Living heritage of Hong Kong

Sunken village, opium boxes and soda water bottles give researchers glimpse of life at 100-year-old Hong Kong reservoir 

Tai Tam Waterworks Heritage Trail was established in 2009 and comprises 41 historic waterworks facilities – but university team uncovers so much more

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 February, 2018, 8:06pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 February, 2018, 4:54pm

A University of Hong Kong academic is calling for more historical landmarks around the century-old Tai Tam Tuk Reservoir to be included in a popular waterworks heritage trail.

These include the four brick caissons still protruding from Tai Tam Harbour, remnants of a pier, ruins of office buildings and workers’ quarters and a submerged Hakka village that was resettled in 1912 to make way for work on the reservoir on the south side of Hong Kong Island.

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The Tai Tam Waterworks Heritage Trail was established in 2009 and comprises 41 historic waterworks facilities including the Tai Tam Tuk dam itself.

The relics found in the catchment of the 100-year-old piece of infrastructure – one of four impounding reservoirs in the Tai Tam group – were among several documented in a two-year research project led by Dr Poon Sun-wah of HKU’s department of real estate and construction.

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“The initial research had been to look at the development of Hong Kong’s granite geology at To Tei Wan,” he said, referring to the site of a disused quarry which supplied the stone for the dam.  

The team later stumbled upon the relics and began looking into the history of the reservoir and village. They plan to publish an academic paper on the construction history of the dam this year. 

Poon said the fact that the reservoir was still serving its original impounding role a century later only made the project more intriguing. 

“We felt that it was really worth documenting the contributions of the people, the workers and the villagers, who had to move to make it possible.”

The researchers also scoured the now heavily vegetated hillside around the dam, and identified remnants of the project’s construction phase, including overseers’ offices and workers’ quarters. 

Items found in the area that offered a glimpse into what life was like included a century-old soda water bottle made by an Ice House Street-based company called Royal Aerated Waters – which went under in 1914 – as well as several small opium containers.

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Poon surmised that labourers may have used opium to relax after a hard day’s work, while overseers’ drank soda water – a luxury at the time – to beat the heat. “Of course, it’s entirely possible that some visitor could have just dumped it there,” he said.

The team’s research, based on historical documents, some from the National Archives in Britain, census statistics and old military maps, have also helped piece together more of the original Tai Tam Tuk village’s history.

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About 70 Hakka residents, mostly surnamed Chung, who lived there at the time were resettled in 1912 and the remote hamlet of about 20 houses was submerged to make way for the “great dam”. 

The team’s divers managed to locate some of the village’s masonry works, as well as the trunks of Chinese banyan trees.

An exhibition at the HKU Main Library, co-organised with the faculty of architecture to commemorate the project’s centenary and which showcases the artefacts, ends on Friday.

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The dam, which separates the reservoir from Tai Tam Harbour, was completed in October 1917 and was at the time, one of the largest in the British Empire.  

The reservoir, with an impounding capacity of six million cubic metres, is the largest catchment area on Hong Kong Island.

The memorial stone was laid in February 1918 by the then colony’s governor Francis Henry May and the project’s chief engineer, Daniel Jaffe – after whom Jaffe Road in Wan Chai was named.