Window on a lost world

Today we feature Ping Shan as the grand winner 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, of which we featured six runners-up over the past six weeks.

Tang Kwan-chi, 72, recalls as a boy running through the narrow stone-walled lanes between dozens of fortified houses to the Ping Shan guest house to meet Elder Uncle visiting from Guangdong.

Through the heavy metal gates, past the Imperial Civil Service examination plaques, young Kwan-chi ran up the wooden stairs. Inside the guest house, there was uncle reclining on the traditional cherrywood bed and puffing on his opium pipe.

In the days before the Japanese invasion, opium was a government-run monopoly in Hong Kong. There was little prejudice against using the drug.

'Ping Shan was a blissful place then,' Mr Tang recalls. 'It was surrounded by wide paddy fields and green mountains. Crops and fields extended south of the Yuen Long River to the Hung Shui Kui River.'

Now, as then, the large village and most of the surrounding hamlets were home to the great Tang clan that settled in the northwest New Territories more than 900 years ago. They remain the largest and most powerful of the 'five great clans' - Tang, Hau, Pang, Man and Liu - of rural Hong Kong.

Over the centuries, the Tangs built elaborate communal buildings and ancestral halls. Many remain today, proud living monuments to the clan's power and wealth.

Most of the buildings stud the kilometre-long Ping Shan Heritage Trail, which goes through the sub-hamlets of Hang Mei Tsuen, Hang Tau Tsuen and Sheung Cheung Wai. They include Hong Kong's only genuine pagoda from pre-British times, the Tsui Shing Lau, erected in about 1486 by a seventh-generation Tang clansman. Once seven storeys high, today only three remain; the rest were destroyed in a typhoon. The ancestral hall was first built in 1273 and repaired three centuries later.

An avid historian, Tang Kwan-chi feels a compulsion to pass on the history of his family and native place. A retired civil servant who spent his career with the old Agriculture and Fisheries Department, he was born and raised in Ping Shan.

He can be found there most days around the stately and spacious ancestral hall conducting free tours for the young and curious, overseas tourists and local residents, explaining the lore of the Tang clan. It is a story woven deeply into Hong Kong history.

'I remember the quiet manner of traditional village life,' he recalls.

'We played in the river; it was so clean you could swim in its waters. As a child I learned my characters in the village study hall before I used to ride my bike a half-hour into Yuen Long to primary school and secondary school.

'Studying has always been a very important part for Ping Shan people. It was the only way for small village boys to succeed in life. In my generation, the Imperial examination had ceased, but we studied just as hard for the Hong Kong government exam as our forefathers had for entry into the Chinese civil service.'

That work ethos remains a prized part of Tang clan life.

Those values are part of what Mr Tang tries to pass on in his talks to visiting international academics, Hong Kong students and tour guides. He chats with friendly knowledge during the free tours he conducts through the lanes where he used to play as a child.

'Ping Shan has much heritage, and we've done a lot to preserve it,' says the 25th-generation Tang. Today, the 31st generation of Tangs can be found running through the back alleys of the village just as Kwan-chi used to in 1940.

'There is a continuity,' he contends. 'As the village has prospered, it has grown around our ancestral halls, study halls and communal areas.'

The Ching Shu Hin guest house is a unique example. When it was built in 1870, bandits ruled the few rocky roads. They extorted homage from all who passed. The iron rule of the Manchu emperors held little sway on the far southern fringe of the Qing realm.

The stone-built guest house was a place of rest for passing visitors on the paved pathway that ran from Guangzhou to Dongguan and then through villages down to the magistracy at the walled fortress town of Kowloon. Across the water from there was the foreign enclave of Hong Kong Island.

'In the past, the journey was measured in days and weeks, not minutes and hours,' Mr Tang points out. 'People walked or were carried in sedan chairs.'

The guest house still stands, connected to the study hall next door.

As well as visitors, like Sun Yat-sen who is said to have stayed there, the forerunner of modern hotels was also home for many young students and teachers preparing for the Imperial Civil Service examination.

'We've always hosted very famous people at the guest house,' says Mr Tang.

The guest house is a listed historic monument, proudly refurbished in the early 1990s.

It holds pictures of guests like governor Sir Cecil Clementi, legendary tycoon Robert Hotung and business leader Fung Ping-shan.

Today's visitors embrace a wide selection. Mr Tang grins as he recalls the 2003 visit of Miss World finalists and delights in showing his personal photo album of the shapely beauties.

Today Ping Shan is a starting point for a heritage trail which is studded with 18 historical sites, starting at the village ancestral hall.

Between 1991 and 1993 the hall was refurbished at a cost of HK$4.3 million, money donated by proud villagers.

'The government was interested in encouraging tourism, and because the local economy was not very strong and many were looking for work, tourism seemed a good fit.'

There are plans to convert the old police station complex into a museum and restaurant, boosting the area as a historical enclave.

'The history of Ping Shan is part of the Hong Kong story,' says Mr Tang. 'It's our clan heritage but something for everyone to be proud of.

'It's my passion to preserve it and to explain it to others.'