The expats who revived Hong Kong village Pak Sha O and impressed absentee owners with their labour

Restoration work done by a group of expats on village houses in Pak Sha O has inspired their owners to hold on to their ancestral homes

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 September, 2015, 6:02pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 September, 2015, 10:40am

Retired policeman Toby Emmet's home is a cosy two-storey village house in Pak Sha O, nestled among former rice paddies, dappled woods and streams in Sai Kung Country Park. Next door is the neatly laid-out Yung family ancestral hall, a rustic structure built in 1918.

Yet as charming as the cluster of traditional Hakka houses are, many were little more than dumps when Emmet first visited in 1980.

"Some had been abandoned for a long time. People held barbecues inside. The windows and water system were broken. There were front doors missing. Wooden beams were seriously damaged by termites."

But after years of restoration work, the Yung ancestral hall, a grade two heritage site, has been returned to its former glory.

The Hakka settlement of Pak Sha O is made up of two hamlets: Pak Sha O village, founded by the Ho clan, and Pak Sha Ha Yeung, which was established by the Yung family. Although many traditional village houses in the New Territories have been razed and replaced by kitsch three-storey "villas", those in Pak Sha O have survived remarkably well, retaining their sloped roofs, grey brickwork, heavy doors, wooden staircases and beams.

That's thanks in no small part to residents such as Emmet. Descendants of the Yung and Ho families had begun moving abroad, mostly to Britain, in the 1970s and '80s. The homes were let out, often to expats. About 20 foreigners now live in Pak Sha O, and went to great effort to renovate the once-derelict Hakka structures, says visual arts lecturer Wong Suk-ki.

Struck by the turnaround, Wong and her researchers have compiled a history of Pak Sha O's two founding clans and the preservation work by expats in a book. It will be launched October 11 and some Yung and Ho descendants living overseas will return for the party.

"They may have thought about selling the house, but when they came back to the village and witnessed the effort other people put into restoring their properties … they started to feel emotional ties to this place again. Now it has become the younger Yungs' favourite holiday spot," Wong says.

Pak Sha O Ha Yeung was founded when Yung Si-chiu, a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, settled there with his family in 1918. His descendant farmed the surrounding land and built a school, which wass converted into a youth hostel. But after the completion of the High Island Reservoir in the '70s, water was diverted away from the village stream and reduced the flow to a trickle. Farming became unsustainable and led to an exodus abroad.

Ken Yung Fuk-hung, however, left earlier.

"My parents were rice farmers and I had a carefree childhood, I swam in the stream in front of our ancestral home all the time and played with the ducks and chickens. I studied at the Catholic school in Pak Sha O, which has since been demolished, and went to school in Tai Po for two more years before I left for UK at the age of 17," Yung recalls.

"By the '60s, almost everybody in the Yung family left to seek better opportunities overseas. Many from the clan went to Canada. I ran restaurants in the UK and came back to Pak Sha O in 1983 to retire."

Happily, the village hadn't changed much in the decades that he was away.

"It is still unpolluted and beautiful. I am happy that Toby revived my ancestral home and I hope that the memories of my ancestral village can be retained in the shape of our house for generations to come. My clan also share this view. But they are overseas and seldom come back now," Yung says.

"I live in Hoi Ha, a 10-minute walk from Pak Sha O Ha Yeung, where I was born. I am the only Yung residing here now. The Yung descendants had no idea about [how to restore] the ancestral hall, so we are happy that Toby is doing that for us. We rent the house to him for a small sum but over the years, he has spent a lot of money renovating and restoring the place. We are happy about this arrangement."

I wish to preserve the two villages, so I can enjoy my twilight years here
Ken Yung

Emmet first visited Pak Sha O village in the '80s when he took his three sons camping in Sai Kung. "It was quite a useless place then as there was no water supply. I just rented it for holidays as I used to go camping with my boys at the beach in Hoi Ha Wan," he says.

Even so, after retiring in 1998 as senior assistant commissioner, Emmet moved to Pak Sha O, drawn by the rustic traditional Hakka buildings.

"Pak Sha O is among the very few villages that don't have new development. It's still untouched. If you go to Yuen Long, Sheung Shui or Fanling, you get [a mixture of] old and new houses."

Now 71, Emmet says it took him three decades to fully restore the house and the ancestral hall as he did a lot of the work himself.

"There was no lavatory. When my mother-in-law came to visit, I thought I had better install one. I did lots of woodwork. It took five years to make it habitable," he says.

"Termites are the biggest problem. Now a company comes every 12 weeks to check the house for infestations."

Restoration of the ancestral hall took longer, and he has turned the second floor over to a depository of old farming tools, utensils and pottery containers salvaged from deserted village homes.

In between, Emmet also helped care for two Yung widows for about six years until the pair got so old they had to move to a home for the elderly.

"We were a very good team," he says. "I used to keep ducks and geese and the two women would let them out and I did shopping for them. It worked quite well."

Just across the road, similar transformations have occurred at Pak Sha O village. The founding Ho family made a fortune by recruiting workers for steamship companies, and used the money to build the family compound. Comprising an ancestral hall, a watchtower and side chambers, the cluster was listed as grade one historical structures.

But the buildings fell into disuse as younger generations left the village and it fell to expat residents who rented the village houses to take on the job of repairing cracked walls, roofs, windows and floors.

Former restaurateur Tom Goetz and his wife Lauralynn, who used to teach at the Hong Kong International School, are among them. Despite the remote location and the presence of snakes - pythons as thick as thighs are common in the woodlands - they love the place and have been living in the village on and off since 1995.

"We love history and tradition. When we first moved in, the previous tenant gave us a typed list of instructions … who to call if we find a dead cow, along with other interesting advice," says 75-year-old Goetz.

"Lauralynn and I have introduced many students to Pak Sha O. They loved [seeing] the cows. They enjoyed hiking also. We would go to Lai Chi Chong to see the beautiful rock formations," says Goetz, who used to run several restaurants in SoHo.

But while the residents of Pak Sha O enjoy its idyllic and historical charm, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the future of the settlement as surrounding land has been purchased by property developers.

"A developer has hired a worker to farm [a nearby field]. It's a common tactic of theirs. [Developers] turn the wetland into farmland and later they can build houses on it," says Goetz.

Although Pak Sha O is located within a country park, it is not protected by statutory plans and developers have been buying up land around Pak Sha O Ha Yeung since 1997.

"You can't build in a country park. But you can build in this sort of [village enclave] if you can get permission. [Development plans] are still being negotiated, so things are still hanging in the balance," Emmet says.

However, Yung has no intention of selling to developers. "I was approached to sell, but I rejected them. I wish to preserve the natural environment and simple lifestyle of the two villages, so I can enjoy my twilight years here."