A village lost to marauders

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 January, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 January, 1997, 12:00am

The Qing dynasty fort that still stands on the headland overlooking Fan Lau was built to protect Lantau islanders and the Pearl River estuary from pirates.

But 250 years later the pirates are still coming ashore, and threaten to drive the final nail into the coffin of the village, one of the most remote in Lantau, a two-hour walk from Tai O along a coastal footpath.

For Fan Lau, which until a few years ago was a thriving fishing and farming community, has been reduced to only three residents, aged between 70 and 80, who live in fear of illegal immigrants who have targeted their homes.

Now they face a dilemma: give up their traditional homes and land for the safety of a tiny flat in a government block in Tai O, or remain in Fan Lau at the mercy of intruders.

In its hey-day, the village had more than 100 residents, and even opened its own school, facing the beach.

It is easy to imagine the peals of laughter of village children, for the school still stands, the blackboard bears the teacher's chalked instructions from the final lesson, and rickety wooden forms are scattered around the classroom.

But weeds now cover the concrete basketball court, and the windows were smashed long ago by vandals.

This is now a ghost village.

Most of the residents have moved out to find work elsewhere or to escape the marauders, leaving their homes firmly padlocked, pasting scrolls of mun sun (warrior gods) on their doors to ward off evil spirits.

Only a few months ago there were five residents, said 80-year-old Chui Tei, but the village store-keeper, who made ends meet by selling soft drinks and instant noodles to weekend walkers, died suddenly.

Then two weeks ago another old lady who had lived in the village all her life decided to leave after illegals stole from her garden. She has moved to Tai O.

So now there are only three - Mrs Chui, 70-year-old 'Uncle' Ho Fu-chai, and old Mrs Choi, and even she is absent after breaking an arm in a fall.

Mrs Choi is recuperating with relatives on Hong Kong Island, and Uncle Ho is looking after her two dogs and hens and tending her small banana plantation while she, too, ponders her future.

'I have lived here all my life, but now I am afraid,' said Mrs Chui. 'The pirates keep coming. Recently I woke up to hear them trying to prise open a window. I shouted and turned on the light and they left. But will I always be so lucky? 'I have brought up four children here. My house is a good size and I have plenty of land and can grow my own vegetables. I receive welfare payments and could move to a little flat in Tai O. But I would lose all this.

'We don't have television here because we can't get a good signal. We don't have toilets in our homes. There is a communal toilet block in the village. And we use wood to do our cooking in outhouses, which means we don't have to buy gas. It is a simple, but good lifestyle. Still, I have to reconsider. Now Fan Lau is dangerous.' Uncle Ho has already come to a decision. He will leave . . . provided the government agrees to give him welfare payments so that he can pay for a reasonably-sized flat.

For although his house is 800 square feet and the land he can cultivate covers many acres, he is a poor man. Most of the land belongs to the Government for which he pays a rent of $25 a year. And who would want to buy the small plot he does own, he asks.

There had been a glimmer of hope in 1990 when China Light and Power wanted to build a $60 billion power station at Fan Lau. Some villagers rushed into action and built three blocks of flats near the old fort.

But the plan was rejected by the Government, the flats were never occupied, and now stand neglected and vandalised, the wooden doors eaten away by white ants.

Pirates have made off with most of Uncle Ho's money and the outboard motor he used to take his small boat to Tai O, where he would sell vegetables and load up with groceries, soft drinks and mineral water.

Each time the illegals land, Uncle Ho tears out a page from his calendar to mark the day. Already, one sheet from this year's lies on his table.

'The pirates first started coming in 1990. We are very close to mainland waters. I was working part-time as a security guard in Shek Pik [a three-hour walk for him from Fan Lau], and when I returned they had broken in and stolen cash, jewellery and other equipment, worth a total of $130,000.' He, too, has lain in bed frightened as raiders tried to break into his home. Once they reached through a barred window and grabbed his telephone. He now keeps the phone hidden under a cloth - it is his only lifeline in an emergency.

'They have stolen from me five times, sometimes cartons of soft drinks which I sell to walkers who pass through the village at weekends. I am frightened in case I am attacked.

'In the latest incident, four girls and eight boys came and said they were thirsty and wanted soft drinks. They looked like mainlanders. They offered me renminbi, but I said I only took Hong Kong dollars, and they paid up.

'But later they came back and stole three cases of soft drinks. I searched for them and saw the group on a beach nearby. I called the police, but by the time the officers arrived, they had gone.' Uncle Ho said that police now occasionally patrol the village, and indeed when this reporter visited, a police patrol boat was in the area. But Uncle Ho fears little can be done when darkness falls.

Walking around the village, he unlocked the door of a tiny house which had a pair of wooden ladders leading to a platform. 'That was where I was born,' he pointed.

'My wife gave birth to four sons and two daughters in this village, my whole life has revolved around it. But it is time to leave.

'I have been offered a small room by the Government. It is only 180 square feet and would cost me $480 a month rent.

'I know I will lose my agricultural land if I leave Fan Lau, but I don't want to live in such a small space.

'I intend to apply for welfare assistance.

'If it is approved, I will be able to afford a little larger government accommodation at Tai O.

'Then I'd leave. Before the pirates get me.'