Neighbourhood Sounds

Tsing Yi's history is a bridge to the past

Residents can still recall a time when Tsing Yi, now linked to the outside world by eight bridges, was accessible only by taking a rowing boat

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 November, 2012, 3:26am

With its well-developed transport hubs, public amenities and fresh air, many Hongkongers may see Tsing Yi as an ideal place in which to live and raise a family.

Sixty years ago, however, while the air would have been even fresher, transport was much less convenient: the only way off the island was a one-hour trip by rowing boat to Tsuen Wan.

"It was a neglected place back then," said Tang Kai, an 83-year-old who has lived on the island for more than six decades. "People paid 20 cents to go to Tsuen Wan by rowing boat… it took more than an hour… the current was strong. There were no powered boats until the 1960s."

Tsing Yi's name literally means "green clothes" but the island to the northwest of Hong Kong Island and south of Tsuen Wan - with occupancy dating back to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) - actually got its name from a kind of fish once abundant in nearby waters.

With an area of about 11 sq km, the island is now home to about 200,000 people. It is connected by eight bridges all around the island, including the Tsing Ma Bridge, which has two decks and carries both road and rail traffic, making it the largest of its type.

Tang, who moved to the island from Zhaoqing in Guangdong in the 1940s, said there were only a few thousand people when he arrived there at the age of 16, four years before he married his wife, now 81.

He made a living selling vegetables - like many others on Tsing Yi at the time - which were grown by his father.

"People caught fish, grew vegetables and rice, and sold them on the Tsing Yi Main Street where there were 10-plus wooden stores and groceries two or three storeys high," he recalled. "Growing vegetables was hard work. Those days were difficult days."

Before the Tsing Yi South Bridge was built in 1974, the old Tsing Yi pier was the only link between the island and the outside world so the main street and market were built near to it, where the town centre stands today.

Tsing Yi district councillor Simon Chan Siu-man, who has served in the district for 20 years, also described Tsing Yi as being "neglected" in the late 1970s when he dated his girlfriend, now his wife, who lived in Cheung Tsing Estate - the island's first public housing estate. "It was only a fishing village at that time and there was not much to do. We usually spent a few cents to buy fishing lines and went fishing along the pier. Even taxis would not take us ... there were not many facilities around except a small market."

Ironically, a place once accessible only by rowing boat is now a hub for traffic heading to the airport or the western New Territories. Since 2003, when Container Terminal 9 opened on the island, it has been part of the Kwai Chung container port, once the world's busiest.

Container vessels and cargo trucks pop up in most people's minds when Tsing Yi is mentioned. But few know how they once snarled the lives of people living in what was then the new town of Tsing Yi in the 1970s and 1980s.

"Sometimes the crew on the cargo vessels forgot to lower the ships' poles and when they passed under the South Bridge they swept away the coal-gas pipes under the bridge and the whole of Tsing Yi would run out of coal gas or electric power," Chan, 56, said.

Before the Tsing Yi North Bridge was built in 1987, people could only use the South Bridge to go to Tsuen Wan and often, particularly during a typhoon, residents had to walk home across it because the port would close and the bridge would be jammed with cargo trucks waiting for it to reopen.

Chan Wai-kun, who has lived on Tsing Yi since 1985, described how terrible the traffic was when there was only one bridge.

"I could see the South Bridge from our home," recalled Chan Wai-kun, who once worked in a dyeing factory in Kwai Chung.

"Whenever a typhoon struck, the whole bridge would be full of cargo trucks. Traffic could be stuck from three-thirty in the afternoon to eight in the evening, so it was better to walk for 45 minutes to cross the bridge," said Chan.

In fact, the 63-year-old said that most of the early residents on Tsing Yi were familiar with having to walk over the bridge, as traffic jams also occurred at peak hours and whenever there were accidents.

A woman agreed, saying she walked across "with a child on my back and another walking with me".

Now residents can get from Tsing Yi in 15 minutes to Tsuen Wan and 30 minutes to Central using the Tung Chung MTR line that opened in 1998.

Today, Tsing Yi Main Street is no more, swallowed up by high-rises, Tsing Yi Park, buildings like St Thomas The Apostle Church, a public library, a large shopping mall, sports fields and an MTR station.

But all the residents interviewed described the community as tranquil with good traffic, refreshing air and friendly neighbours.

Tang said the indigenous residents, mainly Hakka people, lived in harmony with newcomers like him.

District councilor Chan also described the camaraderie in the neighbourhood.

"Neighbours always helped to take care of the children living around them because parents working outside Tsing Yi were always getting home late due to the bad traffic," he said. "And as groceries in Tsuen Wan are cheaper than in Tsing Yi, people who worked off the island often brought them back for others."

Chan Wai-kun said she wanted to live there all her life, including in her retirement.

The opinion was shared by the new generation as well.

Moon Wong Yuet-yi, 19, who has lived on a Tsing Yi public housing estate since 2005, said she would not want to move out.

"The air is better than in Mong Kok and it is not crowded here. Traffic is convenient and the neighbourhood is harmonious," she said.