O.'

Wong Wai-king, founder of the Tai O Cultural Workshop who has lived in the village for more than 40 years, could not agree more.

She says the government advocates eco-tourism but does not practice it. The essence of eco-tourism, and heritage tourism, is not leisure activities, but community cultures and the natural scenery in the village.

'The government is turning Tai O into something it is not, rather than sustaining the place,' Ms Wong says. 'If the government keeps going in this direction, Tai O will die.'