The Spotter’s Guide to Lamma
Lamma Island tends to attract birds of a feather—laid-back types who enjoy nature and a good beer in equal measure. In this field guide, Kate Springer tracks down a handful of chirpy Lammaites who will make you feel at home on your next visit. Photos by Chris Luk. Translation by Zoe Lai
The Lamma Expert
Frater Omniscis Totalis
Description: The founder and editor of Lamma web publication Lamma-Zine (www.lamma.com.hk), Lamma-Gung (aka “Uncle Lamma”) is the resident expert on the isle. He’s all over the place, interviewing new residents, reporting on events and investigating government plans.
Plumage: You’ll know him by his heavy Swiss accent, thick-rimmed glasses and long ponytail which he preens annually: “I haven’t been to a hairdresser since moving here,” he says. “My wife takes a pair of scissors and cuts off my ponytail once a year.”
Migration: The omniscient Lamma-Gung has been an island resident since 2001, having moved to start over after the dot-com bubble burst. “I worked as a regional IT manager and was headhunted to work at a startup. Like most startups, we didn’t make it,” Lamma-Gung recalls. “The entire market collapsed and I went from a high-flying general manager to unemployed in just a few weeks. I downsized to Lamma where the low rents were attractive.”
Though it was a big adjustment, Lamma-Gung quickly found a niche for himself. “There was no media out here when I got here, so I thought ‘why not’?” Lamma-Zine started as a classifieds website, and now it’s grown to cover events, people and music. What started as a hobby quickly became a go-to source for residents and newcomers. “I could do five stories a day on who is sleeping with who, but I want it to be a positive environment without gossip,” he says.
Over the past decade, Lamma-Gung has watched the island transform into a more upmarket place. “Richer people who can afford entire three-story houses are moving in, while poorer or retired people have to move out.” He lived in Yung Shue Wan until recently, when he relocated to Pak Kok Village on the north of Lamma—which is less expensive but also less developed, lacking basic infrastructure such as grocery stores and medical services. He worries that it’s only a matter of time before Lamma turns into another Discovery Bay. “We’re in a kind of enchanted state right now, like Hong Kong before the handover,” he laments. “It will probably become more like other outlying islands in the next five to 10 years.”
Where to Spot? Lamma-Gung spends much of his free time covering events across the island, such as Comedy Night, Lamma Fun Day and the Lamma 500 dragon boat races. He’s also an avid photographer, and has been known to shoot many a fiery sunset along the Yung Shue Wan harbor.
The Loquacious Bookworm
Description: A furniture mover, book-vendor, writer and DJ, Nick the Bookman is quite the chameleon. He’s commonly found pecking out music reviews on a keyboard in the Green Cottage restaurant or manning his bookshelf while fending off photo-snapping tourists.
Plumage: Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed—no, seriously, Nick has a really long beard—this friendly Lamma staple looks like the stereotypical Lamma Hippie of legend. He’s easy to spot as soon as you step off the ferry and start strolling down Main Street.
Migration: After growing up in Stanley, where his family lived in a three-story house, Nick worked on Hong Kong Island as a journalist: first at ATV, then Radio Hong Kong, then RTHK. He lost his job after an unfortunate misunderstanding: “I was caught borrowing records out of the library without permission," he says. "I thought it was a perk for everyone up at RTHK, because everyone would take the old ones and then bring them back again. But one morning the police came and arrested me. Everyone else stuffed all their records back in the next day, but I got screwed on it. No hard feelings. But then later I got accused of sabotaging the morning news, which I vehemently denied. It was a misunderstanding and it’s water under the bridge now." Nick relocated to Lamma to start a moving business in 1984. "Not really the career arc I had planned, but it’s been a good enough business for the past 20 years.”
He met his wife of 19 years in 1990, and the last time he shaved was his wedding day on March 21, 1995. “I had always had a “Miami Vice”-style short beard, but all that shaving was just getting pointless. It would be 10-15 minutes a day. Which is an hour a week, times 52 weeks a year, which is two days and four hours with which you can do something better.”
Aside from moving people into Lamma Island, Nick collects used books and DVDs and sells them for $15-20 apiece. He’s also an amateur DJ, creating mixes for friends and anyone who wants to listen.
A loyal Lammaite, Nick doesn’t have any plans to leave the island anytime soon. “If you have to be stuck somewhere in the world, Lamma is lovely. It’s not the drug-addled place it’s always made out to be.”
Where to Spot? When you alight from the ferry at Yung Shue Wan pier, walk down Main Street till you see a little bookshelf on the right. Time it right, and you might just catch Nick for a friendly chat.
The Seafood Specialists
Description: At the cheery Lamma Hilton Shum Kee Seafood restaurant, married owners Peter and Sandy Cheng run the show. It’s a second-generation family business, started by Peter’s father more than 50 years ago. The bright yellow tablecloths, sunny view of Sok Kwu Wan harbor and quick service make it a lovely spot to devour some of the resto’s famous mantis prawns with pepper and salt. “We have a secret recipe which many find very tasty,” says Peter.
