The stories behind Hong Kong districts: Ngau Chi Wan and Choi Hung – from lively rural village to the first low-cost housing estate
Ngau Chi Wan is more than 200 years old and was a rural village along a mountain stream. In the early 1960s, Choi Hung, the first permanent public housing estate, was built. Later, half of the village was razed for an MTR station
It’s late afternoon in Bo Fuk, a neighbourhood cha chaan teng in the East Kowloon village of Ngau Chi Wan, and a crowd of regulars has assembled for tea. “We’ve been coming here for about 10 years,” says a man sitting with his son. Why? He laughs. “It’s cheap!”
That’s a point of pride for Bo Fuk’s owner, Chow Chin-soon, whose family opened the restaurant in the front room of their house in 1964. “We own the house so we keep prices low,” he says. A lunch set costs just HK$31.
The customers like more than just the prices. “Look at this place – this is the kind of place that needs to be preserved,” exclaims one man finishing his drink. The dining room still has its original wooden booths and patterned tile floors; the menus are still handwritten on the walls, framed neatly by green trim. There’s even a vintage 1960s clock hanging from the wall. “It’s been working since day one,” says Chow.
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But it’s in the kitchen where the history of the place really becomes apparent. “Look up,” instructs Chow, gesturing to a grid of well-aged wood about five metres off the ground. “That’s the original roof,” he says. “This house is more than 100 years old.”
Bo Fuk hasn’t changed much through the years, but its surroundings certainly have. Ngau Chi Wan is one of the last indigenous villages in the urban area of Kowloon, located next to Choi Hung MTR station, across a busy road from the famous rainbow-coloured housing estate that gives the area its name (Choi Hung means “rainbow” in Cantonese).
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When it began life more than 200 years ago, it was “just another village,” as Chow puts it. The harbour was not far away – Ngau Chi Wan means “Cattle Pond Bay” – and the settlement grew up along a mountain stream that flowed into the ocean. By the 1950s, however, a flood of refugees from China had transformed the entire area between Diamond Hill and Kai Tak into a sprawl of pitched-roof houses, shops, factories and shanties.
Peter Bok Lee-chuen remembers the village as a lively place. Born in Ngau Chi Wan in 1952, he grew up in house number 60, a large traditional courtyard dwelling that was home to more than a dozen families. “Number 60 was very famous because the village chief also lived there,” he says.
The house faced a playground where itinerant entertainers would stage acrobatic and kung fu performances to the delight of village children. Every so often, village leaders fixed a white sheet onto the wall of an adjacent house and screened black-and-white films. “All the village folks and children had to bring their stools and chairs to the playground and watch the films,” he says.
Bok’s mother was born in Southeast Asia and she moved to the village after spending time in China. After her husband died, she carried water from the village well to its households to support Bok and his two sisters. Just about everyone in the village knew her. “Every day, she had to carry that bucket of water 20 or 40 times, and each time she only earned 10 cents,” says Bok.
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When they weren’t being entertained by travelling acrobats, Ngau Chi Wan children flocked to the village grocery stores, where they paid 10 cents to watch television from 7pm to 11pm. They also ran around nearby farm fields. “We played hide and seek, and we flew kites as well,” says Bok. Painters from the city often set up their easels in the fields to capture the view of Lion Rock, whose feline figure is particularly striking from Ngau Chi Wan. The children stood around the painters and watched their artworks take shape.
Those fields eventually became Choi Hung Estate. The government had launched its public housing programme after the devastating Shek Kip Mei fire in 1953, but most of its early efforts were limited to rehousing fire survivors. When it was announced in 1958, Choi Hung was the first low-cost housing estate conceived as a permanent home for its residents.
Designed by Palmer&Turner, Hong Kong’s oldest architecture firm – also responsible for the Prince’s Building, Jardine House, the original Bank of China Building and many other landmarks – the estate consists of 11 rainbow-coloured blocks built between 1962 and 1964. The estate was initially home to 43,000 people and it became a hallmark of the government’s efforts to improve Hong Kong’s standard of living. It attracted a number of distinguished visitors in its early years, including future US president Richard Nixon, who toured the estate in 1964, and Princess Margaret, who came in 1966.
Choi Hung was soon joined by Ping Shek Estate, which contained some of Hong Kong’s tallest public housing towers when it opened in 1970 – the government at the time described the skyscraping project as “winning space from heaven.” Over the course of the 1970s, the housing estates were joined by a number of public amenities, including a large wet market and the Ngau Chi Wan Civic Centre, which contains a theatre.
Village residents took it all in their stride. “They had to accept the new reality,” says Bok. But when Hong Kong’s first MTR line was announced in the mid 1970s, villagers realised they might lose more than just their farm fields: plans for the new Choi Hung station called half of the village to be razed.
More than 1,000 Ngau Chi Wan residents were ordered to leave, but around 30 refused to budge, accusing the government of acting “unilaterally, without seeking their opinion,” according to the December 13, 1974 edition of the Post. “What we want is a home,” said village activist To Kam.
They eventually reached a compromise. Most of the displaced Ngau Chi Wan villagers were given homes in Choi Hung Estate, but those who had refused to move were compensated with 84 two-storey town houses built directly on top of the new MTR station. Aerial photos from the early 1980s show the new concrete structures rising from a field of dirt.
Today, the ground floors of those houses have been converted into restaurants and shops, creating a bustling high street that extends from the Ngau Chi Wan wet market to the quieter, older half of the village. Across the road in Choi Hung Estate, the painters who once captured Lion Rock have been replaced by Instagramers and photographers who shoot portraits on the estate’s colourful basketball courts.
Peter Bok eventually became a probation officer and moved out of the village when he got married in 1979. A decade later, he and his family decamped for Toronto, where he rekindled his passion for erhu, which he had learned to play as a student in the 1960s. He is now the executive director of the Ontario Chinese Orchestra.
But he still returns to Hong Kong every year to visit family and friends, and he always makes sure to spend time back in Ngau Chi Wan. Although house number 60 was demolished long ago, the grocery store where he watched TV as a child is still there, along with a barber shop and a dim sum restaurant he used to frequent.
“You cannot find many other old villages in the urban area,” says Bok. As the customers of Bo Fuk might say, it’s something worth preserving.