A Hong Kong island, sleepy today, that was hub of industry from matches to porcelain
Known today as a relaxing getaway, compact Peng Chau was a pirates’ haven and, until the 1930s, polyglot fishing community, when factories making matches and hand-painted ceramics drew thousands of newcomers to island
Life slows down before you even step on the Peng Chau ferry. The boat tootles amiably on the way to one of Hong Kong’s most under-appreciated outlying islands.
When they arrive on the island, visitors are greeted by a plaza shaded by banyan trees and studded by plastic chairs. Here, the islanders sit, watch the water, gossip and while away an afternoon.
Three decades ago the journey would have been very different.
“Far from the madding crowd of Hong Kong, though only 45 minutes away by ferry, is the island of Peng Chau, where you won’t find peace and quiet either,” wrote American author (and former Post contributor) Will Schwalbe in 1985.
In a good-natured essay for The New York Times, Schwalbe described an afternoon visit to bustling Peng Chau. Rather than banyan trees, visitors at the time stepped off the ferry to encounter a vacant lot filled with hawkers selling stinky tofu, fishballs, fish intestine, grilled squid, chestnuts, chicken feet and corn for HK$1 per serving.
With an area of just under 1 square kilometre, Peng Chau was home to about 8,000 people – compared to 6,400 today – nearly all of whom lived in the densely-packed settlement squeezed between two hills, the ferry pier and a sandy beach. Most of the houses were traditional greystone structures with pitched tile roofs and a single large room that housed sons, daughters, parents and grandparents.
With no cars permitted on the island, the streets served as social spaces – and a place for chickens and pigs to wander freely. “The noise is a mixture of shouts, of conversation, of chickens squawking and the omnipresent clack of the mahjong tiles,” wrote Schwalbe. “The only modern addition to this din is the sound of the Chinese action shows on television.”
Just beyond the village, he discovered plastic toy factories, a shantytown made up of tin shacks and a series of ceramic-painting workshops.
“Porcelain is the cottage industry of Peng Chau and the pieces produced there have a marvellous vigour,” he wrote. “All are handmade and hand-painted: the largest porcelain factory on Peng Chau employs nearly 100 people, but for the most part the work is done by families.”
This last observation hints at something unusual about Peng Chau. While Hong Kong’s other outlying islands were mostly fishing communities, Peng Chau transformed itself into an industrial hub that drew migrants from across Hong Kong and the mainland, creating an island economy unlike any other in the city. Today, that industry has entirely disappeared, although you can still see its legacy as you walk through the island’s streets, where the ruins of old factories are still present.
“Peng Chau’s past is shrouded in mystery,” wrote New Territories historian James Hayes in a 1964 edition of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch. Even as villages were built on other Hong Kong islands, Peng Chau was forlorn until relatively recently, used mainly by passing fishermen to repair their nets or by the occasional pirate looking for a place to hide. Eventually, some Cantonese settlers opened up shops to supply provisions to the fishermen, but it isn’t clear when this occurred.
The earliest recorded trace of human settlement on Peng Chau comes from the island’s Tin Hau temple, where a tablet was installed in 1798 to commemorate the 218 businesses and people who donated money for the temple’s construction. That seems to have marked Peng Chau’s status as a permanent base for the fishing industry, which dominated life for many years to come.
In 1834, another tablet was erected just outside the temple, noting how islanders successfully petitioned the viceroy of Guangdong and Guangxi to stop commandeering fishing boats in the hunt for pirates.
By the late 19th century, Peng Chau had about 500 fishing boats and an official fishermen’s organisation that staged community events like Cantonese opera performances. The vast majority of the fleet was owned by Tanka people who lived on their boats; around 100 narrow rowing boats were owned by Hokkien-speaking Hoklo people who lived in matsheds on the beach.
There were also a handful of Cantonese and Hakka fishermen, but most people of those ethnicities stayed ashore, with the Cantonese running businesses and the Hakka operating farms on the island’s small amount of arable land.
Each of these groups spoke different languages, and in other parts of Hong Kong they were prone to conflict, but according to Hayes, Peng Chau was relatively peaceful.
“There are no recollections of fighting between the various groups of settlers on the island, though the Hoklos, who are generally credited with a more turbulent disposition than the Cantonese and Hakkas, perhaps in most cases having fewer possessions to make them cautious, sometimes fought among themselves,” he wrote.
But crime was a problem, and the businesses on Peng Chau’s main commercial street were forced to install heavy security gates that were tightly sealed at night. Seafaring thieves took advantage of Peng Chau’s isolation to sneak onto the island under cover of darkness. Some islanders had itchy fingers, too.
“These night defences were erected as much to keep out bandits and robbers coming from the sea as thieves or dissatisfied elements from within the island,” noted Hayes.
Fishing wasn’t the only pillar of Peng Chau’s economy. In the 19th century, the Leung family established a limekiln factory that burned oyster shells and coral to create lime that was used in house construction and ship maintenance. By the time the island came under British control in 1899, the factory consisted of two buildings with 11 kilns.
Peng Chau’s first census under British rule, in 1911, recorded 642 residents. That number soon increased. In the 1930s, the so-called Match King of Shanghai, Liu Hong-sheng, opened the Great China Match Factory on Peng Chau, taking advantage of its direct connection to the sea and Hong Kong’s removal from the Sino-Japanese war on the Chinese mainland. It was joined after the second world war by more factories.
Tung Lin, a member of the online Hong Kong history community Gwulo, lived on Peng Chau in the 1950s and recalls how “the air was quite acidic and smoky all year round”. But factories meant jobs and Peng Chau’s population continued to expand. Among the newcomers were Chiu Chow ceramic painters who came to Peng Chau to escape the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.
“Hong Kong had a lot of Western customers who wanted Chinese porcelain,” explains Susanna Pang, owner of SOIL, a craft gallery at PMQ, the former police married quarters in Central. “The shops on Hollywood Road commissioned cottage factories in Hong Kong to make them because they couldn’t get any pieces from China.”
Pang says many of the factories opened on Peng Chau because rent was cheap and it was easy to ship products directly overseas from the island, which had a pier dedicated to ceramic exports. “People moved to Peng Chau to work for those factories and they ended up staying there,” she says.
Most of the porcelain was manufactured in Japan and painted in Hong Kong to cut costs. Pang says that Peng Chau’s painters developed their own style that catered to the tastes of Western customers. When China’s economic reforms opened the country back up to international trade in the 1980s, Hong Kong’s ceramics industry collapsed.
When she opened SOIL in 2014, Pang’s first exhibition was Painted in Peng Chau, which focused on the work of the island’s last remaining ceramics painting studio, Wah Tung. The studio’s master painter, Lam Hon-chiu, specialised in traditional rooster motifs, as well as bamboo and flowers that he painted in collaboration with his wife.
Unusually for a Chinese ceramics painter, Lam signed each piece with his name and the date of completion, a practice he started when his wife went overseas for a trip. “He missed her so much he began adding the date so he could count down the days,” says Pang.
Lam died three days after the exhibition opened. “The remaining ceramics represent a period of time that cannot ever be recovered,” says Pang. The same can be said for Peng Chau.
The factories are gone now and it’s unlikely you will encounter chickens and pigs in crowded streets; the island has returned to a quieter way of life.