Out and about
Until new town development accelerated in the 1990s and the railway link to Tai Wai was built, Ma On Shan remained remote. Only a short but very steep walk from today's massed tower blocks, high up on the ridge, magnificent vistas open up of the Sha Tin New Town conurbation and eastwards over Port Shelter's scattered islands. A superb hike starts on the Sai Sha Road and continues on to Buffalo Hill and - for the more energetic - on to the Kowloon hills to the south.
Ma On Shan is known for stunning expanses of mountain sedges, which are vivid green in the summer and distinctively brown during the dry autumn months. Iron mining took place at Ma On Shan into the 50s and various access tunnels and shafts can still be found on isolated, overgrown corners.
The name means 'horse saddle mountain', and, from certain angles, the main ridge - also known as The Hunchbacks - bears a passing resemblance to a saddle. Intriguingly, the Chinese character for horse appears across the Hong Kong region in places where, historically, horses were mostly unknown. Ethnologists have speculated that this character's prevalence is a lingering linguistic legacy of earlier, pre-Chinese peoples who were gradually colonised down the centuries by waves of Han migrants from the north.
Other linguistic clues exist locally; 'wong ma' and 'wong chuk' - 'yellow hemp' and 'yellow bamboo', respectively - commonly occur in places where neither plant ever grew. Wong Ma Kok at Stanley and Wong Chuk Hang, near Aberdeen, are examples. These characters probably mean, in the sounds of the lost language of these long-vanished peoples, 'right hand side of ...' and 'left hand side of ...' as this was the pattern in which they invariably appeared.
At Wu Kai Sha, just below Ma On Shan, the Whitehead camp was used in the 80s and early 90s to accommodate some 28,000 'Vietnamese boatpeople'. Most of them, in fact, were ethnic Chinese, who had made most of their journey to Hong Kong over land, through southern China. The short crossing across the Pearl River estuary into Hong Kong was about the only part of the trip many actually made by boat.
Ten years after the last refugees were repatriated to Vietnam or resettled in a third country, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees still owes the Hong Kong administration well over HK$1 billion for their accommodation. Perhaps our more vocal legislators might take up this particular cause?