The rain was incessant, the skies a greenish grey and my Sunday hike across the northeast New Territories was taking far longer than anticipated. It was late afternoon and getting dark; I wouldn't be able to make it to the nearest road before nightfall.

It was time to make other plans. My sodden paper map showed a village called So Lo Pun in the valley below; I would get down there, knock on a door and ask if I could sleep on someone's floor.

As I approached, I could see no lights, and - before I knew it - I realised that I had arrived. The trees of the forest were growing up through the dark windows and broken rafters of what had been a terrace of single-storey houses. Nobody had lived here for decades.

That was my introduction to the abandoned villages of Hong Kong.

Many of the remote settlements in the New Territories were thriving until the 1950s. "Then people started drifting to the urban areas where better-paid work was available," says Philip Kenny, who writes about the hidden parts of the region on his blog, Hong Kong (& Macau) Stuff. "Many went overseas to work in the Chinese restaurant business."

The 60s saw increasing numbers move away from rural homes and traditional lifestyles as farming and fishing became less viable.

"People either moved closer to the city or took advantage of Hong Kong's ties to the UK and went overseas," says Kenny. "Britain encouraged immigration at the time."

Hong Kong's climate and fast-growing foliage can consume a traditional village house remarkably quickly. First to go is usually the tiled roof, exposing wooden beams which then rot and fall inwards. The side walls follow. Often the last part of a house left standing is the front doorway, with its stone lintel.

"I was a seven-year-old country boy when I left the village," says Liverpool-based writer Po Wah Lam, who grew up in a village inside the closed frontier area. "Yet somehow I never really left. For a long time I kept returning to it in dreams. These were very happy dreams and they were always the same: the field, our dog, all marching in to welcome me back. When finally I did return for real, as an adult, the place felt and looked smaller than I remembered it, and also very empty.

"Our village, Heung Yuen, was similar in a way to the setting of the film Seven Samurai, which is director Akira Kurosawa's greatest masterpiece. There were mountains wrapped around a cluster of houses and small fields worked over by animals and people. And like the film, there was adventure. I remember fishing and exploring, the scent of rose myrtle and the wintergreen that grew around the hills. We used the wintergreen to make brooms. The school and the weddings, and the night-time cinema screenings that once took place inside our tiny village classroom; I remember them all, but with people who have now gone."

My unexpected overnight stay in So Lo Pun took place 20 years after Lam's family left their village life, but mobile phones were still not commonplace in 1994, so I had no way of calling for assistance. I took shelter first under the slanted roof of the village shrine, and then inside a low, open-fronted shed which housed grimy bone jars. A heavy animal stomped unseen around my hiding place all night, kicking over stones. When dawn came, and with it an end to the downpour, I hiked around the coast - passing through another ghostly settlement of empty houses in a bay with a clear view of the mainland - until, in the early evening, I finally came to a phone box at an inhabited village called Kuk Po.

If you have hiked in the hills of Hong Kong, you have probably come across similarly eerie villages, some overgrown but others apparently deserted very recently. It might seem odd that in a city where land is so valuable, so many beautifully sited residences are left empty. But location is everything.

Village voices: residents and exiles talk about the places where they grew up

Sham Chung, Sai Kung West Country Park

Sham Chung village representative Li Chun-fai says, "There are only two ferries every day from Ma Liu Shui pier, one at 11.30am, one at 3pm. It's very inconvenient and many people moved out, starting in the 60s. In the 50s, there were 500 people living there but, as farming and fishing dwindled, people moved overseas for work. I left the village at the age of 15 for the United States to study.

"I returned to Hong Kong in the 90s. Many people like me want to retire in Sham Chung after they come back to Hong Kong from overseas but we can't do that as the government has ignored our calls to provide services to the village. I am forced to live in Tai Po now.

"There are 70 village houses [in Sham Chung] overgrown with weeds. Six years ago, a cyclist riding on a three-foot path accidentally fell into the river and died. I have seen many such cycling incidents involving injuries. I wrote to the government to ask for the path to be widened, but the government just ignored it. Many other coastal villages in Sai Kung North have suffered the same fate as us.

"I miss my life there as it's beautiful and the village had a lot of fish. Now some villagers go back on the weekends to sell snacks or food to hikers in the stores."

