Fishing village left to flounder

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 April, 2012, 12:00am


A HK$620 million government project announced five years ago to revitalise the old village of Tai O appears to have been suspended.

A cottage showcasing the history of the salt-making industry in the fishing community has been closed to visitors since its refurbishment months ago, as researchers lack funds for its operation.

In addition, government plans in 2007 to rejuvenate the ageing village in Lantau by restoring an abandoned salt field for educational and tourism purposes, converting a public housing block into a youth hostel, and restoring a hand-pulled ferry, are also being neglected.

Liu Tik-sang, a professor of humanities at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said he and his colleagues had refurbished a wooden cottage that used to house the families of four salt workers. They did so to keep alive the memories of a nearly forgotten chapter of Tai O's history.

'We have to keep it locked for the time being because we have no funds to hire anyone to look after it,' Liu said, adding that attempts to secure charity funding had failed.

Liu, who was loaned the cottage by its owner, had reinforced its structure and set up information boards about the salt industry's development. He also brought in a collection of tools used by salt workers.

What is of greater concern to Liu is what the government will do with a plan to restore a disused salt farm for educational and tourism purposes, which is part of the multimillion-dollar project.

To date, only a few small restoration projects have been started or completed - including erecting new fences at a mangrove area, construction of a river wall, refurbishment of a temple square, and installation of telescopes at dolphin-watching pavilions.

Liu, who was hired to study the salt farm idea, has identified a single lot at one of the original salt pans near San Ki, where a stony surface for salt crystallisation still exists.

The Civil Engineering and Development Department, in charge of the restoration project, has not provided a timetable for the restoration of the salt pans. It said technical assessments and 'further public engagement exercises' would follow Liu's report. Carrying out the restoration project would depend on whether it could find an agent to run it on a sustainable basis, the department said.

However, Liu said: 'If you want it to generate enough income to cover operational costs, it's problematic. But if you see it as something educational for locals and tourists, it is worthwhile.'

Restoring the salt pans would be good news for residents like Lou Cheuk-wing, 77, vice-chairman of Tai O Rural Committee, who worked for the salt workers' trade union in the 1950s. 'Tai O's salt was of high quality,' Lou said. 'It was never too savoury and bitter. It was actually quite sweet and good for making salted fish. I miss the old days.'

Tai O has been famous for commercial salt production since the 18th century. Exports were smuggled to the mainland, where salt was monopolised by the state until the 1950s. The local industry was shut down in 1969.

'The problem is whether anyone is willing to do this again. Only a few salt workers are still alive and they are more than 80 years old now,' Lou said.

Wong Wai-king, a Tai O resident, said she and some environmental groups objected to the site Liu chose, as the water was polluted and restoring its salinity would kill the mangroves that now grew there.

She said her proposal, which she and an architect suggested a few years ago, was ignored.

It involved building a salt-themed museum, a private initiative, near the town's bus terminus and restoring a nearby salt field.