Week 5: Cheung Chau - Today we feature the fourth of seven finalists in our Preserving Villages series, a project to highlight communities among the 600 surviving New Territories villages that are working to keep alive their heritage and communal traditions. The Post, together with the Home Affairs Department and indigenous villagers, has spent a year collecting suggestions from district officers, rural workers, businesspeople and friends. We visited more than 40 villages and identified seven finalists. We are featuring the finalists on Mondays and we will reveal a grand winner on October 23 Pong Ning is wiry and strong, but it takes the guardian of Cheung Chau's Pak Tai Temple all his might to hold aloft the sacred sword that protects the spirits of the island. The 1.5-metre sword is the island's symbol. Stored in a locked glass and hardwood case in a secure pavilion in the Temple of the Supreme Emperor of the Dark Heaven, the fearsome weapon is engrained deeply in the lore of the island, once a pirate stronghold. Its story is passed unfailingly on to local children. Students of the six primary schools and three middle schools on the island visit the temple every year. The 78-year-old Mr Pong never tires of telling the legend of the sword. The full history of the 10kg weapon is unknown. Island lore holds that it was dredged up accidentally, caught in the nets of a junk trawling off the shore in the 1880s. At that time, Cheung Chau was ruled by pirate clans; bandit vessels put out to waylay and rob vessels sailing from Hong Kong Island to Macau and boats sailing up into the Pearl River estuary. Did the sword drop to the seabed after a pirate clash? Was it owned by a Manchu naval commander? Or did it belong to one of the murderous sailors who manned the raiding junks of the legendary woman pirate chief of Cheung Chau, Shek, who married bandit king Cheung Po-chai? Mr Pong shrugs. Nobody knows. When the British occupied Cheung Chau after the New Territories treaty of 1898, the population was about 2,000. Today, there are more than 25,000 people on the thriving island. Even newcomers whose roots lay elsewhere take part in island rites honouring the temple and its sword. It is part of the island schools' curriculum to visit Pak Tai Temple, where Mr Pong happily recounts tales of the island's turbulent history. The temple was built in 1783 and is maintained with care and love. It is well guarded by deity generals Thousand Miles Eye and Favourable Wind Ear, but even their presence and that of watching stone lions could not prevent a singular disaster a few decades ago - the theft of the sword. Its disappearance is as mysterious as its original discovery. As Mr Pong recounts the story to fascinated young visitors, the sword was stolen in 1971. Cheung Chau rural committee chairman Yung Chi-ming recalls how the loss stunned islanders. 'The island was always very safe,' he explains. 'Before the sword was stolen we did not have to shut the doors to our own houses. The temple robbery of the sword was shocking. Even today, it doesn't really make sense. 'It has no real value except as a symbol to the people on Cheung Chau. It's just an antique. You can't sell it. It's not valuable in terms of money. We were puzzled.' Police could find no clues. Superstitious villagers believed the disappearance was a bad omen. A two-year hunt by villagers and further investigations by detectives were fruitless. Then in 1973, Mr Yung says, a detective with a deep faith in the powers of the Emperor of the Dark Heaven held a ceremony in the temple. Using bamboo sing pui (decision sticks) in front of burning incense, he asked if the sword was still on the island. The gods answered no. The omens pointed to the sword being hidden in distant Kwun Tong. A month later, the sword was discovered in that district, in the home of a convicted criminal. 'We asked the temple god and he gave us the answer,' shrugs Mr Pong. 'This story has been retold again and again to each generation of children. 'We all know that Cheung Chau ancestors' nets pulled up this very sword. And thanks to the power of Pak Tai, we are again protected by the sword.' Few places take their heritage as seriously as Cheung Chau. It is believed to have been settled in Neolithic times and rock carvings near Tung Wan beach are signs of early inhabitants. There is the cramped pirates' cave at one end of the island and tales of buried treasure are widely believed. The Cheung Chau Bun Festival is a living treasure with the famous scramble for lucky bread buns enacted yearly in front of huge appreciative crowds. But it is the temple sword, guarded by Pong Ning for four decades, that many feel is the epitome of island lore. 'Looking at the size of the sword, it must have belonged to a seven-foot-tall man,' Mr Pong exclaims. He thinks it may have been carried by an important general and was lost at sea during a battle. Whatever the truth, it is now a symbol of longevity and luck to seafaring fishermen.