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Ping Shan: a slice of Hong Kong history on a heritage trail

A vivid glimpse of Hong Kong's past can be found just a stone's throw from the hustle and bustle of the city

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 June, 2015, 10:11am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 June, 2015, 10:02am

When you ponder Hong Kong's remaining heritage, you might envisage a multitude of buildings from colonial times, plus a smattering of ruined forts and uninspiring but mysterious rock carvings. Yet at Ping Shan, beside Tin Shui Wai new town, there's a cluster of venerable buildings, several of which date from well before Hong Kong was claimed as a colony. They're linked by a 1.6km heritage trail, and include two of the grandest ancestral halls and the only ancient pagoda in the city.

Tsui Sing Lau pagoda

Ping Shan was reportedly established during the 12th century, by a father and son from the Tang clan. According to the clan genealogy, the pagoda was built 600 years ago — during the Ming dynasty.

Ping Shan was then on low hills amid a plain beside Deep Bay, in an area susceptible to flooding, especially from storm surges during typhoons. The pagoda was built partly to boost the fung shui and guard against floods. It was also intended as a sort of grand talisman to bring locals success in imperial examinations, so they could become officials. It still houses a statue of Fui Shing (Champion Star), venerated as a god of fortune for exams.

Though the pagoda was perhaps five or seven storeys tall, today just three storeys remain. The area has been transformed, too; the fish ponds that were there in the late 1980s have gone, and the pagoda now faces a car park and is backed by the gigantic railway station and high-rises. It is a sad fate for a building that stood guard for so long, and lifted confidence of exam-taking students.

Imperial ambitions

The Ping Shan villagers were not foolish enough to think a pagoda alone was enough to pass imperial exams, and there are two study halls here. The best of them is barely a minute's walk from the ancestral halls.

This is Kun Ting study hall, and while the exterior looks unprepossessing, inside there's a small open courtyard plus alcoves with splendidly decorated beams, roofs and door panels. It's relatively new, built in 1870 — just 29 years before the British leased the New Territories, and 35 years before China abolished the imperial examination system. Even so, it's steeped in the traditions of imperial China.

From early last century until just after the second world war, local children studied here. Today, the study hall is a restored relic of the past, almost frozen in time like a museum exhibit.

Next door, a narrow corridor leads to a circular entrance to Ching Shu Hin, a former guesthouse for scholars and visitors. Here, too, there are exquisite decorations.

Nick of time

In 1899, the year the lease on the New Territories began, the colonial government built a police station atop the main hill at Ping Shan. The police moved out around the turn of this century, and the three buildings now house the inelegantly named Ping Shan Tang Clan Gallery cum Heritage Trail Visitors Centre.

The main building is in classic colonial style — square, with open archways flanking corridors on both floors, and walls painted white. Inside are exhibits from Ping Shan, including a very fine tapestry. Photos abound; some scenes from only a few decades ago appear from another era.

Echoes of bygone days

From the pagoda, the trail follows a narrow road, leaving the new town behind. There's little greenery. Rice farming that helped power Ping Shan prosperity stopped decades ago, and today the area is more akin to a scruffy suburb than a proud rural settlement.

But there are sights along the heritage trail. A grey brick structure is a shrine to an earth god, who supposedly protects villagers and resides in a couple of small stones set in an altar.

A newly renovated rectangular building with a doorway and two tiny arch-shaped windows marks the entrance to a walled village, Sheung Cheung Wai. It's flanked by sturdy walls, within which houses are arrayed in tightly packed rows. Former residents were willing to sacrifice living space in order to enjoy safety from banditry and the inter-clan battles that afflicted the New Territories.

After a well that may be more than 200 years old, a short footpath leads to Yeung Hau temple, a simple, squat building with shrines inside, and three openings facing an open-air altar. It's dedicated to Hau Wong, thought to have been a general who died trying to protect two boy emperors as the remnants of the Song court fled Mongol invaders and reached the Pearl River delta in the 13th century.

Ancestral halls

The stars of the trail are two impressive ancestral halls built side by side and with almost identical designs. The trail arrives at an open area in front of the buildings, with the 700-year-old Tang ancestral hall on the left. As well as having tablets with names of Tang clan ancestors arrayed in a rear recess, its two spacious courtyards host festivals, ceremonies and clan meetings.

Though its neighbour is named the Yu Kiu ancestral hall, it too is dedicated to the Tang clan, and was built by two brothers in the 16th century. It's also more than simply an ancestral hall, and was a school for local children. Both ancestral halls have traditional Chinese architecture including roof tiles topped with pottery statues of fish, unicorns and monsters, along with mighty guards painted on their doors.

Getting there

The pagoda is near Exit E of Tin Shui Wai station; the gallery is a few minutes' walk from the Ping Shan stop on the LRT.

Opening times of buildings vary; they're typically 9am to 1pm and 2pm to 5pm, though the gallery is open from 9am to 6pm in summer, and closed on Mondays.