Out and about

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 May, 2010, 12:00am

Ma Wan, the small rocky island off northeastern Lantau, offers historical links that extend far beyond local village life. Now little more than a pylon base for the bridges leading to the airport, Ma Wan could have been Britain's toehold on the South China coast instead of Hong Kong Island.

By the late 18th century, the principal shipping route for foreign vessels en route to Canton (Guangzhou) travelled via Kap Shui Mun, the narrow sea lane that passes between northern Lantau and what was then the Chinese mainland. Ma Wan, which lies in this strategic channel, therefore had a lot of potential as a site for a permanent base, as did Chek Lap Kok and the entire north Lantau coast.

During the 1793 Macartney Mission, which fruitlessly attempted to establish permanent diplomatic and commercial relationships with some semblance of equality between Britain and China, Ma Wan was surveyed and the possibility of annexation at a future date explored. Lord Macartney's journal, later published as An Embassy to China, contains brief period descriptions of the island and the surrounding waters.

After Hong Kong became a British colony with a free-port policy, the smuggling of goods, from here and Macau, that were subject to higher ad valorem taxation on the mainland soared. To help control this problem, Imperial Maritime Customs stations were established at a number of locations in Chinese territory, such as Junk Island, Cheung Chau and Ma Wan, on the sea approaches to British waters. As these stations were all within the boundaries of the area leased as the New Territories in 1898, they were subsequently closed. Part of the remains of the old customs building can still be seen on Ma Wan.

Ma Wan's marine-related attrac- tions do not end there. The island is home to one of Asia's more unusual theme parks, which contains a life-size replica of Noah's Ark. Fundamentalist Christianity has been an East Asian growth industry in recent years. Heavily American-flavoured mani- festations of this religious pheno- menon can be seen in the most unlikely of places, and Ma Wan is one of the more extreme examples. Many of Hong Kong's Mammon-obsessed tycoon fraternity, as well as more than a few top-level government officials, are fervent believers. And some of their number kindly brought us this family-oriented theme park. And yea, we are truly grateful!