Temples tell a tale of segregation in the past

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


The temples in Tai O tell many stories of how the village thrived on fishing and salt-making activities in the past, including a tale of segregation between salt workers and fishermen.

Liu Tik-sang, a humanities professor from the University of Science and Technology, said the Tin Hau Temple in Tai O was built by fishermen on the shoreline in the early Qing dynasty, but was later taken over by salt workers.

'As the coastal area was developed into salt farms, the temple became surrounded by land and controlled by salt workers,' he said. 'Fishermen were forced northwards and found another temple of their own.'

This was how the Yeung Hau Temple, at the northern tip of the village and far away from the town centre, was established. 'This, to some extent, reflected group segregation, and how people living on the land discriminated against those living on water,' Liu said.

The British colonial administration encouraged the expansion of the salt industry, leasing public land to companies and introducing solar evaporation techniques to boost production.

A sign of Tai O's former prosperity can be found on the roof of the Kwan Tai Temple, in the middle of the town. The decorations on the roof ridge are made of ceramics from Shiwan, in Guangdong, a town famous for producing material of superb quality.

Hong Kong's urban temples lacked such fine ceramics, Liu said, and this showed Tai O's economic status before the city was colonised by the British. Inscriptions on a bronze bell in the temple showed that donations came from people in Guangdong's Punyu.

The recent opening of the old Tai O police station as a heritage hotel has drawn a lot of interest, but there are other places of note in Tai O that are less known, such as a shelter for dying people with incurable diseases, or fishermen needing medical care. The 'convenience house', as its plaque reads, was founded by a community leader in the 1930s. It is now a storehouse for disused rubbish bins of the defunct regional council.