Neighbourhood Sounds

Ma Wan: an island losing heritage to modernity

Urban development has left fishing villages crumbling but failed to bring locals trappings of modernity and left them fearing for future

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 December, 2012, 5:21am

Ma Wan is a bit of an anomaly. Measuring a little less than a square kilometre, the island is a hodge-podge of structures chronicling different eras.

There is a large, modern housing estate, a theme park, a two-century-old village and a cluster of floating fishermen's huts, all co-existing under the looming shadow of one of the longest suspension bridges in the world - the Tsing Ma Bridge.

Hong Kong International Airport is visible from the island and busy cargo ships can be seen sailing in and out of the region's biggest cargo container terminals in Kwai Tsing.

Yet despite being surrounded by transport networks, Ma Wan itself is becoming increasingly isolated. The ferry service to and from Tsuen Wan West was terminated this month, leaving residents with a ferry service to Central and buses to Tsing Yi, Kwai Fong, Tsuen Wan MTR and the airport.

Arriving at the ferry pier, a visitor walks straight into the tile-paved plaza of the private housing estate Park Island, which is home to more than 5,000 families and takes up the biggest chunk of the island. No private cars are allowed and trees line wide walkways as children ride bicycles.

Walk 10 minutes and one leaves the gated community and arrives at another large complex of three-storey village houses, newly built in spick-and-span rows. This is New Ma Wan Village - houses promised by developer Sun Hung Kai Properties and the government, to indigenous villagers who moved off their old land to make way for Park Island in the 1990s.

Past these new village houses, a narrower path leads through the glades and Ma Wan's old village emerges, with its crumbling houses and abandoned shrimp-drying and shrimp paste-making farms. Beside the old village's meandering paths, the floating huts and fishermen's dinghies nestle along the bay beyond the handmade wooden pier.

But while urban development seems to have succeeded in stamping out the old on the little island - leaving crumbling village houses, a dying fishing industry and heritage ignored - it also seems to be failing to bring the convenience that usually comes with development.

Ho Luen-cheung, 57, was born and raised in the old village and remembers when the narrow streets with their colourfully tiled storefronts were loud and jostling with people.

"Just 30 years ago, there were at least 2,000 people living here," he remembered. "But numbers dwindled in the 1980s and '90s and only a few are left."

Ma Wan back then was a tight community of fishermen and famers, with its own schools, restaurants, village study room and even a health and well-being centre for women and children.

It was also a hot spot for smuggling to and from the mainland by sea, Ho said.

A boat service, operated by villagers from Ma Wan to Sham Tseng, provided the only transport in the 1960s.

Today, about 20 families live scattered around the old village. Most of the others have either moved away in search of better jobs or into the new village houses. Left behind are those not allocated a new house by the government and the developer.

Dried shrimp-paste, once the village's trademark, became officially extinct last year when the government banned trawling so catchers were no longer able to harvest the tiny shrimps used for the paste.

Uncle Yip, a fisherman in his 70s, pointed at Park Island apartments looming above the fishing boats and said: "That's what's changed the most."

Yip, who has lived on the island for generations, recently sold his small fish farming business. Now, fishing nets and bamboo sieves once used to dry shrimps hang in sheds, covered in dust. Yip seldom ventures over to the new developments.

Some Park Island residents were initially attracted by the island's heritage and charm.

"There are many things worth conserving in this village," said Lam Wai-man, who has lived in the development for seven years.

"We were enchanted by the place - the quietness, the lack of cars, the space for people and pets," said another resident Kenny Li Wai-hung .

As Ma Wan's old world fades away, the island struggles with very modern issues.

The decision to cut the Tsuen Wan ferry service caused residents to worry about being cut off from schools, workplaces in the New Territories and Tsuen Wan's wet market.

They lament that a deal between the government and Sun Hung Kai Properties, which built Park Island and the Noah's Ark-themed Ma Wan Park, rendered the island "at the mercy of the developer".

Under the deal, all transport - including buses and ferries - must be operated by the developer, or with its approval. The arrangement also specified the developer need maintain only one land and one sea transport route.

There are still three bus routes and one ferry, but the buses are becoming crowded and sometimes residents must compete with tourists.

Suggested alternatives given by the developer lacked details, so the residents' committee voted to not accept them. "Many felt like the developer wasn't sincere in the negotiations," resident Patrick Lam Po-chuen said. "Most residents didn't know there was an agreement with the government until the developer announced it would cancel the Tsuen Wan ferry line last year."

Lam said the government should be held responsible and called for a better transport plan for the island. "The government has opened up the road to tour buses to get to Noah's Ark, which is also not helping the situation," he said.

Another resident, Maggie Leung Mei-kuen, said she felt she had been duped.

"We didn't know that they could cut a ferry line just like that," said Leung, who has lived at Park Island since completion of its first phase in 2002.

"I work in Central so I was fine, but my husband used to take the Tsuen Wan ferry to work every day, so it has been very inconvenient for him."

A spokeswoman for Sun Hung Kai Properties said the developer had been open to discussions about transport arrangements, but had decided to cut the ferry line as it was not covering its own costs.

"It's a shame that residents were not able to pick some of the alternative plans laid out," she said. "So far, we have been respectful of their views."

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