FOR 300 years they have worn sombre black uniforms, tied red armbands to their sleeves and carried wooden poles and gongs on a mission to mete out justice. Bands of armed villagers from the Tin Shui Wai region first mobilised themselves to defend the clan from bandits who hid in remote hills. But today, Hong Kong's only licensed vigilante squad still patrols border villages in search of illegal immigrants, thieves and strangers. An ancestral hall in Ping Shan village once served as a community court, and punishment was often meted out within its sturdy stone walls before police arrived. But the Ping Shan vigilantes - who obtained a licence during World War II - no longer deal out their own punishment to those caught stealing or breaking in. 'We are still allowed to carry some light weapons like wooden sticks,' said Tang Wun-kwan, 48. The 14-member team now travels in vans and uses mobile phones and torches, instead of gongs, to raise the alarm. Team members were elected by male villagers every three years and received financial backing from rich families with land or businesses in the district, Mr Tang said. 'The police extend our licence every three years to make sure we don't have any bad records and team members are issued with special IDs for police and villagers' identification,' he said. 'In a practical sense the police only do this to preserve our heritage, but we also help to spread crime prevention messages.' District board member Tang Hing-yip said rural villagers had needed to protect themselves from wandering criminals in the past. 'And in the 1950s, after the Communist Party took over on the mainland, large numbers of illegal immigrants flocked to Hong Kong,' Mr Tang said. 'The numbers of police could not handle the situation, so villagers formed their own 100-strong self-defence team, with police consent.' But police are warning villagers frightened by recent killings and robberies that forming new vigilante teams could add to the cycle of violence. No more vigilante licences would be issued, said Yuen Long police spokesman Wong Chun-wing. 'Private punishment is not allowed by law. And we don't want the public to risk their lives,' he said.