Plumage: The couple is running around all day, serving, cooking, seating—whatever needs doing—so look for Crocs, bright polo shirts and big smiles.
Migration: Sandy joined the family business through marriage, but Peter Cheng has been living on Lamma since he was a 10-year-old fledgling. “My father started the business as a dim sum restaurant around 50 years ago,” Peter says. “I would follow my father around the kitchen and he would pass along his recipes to me. Being the oldest son of the family is tough: my other siblings were able to get an education, while I had to leave after elementary school to help my father with the business.”
About 10 years in, some expats living on the island advised Peter’s father to switch his dim sum teahouse to a seafood restaurant instead, as the production costs would be lower. “A professor even offered to help him advertise the restaurant and come up with an English name.” And so the Lamma Hilton was born.
Business was bustling for years, but lately things have gotten tougher. “The amount of people visiting the island has significantly decreased over the past 20 years. Back in the 80s, our restaurant was so packed that I barely had time to eat during lunch hours.” The pair has served many famous faces in the past, including former Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Edward Youde. “Nowadays, I find myself handing out flyers to passing tourists trying to lure them into our restaurant. I guess people in Hong Kong are not big fans of nature anymore, most of their weekend activities consist of wandering around air-conditioned malls or going to the movies.” The Chengs have two sons, but they don’t plan on passing the restaurant on. “I don’t want to drag them into it, since we have put them through college,” says Sandy. “They are better off with white-collar jobs.”
Where to Spot? Peter and Sandy are almost always working at their restaurant, which is near the Sok Kwu Wan pier. “We have thought about retiring because sustaining the business takes a lot of effort,” says Sandy. “What keeps us going are our loyal customers who have been supporting us over the years.”
26 Sok Kwu Wan Second St., 2982-8290.
The Animal Activist
Description: A retired doctor and avid animal rights’ activist, Dr. John Wedderburn has been living on Lamma Island since 1973, volunteering with the various animal protection organizations to take care of abandoned animals, educate pet owners and control the stray population.
Plumage: At 73 years old, Dr. John looks the part with big glasses and a khaki-colored wardrobe. If you see him holding a moody orange cat named Gai Jai (aka “Little Chicken”), then you’ve found the right guy.
Migration: John first moved to Hong Kong in 1973, where he owned a medical practice on the Peak until 1990. “Somebody came along and offered me a sum of money for my clinic, which I couldn’t refuse,” he says. A few years later, someone offered to buy his flat on the Peak as well, so John made the move. “When I first came to Lamma, the state of animal welfare here was dreadful. Every bin, every refuse area was full of cats. There were stray dogs all over the place too: mangy, starving beasts knocking over the cans.” John started volunteering with the Lifelong Animal Protection organization’s TNR (trap, neuter, return) program, which worked to control the population of feral animals. “We clean them up, de-sex them and try to find them homes. There used to be 750 cats in this urban area; now there are about 70.”
The organizers have also been trying to reduce the number of feral dogs on the island, and has been successful in the main urban area of Lamma. “There are still some left in the hills. We want to TNR them, but the government says it’s illegal.” [John has been prosecuted twice for practicing TNR.] Another issue is public perceptions: “Some people complain about strays running around biting their children, but that’s absolutely not true. Some people just don’t like dogs.”
And that’s a big part of the reason why Wedderburn is leaving Lamma. “The place has changed a lot. Nothing for the better, I would say. It’s getting worse, so much so that I can’t wait to leave. Hundreds of dogs have been poisoned in the past 10 years.” One of John’s four adopted dogs—at one time he had 40—was killed two months ago. “There was a little pile of food surrounding a sponge soaked in [herbicide and common dog poison] paraquat. Coffee, my dog (pictured), swallowed it without ever knowing what happened.” John has made plans to move to Indonesia with his wife next year. “It’s a long plan that’s all coming to fruition.”
Where to Spot? Before he flies the coop, you can catch John hanging around the Animal Welfare Protection Center, walking in the hills with his dogs or dining at Waterfront restaurant.
The Lamma Dragons
Description: Dragon boat paddlers for some 20 years, Oliver Armistead and Brad Tarr lead the Lamma Island Dragons in competitions around Hong Kong. From about February to May, you can find them training in the waters around Lamma Island and foraging for beer around town.
Plumage: The Lamma Dragons’ mixed team uniforms are a vibrant blue with hot pink piping, featuring a paddle-holding dragon in the center. Meanwhile, the women’s team sports bright pink attire that represents the team’s affable attitude. As their motto goes: “Out pink, out paddling, out partying.”
Migration: Started as a women’s-only team way back in 1986, the Lamma Dragons were the first expat team in Hong Kong. “There has been a fishermen’s dragon boating team for years,” says Brad, the chairman of the Lamma Dragons. “The ladies looked out and saw them practicing and asked, ‘Why can’t we do this?’” Until recently, the Lamma fishermen trained the expats. Brad says he enjoys the interaction with the fishermen. “Because of dragon boating, we have dinners and lots of beers together. It has helped us move into their community and feel like we’re part of the family.”
