City Weekend

Good times just a memory in Hong Kong village where the last shop is going to the wall

A hiking trail and murals tell visitors the story of Ngau Tam Mei in Yuen Long, but they won’t save Wong Wing-yiu’s 52-year-old store

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 March, 2017, 3:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 March, 2017, 3:02pm

Wong Wing-yiu owns the last shop in Ngau Tam Mei, a century-old rural village in the New Territories.

The store, opened by his parents in 1965, is crammed with snacks and beverages, with a few elderly folks relaxing in chairs while traditional Chinese music plays in the background.

But once the remaining stock is sold, Wong will close up shop.

“If there was business here, of course it wouldn’t close,” the 67-year-old Guangzhou-native said sadly. “But this is not the case. There is no business to do.”

His humble store sits in the western side of the village, one of the largest in Yuen Long, with a picturesque backdrop of mountains and rice fields.

In the village’s prime between the 1960s and 1980s, there were over 5,000 inhabitants – many of whom were migrants from mainland China living off agriculture, fishing and poultry.

But today Ngau Tam Mei has barely 1,000 villagers, mostly older people. Young people and children make up only around 10 per cent of the village, according to Joanne Tang Lai-heung, a long-time Salvation Army social worker in the village.

One of these villagers is Lau Fung-yee, 86, who settled there 50 years ago with her late husband.

The biggest change she has seen is the shrinking population.

The environmental protection policy meant they could not be farmers any more
Joanne Tang Lai-heung, social worker

“There used to be so many people living here,” said Lau, who lives in the village with one of her six children. Back in her day, the main street was its chief economic zone, bustling with people selling vegetables, pork, fish and chickens.

One vendor was so skilled he could cut exactly half a pound or one pound of pork without a measuring device, Tang said.

The village also once had four or five Chinese restaurants – only one remains today.

Part of the reason for the dwindling population stems back to the 1990s when the government introduced legislation to combat water pollution, since organic livestock waste was contaminating the city’s water. But this forced farmers to install costly water treatment systems for tens of thousands of dollars, or stop farming altogether.

“As a farmer, the earnings are very little,” Tang said. “The environmental protection policy is a great influence on the farmers. It meant that they could not be farmers any more.”

Today, there are still a few farmers left. Some are in their 70s and 80s, but still tend rows of lettuce and green onion, as well as mango, lychee, and dragon fruit trees.

In order to capture the village’s history, a cultural art project was launched by the Salvation Army Ngau Tam Mei Community Development Project, Hulu Culture and Yau Tam Mei Rural Committee.

The project includes three art murals created by 70 local design students who interviewed villagers in order to retell their history, with one mural showing an hourglass with a villager delivering rice by bike.

“It’s the memory of the beautiful past,” Tang said.

The murals will be on display at the Yuen Long Theatre in late March. In April, there will be two public tours featuring 20 scenic areas along a village hiking trail, including an abandoned factory, the Yau Ma Tei River, a goldfish pond and a bean sprout factory.

But all this will not save Wong’s store.

“Sales haven’t been good for years, ” he said. “Every day, I just listen to the radio, watch TV and take naps. It’s stifling.”

Since his store sits on government land, he has to pay HK$5,100 in short-term rent every season, an average of HK$1,700 per month. Every two years or so, his rent goes up.

When asked how he feels about having to close the store, Wong was quiet.

After a pause, he said: “It is a pity.”