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Abandoned Hong Kong island gets new life as heritage site and ecotourism destination

Unesco has given awards for the conservation work on Yim Tin Tsai’s church and the revived salt pans that were once its livelihood, and descendants of the original Hakka settlers want to encourage visitors to the village off Sai Kung and its little-touched natural surroundings

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 February, 2016, 1:11pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 February, 2016, 2:34pm

A 20-minute boat ride from Sai Kung pier, the tiny island of Yim Tin Tsai now teems with activity on weekends. Most are day-trippers exploring the old Hakka settlement, but others are workers harvesting salt from resurrected salt pans.

The scene is a far cry from six years ago, when its many deserted fields and dilapidated village houses gave the island an air of abandonment. Descendants of the original villagers hope that reviving the salt pans that once helped to sustain Yim Tin Tsai (Cantonese for Little Salt Pan) will give the historical settlement’s ecotourism business some added buzz.

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A Hakka group from Yantian, the Chan clan, first settled on the island during the 19th century. In 1864, Catholic priests began evangelising among the villagers and by 1875 everyone on the island was baptised. Yim Tin Tsai even had its own chapel, St Joseph’s, a Romanesque structure built on a donated plot in 1890.

But as rural life became increasingly difficult, the community dwindled and by 1998 the last member of the Chan clan had moved out and ferry services ceased. Yim Tin Tsai might have decayed into a pile of rubble over time, but in 2004 the Catholic Church conducted extensive renovations of St Joseph’s Chapel that inspired villagers and conservationists to embark on a campaign to revive the settlement.

Six years ago they began offering ecotourism tours to Yim Tim Tsai in collaboration with private boat operators. The village school, which was built in 1920 and closed in 1997, has been turned into a heritage centre for visitors, and the old salt pans – comprising four pools for evaporation of seawater and one for crystallisation – were put back into production at the end of last year.

But the full revitalisation programme was completed a few months ago after the roads were paved in July, says village chief Colin Chan Chung-yin.

Documentary maker Wong Tin-shing was commissioned by the church to make a film about the Yim Tin Tsai revival. Before long, he wound up co-ordinating efforts to resuscitate salt-making, too.

The initiative began four years ago. “There were many trials and errors as none of the people involved had worked in salt production before. After being abandoned for decades, the salt pans were filled with water. No one knew what salt pans looked like,” Wong recalls.

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“The first workers hired [for salt production] soon left as they didn’t know how to do their jobs. As I became more involved while making the film, I took up the salt project myself.

“We tried many times, but the salt just didn’t crystallise. Later, we went to Shanwei on the mainland and Taiwan to see how salt pans are run. It turned out that the salinity of seawater is lower in summer than that in winter. Rain will also dilute the salt concentration so we had to install a cover over the reservoir. We finally succeeded and had our first harvest in December last year.”

“In the past, inhabitants on the island used the salt they produced to preserve fish. The surplus was sold to villagers in other parts of Sai Kung. Due to the decline of the fishing industry and the imports of cheap mainland salt, the salt pans in Yim Tin Tsai stopped production in the early 20th century.”

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With salt-making in Tai O also halted in the ’70s, the revived salt pans of Yim Tin Tsai are now the only ones in operation in Hong Kong.

“We do not aim for mass production. The salt is mostly used to make souvenirs like key chains,” says Wong.

He recently completed his film, which documented how they revived the salt pans and the island, and on New Year’s Day hundreds of people, including members of the Chan clan and Catholic worshippers, gathered on the island for a special screening of Wong’s documentary Then and Now Yim Tin Tsai: A Hakka Catholic Village Reborn .

The revival of traditional salt-making gives visitors a glimpse of the old way of life, when villagers also made their livelihood from fishing and farming. At the peak in the 1930s to 1950s, there were some 50 Chan households living on the island – about 1,200 people. As families emigrated to the UK or moved to other parts of Hong Kong, houses fell into disuse and began to deteriorate.

Many Chan descendants now return to the island to serve as travel guides, among them retired school principal Chan Chi-leung. An eighth-generation descendant, Chan moved to Yuen Long at the age of 12 after finishing primary school on Yim Tin Tsai.

“I lead mostly tours with a religious and spiritual focus. I bring the visitors to retrace the missionaries’ footsteps on the island,” says Chan, who is chairman of Salt and Light Preservation Centre, an organisation that promotes Yim Tin Tsai’s conservation.

Top on the itinerary of Chan’s religious tours is a visit to the renovated St Joseph’s Chapel. The church started the overhaul project in 2004 and completed it in 2005.

The vicar-general of the Hong Kong diocese, Dominic Chan Chi-ming, who was born on the island, led a drive to raise funds for the project after he saw the damage that war gamers had inflicted on the chapel with their pellets.

They collected more than HK$1 million for the St Joseph’s Chapel renovation project, which won a merit prize from the Unesco Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2005.

The acknowledgement came as a pleasant surprise, Reverend Chan says. “We are just a church on a small island. We were in competition with strong contenders like Indian heritage [projects].”

The chapel was listed as a Grade 2 historic building in 2011.

The revitalisation effort in Yim Tin Tsai received a further boost in October last year when its salt pans won a Unesco cultural heritage conservation award for preserving an important piece of industrial heritage.

“The salt pan prize is even bigger than the one for the church. Given the rich Hakka, religious culture and ecological life like butterflies and mangroves there, the island is worth recommending to Hong Kong people for tourism,” says Reverend Chan.

Recalling his childhood years on Yim Tin Tsai, Reverend Chan says the island is rich with marine life.

“I swam, kayaked, fished, caught crabs and conches there as a teenager. The pier then was just one-third of its current size and it took a long time to reach there. Today, a boat ride takes only 20 minutes.”

For Sue Chan Sze-tai, the revitalisation has also made it much easier for clan members to sweep their ancestors’ graves on the island.

“All the ancestors of the Chan clan are buried on the island. Previously there were no roads, and it took a lot of effort to reach the graves, cutting weeds and fending off snakes.”

But that has improved as revitalisation projects rolled out, she says. Bit by bit, facilities were installed; the pier was reopened in 2005; and five years later a public toilet was built.

Sue Chan left Yim Tin Tsai at the age of 15 to join her father in the UK, but returned to Hong Kong in 1978 and now helps organise ecotourism tours to the island.

“We have over 2,000 visitors per month. Every May, there is a big mass conducted in the chapel, which can accommodate 800 people.”

Besides attracting Catholic pilgrims and ecotourists, Yim Tin Tsai has also drawn an unusual tenant – Au Gifu, an advocate of the ascetic life. Two years ago, the 75-year-old persuaded the Chan clan to make available for free one of the village houses, which he now uses to run workshops and experiments on simple living at the weekends.

Born in Macau, he studied chemistry in Taiwan and worked as a chemical engineer in a Taiwanese chemical company. But sickened by growing industrial pollution, Au quit his job in the early 80s and travelled around the world to observe how green industries were run. In 1988, he set up a camp in Hualien, Taiwan, where he spends a couple of months each year to promote simple living.

Au says he had been looking for a place to set up a similar camp in Hong Kong and discovered Yim Tin Tsai 12 years ago.

“It was very quiet there as there were no people at all,” he says. “I am glad the villagers refurbished the house a bit and let me use it. I go there around once a week on the weekend with those interested in simple living.”

He lives with his family in Sai Wan during the week, but really gets down to basics at weekends in Yim Tin Tsai: he does not use even toilet paper and his stove is made from stones gathered from around the island.

“I pick up firewood near the cottage for cooking. There’s no TV and internet. My wife and I live very simply.”