Sunday, 7 November 2010

rise and fall

The village of Sham Chung is located in the Sai Kung West Country Park, one of the wildest parts of Hong Kong. I first passed through it in 1974, and even then I was struck by some unusual features. For a start, it had two schools, and there was only ever one other school in the entire Sai Kung peninsula. The other oddity was the distribution of houses: in every other village in the area, the houses were clustered together, but here there were three separate clusters, on the north, south and east sides of a huge paddy field area.

The village is approached by the coastal path from Yung Shue Au, which happens to be the last place in Hong Kong where I saw rice being grown and harvested, in 1975. I wish I’d had a digital camera then. This village too was only approachable by the continuation of the path along the coast and over a narrow col, eventually reaching the fishing village (as it then was) of Sai Kung. The Sai Kung peninsula, in the 1960s, could truly be called a wilderness area. But everything changed in 1970, with the building of access roads to facilitate the construction of the High Island Dam Project, which was in full swing when I arrived in Hong Kong in 1974 (I often used to eat in the workers’ canteens).

After descending from Yung Shue Au, the path meanders through an area of wetland...

and follows the coast around the mangroves.

As Hong Kong expanded after the war, it quickly became clear that the territory’s existing reservoirs were inadequate, and it endured frequent and often severe water shortages during the winter months. This was addressed to a limited extent in the 1960s by the Plover Cove scheme, which involved building dams between a string of islands to enclose the bay of the same name. This reservoir can be seen across the Tolo Channel as you approach Sham Chung along the coastal path. It wasn’t enough.

The High Island scheme was breathtakingly imaginative: take the narrow four-mile channel between High Island and the mainland and build a big dam at each end. The water level when the reservoir was full would be more than 100 feet above the level of the surrounding sea. There is a question that should occur to the alert reader at this point: where was the water to fill the reservoir going to come from? This was the imaginative part: every accessible stream in the area had a dam built across it, hence all the access roads. These dams were designed only to take water from the streams when they were in flood (to safeguard village supplies). And every dam was connected, via a system of tunnels, to the reservoir.

The access roads meant that once-isolated villages, only accessible by sea or on foot, were suddenly thrust into the modern era. A building boom resulted, as indigenous villagers rushed to cash in on their ding rights (if you could trace your ancestry to a given village before the lease for the New Territories was signed in 1898, you had the right to build a 700-square-foot house in that village). Ding was a measure designed to encourage people to stay in their ancestral villages, but the vast majority of the resulting houses were sold on. In fact, the village where I used to live turned the ding system into a lucrative business whereby people with an entitlement were tracked down in Europe and told that a house would be built on their behalf and that the proceeds, less a generous commission, would be forwarded to them. This also explains why the houses in Sai Keng are much closer together than in any other village I’ve seen, to the extent that if your house isn’t on the outside, you will need to keep the lights on throughout the day.

One such access road reached as far as Yung Shue Au, which has since expanded. Sham Chung remained isolated, except for the once-a-day Tolo Harbour ferry, which linked it and other communities to the outside world. Its population, which had been 400 in 1970, quickly dwindled to almost zero. Many would move to the UK to work in Chinese restaurants. It is ironic that the govenment decided to install street lighting after most of the population had already left.

If you had been approaching Sham Chung on foot in 1920, you would have noted that the path was sweeping around the hillside into a small bay, at the back of which was a narrow channel between two low hills that led into a shallow lagoon. This channel was dammed by the villagers in the 1920s and the lagoon drained. The huge area of arable land that this created must have been a big factor in the village’s prosperity, hence the two schools and the ferry pier, which served a population that was well above the average for the area. The dam’s two big wooden sluice gates are still maintained.

The major environmental impact of the dam was that a substantial wetland area developed behind it. The villagers had enough land, and the area behind the dam was always flooding anyway, so they were happy to give it over to nature. The wetland flourished in the 1970s and 1980s, but this idyll was destined not to last.

The Sham Chung wetlands in 2006.

The same view (almost), a year later.

Many of the villagers sold out to a property developer in the 1990s, and Sham Chung was earmarked for ‘development’. Most of the wetland was trashed, in the benign guise of providing an organic farm that could be visited by disadvantaged children. Didn’t anybody tell them the area was always flooding? The farm is long gone, but the damage remains.

There’s more. Large ponds were dug as water hazards for a golf course. There was only room for five holes, however, and the greens were, shall we say, rugged, so nobody came. The developer’s plans for a spa resort, complete with helipad and organized outdoor activities, have been blocked, but you can be sure that they’ll try again. I have utter contempt for property developers. Greedy doesn’t cover it. All they see is dollar signs.

Into this bleak landscape stepped a native villager who had left Sham Chung in 1970 to work in a Chinese restaurant in Bristol. Tom Li subsequently emigrated to the USA, where he opened his own restaurant and became a master chef. He decided to return to his old family home and open a store, which is where I met him a few years ago, when we lived across the bay and I used to cycle to Sham Chung for something to do. He’s the main reason Paula and I still cycle there every Saturday, at least his noodles are, even though it’s a 45-mile round trip from Fanling. Actually, he’s so busy at weekends that we hardly get a chance to talk to him. Run off his feet. But he loves it.

Yesterday, though, he had only two customers. It poured with rain all day Friday and continued in the same vein. No chance of cycling down, but Tom was due to leave for Florida on Sunday night. He would be leaving Sham Chung on Saturday evening. So I drove down to Yung Shue Au and we walked through the rain (the water level in the first picture above was almost up to the path) to Sham Chung. He was sold out of fresh food, but somehow he managed to conjure a masterpiece out of the dry ingredients in his store, with a spring onion from his ‘garden’ (large flowerpot, actually). We can’t wait until February, when he comes back.

The houses on the south side of Sham Chung. Tom's store is the one with the big awning on the left.


  1. I have such a vague knowledge of Hong Kong and its actual territorial size. I always imagined it to be urbanized and packed, but you show real country side and landscapes I never knew existed. Thanks again for the history and geography.

  2. Beautiful photographs... brings me home.

  3. Thank you for your knowledgeable post and for filling in the gaps in my fragmented knowledge I have of my father's village. My father was born in one of the houses to the right of Tom's store but now lives in Scotland.


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