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Bronze Age rock carvings in Big Wave Bay, Hong Kong Island. Photo: Jonathan Wong

A trek through Hong Kong’s Bronze Age history, visiting its ancient rock carvings

  • Spread around the city’s coastlines, 3,000-year-old rock carvings are a tangible link to Hong Kong’s ancient inhabitants
  • The geometric designs are thought to be tributes to the gods of the sea; some are easier to visit than others 

In 2020, I visited all nine Bronze Age rock carvings in Hong Kong.

Besides working from home, like many in the city during the coronavirus pandemic, I spent most of last year hiking and exploring the far reaches of its territory.

I thought I knew Hong Kong fairly well after 20 years, but 2020 made me realise that I was wrong. It gave me the opportunity to make up for lost time. I roamed the rocky shores of Tung Ping Chau in the east, the Po Toi Islands in the south, had a staycation in Tai O on Lantau Island to the west and visited the mostly abandoned Hakka villages of Plover Cove Country Park in the north.

While I was on the move, I was inspired to embark on a quest to see all nine officially listed ancient Bronze Age rock carvings in Hong Kong.

Marc Rubinstein with rock carvings in Big Wave Bay, Hong Kong Island. Photo: Jonathan Wong

These Bronze Age petroglyphs, or designs carved into rock, all feature swirling, geometric and zoometric patterns, mostly cut directly into coastal cliffs facing the sea. Thought to be about 3,000 years old, the designs were chipped into Hong Kong rock at the time of the Chinese Shang dynasty from 1600 – 1046BC or the Zhou dynasty that followed.

According to Rock Carvings in Hong Kong, written by William Meacham, former head of the Hong Kong Archaeological Society, the best linguistic and ethnographic data suggest the carvings are the work of the Yueh tribes which then inhabited the coastal regions of southern China. The dating of the carvings to the Bronze Age is based primarily on the similarity in patterns found on the carvings to the designs on pottery from the same era.

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Meacham believes the carvings had some sort of religious or spiritual significance, perhaps something like the significance of Tin Hau temples, also built on the coast and facing the sea.

Eight of the nine Hong Kong rock art carvings have nearby inscriptions from the Hong Kong Antiquities Authority that describe the carvings as “stylised animal or monster forms” which may have been intended to “propitiate the power of the sea”, given the local inhabitants’ dependence on the bounty of the ocean.

Looking at these carvings from my 21st century perspective, I remembered a recent visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem and how it has remained standing for centuries despite massive changes all around it.

Rubinstein climbs to reach the ancient carvings on Kau Sai Chau. Photo: Marc Rubinstein

Hong Kong’s nine rock carvings range in size from the smallest at Shek Pik, at 34cm by 56cm, to the largest at Tung Lung Chau at 1.89 by 2.5 metres, and they have all formally been declared monuments by the Hong Kong Antiquities Authority. These declarations began in 1978 with the carvings at Big Wave Bay. In 2019, the carving at Cape Collinson was added to the list. Discovered in 2018, the Cape Collinson carving has yet to get a plaque or inscription.

I first saw one of the carvings back in 2009, hiking on Po Toi, when our contingent visited the impressive cluster of carvings on the island’s southern coast, less than a 30-minute walk from the ferry pier.

A few years later, I walked past the well-known carvings at Big Wave Bay on the way to lunch at the end of a Dragon’s Back hike. I didn’t give them much thought until July last year on a day trip to the island of Tung Lung Chau. I discovered there was another rock carving on the island, so my partner and I went to see it, a few kilometres southwest of the ferry pier, down a long, vertiginous stairway.

The largest of the ancient carvings is on the island of Tung Lung Chau. Photo: Marc Rubinstein

This large carving is one of the most impressive of the nine, well preserved and mere metres above sea level with the waters of the Tathong Channel lapping at the nearby rocks.

After struggling back up the long stairway, I decided to see all the carvings in Hong Kong and revisit those I had previously seen: my quest was born.

Next on the list was the most difficult to access, at least by land, and visually, the least impressive. The rock carving on the “golf island” of Kau Sai Chau off Sai Kung is accessible from the trail that leads from the Jockey Club ferry pier across the breakwater bridge to the smaller island and village of Yim Tin Tsai.

Eroded carvings on Kau Sai Chau in the New Territories. Photo: Marc Rubinstein

At some point in the middle of that walk, visitors can turn towards the coast and end up on rocky cliffs that must be carefully traversed to reach the heavily eroded carving. This is not recommended and, for the casual hiker, renting a boat to see the carving from the sea would be a safer option. But having conquered the carving on Kau Sai Chau, which despite the erosion, still reveals its geometric elements, there was no turning back for me.

Next was the carving at Wong Chuk Hang, the only one not originally facing the sea. Who knew that a 3,000-year-old petroglyph lies just 50 metres from Nam Fung Road, carved into the rocky walls of a moist and verdant stream bed?

The carving at Long Ha Wan on the Clear Water Bay Peninsula was also easy to find via a modest stairway from Long Ha Wan Road, not far from a nearby horse-riding business.

The carvings in Wong Chuk Hang on Hong Kong Island. Photo: Marc Rubinstein

The last difficult challenge to overcome on my quest was to reach the newly discovered rock carving at Cape Collinson. On the first attempt, I arrived late on a weekday afternoon and hiked up Leaping Dragon Walk which begins near the Island Resort estate at Siu Sai Wan.

There are no signs to indicate where the rock carving might be, so I hopped over the railing at the first path marked with a warning not to proceed, for these signs typically indicate where the unofficial trails begin, so I take them to mean “go here”. But do be careful, as these warning signs are there for a reason.

I went down the steep path and ended up on craggy coastal rocks trying to identify the location of the rock carving by looking at Googled photographic images of the coastline marked with an arrow to indicate where it was. I failed to find it.

The ancient carving at Cape Collinson on Hong Kong Island. Photo: Marc Rubinstein

I went back up to the Leaping Dragon Walk and walked towards the Cape Collinson lighthouse until I found another warning sign and took another unofficial trail down to the coast. Again, I failed to find the rock carving and after I wandered across rocks until I was uncertain whether I could safely return the way I came, I decided to scramble up the steep hill with no trail at all through dense, spiky brush – I figured that was better than falling in the harbour.

In my dirt-covered and torn clothes, I persisted and found one more unofficial trail down to the coast just before the fence to the Cape Collinson lighthouse and dutifully descended the steep, rope-assisted path. As the brush cleared, I thought I spotted the place where the rock carving must be, but by then it was nearly dark and time to go home in case that fall into the sea became a reality.

Some weeks later, I returned to this final trail, made my way down and carefully crossed several hundred metres of rocky coast. I was rewarded with a well-preserved petroglyph unsullied by 1970s attempts to “protect it”, apart from a few printed signs asking visitors not to damage the artefact – and I would implore the same.

The small carving at Shek Pik on Lantau Island. Photo: Marc Rubinstein

After my adventure at Cape Collinson, the last two rock carvings were a breeze. The one at Shek Pik on Lantau Island is down a road near the prison and the group on Cheung Chau is below the Warwick Hotel, where I spent a pleasant one-night staycation in December. Mission accomplished.

To me, the rock carvings are an example of the adage that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. Walk past the carving at Big Wave Bay, as so many have, and it may seem a mildly interesting anomaly, not particularly impressive in its own right.

But to see all nine carvings in our small territory and feel the connection to an ancient civilisation helps remind us that we weren’t the first to be here and we won’t be the last.