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Buddhist Wai Yan deputy headmaster Chu Kim-hung. Photo: Warton Li

Change coming to island idyll of Cheung Chau

Cheng Chau is a world away from the stress of the city, but residents fear encroaching tourism and the flight of the community's young people

Jennifer Ngo

Cheung Chau has long been seen as an oasis within reach of busy Hong Kong, with its small-island charm and its tranquil surroundings of sea, sun and sand.

The island's heritage, best seen in the popular Bun Festival held in May, annually captivates thousands of visitors from all over the world.

In the summer, groups of teenagers and young families book villas for a weekend getaway, Western tourists with Lonely Planet guidebooks eat local seafood, and mainland guided tours visit the island to shop.

But behind the facade lies the fact that Cheung Chau is an old neighbourhood with an uncertain future. Some say tourism development is eroding its heritage. But the bigger issue is a failure to pass its traditions on to the younger generation, who are torn between the simple and often carefree lifestyle of the island, and the promises and opportunities they see elsewhere.

"Cheung Chau culture is disappearing, I think. Many people are moving out," says Gloria Ching Pui-yiu, a young teacher of liberal studies at Buddhist Wai Yan Memorial School.

She has ventured off the island to live in Tai Kok Tsui, Wan Chai and Tuen Mun, but moved back home for her current job and a lower cost of living.

"I've always wanted to live on Hong Kong's main islands, but I found out that I missed home," she says. "There are also people moving in - people who work in Central move to Cheung Chau because of the low rent. But those from the outside don't really take part in the community."

Cheung Chau's isolated location about 12 kilometres southwest of Hong Kong Island, and its size of just 2.45 square kilometres has enabled locals to build strong communal ties and traditions.

Today, the population stands at around 23,000 - out of Hong Kong's total of seven million - and the island is devoid of cars.

Unique traditions have developed, such as the bun-scrambling contest and children's parade during the Bun Festival - which is listed nationally as intangible cultural heritage - as well as the Tin Hau Festival that is celebrated at the island's temple.

The close-knit community and simple lifestyle is a big part of the island's charm.

"Island children are often simpler and less worldly, and are very innocent," says district councillor Lai Tsz-man, who is also the headmaster of Kwok Man School, one of three primary schools there.

Lai said parents were less concerned with grades and more interested in getting their children to live healthy lives. It is the lifestyle that nurtured windsurfer Lee Lai-shan, who won Hong Kong's only Olympic gold medal to date in 1996.

One of the teachers at Kwok Man, Fan Lai-ching, says being close to nature fosters a more well-rounded, less materialistic lifestyle.

That is not to say that Cheung Chau has escaped modernity and the trappings of urbanisation. But there is a keen sense of sticking to rural values. "We can't stop the changes in Hong Kong - television and the internet will be here - but we want to equip the next generation for changes while still teaching them to value their roots," Lai says.

But many youth are being uprooted to urban areas of Hong Kong, as parents want their children to have what they see as a better education in the city. As well as the primary schools, Cheung Chau has two secondary schools.

Hoping to give his children a better life, Kwok Kam-chuen, one of the renowned bun makers in Cheung Chau, saw most of his seven children move to Hong Kong Island for jobs or school.

"If I could give up my bun-making business, I'd move out to Hong Kong Island, too," said Kwok, who provides about half of the buns used during the festival.

"Hong Kong has changed, and so Cheung Chau has changed. We aren't so satisfied with having enough any more - people want more.

"Hongkongers won't come here, and the younger Cheung Chau islanders need to make a living outside," he said. "It's going to be a mass exodus."

Chu Kim-hung, deputy headmaster of Buddhist Wai Yan Memorial College, says: "Cheung Chau children care less about money - they value other things."

But the pull of the outside world is growing, as the local economy can no longer support the dreams of the young.

Yeung Ka-ho, 16, who wants to be a social worker, admits that jobs are limited on the island.

Youngsters who want to do "more than become a sales assistant in a store or a waiter in a restaurant may have to look outside", he says.

This is a shame, he says, as he enjoys island living. "I think living on the island is better - it's a healthier lifestyle," Yeung says.

Many also lament how tourism has disrupted the island's tranquility and brought pollution.

"We usually try to get off the island during the holiday season because it gets too crowded here," Yeung said. "Cheung Chau is special because of its community attachment, but I think that is fading."

Lai, the district councillor, believes young people are curious about their history, and stresses that schools play an important part in preserving cultural traditions.

"We need to do more than teach at schools - we need to identify fading traditions and make a concerted effort to pass them on to the next generation," Lai said.

Yeung, for example, who studies at Wai Yan school, learned about his local heritage in class. He found it interesting but "had not got very involved".

Kwok, the bun maker, says that while young people have been losing interest in traditional skills and heritage, he does not think the island's culture will disappear. "There are still young people with brains, stamina and a heart for our culture, to keep it alive and even make it big again," he says.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Cloudy skies over island idyll