Neighbourhood Sounds

Tai O: The Venice of Hong Kong is stilt standing

Tai O has battled storms and seen its fishing trade collapse but its residents have picked themselves up without much outside help

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 July, 2013, 10:16am

Weathered by storms, hit by landslides and threatened by Hong Kong's rapid change and development, Tai O's locals rely on their own resources to survive.

The 3,000 residents left out of a village population that once reached 30,000 have been using their history and culture to carve out a new way of life - without much help from the government.

Sampans once filled with fishing nets and the day's fresh catch have given way to dinghies packed with photo-snapping visitors. Streets are lined with shops selling seafood and local handmade snacks.

Some may see tourism as an erosion of local culture but not the residents of the old Tanka village, which sits on the west side of Lantau Island.

"No, I don't regret leaving [the life of a fisherman]," said Chow Sing, who is descended from a line of Tai O fishermen. Together with his son Chow Siu-hang, he takes visitors by boat to see Tai O's houses on stilts.

His is one of five tour boat companies that take tourists around the village which some people have called the Venice of Hong Kong. Its pink dolphins, sunsets and historical marine police station - now a hotel - have kept business steady.

Most of the remaining villagers are elderly, whose grown-up children and grandchildren have left for better opportunities in the city. But they refuse to let the town decay.

Stilt-house residents line their homes with potted plants and grow vegetables on their doorsteps, while others use bamboo sieves to dry the seafood and vegetables they use to garnish their dishes. Often, the tin houses are newly painted, and the streets are clean.

"There's no time to look back," said 76-year-old Uncle Choi, who with his 73-year-old brother Uncle Hei still sells fresh handmade loh mai chee, glutinous rice balls stuffed with sweet sesame and peanut paste, and cha gwoh, steamed glutinous rice dumplings stuffed with a mixture of Chinese herbs.

Uncle Hei, a cheerful man who tried his luck in the city in his younger years, slammed the government for leaving Tai O locals "hanging high and dry".

"We rely on ourselves to make a living, keep the place alive. But what are they doing? What happened to the HK$620 million? I can't see any of it used on the village," he said, referring to a government project to revitalise the village, announced five years ago. "I have no idea where the money went, but definitely none trickled down to us."

Most improvements have been performed by locals. But there is a limit to their powers.

"There are things that [we] cannot do by ourselves," Uncle Hei said, referring to large-scale conservation work on Tai O's famous old salt fields.

Despite laying out a plan in 2007 to restore the fields for education and tourism, the government has not provided a timetable for such work.

One of the few projects completed was the Tai O Heritage Hotel, formerly the Marine Police Station, which was built in 1902.

The hotel opened in February last year and is a joint venture between the government and the non-profit Hong Kong Heritage Conservation Foundation, which runs the site.

The colonial structure, on a secluded spot at the edge of the sea, has nine rooms and a restaurant. It has attracted Hongkongers and Westerners alike.

Uncle Hei said the hotel had lured people hungry for Hong Kong culture and history, and he welcomed more projects that "blend in with the local culture".

He also hoped the government would build a community complex, which could act as a shelter during the bad storms and landslides to which Tai O is susceptible.

Kneading pieces of dough and slapping on generous dollops of sweet sesame paste, Uncle Hei and Uncle Choi can make 1,000 of their rice balls each day.

They rise at 4am to prepare the morsels - which sell for HK$4.50 each - and sit making them till 6pm. On weekends, they start at 2am.

"We make the best, and we don't cheat our customers," Uncle Choi said proudly.

Another Tai O native, Choi Sun-yau, hopes the government will heed pleas for more and better transport.

"We have more tourists coming now, so we need more buses, and also resident cards so locals can be given priority.

"Transport in and out of Tai O is important for us - some of us work in the city. If we don't get that, some may have to move out," the 68-year-old said.

Choi runs a store selling traditional sweets, such as boot jai go (rice flour cakes), and herbal Chinese drinks he makes daily using his home stove.

"For us, this is always the place to come back to," Choi said, adding that many grown-up children living in the city still visit their elderly parents weekly.

"It's so peaceful here, I won't move away."