Tai O's private heritage museum will be history in just two years

Tai O Cultural Workshop will close, but founder says the government should set up public museum to tell colourful story of fishing village

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 July, 2014, 6:21am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 July, 2014, 7:22pm

Time is running out for one of the city's handful of private museums, which is set to close in the next couple of years after the building owner applied to redevelop it and the founder and curator chose to retire.

And, after 13 years of fending off natural disasters and overcoming financial difficulties, the founder of the museum telling the story of the village some describe as "Hong Kong's Venice" has called on the government to look again at setting up a public museum there.

Since 2001, Tai O Cultural Workshop has showcased the life and heritage of the fishing village on Lantau, much of which consists of houses built on stilts above the water. Despite being established entirely with private funds, admission is free.

Wong Wai-king's passion for telling the story of her home village led her to create the museum. She rented the ground floor of a century-old house at 54 Tai O Wing On Street from a friend, whose mother continued to live upstairs until her death at the age of 93 in 2008.

"They have repaired the house many times but it's getting increasingly difficult due to its age. The owner felt there was no choice but to rebuild it and applied for the demolition of the house last year," Wong told the South China Morning Post. She expects the house to be torn down in two or three years

The museum was launched with a donation of HK$210,000 from an international charity. It covers the monthly rent of HK$6,000 largely by selling postcards, but the museum's survival has been in doubt for most of its 13-year existence.

A landslide in June 2008 closed the road connecting Tai O with Tung Chung, cutting off the main route for visitors and hitting postcard sales for a fortnight. Three months later, the house was left waist-deep in water when Typhoon Hagupit hit. The flooding soaked and ruined many of the artefacts.

"It was a massive effort to clean up after the flood. Equipment including computers, electric fans and hi-fi were damaged, costing us HK$100,000," she said.

"Every time a typhoon comes, I have to move the furniture, books and postcards to prevent them from being soaked by floodwater. It's a lot of pressure. I am now 56 and suffer from tennis elbow.

"Even if my friend does not decide to redevelop the house, I plan to retire in two years anyway because I don't think I will still have the strength to manage the work when I am 58."

The museum displays everyday items used by villagers in the past century, painting a vivid picture of life in the old Tai O, where most people made their living by fishing or making salt.

A shan dau, or sedan chair, used by Lantau islanders in the 1950s, kerosene lamps, traditional tableware and bricks from demolished houses are among the exhibits.

Wong said she hoped the artefacts, all collected from villagers, could find a new home in Tai O and called on the government to consider a public museum there.

"In 1999, I submitted a proposal to the government. Then it suggested I donate the artefacts for it to display at the Heritage Museum and I refused," she recalled. "Tai O things have to stay in Tai O to keep their life and history. A Tai O shan dau put in a Sha Tin museum would be nothing but a chair."