Likewise, Oliver, the treasurer, has been on board since he moved to Lamma in 1993. “Our next door neighbor happened to be the captain of the ladies’ dragon boat team. I had hardly stepped through the door before we got recruited,” he recalls. “After the first race or two, that’s when people really get the bug.”
Where to Spot? “There’s no official dragon boat bar, but the Island Bar (6 Main St., Yung Shue Wan) would be our main ‘clubhouse’ so to speak, and it’s actually where the Dragons were founded,” says Oliver.
The Tofu Granny
Description: Ah Por Tofu Fa, aka Tofu Granny, aka Grandma Ching, runs a spacious, outdoor tofu stall on the way toward the Power Station beach. She’s often floating around tables, sharpening her machete (as grannies often do) or doling out bowls of sweet, cold tofu.
Plumage: Grandma Ching is a tiny little lady, with a sun-stained face, bright eyes and iridescent jade jewelry. You’ll spot her at the tofu stall, hopping from table to table all day.
Migration: Tofu Granny has been in business for 41 years, opening up shop after she snuck into Hong Kong from mainland China in 1966. She had relatives living on Lamma at the time, so it was the logical place for her to go. “When I first came here, I made a living from growing vegetables. But the land was gradually taken over by houses, and the production costs of growing vegetables got more expensive.”
After seven years of farming, she started selling tofu and soymilk. “I didn’t really have a choice when I first came here. I’m illiterate and poor; tofu making is the only practical skill I possess.” She learned the process from her brother, while she was still living on the mainland. “He taught me a special technique to filter the soybean residue which gives the tofu a smoother texture.”
The secret to her delicious tofu? “I make it fresh every day from 7am to 2pm, using soybeans from Canada [bought in Central], water, and gypsum as a coagulant. I use rock sugar for the syrup.” Her husband, who is turning 83 soon, helps her out by manning the station and carrying the heavy barrel of tofu. She explains, regretfully, that she believes the business will end after she passes away, because her children already have careers.
Where to Spot? She works seven days a week, so her tofu stall is the best place to find her. “Most of the time I’m just sitting here in the shade, chatting with customers after I’m done making the tofu.”
The Friendly Restaurateur
Cafeus Non Carnis
Description: The co-owner of Green Cottage restaurant, Ron Yin is usually behind the barista bar at this popular vegetarian joint.
Plumage: Ron’s salt-and-pepper hair, red-and-black glasses and brightly hued polos will give him away.
Migration: Ron first stepped on Lamma Island in 1997, pretty much the day that he and his brother Ben decided to open up Green Cottage. At the time, Ron was working a thankless job in the hotel industry, and his brother worked long hours as a designer. “I was really fed up with what I was doing: people were demanding, and I was always dealing with complaints and making people happy. But I wasn’t happy myself.” That’s the first time he even considered Lamma Island. “In the first few years, every time I went to town I would have a headache. And when I got back to the ferry, my headache was inexplicably gone.”
For many years, business was very relaxed. Westerners were starting to show up on Lamma, and there were fewer competitors back then. “We closed at 1pm and just explored the rest of the day, hiking and swimming—it was kind of like semi-retirement.” About 18 months ago, the restaurant had to move into a new location, where they now have a little more space for customers. The first vegetarian restaurant on the island, Green Cottage sources as much of its produce as possible from local farms to keep everything super fresh. “Some people come almost every single day and eat the same thing over, and over, and over again.”
Where to Spot? When he’s not churning out coffees and tallying up checks at Green Cottage, Ron swoops over to Central to shop for produce or spends the day outdoors with his family. “Mount Stenhouse, the highest point on Lamma Island, is very beautiful, as is Turtle Bay, where the turtles lay eggs from June to October.”
15 Yung Shue Wan Main St., 2982-6934.
The Local Life
Recommendations from Lamma-loving locals.
“Chill at Prime Bar and Grill, hike to another village on the other side of the island, and tan at the beach.”
- Jessica Anne Knight
“Go up to the mountains for breakfast! Buy freshly baked baguettes from the Lamma Gourmet with a ton of ham and cheese. OM NOM NOM!”
- Mayumi Soriano Yoshinaga
“Go to the Power Station Beach on a Sunday with your dog. Let her play with all the other dogs while you relax in the sun.”
- Jade Richards-Butler
“Go to Great Wall BBQ at Hung Shing Yeh and have a BBQ by the beach. They have all the meat there ready for you.”
- Natalie Belbis Presley
“Drink loads of free-flow Prosecco at Waterfront and eat open-air dim sum from Sampan, which is right on the water.”
- Jing Zhang
“Breaking into the power station with [name redacted], climbing up the pain that is the Lamma chimneys and smoking a J at the very top with a view of all of Lamma, Lantau and HK Island. Priceless.”
- [Name Redacted]
Disclaimer: HK Magazine does not condone this behavior, awesome as it may sound.