Hong Kong desert island is new tour destination, with junk trips run by couple revealing its beauty and recent past as refugee camp
Aboard their restored wooden junk, Rex Law and Sarah Yip offer trips to Tai A Chau in the Soko Islands, a thriving farming and fishing community 40 years ago, then a home for Vietnamese boatpeople, but now reclaimed by nature
Tai A Chau, the largest of the Soko Islands in the far southwest of Hong Kong waters, was home to a Hakka farming village until 1980 and, during the 1990s, a community of some 10,000 Vietnamese refugees. Now, however, it is only populated by birds, butterflies and reptiles.
In the past, few had the opportunity to experience the natural charm and tranquillity of the Sokos, walk along the deserted beaches, or search for clues to former human habitation. But an entrepreneurial couple from Cheung Chau island have recently started offering group excursions to the islands, on their lovingly restored 49-foot wooden motor junk.
Rex Law Ka-kin was born into a traditional Cheung Chau fishing family (his father still helps out and advises on the junk). When Law and his girlfriend, Sarah Yip Chui-ha, took a year out from their careers and completed a year of travelling to 38 different countries in 2016, they found the experience had changed them profoundly.
“We didn’t want to go back to our corporate jobs in Central, but we needed to eat,” Yip says.
When the couple heard of an old junk for sale in Sai Kung, they made the bold move to invest their life savings in resurrecting an old Cheung Chau tradition and living afloat. It took four months of hard work to restore the vessel with help from a local boatyard. They renamed their freshly painted junk and home “The Floatudio” and both obtained all the necessary licences for offering trips.
Their first commercial excursion was to the Soko archipelago. “People were really excited because it’s so rare to be on a real desert island,” Yip says.
It takes about one hour and fifteen minutes to reach the Sokos from Cheung Chau, though Floatudio will also collect parties from Mui Wo, Discovery Bay or Yung Shue Wan. I took the trip on a clear sunny day, marvelling at the dramatic seascape dominated by sharp pink granite cliffs that were dotted with rod fishermen perched at seemingly impossible angles.
The islands are also a popular habitat for finless porpoises (or sea pigs, as the locals call them) but I did not spot any by the time the boat pulled up alongside the large concrete pier on Tai A Chau and disembarked its guests.
Until 1980, the island was home to a thriving community of farmers dependent largely on pig farming and pineapple cultivation.
You can walk from the ferry pier towards a pagoda perched on a hill, then continue along an overgrown path that twists towards a fairly deserted beach blanketed with decades of rubbish on the opposite side of the island.
Along the route there are clouds of butterflies and, about halfway along, some circular graves on the hillside – the only obvious signs of previous human habitation.
One of those graves is that of the grandfather of Jackie Ng Wai-yin. Ng was born on the island in 1970 and now works as a mechanical engineer, living on Cheung Chau. He remembers about 200 farmers on Tai A Chau and about 30 to 50 fishermen living on wooden junks in the bay. The two communities were friendly, but land and sea people never integrated.
“At that time, we just had a simple life. It was hard work but there was no money,” says Ng who, along with his five brothers and two sisters, attended the small village primary school on the island, where one teacher taught all the students.
“We took the community boat once a week to Cheung Chau or Yau Ma Tei to buy and sell goods,” he adds, explaining that one of the major challenges was getting the pigs on the boat to go to market. “It was one cent per pineapple in those days.”
There was no running water, proper sanitation or electricity until the government installed a diesel generator on the island in the late 1970s. “It could only be run from 6pm to 10pm and the men used to complain it was not even long enough to cool the beer,” Ng says.
In 1974, a Swedish journalist called Michael Rogge arrived with a TV crew and stayed on the island for two weeks to make a documentary about island life. Viewing it over four decades later, it is compelling to witness how tough life was for Ng’s family and how rapidly life has been transformed in rural Hong Kong.
Ng says the entire village was bought by a local property development company in 1980 eager to develop a resort on the island. The plans never materialised, but the villagers divided the money and moved to Cheung Chau, where they bought houses and started new lives, leaving only the graves behind.
Walking back towards the junk, the path passes a huge, flat expanse of cracked concrete nestled at the foot of a steep hill near the pier. This was once the site of a pioneering social experiment.
After the fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese troops in 1975, Vietnamese boatpeople seeking refuge began to flow into Hong Kong. By 1980, more than 100,000 Vietnamese had arrived in the territory, which had gained a reputation as a safe haven.
Law says his father remembers the days when local fishermen would be offered gold or cash by boatpeople desperate to be towed to the nearest Hong Kong territory, which was often the Sokos.
By the end of June 1990 there were still over 54,000 Vietnamese boatpeople in Hong Kong, and the government sought support from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to offer something more substantial than tented camps bordered by barbed wire.
A refugee camp opened in late 1990, with purpose-built accommodation blocks managed by Hong Kong Housing Services for Refugees. It rapidly became a thriving town, or little Vietnam, which grew to about 10,000 people.
Policing was done by a very small team initially led by James Clements, who was a superintendent in the Royal Hong Kong Police Force from 1990 to 1992. Clements, now retired and living in the UK, says the residents were carefully selected, with preference given to respectable families. The gates to the camp were initially kept locked, but as the residents grew accustomed to the regulations, they were free to meander around the island as they pleased.
“Most people had jobs, with the agencies or at schools and clinics – others worked on farming, including fish farming,” Clements says. “There were births, marriages and deaths just like the rest of Hong Kong.”
Clements remembers the UNHCR hailing the centre as a huge success in its progressive way of dealing with refugees. Funding disputes, however, eventually led to its demise and subsequent demolition in 1996.
Now the island only offers refuge to a handful of visitors seeking a break from city life. Plans for a liquid natural gas processing plant have been raised, but Yip says she does not want the place to be developed or become too popular.
“We are happy to take our guests to the Sokos, but we don’t want lots of tourism or anything too big,” she says. “And everyone must respect the sea.”