While there is still much to appreciate, the Hong Kong countryside is a troubled paradise. The hills, valleys, woods and waterfalls are wonderful, and Hongkongers can be justly proud of the country-park system, but some of our villages are deserted, with houses crumbling to ruins, and many more have been stripped of their rural charm by higgledy-piggledy clusters of three-storey “Spanish” villas.

Arguments rage over the future of a host of villages, many of which boil down to money. The small-house policy, intro­duced in 1972, no longer facilitates only the building of houses by male indigenous villagers for themselves; it also affords, through loopholes and illegal deals that go unchal­lenged, opportunities to build for profit. And the “small houses” have proliferated, built with little or no regard for the kind of close-knit com­mu­nities that once typified Hong Kong.

There may, however, be another way.

How the revival of a 400-year-old Hong Kong village can be a model for rural heritage conservation

If it’s to be anything more than a dormitory suburb, a revitalised village must be able to generate income. The soil seems an obvious source, yet farming has become uneco­no­mic due to cheap food imports, and, in many places, more challenging because of changes to the topography, such as streams being diverted to feed reservoirs.

Even so, there has been something of a resurgence in farming, with an emphasis on organic produce.

“Twenty-eight years ago, after we founded [environ­mental organisation] Green Power, me and a group of friends wanted to hold meetings, enjoy nature and do something on the land,” says Simon Chau Sui-cheong. “We consulted the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department [AFCD], and there was a new scheme for the rejuvenation of aban­doned farmland. We found a place at Hok Tau, near Fanling, where we could pay to use the land.”

Landlords are practical, money-minded; it’s money, money, money. Typically, they don’t want farming to be successful
Simon Chau, of Green Power

In 1988, Chau and his friends established Hong Kong’s first organic farm, run by the charitable Produce Green Foundation. They were also the first to invite “weekend farmers”, who rented small plots and without whom, says Chau, “it would have been impossible to survive”, because just growing and selling produce would not have been profitable enough.

Nowadays, Produce Green relies on income from coach­loads of visitors, including schoolchildren. Chau says there are up to 300 organic farms in Hong Kong (the AFCD states there were 547 organic farms as of May 2016), but most are small and barely surviving, and many would-be farmers have grown disillu­sioned and given up.

“Landlords are practical, money-minded; it’s money, money, money,” says Chau. “Typically, they don’t want farming to be successful, as then it’s harder to get the govern­ment to change land use [permits, which would allow land­owners to build] and make huge profits.”

The Produce Green farm consists of small plots of vege­tables on slopes above a valley floor, where rice paddies cover an area that looks barely larger than three or four badminton courts.

When I visit, the rice is ready to be harvested. A group of schoolchildren sit at tables beneath a metal roof, learning to make bread, while others are being taught how to prepare soil for planting, before having fun spraying a tiny field with a hosepipe.

“We have a reasonably good relationship with the villagers,” says Vicky Lau Yuen-yee, executive secretary of the Produce Green Foundation. “About 26 years ago, the leases we paid for were much longer, and the old people – who would come and see how we did things – cared about their land.”

Two villagers used to work on the farm, she says, but they died and the younger generation have shown little interest. The founda­tion now rents from villagers who have to ask where their plots are when they visit the farm.

Most of the farm workers are young people from nearby Sheung Shui, Fanling and Tai Po, but, Lau says, it is hard to recruit enough of them, and there’s always a problem secur­ing funding. Corporate sponsorship partly makes up for the shortfall; as a team-building exercise, companies arrange for their staff to harvest the rice, which is then given to the under­privileged. The sale of produce also brings in a little money.

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Organic farmers focused solely on selling produce face their own challenges. Chau says there’s an “absurd” price differential between organic and regular produce, which is cheaply imported from China and elsewhere. And organic farming is not well organised here, although, in 2000, the AFCD did introduce the Organic Farming Support Service, through which some 299 farms receive assistance, including with distribution through supermarkets, health-food stores and weekend and farmers’ markets. Furthermore, certification is on a voluntary basis only, meaning some pesti­cide-laced vegetables are being passed off as “organic”.

