Neighbourhood Sounds

Sai Kung, the friendly town where everyone's a local

Sai Kung has always been popular with expats, but birthplace has never been an issue and traditions are widely respected

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 November, 2012, 3:58am

In Sai Kung town centre everyone is a local, even though some might not look it.

"We are locals in all aspects," says Guy Shirra, a retired expatriate police superintendent who has lived in Hong Kong since 1967 and speaks fluent Cantonese. "Our wives are from here, our children were born here."

Historically an anchor point for the fishing community, Sai Kung, in the southeast New Territories is made up today of clusters of old apartment blocks, a wet market, small local stores and the occasional international chain outlet, such as McDonald's.

Despite a large contingent of foreign-born "locals", however, tradition still rules in many aspects.

Throughout the day, dozens of sampans line the pier with fisherfolk touting buckets and tanks of live local fish and home-dried seafood products. People call out from the dock and bargain, and finally goods are transferred up in a bucket on a pole.

Smaller villages, many over 100 years old, are hidden away in the lush country parks and along the scenic coastline.

Shirra says Sai Kung saw a big influx of expatriates during the 1970s and 1980s when Cathay Pacific Airlines' staff quarters moved there, though the neighbourhood had been popular among Westerners long before that.

After Shirra retired from the police in 1997, he and his Chinese wife returned to England. But a long and severe bout of homesickness saw them return to Hong Kong eight years later, and they are now happily settled in Sai Kung.

"We are Hongkongers and we love Hong Kong. This is our home," says Shirra, who is chairman of the Friends of Sai Kung group, which watches community issues including overdevelopment and under-conservation.

He is not the only Sai Kung local who cares about the district's heritage and history. For the past 14 years, Vilma Pegg has been restoring old village houses around Sai Kung.

She moved to Hong Kong from the Philippines in 1989. In 1999 she and her British husband moved to Sai Kung and rented a Grade III historical building in decrepit condition in Pak Sha O village, a country park enclave.

Pegg, a mother of three, took it upon herself to restore the century-old house of high heritage value to its former glory.

"I did the brick floor myself and spent time restoring the old wooden hand-carved door panels," she says proudly. Pegg ended up restoring most of the houses in the village. "At first, I just wanted to create a comfortable home for my family. Then I realised that I loved doing restoration work," she says.

"This is a whole Hakka village, not just a building, and I saw the potential and heritage value of such a place for Hong Kong, so I did it."

Pegg believes that the country parks and the history of the villages give city folk a sense of balance and belonging when they take time out from their busy lives and tight modern apartments and come to visit.

"As a Hongkonger, I believe it's important to keep our history and heritage alive. It's more than a house, it's a lifestyle and a whole community," she says.

But Sai Kung residents are already seeing worrying signs of overdevelopment in their neighbourhood. There is a lack of government planning for conservation, they say, and there appears to be a growing number of developers showing interest in the pockets of pristine land in or around country parks.

Old and sparsely populated villages, many of them of Hakka origin, are being snapped up at alarming speed and primed for development.

Pegg says Pak Sha O village should be preserved as a historical monument. She worries that if the government does not protect the parks and recognise the conservation value of these old villages, what people love about Sai Kung will soon be gone.

"I love the sense of tranquillity and community in Sai Kung," Pegg says. "I love that people know each other and I love that we don't have any shopping malls. This is more like a real Hong Kong."

Pegg says her children are fortunate to grow up among friends because, with so much development in the city, close neighbourhoods and communities are growing more distant.

Graffiti artist Alex Croft, who moved to Sai Kung at the age of 12 in 2001, says: "Growing up, I always had local friends from the local school. We used to ride our bikes together. I'm still friends with them."

Croft grew up in Tui Min Hoi, an old fishing village in Sai Kung, and had mostly Chinese neighbours. He later moved to Ho Chung, and considers Sai Kung his home.

Croft says the local Chinese and the expatriates - 20 to 30 per cent of the local population are non-Chinese - have always got along. One of his earliest graffiti commissions was to paint the gate of the local bike shop, Sun Ping Bicycle.

Paul Yeung Wai-tong, second generation owner of the 50-year-old shop in Sai Kung town centre, says he considers the expatriate community as locals, as they care about and contribute to the local community.

"Many Westerners, or even [Chinese] from Sai Kung would move back to England. But they always come back, meet with the old friends they grew up with here and see this place as home," says Yeung, who recalls how he watched Croft growing up.

Tourism in Sai Kung picked up during Sars in 2003, when city people escaped the crowds to hike, camp and visit country parks. While tourists brought business, Yeung admits that it can become unbearably crowded for locals. Prices for food have also gone up.

"Weekends and public holidays in Sai Kung is not the real Sai Kung," Yeung says. "A normally 15-minute drive from a nearby village to the town centre can take up to two hours."

But Sai Kung locals still prefer their neighbourhood, Yeung says. "Every time I go out [of the area] it's suffocating. The air here is great. Outside is comparatively so polluted."

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