Out and about

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 September, 2008, 12:00am

To many Hong Kong people, Shunde - better-known locally as Shun Tak - epitomises southern China's industrial heartland at its ugliest and most polluted. Situated on the West River, between Macau and Foshan, the city also offers an appealing combination of riverine scenery and social history unknown to the thousands of business visitors who flit in and out as quickly as possible.

The West River districts once held deeply personal connections for thousands of Hong Kong families - this was where their servants came from. The best and most reliable of the famous, now-vanished mah-jeh (professional Cantonese domestic amahs) almost all came from Shun Tak - or claimed they did to enhance their employability. Mah-jeh were commonly known as 'black-and-white' amahs because of their white blouses and black trousers.

Shun Tak had a long tradition of relative female emancipation; women had worked in and mostly controlled the silk-floss industry. High-quality Shun Tak silk was a leading 17th-century export commodity from Macau to Japan. When the industry was devastated in the 1920s by the widespread introduction of Japanese artificial silk (rayon), Shun Tak women were forced to find alternative employment and domestic service in Hong Kong, the Straits Settlements and Malaya filled the bill. Most mah-jeh who were still working retired in the 70s and with their disappearance an entire way of life vanished.

Like Suzhou, canals interlinked various parts of Shun Tak and some of the city's more picturesque waterways have recently been restored as tourist haunts. Qinghui, an extensive formal Qing dynasty garden - one of the best known in Guangdong province - is a major landmark not to be missed by visitors to the city.

Most towns on the mainland with a famous son readily proclaim the local connection - even if the descent is somewhat tenuous. Shun Tak is no exception and - like Hong Kong - has jumped enthusiastically onto the Bruce Lee bandwagon in recent years. Lee's father, Lee Hoi-chuen, regarded Shun Tak as his heung ha (ancestral district) and in homage, the municipality has named a street after the martial arts star.

Little matter that the Eurasian former La Salle College student was born in the United States, brought up in Kowloon, returned to the US as a young man and married a European woman - he's still considered a prominent 'local'. His ancestral home - which the actor never visited - is open to the public and a Bruce Lee theme park is due to open in the city next year. Yet again, the mainland has gained the lead over Hong Kong.

Regular passenger ferries from the Hong Kong China Ferry Terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui link Hong Kong and Shun Tak - the journey time is under three hours.