History hiding in Chai Wan

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 September, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 September, 2006, 12:00am

In an industrial area in Chai Wan, a solitary Hakka house clings on to the site it has stood on for 200 years.

The Law family built the house and founded a small community in the area.

The Hakka house was designated a historical monument in 1989 and is now the Law Uk Folk Museum.

If you would like to see how rural Hongkongers used to live, then it's well worth a visit. Allow an hour or two, take a bottle of water and enjoy the tour.

Why was this house built?

The Law family came down from Bao'An County, which is where modern-day Shenzhen is, more than 200 years ago.

They settled in what is now Chai Wan, and made a living farming and raising chickens and pigs.

According to records, they were accompanied by about 300 people, who also set up Hakka villages in the area.

Before they arrived, no one lived in Chai Wan - it was just empty land and forests.

The house is now surrounded by factory buildings and high-rise towers, but what would the environment have looked like 200 years ago?

It would have been very quiet and remote. And the house would have been right by the sea. Now, it's several streets back from the sea due to land reclamation.

What can you see inside the house?

There aren't many windows, so the light well at the front of the house is important for light and ventilation.

They didn't install many windows because they were afraid of robbers and pirates.

The light well lit up the main hall, which was used for all the main events of the house. Weddings and major family meetings would have taken place in this central room - the spiritual heart of the family house.

What kind of furniture did they have?

Mostly simple wooden furniture, which you can still see in some traditional houses in the New Territories today.

There would have been simple dining furniture plus agricultural machinery, such as a threshing machine to split the husks away from the rice.

In the Law Uk Folk Museum you can also see a mannequin of a traditionally dressed woman making dumplings. These would have been used for worship and food during festive occasions.

How long did the Law family live in the house?

They moved out in 1960, and then the house was used as a factory for a few years. The descendants of the Law family now live in various housing estates.

But portraits of Law-family ancestors still hang on the walls, and, during festivals such as Ching Ming, Law descendants return to the house to pay their respects to their ancestors.

How many people would have lived in the house?

Probably about 10 people. Three generations often lived in the same house. There wouldn't have been much privacy.

What did the bedrooms look like?

At the Law Uk Folk Museum you can see the simple wooden bed. The loft would have been used for the children to sleep in and for storage.

Where do museums find old furniture?

The Hong Kong Museum of History, which oversees the Law Uk Folk Museum, has been working for years to develop a collection of traditional pieces of furniture and other artefacts.

The museum curators receive donations from local villagers and go out to locate items around the New Territories.

Sometimes, if they spot an ancient artefact, curators try to persuade residents to donate them to the museum.

What else can I see?

There's a kitchen area with a traditional stove and an altar where the stove god could be worshipped.

There's also a working area used to store farming implements. There you can see the different stages of rice farming, from when the seeds are planted to when the rice is threshed.

What was the front yard used for?

Residents hung up their washing and laid out vegetables and rice to dry in the front yard.

Birthday celebrations and wedding banquets would have also been held in the front yard. It was the socialising area for meeting neighbours and friends.

Law Uk Folk Museum, 14 Kut Shing Street, Chai Wan. Free admission. Tel: 2896 7006