Hong Kong's forgotten mining past emerges from the darkness

Church at centre of Ma On Shan mining village seeks historical listing - and plans HK$10 million project to preserve its culture and heritage

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 May, 2014, 5:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 May, 2014, 8:43am

A near-forgotten slice of Hong Kong's history came back to life yesterday as about 60 residents of a former mining village in Ma On Shan gathered for a reunion in their old village church.

Though Hong Kong's past as a manufacturing powerhouse is well-documented, the light of publicity has shone less brightly on its iron mining industry, which at its peak employed 6,000 workers in often-perilous conditions and produced 98,000 tonnes of iron ore each year.

Yet the industry produced more than just iron ore; it forged lifelong friendships among the workers and gave rise to a close-knit Lutheran community high in the hills of Ma On Shan.

"It was dangerous work, but all of us were like brothers," said Lee Kiu-sui, 67, a former demolitions expert who grew up in the village and worked the underground mineshafts from 1970 to their closure in 1976.

He recalled a huge controlled demolition that trapped two miners in a mineshaft.

"Every single miner started digging and we eventually worked all day to get the two out safely," said Lee, who went on to become a freelance tunneller for the MTR.

Like many of the village's second-generation miners, Lee was born to immigrants fleeing the civil war during the late 1940s. His father, a soldier, settled in the hills of Ma On Shan and found work in the pits.

The mine, opened in 1906 as an opencast site run by the Hong Kong Iron Mining Company, was taken over by the Mutual Mining and Trade Company in 1949, which extended it underground.

Under a partnership with Japan's Nittetsu Mining Company, the war-torn, steel-hungry nation quickly became the mine's biggest export market.

For decades, the remote mining village, which did not even have electricity in its early days, was catered to by social workers from the Lutheran Church, which offered food and supplies to the miners.

A church, primary school, kindergarten, teachers' quarters and shed were built in the early 1950s to serve the village's families, as its population mushroomed to more than 10,000.

Chiu Yu-chu, 75, a former village schoolteacher, recalled how the village was so remote the only way in was by boat to Wu Kai Sha and an hour-long hike up the hill.

"If we were lucky, we'd hitch a ride up the hill on a mining truck or an old military jeep," said Chiu. The only source of water was from the stream and there was no electricity in the early days.

By 1976, high costs, depleting ore deposits and weakening global steel demand caused all mining operations to cease. The government land lease ended in 1981 and the mine closed. The village population shrank drastically as miners headed out to Kowloon to find work in manufacturing or logistics.

The five-building church complex, known collectively as the Yan Kwong Lutheran Church, became derelict and was completely abandoned in 2003 after landslides made the buildings too dangerous to occupy.

Yet there is light at the end of the tunnel. With earthworks complete, the church hopes to preserve the village's heritage by applying for a grade-three historical listing and plans a HK$10 million revitalisation project.

"People always talk about conservation in terms of hardware. We're looking at protecting the entire culture and heritage of this village … and its history as a mining town," said Evangelical Lutheran Church Social Service chief executive Dr Tik Chi-yuen.

The church has spentHK$3 million in funding for the first phase, which will turn the church into a community and visitor centre. They are seeking donors to contribute the rest.

The village is now home to just 80 people.