Wong Wai-king’s face lights up; she leans back in her chair and looks into the distance. She’s talking about her childhood in Tai O in the 1960s.
“I love nature, because I grew up living in a place of natural beauty”, she says. She loved swimming in the bay. When the tide went out, she and her five brothers would scoop up bucketfuls of stranded prawns, crabs and fish. “They were so easy to catch,” she laughs, “and delicious!”.
Every day she walked 10 minutes to fetch water. Carrying heavy pails was difficult, but never a chore. The path to the well wove past a luscious pond, flush with lotus flowers, and Wong relished the site, and smell, every time.
At that time, Tai O was a prosperous village. Some 10,000 people were sustained by a mixture of fishing, agriculture, light manufacturing and a fruitful salt marsh. No one was rich, but life in Tai O was cheap, and the close-knit community took care of each other. “We had very strong bonds,” says Wong.
Wong exudes passion for the community. She’s dedicated her life to preserving Tai O and has played an important role in protecting the village from Hong Kong’s encroaching urbanisation.
“Tai O is a part of Hong Kong’s diverse cultural landscape,” says Wong. Protecting Tai O from Hong Kong’s ever expanding property development is not just about conserving the buildings, says Wong. The culture, the lifestyle and the customs of interpersonal relationships are unique and in danger of being lost.
In a small wooden building on Wing On Street, Wong runs a small museum - her shrine to the culture of Tai O. Dusty shelves are lined with kerosene lamps, moon cake moulds and porcelain bowls encrusted with barnacles. In the back room larger objects are displayed with small signs explaining what they are. A thick, black crack splits a large teal vase, an original from when the village had a small distillery.
Wong believes strongly in fighting injustice. It’s part of what propelled her into a full time job of protecting Tai O. In 1982, as the first phase of construction for Central’s glitzy Exchange Square began, but Wong and her neighbours still didn’t have running water or electricity in their homes.
Her three year struggle with the local council and the electricity company made her realise how much she loved the village. Wong started doing social work with Tai O’s sick and elderly, helping them deal with the Social Welfare Department. And through the hours she spent with them, she learned about every aspect of the village’s history and culture. She was inspired to preserve this wealth of knowledge on paper. Three books, collections of photographs and personal essays, now document the heritage of Tai O.
“As soon as you set foot in Tai O, you will be captivated by the great charm and vitality of the traditional fishing village”, reads a blurb on a Lantau tourism website. Hundreds visit every day.
But in such a close and isolated community, do the hordes of tourists feel like an invasion? Cunningly dodging the question, instead Wong talks about how tourism has benefitted Tai O. Tourism means employment and interaction between villagers and visitors brings mutual understanding. And it’s good for the primary school students who come to understand more of Hong Kong’s diverse society.
What will happen in the future, as most of Tai O’s locals leave for the city when they come of age and those left get older? Wong says even though they leave for work, the new generations maintain a strong connection to the place. It brings them back regularly to visit, on weekends and for festivals. You don’t just live in Tai O, you belong, “and when you belong somewhere it’s natural you’ll always care,” says Wong.