It was a perfect day when a crowd gathered on Pui O Beach in South Lantau. The sun shone from a clear blue sky, and the gentle swell - ideal for novice surfers - provided a picturesque backdrop. Casual onlookers could have easily mistaken the gathering for a celebration, if not for the people shouting into megaphones.
Sporting bright red "The Naked Islands Project" T-shirts, some protestors formed a circle while others carried a large model of an incinerator decorated with a skull and crossbones and belching dry ice from its stack. The July 22 gathering, known as "Motion in the Ocean", was based on a traditional Hawaiian surfer's funeral rite, and held to protest against plans for a massive waste incinerator off nearby Shek Kwu Chau.
But for the residents and activists, a feeling of desperation hung in the air, with many believing the incinerator was the latest sign of growing pressure on South Lantau from the government and developers.
It was as if they were symbolically mourning the death of Hong Kong's environment and their way of life on Lantau.
Also joining the protest were activists from South Lantau's Living Islands Movement, a group that promotes the sustainable development of Hong Kong's islands with a focus on Lantau, established 10 years ago by Lantau resident Bob Bunker. The group sees the problem as a two-pronged attack - one from developers keen to take advantage of the growing number of tourists and residents on Lantau, the other from a government that sees relatively remote South Lantau as an ideal dumping ground for facilities and projects unpopular with residents in more populated areas.
Bunker describes a decade spent protecting the area's environment from planned government projects, ranging from super prisons and drug rehabilitation centres to container ports. He says Lantau already shoulders an unfair share of Hong Kong's unpopular sites. "Radioactive waste is dumped on the Soko Islands, there is an explosives dump in Mui Wo and there are already seven prisons on Lantau," he says.
But for Bunker, and other activists including The Naked Islands Project founders Lindsey Price and Michael Raper, the mega-incinerator is the most audacious government plan yet. Living Islands Movement's treasurer John Schofield speaks for them all when he says: "It's a travesty."
If it goes ahead, the incinerator will be the largest of its kind in Hong Kong, at an estimated cost of more than HK$15 billion. It is being considered for a man-made island off Shek Kwu Chau, and will be visible from some of the most popular beaches in South Lantau. The area is also an important marine habitat for finless porpoises. It is expected to take eight years to build.
The government, which says the incinerator will be state-of-the-art and environmentally friendly, sees it as an urgently needed solution to the city's waste crisis.
Rainbow Wong Fuk-kan, Mui Wo's representative on the Islands Council, supports the incinerator. "Hong Kong needs a place to handle rubbish. And incinerator technology is now very hi-tech. It won't pollute the environment like incinerators from the past." He says half of his constituents support the incinerator.
Environmentalists, however, claim the incinerator will pollute the air, and spoil one of Hong Kong's last pristine coastal areas. They believe the waste crisis can be better addressed through public education, with an emphasis on recycling, and argue that newer, less-polluting alternatives have not been fully considered. They believe their concerns are falling on deaf ears and claim the government's environmental assessments of the project are flawed and incomplete. Most of all, they feel confused and shocked that, with constant encroachment into Hong Kong's natural areas, the government would consider such a large waste-disposal project in sight of one of the city's most beautiful areas.
On July 26, just days after the Motion in the Ocean event, the islanders suffered a defeat when the courts rejected all eight objections to the incinerator brought by neighbouring Cheung Chau residents. The government will now retable the project in the Legislative Council.
But for activists on Lantau, the incinerator is just the latest addition to a growing list of projects which they feel are threatening their way of life.
While the island has been largely spared from the development boom seen on Hong Kong Island and in Kowloon, things started to change in 1997 with the airport opening and a link connecting Lantau to Hong Kong Island. At first, development came slowly and the population influx was mostly limited to airport workers. But with developments such as the Ngong Ping 360 cable car and Disneyland, Lantau was transformed into a tourist spot in its own right.
Development on Lantau has so far been dictated by a widely understood but unwritten rule: North Lantau, led by Tung Chung, would be open for development while South Lantau, with its natural beauty and important ecosystems, would be kept largely untouched. But now, with the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge under construction, the island is bracing for an unprecedented influx of mainland tourists - and with it an influx in tourist dollars - fuelling fears that any agreement to leave South Lantau undeveloped will be ignored.
Residents point to two newly proposed developments in Mui Wo as proof. Schofield says the developments - home-ownership scheme (HOS) flats earmarked for government land - will provide housing for 2,000 people, and that one will be 18 storeys high, making it by far the tallest building in the village. While the development is small by Hong Kong standards, residents say it will have a big impact on Mui Wo. The 2011 census recorded 5,485 people living in Mui Wo and the surrounding area, meaning the development would increase the population by about 40 per cent.
Wong disputes these numbers. "The HOS will be low density and 13 or 14 storeys high. ... after it is built, it will only have 400 new households. So with one household having four people, there will just be around 1,000 new people at most in Mui Wo."
But District Council documents seen by the South China Morning Post show the planned HOS developments would house 1,420 and 500 people, respectively.
Residents also claim Mui Wo's infrastructure will not cope with the influx, saying schooling, waste services and parking in particular are already tight. They also claim their concerns are not being addressed by their representatives in the Islands District Council.
When Schofield attended a District Council meeting, he was surprised to find the push to develop Mui Wo was coming from council members representing Tung Chung. Wong disputes this. "That North Lantau people dictate the development of South Lantau is not true; South Lantau people support development too, they just want slow development."
Wong and Jeff Lam Yuet, the council member representing Tung Chung North, dispute claims the infrastructure in Mui Wo is inadequate.
"There are enough government facilities: there is a government building, a market and a pool, but they don't have a big enough population. By building a home ownership scheme, or even public housing, they can fully utilise their resources and re-energise the community," Lam says.
"Mui Wo has lots of infrastructure so there's no problem in accommodating 1,000 more people," says Wong.
Tung Chung representatives, however, make no secret of their desire to see the development of South Lantau. "The whole of Lantau is one big community and South Lantau is in recession now ... [North Lantau] is under pressure from tourists. If we develop the south it can alleviate some of the pressure," says Lam.
He sees big changes for Lantau: "With the third runway and terminal three coming soon, we want to make Tung Chung a hub connecting all of the attractions on Lantau. To make Lantau more attractive to tourists we must develop."
Lam also supports opening the South Lantau Road to the public, which is currently open only to drivers - mostly residents - with special permits. However, many residents in the south feel permits are given too freely - the number has recently swollen to more than 10,000 - and that the system is insufficiently enforced. They fear opening the road will result in a massive increase in tourists and that South Lantau lacks the roads and parking to deal with it.
Today, things are calm in Mui Wo. The buffalo still roam and the tourists visit on weekends. But the area's future is uncertain and local opinion is deeply divided. While Lam sees a golden age of tourism, Price and Raper say they and their two children will leave if the incinerator is built.
Schofield has no plans to move, but has some choice words to describe development around the south of the island: "It stinks."