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Living heritage of Hong Kong

How the revival of a 400-year-old Hong Kong village can be a model for rural heritage conservation

Local think tank Global Institute For Tomorrow advises giving abandoned villages new life in a holistic way under one statutory body

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 October, 2016, 3:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 October, 2016, 4:38pm

A new statutory body should be formed by the government to manage the revitalisation of Hong Kong’s abandoned villages in clusters, said a local think tank.

The body should be able to manage all rural revitalisation efforts under one roof instead of several government departments handling different aspects.

It should revitalise villages in clusters – 13 in all – rather than individual projects. That way, a more holistic approach to revitalisation could be achieved by taking into account the strengths of each village and capitalising on them.

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“We hope this platform ... is not confrontational, [but is] discussive, convening and can bring people together to look at issues in a positive collaborative fashion,” Chandran Nair, founder and chief executive of Global Institute For Tomorrow (GIFT), says.

The Hong Kong-based think tank floated the suggestion at the end of its Global Leaders Programme forum last month under the topic “Reviving Hong Kong’s Rural Heritage”. It challenged 21 young professionals and managers to develop solutions on issues affecting Hong Kong.

The topic is relevant to Hong Kong as there are currently 77 country park village enclaves. Most of the inhabitants of these enclaves have left, with some being completely abandoned.

The project used Lai Chi Wo village, a 400-year-old traditional walled Hakka village, as an example of successful rural revitalisation.

With over 200 traditional Hakka houses on a 90-hectare site, the village had a population of 1,000 at its peak. The number dwindled in the middle of the 20th century. The village was nearly empty by the end of the 1960s, as most of the villagers emigrated overseas – many to the United Kingdom.

In 2013, the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Social Sciences led a programme to revitalise and sustainably develop Lai Chi Wo. The programme was intended as a model “in pursuing sustainability and providing insights into rural revitalisation locally and in the region”.

But while the forum presented ideas on possible ways to emulate and sustain the success of village revitalisation, those in attendance were still sceptical.

An environmentalist said he would rather see some of the abandoned villages be left alone and not have any human activity at all.

A Heung Yee Kuk representative was concerned about the make-up of the statutory body, and how responsibility would be delegated.

Lai Chi Wo village, surrounded by a feng shui woodland situated in the northeastern New Territories – close to the Hong Kong-mainland border – was brought back to life through collaboration with some of the village’s original inhabitants and their descendants. But long-term success is yet to be seen.

Lai Chi Wo resident Keith Mak retired two years ago after working in the insurance industry. He decided he wanted to enjoy “calm countryside living” in retirement, and took up farming.

“I’m growing tumeric [for] herbal tea. I also grow lemongrass,” he said. Mak sells his produce to tourists who visit Lai Chi Wo on Sundays. Mak is not an indigenous resident of the village, but has rented a vacant house for the past three years. The rent he pays provides income for the villagers and adds to the social revitalisation of the village.

Managers and professionals from well-known companies and government departments engaged in an intense two-week study to find ways of emulating the success of Lai Chi Wo village, and also how to sustain the results.

After site visits, interviews and classes, the GIFT programme participants also recommended at a public forum to establish a Rural Renewal Authority (RRA).

The RRA would consist of a board representing several relevant parties including the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, Lands Department, Planning Department, Heung Yee Kuk and academics. The board would be chaired by a chief executive officer.

This authority would also be responsible for advising the government, promoting public awareness, and developing strategies and policies.

The presenters recommended several ways the villages could economically sustain themselves, such as having limited and sustainable hospitality, tourism, agriculture, wellness centres and eco-education.

To carry out these plans, the RRA would fund a village cluster committee which would manage a for-profit company and a non-profit foundation.

The for-profit company would be responsible for providing the funding required for village revitalisation in order to ensure a stable income for residents. The non-profit company would be responsible for improving the quality of life for residents, such as funding agriculture or eco-education programmes.

Programme participants admitted their suggestions might not be “perfect” but hoped it was a start to a conversation that would hopefully lead to more Lai Chi Wos.

“I think this is a very interesting proposal on the revitalisation of villages that we hope to send to the government and across civil society,” Nair said.

In 2015, GIFT’s first Hong Kong programme looked at developing sports hubs. The participants were tasked to find a way of having sports hubs that would be financially sustainable and delivered social value. According to Nair, the sports hub report generated significant interest within the government, but plans within the report have yet to be adopted.

Established in 2006 in Hong Kong, GIFT has focused on “advancing” understanding of global issues as economic and political influence shifts from the West to the East.

A detailed 200-page report on village revitalisation will be distributed to relevant government departments and will be made available for free to the public in the coming weeks.