Discover big heart in small fishing village

SAI Kung town is a great place to wander around. Its bustling harbour and seafood market are fascinating, and its variety of restaurants is above-average for a small fishing port.

The town's trawlers, kaidos and sampans ply their trades under the watchful, but distant, gaze of Tin Hau, the patron goddess of seafarers. Her three-hall temple stands near the junction of Hiram's Highway and old Po Tung Road.

Supposedly founded seven centuries ago in the Sung dynasty, the present building was extensively renovated in 1916, when Sai Kung was at its peak as a market town and the temple flanked the harbourside.

Tradition-conscious town planners have left a symbolic ''fung shui lane'' of open space in front of Tin Hau's shrine, so she can ''see'' and guard the harbour.

Turn your back on her world and go behind the temple for an amble through the shrinking remnant of Sai Kung's century-old market town. Its maze of narrow lanes contains some derelict yet imposing merchants' mansions, old general stores, and the sounds and aromas of a rural market.

It is an old-style world of beancurd manufacture, herbal medicines, mahjong games, fresh vegetables and dried goods.

Emerging on the harbourside, enjoy the open-air sights and aromas of Sai Kung Hoi, the Inner Port Shelter whose island-studded waters formed a secure anchorage and prompted Sai Kung's original function as a boat-people haven.

Unlike Stanley, Sai Kung still has a sizeable fishing fleet, active harbour and rural character. Surprisingly, though, it is not as ancient. Until a century ago, Sai Kung was merely a fisherman's cove with a small Hakka settlement.

Nearby Sha Kok Mei, where a Catholic church stands, was the area's only major Cantonese settlement. Boat-people anchored in the Port Shelter, off the coast of High Island (long before it was transformed into the wall of a massive reservoir project).

Britain's annexation of Hongkong Island led to Sai Kung's development as a regional market town in the 19th century.

Villagers throughout the isolated peninsula, islands and hinterland gained a fast-growing market for their fish, limes and farm produce. Their natural entrepot was the coastal settlement of Sai Kung (whose name, meaning Western Tribute, has the same characters as Saigon).

Catholic missionaries roamed the area, but Sai Kung remained isolated. Goods were transshipped southwards or borne over the hills to Kowloon or Junk Bay until only four decades ago.

That was when Hiram's Highway, started during the Japanese Occupation, was completed. Recently widened and straightened on its downhill section, it remains a scenic approach to scenic Sai Kung.

Sai Kung Public transport KMB No. 92 or No. 1 green minibus from Choi Hung MTR station; KMB No. 299 from Sha Tin. Refreshments good choice of seafood and other restaurants. Reference Countryside Series map-sheet for Sai Kung & Clear Water Bay; Hongkong Tourist Association's Sai Kung Explorer's Guide includes sketch map and detailed sightseeing notes.