An old hand recalls the glory days of a long-dead industry

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 January, 2008, 12:00am

Chow Gau was thrilled to learn that salt making could soon resume in Tai O.

The 88-year-old's only concern is whether it will still be done the traditional way - he is the youngest of the village's surviving former salt makers. 'We are too old to farm on a salt pan again. I am worried it is not easy to revive it, as there is a lack of skilled workers,' he said.

Mr Chow, who has lived in Tai O for 64 years, is one of three villagers who used to work on the salt pans - tidal flats on the western tip of Lantau where the South China Sea deposits salt.

'I was taught how to use the instruments and how to produce salt by my father in my home town, Shanwei in Guangdong. My father was also a salt farmer,' he said.

'I came to Tai O at 24 and was immediately hired by one of the three salt farm operators.'

The salt pan was close to his home and at least 10 villagers worked for the same operator, he recalled.

There was no fixed schedule for collecting salt from the pans since the work depended greatly on the weather and the humidity.

'When we collected a large amount of salt, we would place it in warehouses. After that, we would pack it in bags and sell the salt to consumers,' he said.

During the 1930s, the salt produced in Tai O was costly. Local residents could not normally afford it and most was for export.

The buyers, who came to Tai O by boat, would smuggle the salt back to the mainland. Their trading was done with another commodity - rice.

'I could get 300 catties of rice when 100 catties of salt sold during the best selling period,' Mr Chow said. 'But the business was always fluctuating.'

He recalled that salt making went into decline after the Japanese occupation in Hong Kong ended in 1945.

Mr Chow said salt making involved multiple processes and would need many workers to do the job. He said employing skilled labour from the mainland could be a way to solve the shortage of salt farmers in Tai O.