Wang Shan Keuk, the northeast New Territories

Wang Shan Keuk village representative Chan Tin-sung says, "The lower and upper Wang Shan Keuk villages, inside Pat Sin Leng Country Park, have been abandoned since 1959, when the government closed the only school in the area. Before, there were 20 households from the Chan clan living there. In six months, the government moved us to Wang Shan Keuk San Tsuen, which is in Fanling, very far away from the lower and upper Wang Shan Keuk villages. Each family was given a house of 400 square feet for free by the government as part of the relocation. There's a road crossing the lower and upper Wang Shan Keuk villages; the road leads all the way to Bride's Pool and walking up from Bride's Pool to the lower and upper Wang Shan Keuk villages takes 40 minutes. It was beautiful when I lived there, before I moved in 1959, but all the houses have fallen into disuse now."

Sha Lo Tung, Tai Po

Sha Lo Tung chief Cheung Wai-kok says, "My wife and I are the only inhabitants of Cheung Uk village, in Sha Lo Tung, Tai Po. The rest of my clan moved to the city, but my wife and I stayed to enjoy the fresh air and operate a Hakka private kitchen. We have lots of customers on weekends who are hikers [there is a popular trail leading to Pat Sin Leng] and others who drive here to enjoy dining among ponds and farms. I was a seafood trader in Vietnam. I left the business eight years ago and returned to my ancestral village to open the private kitchen. Sha Lo Tung is a protected ecological area with butterflies, fireflies and dragonflies, but developers want the land, and there have been many plans mentioned over the years, such as the construction of a golf course and a columbarium. I enjoyed living here as a child and some of the clan members are considering moving back here, to revive the village."

Tung Ping Chau, eastern Mirs Bay

Yuen Siu-ying, the chief of Chau Tau village, on Tung Ping Chau island, says, "There are five villages on Tung Ping Chau. Besides Nai Tau village, which was designated as country park by the government a long time ago, there are people living in the other four villages. There are a total of seven to eight households in the villages, and all of the residents are elderly. Only old people can live there as there is only one ferry on Saturday and one on Sunday. I am around 50 years old now. I was born in Chau Tau village and grew up there. In the 80s, as I needed to go to school in the city, I spent the weekdays in the city and went back to Tung Ping Chau on weekends. I have never left Tung Ping Chau. I always go there on the weekends as my family has a house there. In the past, the ferries were much more frequent, so several thousands of people lived there. But as the seafood industry and farming dwindled, people began to move out 30 years ago."

 

Fan Lau, southern Lantau

Fan Lau village representative Ho Lin-fat says, "I couldn't make a living there so I moved out when I was a teenager, decades ago. In the past, the people [in Fan Lau] fished and made shrimp paste for a living. But there were no public ferry services and we had to hire private boats departing from Tai O, which took 15 minutes to reach Fan Lau. It's a two-hour walk from Tai O. The area around Fan Lau is within a country park. We asked for a road to be built so that the village could be more easily accessible, but the government rejected us saying that the road would go through protected country park area. Now there are just two old couples living there."

Yim Tin Tsai, off Sai Kung Town

Yim Tin Tsai village chief Colin Chan Chung-yin says, "The Chan clan are Hakka people from Yantian [Shenzhen]. We settled on the island in the 19th century. In 1864, Catholic priests began evangelising among the villagers and, by 1875, everyone on the island had been baptised. Yim Tin Tsai even has its own chapel, St Joseph's. But as rural life became increasingly difficult, the community dwindled and, by 1998, the last member of the Chan clan had moved out and ferry services ceased. Yim Tin Tsai was left abandoned and the village houses decayed but, in 2004, the Catholic Church conducted extensive renovations of St Joseph's Chapel, which inspired villagers and conservationists to embark on a campaign to revive the settlement. The village school, which was built in 1920 and closed in 1997, has been turned into a heritage centre for visitors, and the old salt pans were put back into production at the end of last year. Six years ago, we began offering ecotourism tours to Yim Tim Tsai in collaboration with private boat operators. Roads were paved in July last year. Now, on weekends, day-trippers take the short boat ride to our island to see the resurrected salt pans and explore the old hakka Catholic settlement."

Additional reporting by Elaine Yau.