Stilt Life – Tai O Fishing Village, Hong Kong.
Ask anyone what they imagine Hong Kong to be like, and chances are that they will describe a neon-lit concrete jungle, martial arts action movies, and a city at the forefront of high technology. But what catches people out upon arriving is the surprising amount of greenery – more than 40% of the territory has been designated as country parks. Hong Kong’s natural beauty is one of its least-known assets, and it is astonishing to consider the options available within such a small area. Half an hour is all it takes to get to a beach, a rural escape or an accessible hiking trail.
Out of Hong Kong’s 236 islands – many of which are small and uninhabited – Lantau is by far the biggest one. Because of its geography the island is very much a microcosm of the territory itself. Hemmed in by the sea and a mountainous interior, most of Lantau’s development has been concentrated around its coastal fringes. The more recent ones include Discovery Bay – an expatriate enclave with a strict car ban – and the current title holder for the world’s smallest Disneyland.
To the north lies Chek Lap Kok, a remote island that was flattened and tripled in size to house the new international airport. As is the case in Hong Kong, a new town was thrown up in little more than 10 years to service the airport and ease some of the city’s housing pressures. Linked to the centre by a six-lane highway and a metro line, Tung Chung now hosts a resident population of more than 70,000 – the largest of any settlement in Lantau.
In stark contrast, the southern coast is lined by a string of long unspoilt beaches, backed by the mountains tracing the island’s backbone. Along with my family, this is where I found myself bumping along the road to Tai O.
Situated on the far western edge of the island, Tai O is a real insight into Hong Kong’s humble beginnings. Often (and erroneously) dubbed the “Venice of Hong Kong”, this 300-year old fishing village was founded by the Tanka people. The stilt houses they built were once a common sight throughout Hong Kong, but only those of Tai O have been preserved on such a large scale.
Close by the bus station, a small informal museum provides a general introduction to village life; entry is free and it is full of intriguing articles, not least a cabinet containing handheld mooncake moulds. While inside, look out for the exhibits related to salt production – along with fishing this was a former mainstay of the local economy.
As a popular weekend destination, Tai O is no stranger to tourism. Friendly villagers will offer cheap boat rides to see the local white dolphins, and its main street is lined with shop fronts selling all manner of knickknacks.
Perhaps the village’s true gateway is its blue steel drawbridge – this is the point where every visitor realises that Tai O is truly a floating village. And as for the bridge itself, it is a relatively new creation. Up until the mid 90s the only way to get across was via a rope-tow ferry operated by the local women.
Much of Tai O’s timeless appeal lies in the fact that it feels a million miles away from the lightning pace of urban Hong Kong. Gone are the skyscraper canyons filled with a never-ending stream of vehicular traffic; gone too, are the larger-than-life advertisements plastered on all manner of free space.
Instead, the streets recall an older and more relaxed way of life. Through an open door the click-clacking sound of mahjong tiles can be heard; not far away two platters of salted egg yolks sit drying in the afternoon sun.
The village is known for its salted fish and shrimp paste, but what drew us in was the smell of its delicious street food. It didn’t take long for us to purchase a bag of sweet roasted pork slices, fresh from the grill, and further on the whiff of deep-fried pastries proved impossible to resist.
Every now and again the creek would disappear and reappear behind shop fronts and scenes of everyday life. At a break between the buildings, we stepped down towards the water’s edge to take a closer look. In the distance a white structure with a mini church tower dominated the scene, while the reflections of stilt houses shimmered in the tranquil waters below.
Given its unique sense of character, Tai O is truly a travel photographer’s dream. Whether it’s the boats basking lazily by the forest of stilts, or the porches lined with potted plants and everyday items, there is always something to capture. Unexpected splashes of colour, fish hanging out to dry, a rickety wooden bridge unfolding into the distance… And through it all the water infuses the scene with a real sense of calm.
No matter where you stand in Tai O, you’ll always get the sense that nature is close by. The northern fringe of town is surrounded by a lush carpet of mangroves, and it’s not uncommon to spot an egret wading through the marshes.
After wandering down another country lane we encountered a row of fish, gutted and hung by their tails, and then platters of dried whitebait – the perfect ingredient for those warming winter soups.
At this point I was particularly taken by a small house suspended over the edge of the tidal flats. Supported by the most slender wooden stilts, the structure was decorated with red columns and rows of white windows. In its modest simplicity it was far more beautiful than anything a city centre developer could ever dream up.
On the outskirts of the village it’s hard to ignore a sight that used to be common even in urban Hong Kong – at least before the onset of land reclamation. With a small hill rising behind it, guaranteeing good feng shui, an old temple stands placidly on the water’s edge. This is dedicated to Yeung Hau, a loyal general who protected the last emperor of the Southern Song Dynasty as they fled from the Mongols.
In its final days the royal family and its entourage sought refuge in the islands of Hong Kong, leaving a lasting legacy in stone inscriptions and place names, including that of Kowloon. Literally “Nine Dragons”, the peninsula was so named because of its eight peaks (eight dragons) and the presence of the emperor, who occupied the “dragon throne”. For a period of time the court installed themselves in Mui Wo, a small town which is now the primary gateway to southern Lantau.
In the late afternoon sun the surrounding hills glowed a beautiful shade of golden brown. We followed the concrete path as it turned past a small beach, culminating in a gradual ascent onto the grassy slopes. Depending on your point of view, this is either the beginning or the end of the hiking trail from Tung Chung. It generally takes about 4 hours to complete the trek, but we were not about to do any substantial part of that.
Within no time we arrived at the top of a small ridge. My father and I had stumbled upon this natural lookout on our previous visit three years ago, but we had never returned since. The view was just as beautiful as I had remembered. Below us the mangroves rolled gently towards Tai O, its idyllic townscape broken only by the stepped profiles of several government flats. Further beyond, a serrated ridge sheltered the coastal plain from the open waters of the Pearl River Estuary.
If there was one last thing we had to do in Tai O, it was watching the sunset. Because of its westerly location the village is supposedly one of the best places to see it in Hong Kong. And so we headed back to the far side of town, circling around the bay until we arrived at the pier. High above us the old police station was partially hidden from view, obscured by trees and the signs of its ongoing transformation into a boutique hotel.
Under an orange sky we watched the silhouettes of passing container ships as the sun sank lower towards the rippling waves. Nearby a few young couples ambled hand in hand while some fishermen waited patiently for the next catch. I turned around and looked back at the darkening outlines of the village. In a city more than seven million strong, Tai O was an unlikely outpost of rural charm.