Neighbourhood Sounds

Pok Fu Lam: a pipeline to the past

150-year-old village is a heritage treasure trove, but locals are struggling to keep those links alive - as well as fighting for a proper sewage system

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 October, 2012, 11:35am

It is one of Hong Kong Island's last villages, but a serious lack of sewage facilities is casting a shadow over Pok Fu Lam, while its residents are embroiled in a struggle for recognition of its 150-year heritage.

The village, located right next to the largely middle-class Chi Fu Fa Yuen housing complex, can date its history back at least to 1868, with photos from that year showing about a dozen houses. Clans living there can trace their family history in the village back seven generations, and Chinese brick and tiled houses from that time are still standing. It is a living treasure trove of Hong Kong's pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial history.

"How did the first brick houses get here? In those days, one must have some kind of wealth or power to build those houses," Nigel Ko, a fourth generation villager, said of the village's intriguing and colourful beginnings. Legend has it the village has links to the famous pirate Cheung Po-tsai, who both terrorised and protected Hong Kong in the early 19th century.

The village grew and became a hub for what was then a rural area after Dairy Farm, the forerunner of today's Dairy Farm International conglomerate, built dormitories and cowsheds and developed farmland behind the village in 1886.

Today, there are still traces of the farm - including a brick hay container and old cowsheds. The company closed the property in the late 1980s, and the land has since been sold off.

After its 2,000 employees moved out, the village was no longer big enough to return its own district councillor. The population now stands at around 2,000, a third of those South Asian and Southeast Asian - including a sizeable community of domestic helpers, whose presence is problematic: by law, they must live with their employers, and houses at Pok Fu Lam Village, which are technically squatter homes, are not supposed to be rented out.

"There is so much history here. Dairy Farm relics are worth preserving, as they chronicle the industrial heritage of the city," said Ko's childhood friend Steven Chui Chu-kwan, a third-generation villager. Chui, who is a surveyor, has moved out, but is involved in the effort to have its culture and heritage preserved.

The village today is in an awkward state. Many of the houses are more than a century old. While some of the land is in private hands, most is government-owned farmland. A small group of houses were built with permission, but many were put up informally. The village is classified as "squatter housing" - despite the fact many of the houses were around before such a legal definition existed.

Villagers see the place as their home, and take pride in making it pleasant by doing gardening, repairing walkways and more.

Siu Kwan-lun, 50, and his eight siblings, grew up in the village. As a schoolboy, he recalls, he would arrive home from school, throw down his schoolbag and run to the hills, to the cow sheds and the reservoir, with other children, for a whole afternoon of outdoor fun.

"We would slide down slopes of long grass on cardboard, tease the cows and swim and catch fish at the reservoir," he said. "In those days, there were many edible things growing all over the hills. We would even secretly milk the cows and try the milk - and man, did it taste bad!"

Siu then left the village to experience "the world outside" for a few years, but he soon moved back and has in recent years worked hard to make it better while running his contracting business and working as a scuba diving instructor during the summer.

SCMP video by Hedy Bok

"I don't see [helping around the village] as work - I see it as an investment in my family and the next generation here," he said. Siu, the father of a two-year-old son, returned to the village to see that many issues have festered into bigger problems because of a lack of co-operation or sense of community.

"When I first came back, even the fire dragon dance had stopped for a few years already," he said. The dance has now been revived as a feature of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

The one major problem villagers face, however, is the lack of a sewage network. As time passed, villagers started putting in their own toilets and pipes which would let the waste out - to anywhere and everywhere outside their homes, as no system of regulation is in place. The result is a harrowing stench which mars the otherwise picturesque little lanes, especially during the hot summer months.

"Some would say villagers are selfish doing this, but I think it's understandable - everyone wants flushable toilets," said Siu. "To [other Hongkongers], a drainage system is a basic amenity. Here, it's a luxury. We want to fight for a good working sewage and drainage system to improve people's lives here. We don't want to wait for something like severe acute respiratory syndrome to happen."

A sewage concern group was set up, with eight to 10 villagers meeting every other week to discuss problems, advocacy plans and lobbying of the government. Members also voluntarily help to tackle issues big and small around the village.

Siu's older brother, Tony, is also involved in the group, and has been making signs and putting up notice boards to keep villagers informed of what is going on. "We want more villagers to get involved," said Siu Kwan-lun. "Talks with the government went on for a while 10 years ago, but nothing came out of it. In the past year, we've decided to take up the baton, and we've restarted talks with the government." He said he hoped the government could put in a sewage system soon.

In just a little over a year, the group members have become de facto advisers for villagers, who have approached them with questions about everything from leaky air-conditioners and congested drains to stray cats.

"There are so many of these cases, it can be overwhelming," said Siu. "We all have our own jobs, and we are doing this voluntarily. It's great that the community is starting to speak up and speak out, and we wish to do more, but sometimes it is an ironic paradox - as so few of us can't handle so many things with limited time."

"[Pok Fu Lam Village] is a living history - there are buildings, people and stories chronicling Hong Kong's history," said Ko, who has been working on a book of oral histories of the village together with Chui. "It would be a shame if we lost this - it's our heritage."

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