Numerous towering pagodas are scattered across central and southern China. Heavily featured on exported porcelain, for two centuries pagodas on willow-pattern plates epitomised far-off, exotic Cathay in the west. Most pagodas were built during the Ming dynasty and had a geomantic rather than a decorative function. Believed to improve the fung shui of an area and redirect chi 'cosmic energies', pagodas were thought to improve the prosperity and general well-being of the locals. Several magnificent examples can be seen in remote, picturesque locations across Guangdong province, and in Guangzhou. Hong Kong's only surviving ancient pagoda can be visited at Ping Shan, in the northwest New Territories. Built by Tang Yin-tung, a seventh-generation member of the Tang clan, Tsui Shing Lau - the Pagoda for Gathering Stars - was constructed around 1486. Deep Bay reached much further inland than it does now and the pagoda was not far from the sea. Tsui Shing Lau was positioned to prevent flood waters washing Ping Shan's fook (good fortune) away. Originally seven stories high, the upper four levels were destroyed by a lightning strike. Another, much more magnificent pagoda once dominated the Tiger Balm Gardens, in Tai Hang. Hong Kong's tallest structure when it was built in the early 1930s, like the surrounding gardens, it was demolished without protest in 2002. Along with Tsui Shing Lau, some ancestral halls at Ping Shan were extensively restored in the early 90s. Better conservation of Ping Shan's built heritage was not a localised desire - as the villagers would like the world to believe today - but the personal initiative of former governor Lord Wilson. No sooner were the crumbling buildings refurbished at public expense than a heated dispute arose between the government and village powerbrokers over an ancestral grave's re-siting. With sadly typical New Territories-indigenous-villager siu hei (small-minded pettiness), a newly built heritage trail was shut in retaliation and visitors were intimidated. The trail has been reopened and a police station, built on the hilltop behind Ping Shan shortly after British rule was established in the New Territories in 1899, was recently converted into a 'heritage interpretation complex'. Ping Shan is worth a visit but don't expect the kind of near-intact Chinese rural experience Hong Kong's fanciful tourism promotional literature would have you expect - that side of New Territories life passed a couple of decades ago. The overwhelming impression is of rural squalor; straggling container storage and unlovely heaps of partially cannibalised bangers piled up almost to the Tsui Shing Lau itself. Tsui Shing Lau, and the Ping Shan Heritage Trail, are just across from Tin Shui Wai West Rail station.