Neighbourhood Sounds

Memories of a haven for Nationalists

Rennie's Mill is long gone, with the high-rise town of Tiu Keng Leng taking over, but there are still remnants of the former community

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 November, 2012, 2:48am

Chik Sung-wun's earliest memories of the high-rise town where he now lives are of a hill-fringed valley of squatter huts where Nationalist flags flew freely.

Then known as Rennie's Mill, now Tiu Keng Leng - a reference to the suicide of its former namesake - the valley was a refuge for Kuomintang soldiers who fled the mainland after losing the civil war to the Communists.

"Tiu Keng Leng was where I grew up," Chik, 60, said. "Although everything's gone now, all the memories are in my heart. I've been here for decades, so there are a lot of memories."

Today the town is probably best known as the end of the Kwun Tong MTR line. But on the slopes above, Chik was able to point out remnants of a 53-hectare community that for 46 years was home to nationalist families - including that of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, who lived there as a baby.

"I kept walking on this road every month before I retired," the former hospital worker said as he strolled along Po Lam Road South, now barely accessible and partly overgrown. "Whenever I'm here and think of the past, I feel so happy."

The area was originally named after Alfred Herbert Rennie, a Canadian owner of a flour mill that operated at the turn of the 20th century. Rennie killed himself and the Chinese name, Tiu Keng Leng, means "suicide hill".

Chik's first stop was at a Buddhist monastery in a white concrete building guarded by a sentry box. "This used to be the police station. A fortress was uphill, and the officer dorms were next to it," he recalled.

Nearby, the road is almost entirely covered by vegetation and used by morning walkers to reach Yau Tong and Lei Yue Mun.

Chik pointed out an abandoned two-storey building he said was once a dormitory for pest control officers.

A stone block bears an inscription marking, "The 51st year, Republic of China", or 1962 - more than 20 years after the nationalists' flight from the aftermath of the civil war into which the original republic had dissolved.

October 10, the anniversary of the revolution that overthrew the Qing dynasty and led to the founding of the Republic of China in 1911, was always a big celebration for the community. It is known as the Double Tenth, but it is only really celebrated in Taiwan, whose official name is the Republic of China.

On arrival in Hong Kong - a stepping stone to Taiwan for many - the nationalists first settled around Mount Davis on Hong Kong Island.

But after a riot involving Maoist-minded students, social welfare officer James Wakefield proposed resettling the 7,000 ex-soldiers and their families on the other side of the harbour.

The colonial government hoped that they would leave Hong Kong voluntarily, Kenneth Lan On-wai wrote in his PhD thesis at the University of Hong Kong. "However, this … failed to prevail," he wrote. "Instead, Rennie's Mill flourished without government help by the diligence of its inhabitants".

Most villagers initially relied on food provided daily by the Social Welfare Office: 18oz of rice, 2oz of meat and fish, 8oz of vegetables, and 2oz of preserved soybean curd and salted fish, according to Taiwan Culture Minister Lung Ying-tai's bestselling book Big River, Big Sea - Untold Stories of 1949.

Lung said at first, over 1,000 A-shaped oil paper tents were provided by the government. Residents built grass huts, then wooden ones and later stone huts, Chik recalled.

Even the family of Barry Cheung Chun-yuen, now an executive councillor, did not have their own house, staying in an area of a provincial assembly building, Chik said.

Lan wrote that pro-Kuomintang charities and foreign missionaries helped stabilise the community.

One charity, the Haven of Hope Hospital, a Christian clinic co-founded by a Norwegian, Sister Annie Skau Berntsen and Chik's former employer, was taken over by the Hospital Authority. An illuminated cross on the chapel "lit up the whole, dark area at night", he said.

Nine schools were operating by 1963, according to official reports, with a third of the more than 4,000 pupils - including movie star Chow Yun-fat - coming from outside the area.

There was no electricity until the 1960s, when governor Robert Black designated the community a resettlement area.

But the status granted to it - stipulating "indefinite" enjoyment - paved the way for a legal dispute as the handover neared and the government set out to clear the area of its Taiwan-sympathising community.

Chik, with a dozen others sued the government in 1996 for compensation and won.

Many of the 6,500 dispersed residents moved into flats in the surrounding Tseung Kwan O area as it was redeveloped, most in public estates in Po Lam and Hang Hau.

Comprising six housing projects, half public and half private, Tiu Keng Leng was home to about 57,000 residents last year, according to government statistics.

Among them is Maggie Cheung Kwan-yuk, who did not learn until her family moved in a decade ago that she had been born in the area. "When I looked at the photographs, I started to have a few memories about my childhood," she said. "I remember the houses were not very tall. The only transport was the ferry service to Lei Yue Mun."

Echoing district councillor Leung Li, Cheung said the community still struggled with several issues. "Sometimes, living here is like 'beasts at bay'," referring to the shopping malls that surround the flats.

Leung said residents simply treat Tiu Keng Leng as a "bedroom town".

"Whenever they want entertainment or some basic social services, they go somewhere else."

Comparing it with her previous home in Quarry Bay, Cheung said there was not much open space, and social facilities were inadequate. But it's her birthplace: "I pretty much like the place, of course," she says.