Town of smiles

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2007, 12:00am

Which is the friendliest place in the New Territories? It's surprising how often I get asked this. It's a hard query to answer. Every town and all 600 villages have their own character. Some communities value their historic links with the past and centuries of clan occupation. Others are brand-new communities with no tradition, towns like Tseung Kwan O and Ma On Shan.

It's hard to find a more welcoming place than Tap Mun, the island out in the middle of Mirs Bay. The old fishermen selling exotic sea shells greet everyone with a weatherbeaten smile. Tai O, at the western tip of Lantau, enjoys a reputation for welcoming visitors, especially foreign tourists; maybe that's because locals see comparatively few of them. On the other hand, Kam Tin, which gets many visitors, sometimes offers a surly sneer.

This contrasts strongly with another village of the huge Tang clan, Ping Shan. There, proud village elders usher city school children and foreign tourists into the gloriously restored study hall, temple and other centuries-old buildings, offering free pamphlets and explaining the intricacies of rural lore and religious rites.

Most major new towns have something to offer. In the Sha Tin valley, there's the race course, the splendid Heritage Museum, and more than 600,000 people. The old fishing port of Tai Wai, now kilometres from the sea, is a jovial, bustling place. Yuen Long, by contrast, has a well-deserved reputation as a home for criminals, and a traffic system seemingly designed by a maniac; it's as hard to find a smile there as it is to navigate the streets.

Sheung Shui has grown so fast that it has embraced Fanling and swamped local villages. Similarly, expansion of Tuen Mun has eliminated the grubby charm of the old Castle Peak fishing port.

One place has managed to survive the kind of growth that has seen placid villages transformed into booming new towns. That place is Tai Po, which wins my vote as the town of smiles.

Part of the reason is that the old core of the original market town has been preserved and many of the original clans, whose ancestors have lived there for centuries, remain.

There's great dim sum, of course, but my favourite places are the Thai restaurants near the Plover Cove Reservoir. There's also a froth of bars and pubs, many of them filled with BBCs, British-born Chinese, who have returned home to trace their native roots.

The area got its name - Tai Po means 'big steps' - because, centuries ago, the valley was covered with thick vegetation and you were well advised to take big steps to cross it. There was some basis to these claims. In 1915, a large male tiger was shot dead there after it had killed three policemen. The only Tiger you are likely to see today in amiable Tai Po, however, is on a well-chilled can of beer alongside a platter of garlic prawns.

Kevin Sinclair is a Hong Kong reporter who lives in the New Territories