Chapters of Hong Kong's history have been preserved, bookended by high-rise

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 November, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 November, 1998, 12:00am

THERE is a tiny oasis of peace in the bustling, dusty streets of Chai Wan, tucked away among the high-rise apartments and flatted factories.

Blink and you could almost miss Law Uk, but cross the threshold if you will and inside its thick walls enter a time warp.

For this village house that survives in these frenetic surroundings stood here long before the British raised their flag in Hong Kong, and built their army barracks nearby.

Hakka people settled here about 200 years ago, and flourished as the British abandoned the nearby Lyemun barracks because of malaria, typhoid and other sicknesses among the troops in the mid-19th century.

They even continued planting their crops and fishing after the Japanese captured the heavily fortified Lyemun when they took Hong Kong in December 1941. The rapid development which started in the 1950s after a massive influx of refugees, and the shortage of land, finally destroyed their way of life.

The village was crushed by demolition hammers, but the Government agreed in 1972 that one house would be saved and a folk museum would be opened next door.

Even so, Law Uk had to wait until 1989 before its survival was put beyond doubt, when it was declared a monument.

The house, at Kut Shing Street, only a few minutes' walk from Chai Wan MTR station, is a typical Hakka-style residence, and its contents reflect the simple lifestyle of the villagers.

No mattress was used on the wooden bed, which has a ceramic pillow. A raincoat is made of straw. The most valuable possession was a wooden winnowing machine, turned by hand.

The five rooms are furnished just the way they were when Chai Wan was a rural backwater known as Sai Wan.

The small museum annexe houses cultural displays, such as the hand-painted wooden puppets which were on display when I visited, a once-popular entertainment for villagers before the arrival of television.

A chapter of Hong Kong's past is also to be reopened at the Lyemun Redoubt at the nearby Shau Kei Wan area, a reminder of far less peaceful times.

Though you would not know it because the restoration work at Law Uk was so painstaking, one wing of the old house was destroyed by a shell when the Japanese invaded Hong Kong.

The fighting was soon over, though, and the Lyemun Redoubt, which guarded the Lei Yue Mun channel, was captured.

Now the redoubt is being returned to its original condition, and the 62,000-square-metre site will become the Hong Kong Coastal Defence Museum, and should open to the public next spring. The war may have ended more than 50 years ago, but the legacy of destruction lives on. A number of unexploded bombs have been found by workmen involved in the project.

The site was first made into a military stronghold in 1887 to protect the eastern entrance to Victoria Harbour. Here the Brennan torpedo, a secret weapon of the 1890s, was tested, and the tracks that transported the torpedoes to the Lei Yue Mun channel are being restored.

The site will look at Hong Kong's coastal defences over hundreds of years, with replicas of warships and an exhibition on pirates.

Lyemun may be out of bounds for the time being, but across the channel there are some interesting reminders of those dark days of World War II through the delightful village of Ma San Tsuen.

Take the MTR from Chai Wan to nearby Sai Wan Ho - it is only three stops - walk to the Sai Wan Ho ferry pier, and catch one of the ferry boats which ply the channel, over to Sam Ka Tsuen, a journey of just a few minutes.

There is a small typhoon shelter outside the Sam Ka Tsuen ferry terminal, which is full of sampans and fishing boats.

Walk around the side and you come to Lei Yue Mun, an interesting little village whose narrow streets are packed with seafood restaurants.

There are also lots of live seafood stalls. Make your choice and take the fish to one of the restaurants, which will cook it for you.

It is not cheap, though, probably because the area has become popular with tourists who visit in parties for dinner.

A seafood festival was held there recently as part of the SAR's tourism drive.

The fun for me was wandering through the narrow, traffic-free streets, and on to the stilt homes of Ma San Tsuen.

It is very much like the old fishing village of Tai O on Lantau Island, and I understand from locals that there are plans to redevelop the area, so better get there quickly.

It is a very peaceful setting, and a world away from the high-rises over the channel on Hong Kong Island. Here, people sit and chat on their doorsteps or under banyan trees.

Find your way through the maze of alleys - you will probably come to a few dead ends before you succeed - and you will come out on to the exposed Lei Yue Mun Point.

Here you can explore the ruins of military installations which were built to reinforce the defence of the Lei Yue Mun channel and the Kowloon peninsula.

They are very much overgrown, so you must take care, but they are an interesting reminder of the days when Hong Kong was at war.

Most people who do come here do so to fish, however, from a broken-down military pier, or visit the small temple overlooking the sea.

Around the temple, you can have your fortune told at some of the little houses. If you do not speak Cantonese, bring someone to translate.