Rice growing in Hong Kong gets a fresh start in Lantau Island

Yi O holds the seeds to a revival in commercial rice farming in Hong Kong – an activity that has all but disappeared in the city since the 1970s

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 June, 2016, 10:37am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 June, 2016, 4:10pm

Even if you know Tai O, the fishing village on the far western side of Lantau Island, it takes a while to recognise its connection with Yi O.

Both are “O” – inlets in Cantonese.

Yi O is smaller (“yi” means second, and “tai” means big); nevertheless, its settlement, which sits in a long, narrow valley about an hour’s walk from Tai O bus terminus, holds the seeds to a revival in commercial rice farming in Hong Kong.

The resurgence is being driven by Yi O Agricultural Cooperation, a company set up by Alan Wong

Wing-kan, a semi-retired former property manager, and town planner Andrew Lam Siu-lo, who also chairs the Antiquities Advisory Board.

Neither had farm experience but the pair was interested in conservation and believed that a city, even one as dense as Hong Kong, should grow some of its food instead of relying entirely on imports.

They were keen to see if they could grow rice commercially and in an eco-friendly way. As the partners looked around for agricultural land, Wong and Lam’s expertise helped narrow their choice to three sites.

“There weren’t many choices in terms of finding a sizable piece of land,” Wong says. “We had looked in Sha Tau Kok, Sai Kung and Yi O, but much of Sha Tau Kok had already been taken over as barbecue or wargame sites, and Sai Kung had too many inaccessible, hilly roads and didn’t have enough water sources. Yi O fit the bill in all respects.”

Land in Yi O belonged to four clans, who established two villages, building the second after an outbreak of disease led them to abandon the first. By the 1970s, all its inhabitants had left for a better life elsewhere. Still, the partners needed their permission to work the land, and persuaded three of the clans to give them the green light.

“It’s important to have the support of [Yi O] villagers, who own the land. It took some persuasion, but we were able to convince them that we are here to farm and restore the village,” Wong says.

In 2013, the company secured an agreement for a 30-year lease on site and went to work.

Wong adds: “This is not a short-term project. It takes time to rebuild an ecosystem.”

Despite support from the villagers, public criticism of their farm venture came thick and fast. Both founders are connected to Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying: Wong was a senior manager at DTZ, an estate services firm that Leung previously held ownership in, and Lam helped write Leung’s urban planning policy during his campaign to become Chief Executive.

“Everyone thinks we’re just here to build commercial or residential properties,” Wong says. “Whether it’s the residents of nearby Tai O, or Hongkongers in general, everybody assumes that land is for developing property. You can’t blame them for thinking that way. For the most part, that has always been the approach in Hong Kong.”

But a stroll through Yi O’s old village shows no developments being rolled out. Instead, there is an expanse of lush, green fields with neat lines of crops, and a few old shipping containers and ramshackle bamboo shelters on the fringes. These sheds are where farm workers retreat to at noon, when the sun is too fierce for working in the fields.

Their goal, Wong says, is to have a productive, economically viable farm that will give landowners and others a reason to come back to live and work in Yi O.

“I’m hoping this is where I’ll retire,” Wong says, chuckling at the idea of a former property executive sweating it out on a remote Hong Kong farm. “We’re working on it. We still have 27 years.”

The project takes up about 7.4 hectares of farmland, occupying most of the narrow valley. A single access path, shared by pedestrians, cyclists and light machinery, divides the site into two sections. The western side, being closer to waterways, is used for rice paddies, while plots on the west side are planted with crops such as amaranth, bak choi and sweet potato.

Although most farms in Hong Kong focus on vegetables, the Yi O company aims to revive commercial rice production – an activity that had disappeared in Hong Kong since the ’70s. It’s hard to believe that at one point, local farms were so productive that Hong Kong actually was a net exporter of rice.

Rice cultivation has also returned to a few corners of Hong Kong: Zen Organic Farm in Fanling has maintained small paddies for families to experience the various stages of rice production; NGOs are collaborating to try to bring long-abandoned fields at Lai Chi Wo back to life.

Remarkably, paddies at Long Valley, near Sheung Shui, grew out of a project to maintain a habitat for local wildlife. Run jointly by the Conservancy Association and the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society, the programme began in 2005 to transform 12 hectares of wetlands with help from local farmers, planting some sections with crops such as water chestnuts and lotuses. The following year, the groups began growing rice to try to attract migratory birds. The experiment not only attracted more species; as they gained experience, the green groups found themselves producing enough surplus to even sell some of their harvest.

Traditionally, families in Yi O each had their own fields right in front of their houses, Wong says, and were mostly self-sustaining. “They grew their own rice as well as vegetables, and fished and kept animals.”

Reviving paddies – growing rice in a continuously lightly flooded plot – is not the only way of cultivation, but the company adopted this method because it’s how older Yi O villagers remember doing it, Wong says, and one that their farm workers were familiar with.

But these plots have yet to become the efficient, productive paddies of Wong’s dreams.

Disease decimated their rice crop last year. “The disease was [transmitted] in the water, and it just flowed from one paddy to the next. There was nothing to harvest. The plants grew, but the husks were empty. The only rice plants that survived were the ones we had randomly planted on dry land. After three and a half years [of working on the farm], we’re still experimenting”.

A little more than 10 per cent of the site is currently being cultivated, and recruiting staff is a major challenge. They employ five full-time farm workers, some more experienced than others.

“At the moment our plots are producing about half the amount they should, but we’ve learned it’s a slow process,” Wong says. “When we first set up the farm, as town planners, we went in with Powerpoint presentations and projections. But with climate change, when the weather suddenly turns, we’re at a complete loss as to what to do.”

Nonetheless, rising concerns over food safety have ensured a certain demand from consumers.

After the failed crop of last winter, the farm came up with a pre-order scheme to support the next planting, and was fully subscribed within a day.

Farm-to-table dining has been a global food trend for some time, but the pickings have been slim for Hong Kong chefs looking to source locally. However, Kin’s Kitchen in Wan Chai has taken a leaf out of the books of chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Alice Waters by doing their part to support a sustainable agricultural movement.

Lau Chun, who set up the restaurant with his father, Lau Kin-wai , says: “As a chef and restaurateur, I believe we can do more outside the kitchen, hence I try to bring in naturally grown produce from Yi O.

Not only getting better ingredients, but also encouraging farming practices that are good for the environment.”

Kin’s Kitchen has invested in a recent crop at Yi O and, if all goes well, will be serving the rice in the autumn.

To build awareness and attract farm workers, as well as customers, the company runs its own produce shop in Tai O, as well as a variety of programmes for the public. These include planting workshops, ecological tours and camping facilities on the Yi O farm.

Says Wong: “The problem is, there aren’t enough farmers, and [Hong Kong] has lost a lot of agricultural knowledge. If you look at the universities in Hong Kong, there isn’t an agricultural specialisation. There’s a lot of room for regrouping this sort of knowledge and investing in agricultural technologies.

“Our youngest farm worker is just 19 years old. When I asked him why he wanted to farm, he said, ‘Everyone needs to eat, so I know I’ll never be out of a job’. We need more people to think like that.”