Who cares about the past?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 September, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 September, 2006, 12:00am

week 1: what it is all about

The villages of the New Territories are facing a challenge of identity. During the past 50 years, all have changed enormously. Many of the more remote settlements have died, abandoned by their occupants, swept to extinction by tidal waves of demographic, social and economic forces. The 600 surviving villages have changed out of all recognition.

Today we introduce a weekly seven-part series, which starts next Monday, reporting on how some of these communities are trying to keep alive traces of their heritage. Preserving Villages 2006 is a project that aims to highlight and encourage this trend.

Of the 707 registered villages across the New Territories and islands, at least 100 are ghost communities, deserted by the clan, often overgrown and disappearing under vegetation.

Other villages have been absorbed into the large New Towns where the majority of the New Territories' 3.5 million people now live.

As the old way of life disappears, never to return, and farming skills are lost, there is a growing curiosity among young people about the way of life of their forebears. There is now an urge to keep alive some remnants of the past. It is a welcome and growing trend.

Most of the rural communities were humble villages that for centuries survived on subsistence farming, planting and harvesting their rice and vegetables, raising a few pigs and chickens or depending on the harvest of the sea.

Today, many are thriving communities where native sons have been elevated to significant wealth by developing village lands, a trend escalated vastly as a result of the small-house policy of 1972. This resulted in the development of swathes of three-storey villas that are now the common architectural basis of most New Territories settlements.

As these twin changes have taken hold, the old way of life has disappeared. Many clansmen were not sorry to see it go. The cramped old village houses with their picturesque black-tiled roofs may have been scenic and blended in beautifully on their carefully selected sites, and locations were picked so the community could exist in harmony with nature and in accordance with the rules of fung shui. But the homes were tiny and uncomfortable. They had no running water, electricity or indoor toilets. Pretty to admire, they have largely disappeared as the ubiquitous 'Spanish villas' with their spacious format of three floors and 700 square feet of floor area have been built by the thousands.

In recent years, some communities have made efforts to keep alive aspects of their past. This has meant in some cases abandoned villages being preserved as museums. In other instances, clansmen have worked to preserve traces of the communal legacy.

The South China Morning Post, in conjunction with the Home Affairs Department and indigenous villagers throughout Hong Kong, has for the past year been identifying communities that have taken noticeable steps to preserve their traditions or in other ways keep alive some elements of the past.

This has been done more widely than many town dwellers believe. In some cases, everyone knows the results: the revived Bun Festival on Cheung Chau is an example; the dragon boat races held in many bays and fishing harbours are a vivid example of the living past.

Quietly, in less obvious ways, many villages have tried to maintain or develop links to their heritage. The most common is through the maintenance and preservation of temples, study halls and other community structures. But as villages four centuries old come into the 21st century, a number of communities have used computer technology to connect with the past.

The blinding pace of change hit the New Territories in the 1950s. The economic impact of the Korean war and trade blockades of China led to desperate poverty in rural areas.

First by the scores, then in their hundreds, then by the thousands men went to sea as merchant mariners or migrated to work in Britain or other countries. Today, the diaspora that this migration created spans the world. Keeping in touch by computer with native sons who were born in Scotland, Sweden or Canada is one way that some villages are preserving communal links.

To identify settlements that were preserving village ways in many aspects, we enlisted the help of Director of Home Affairs Pamela Tan Kam Mi-wah and her department. The same partnership between the Post and the Home Affairs Department last year produced a series of articles called Living Villages, which focused on communities that had made the successful transition from farming to modern existence.

The aim then was to identify villages where inhabitants took the initiative to make their community better for its inhabitants. One measure of its success came earlier this year when the Post was awarded the Grand Award for Heritage prize for 2006 by the Pacific Asia Travel Association in recognition of the social significance of the project.

The Preserving Villages 2006 project - which will be published in the paper's City section every Monday over the coming seven weeks - was produced in a similar manner.

Suggestions for villages that had taken action came from district officers in all nine rural areas, from the Islands to North District and from Yuen Long to Sai Kung. Other ideas were proffered by police officers, postmen, businesspeople and friends. We visited more than 40 communities to see what they had done. The list of finalists was whittled down.

Eventually, we settled on seven communities. The first of these will be featured next week and a grand winner will be revealed on October 23.