Neighbourhood Sounds

Peng Chau: An industrial hive turned rural idyll

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 July, 2012, 12:00am

With its car-free streets, understated low-rise houses and plentiful greenery, Peng Chau looks very much like many of Hong Kong's outlying islands. It enjoys a reputation as a rural idyll cut off from the city's hustle and bustle.

Islanders are widely thought to lead simple, reclusive lives. That is probably why Peng Chau made headlines recently, when news broke of flats trading hands at prices akin to those on Hong Kong Island.

But Peng Chau has never been merely a pastoral haven. Remote it may be, but the island once bristled with industrial activities. It hosted factories making more than 30 types of goods (such as teakwood furniture and textiles) and Southeast Asia's biggest match factory.

Chung Yuet-ngor's life echoes the changes that have swept over Peng Chau in recent decades. Born and raised on the island, the 57-year-old worked at an island knitwear factory during her teens.

Today she works as a cleaner in Discovery Bay, like many fellow islanders. It was one of the few options left as the factories closed and moved to urban Hong Kong and the mainland.

Peng Chau was once a self-sufficient community that rarely felt the need to be in touch with the outside world, Chung says. 'People rarely left Peng Chau, except for the vegetable growers who had to take their produce to sell in places like Central or Hung Hom.'

Now there are fewer choices for the comparatively less-educated and low-skilled islanders if they are to continue living on Peng Chau, according to Chung. That is why many have taken on menial jobs in Discovery Bay, the high-end residential complex just a short ferry ride away.

Even so, Chung seems happy with her island life. 'I'm earning HK$5,500 a month and don't have to pay rent,' says Chung. 'Life is good.'

This carefree attitude towards life is shared by Ma Chun-tim, 58, who was born on Peng Chau to a couple who arrived on the island in 1946. Ma wove rattan goods and carved ivory products for a living before the global embargo on ivory goods in the 1990s. Since then, he has served several terms as Peng Chau's representative on the Islands District Council.

'After the match factory closed down, the calfskin factory came - but that went into decline because of the pollution [it caused],' says Ma. 'After that, there were factories doing bowl embellishment, light bulbs and rattan goods. I think the bowl factories closed down in the 1990s because they were relocated to mainland China.'

The first industry to take root on the island was lime kilns, in the 19th century, according to Green Peng Chau Association, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to protecting the island's natural and cultural heritage.

At its height it spawned 11 factories across the island, as businesses cashed in on the island's supply of oyster shells, clam shells and coral - burning them to produce the lime.

The lime was widely used in construction, ship maintenance and paper and dye production. But the early 20th century brought cheaper lime from mainland China and Japan, and the kilns gave way to match-making as Peng Chau's most prominent industry.

But Peng Chau's industries dwindled as more sophisticated and cost-effective operations grew in urban Hong Kong. The lime business gave way to cement; the match-makers succumbed to lighters near the end of the 1970s. Today, not a single factory is left on the island.

'People in different eras have different ways of sustaining lives,' says Ma: when one trend ends, another begins anew.

As if to prove this cyclical view of history, more people are now moving to Peng Chau - not to work, but simply to live there. At first there were the Pakistani, Indonesian and Filipino workers seeking inexpensive housing near their workplaces in Discovery Bay.

Then came the urbanites, looking for a quieter way of life. Finally there was the near-inevitable arrival of the property developers.

In March, Sino Land bought a 50,000 sq ft residential site on the island at what was considered a rock-bottom price of HK$19 million. Two months later, 30 bids were entered for another lot up for public tender. This has propelled property prices on the island, and has attracted homebuyers and investors.

Chung and Ma say they understand what draws city dwellers to Peng Chau: the lower rents and the greener environment on the island.

'We continue to live our own lives and there is still peace on the island,' Chung says.

It's a view shared by Peng Chau's younger indigenous residents, whose experiences of working and living in the city has not altered their affection for the island.

'We greet each other when we see each other,' says Wong Chi-pong, 25, who was born and raised on the island. He welcomes the influx of newcomers, who have brought in money to refurbish crumbling houses. They have also brought new perspectives for saving and developing the island's artisanal traditions.

Wong is a project assistant at the Conservancy Association Centre for Heritage in Western District. He is also part of a new generation of islanders who cherish their cultural identity more than ever before.

A move to the city is not on the cards, he says. 'I like the lifestyle in Peng Chau. I want my children to grow up here.'