The Produce Green farm faces a different threat: a house is to be built in the midst of the rice-farming area.

“The family came back from England, and they don’t have any other land,” says Lau. “The son wants to build a house for his family. I can’t say no to that.”

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Maybe the family and the farmers will co-exist in harmony. But it seems disheartening that, after all these years, the farm and the village remain detached, the farmers still considered outsiders. And while the Produce Green projects demonstrate that organic farming can be viable, no idyllic revitalisation is under way in Hok Tau. Look across aban­doned fields and views of the old houses are obscured by a row of five recently built three-storey villas.

Does Lau still enjoy farming?

“Of course,” she says. “This is a nice place, actually.”

Another farming and revitalisation project is under way on the southwest coast of Lantau Island.

The founder of the project at Yi O might seem an unlikely champion of the soil, but former town planner Andrew Lam Siu-lo – whom the South China Morning Post has described as “a top government adviser and Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying supporter” – is no stranger to farming.

“I’m one of the few people who’ve been to every corner of Hong Kong,” says Lam, who made the trips during his quarter of a century as a town planner. His experience and under­standing of the countryside, as well as the small-house policy, got him thinking about planning in a rural context.

In 2007, after discussing the problem of water pollution in China, Lam and several friends, including engin­eers, started refining a technology for treating sewage in agricultural areas.

Rice growing in Hong Kong gets a fresh start in Lantau Island

“I began studies with a partner in Zhongshan [in Guangdong province],” he says. “We had an experimental farm.” Here they could test fertiliser created in the treatment process.

“By 2010, I was serious about the business,” says Lam. “I’ve seen a lot of problems in rural areas, including China.”

He began advising a forestry cooperative in Fujian province and then helped to establish farms in Gansu province and Chongqing.

“[They are] experimental farms,” says Lam. “Along with crop rotation, we raise ducks, chickens, geese, and have fishponds; basically aiming for manageable ecosystems.”

Although he considers farming more a social mission than a business, Lam decided that, to be successful, he needed to build a brand.

“Hong Kong brands are still considered more trustworthy, and I thought it would be easy to build a brand here, with rice,” he says.

Lam searched for a suitable site, which had to be free of developmental threats and unpolluted. He knew of Yi O from visits while working for the Urban Renewal Authority, and he sought out the village representative, who had once expressed interest in revitalising the village.

Explaining his concept, Lam told the village head, “I’ll invest in reactivating farming practices, and infrastructure. If I earn anything, you’ll have your share.”

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Although some still wished for development of a more concrete nature (literally), the village head helped persuade about 80 per cent of the landowners to support Lam’s venture.

After two years, in 2014, the team harvested their first rice crop in Yi O. Lam says the village representative’s brother and about a dozen others were in attendance. The head man later phoned him to say his relatives were happy; the older ones were reminded of the village in its heyday while the younger villagers were amazed Yi O could look so vibrant.

Now, a variety of Yi O produce – notably rice, vegetables, herbs, ginger and chilli – is sold through channels including a website and a small shop in Tai O.

“I’d like to see people come back and maybe run restaur­ants and small hostels,” says Lam.

Reintroduced rice farming is, likewise, key to a village revitalisation scheme at Lai Chi Wo, in the northeast New Territories. Although there are parallels here with Yi O, this project is more of a charitable venture, and it is being led by a consortium of sorts; experts in various fields are working with financial supporters and the Policy for Sustainability Lab, Faculty of Social Sciences, at the University of Hong Kong.

“The founder of this project was Lam Chiu-ying [chairman of the Hong Kong Countryside Foundation],” says Katie Chick Hiu-lai, the project manager. “He thought Lai Chi Wo was a beautiful village, and talked with interested parties such as environmentalists and villagers.”

The project began with funding from HSBC, and advice from experts in farming, biodiversity, marketing, culture and heritage conservation.

“The farmland had been abandoned for many years and restoring it wasn’t easy,” says Chick. “We also aim to revitalise the community and local economic activities. The primary objective is sustainable development for the village.”

How one Hong Kong village has adapted a rural lifestyle for the 21st century

Although the rice paddies still present challenges – one of which is working out how to prevent water from leaking away – there are signs Lai Chi Wo is enjoying a new lease of life.

“Before the project, there were just one lady and a gentle­man in Lai Chi Wo; both were elderly,” says Chick. “Now there are three indigenous villagers and five who have come from elsewhere, along with seven to nine staff who live here full- or part-time.”

The Hong Kong Countryside Foundation is endeavouring, with the support of Hong Kong Jockey Club funds, to reno­vate or rebuild several of Lai Chi Wo’s houses. The buildings have been chosen and a submission to the Town Planning Board is being prepared. The proposed Hakka Life Experience Village is seen as a model of village revival, providing learning activities and accommodation.

As is typical of villages that have yet to be subsumed by suburbia, Lai Chi Wo is located some distance from highways and railways. To get there, I join a group led by Lam that travels first to Sha Tau Kok, on the border with China, before taking a speedboat “taxi” across a bay and along an almost deserted coastline backed by green hills, and arriving at a narrow con­crete pier in Yan Chau Tong (Double Haven) Marine Park.

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A recently built archway straddles the path to the village. It was paid for by former residents who now live elsewhere, including Britain, explains Lam. Beyond the arch are about 200 houses neatly laid out on a gentle slope, reflecting the care that was taken in designing the village. Almost all have traditional slanting tiled roofs, although about a third of those are partially or fully collapsed. A few houses are little more than ruins. There’s an old village wall – although recent renova­tions make it look new – and a couple of cannons that once served to deter pirates.

Andy Tsang Shan-wah and his wife run a tiny store from their living room, serving drinks from two well-stock­ed fridges. They also sell home-made Hakka cakes. Tsang recalls leaving Lai Chi Wo with his family in 1966, and moving to Wolverhampton, in Britain, where his father started a Chinese restaurant and takeaway, complete with chips with curry sauce. He returned to Hong Kong, and Lai Chi Wo, in 2008.

Next door is a tiny museum dedicated to the Hong Kong Unesco Global Geopark, which encompasses the village and its surroundings. It’s overseen, under the name of the Lai Chi Wo Association for the Promotion of Culture, by David Tsang Wai-keung, who, like cousin Andy Tsang, lived in Britain. He returned to Lai Chi Wo six years ago.

“It was too quiet then,” David Tsang says. “I wanted people to come back, and live. One day, I met Mr Lam, and he had the same idea.”

Former villagers living in Britain meet regularly in Belfast and Birmingham, and return to Hong Kong for Lunar New Year and other occasions, and, says Tsang, none of them wanted Lai Chi Wo to fall into disrepair or see its rice paddies reclaimed by the forest. Most agreed with the planned revital­isation project, and even the proponents of more typical development raised few objections.

“I would love to make a bit of money if I can,” says Tsang. “I hope everybody who comes to live here can make a little money. I’d love to have a hostel, not mainly to make money, but so people can learn about living in the village. But there’s a big fine if you have a hostel without a licence.”

Luen Wo Market among four more Hong Kong heritage buildings offered up by government for revitalisation

“We are trying to find out how to help villages like this,” says Chick. “I think the most important thing is that locals understand they can work with NGOs like this in developing villages.

“Now, people from nearby villages are talking with us about similar projects.”

Chick is also hoping the project will help the government to see the potential for sustainable rural development in Hong Kong.

“There should be a new policy or involvement in rural planning,” she says.

Thus far, however, the government seems intent on lending tacit support to the small-house policy, and the transformation of villages into shambolic suburbs, while the maintenance of Hong Kong’s remaining rural charm is left to enthusiasts.