Luk Keng, village at road’s end
The heron stands at rest, perched on a branch half-submerged in the calm, flat waters of Starling Inlet. Across the bay is Mainland China, marked by a proliferation of tower blocks, scaffolding, and off in the distance, Minsk World, a theme park based around a retired Russian aircraft carrier.
My father chuckles. “There was a time when there was more on this side of the border. Now, it’s the reverse.” We are looking over at Sha Tau Kok, a town that is now an extension of Shenzhen, a booming metropolis more than 10 million strong and a showpiece of China’s economic miracle. But it wasn’t always so – Sha Tau Kok used to mark the frontier between a stable British Colony and a vast nation wracked by political and social upheavals.
“In the 50s, 60s and 70s people would gather in the hills to smuggle themselves across the border. When night fell they would come down and swim across… so in those days, many border guards patrolled this area.” He reminds me of a peculiar rule that came into being when Hong Kong was a magnet for refugees from the mainland. “If the asylum seekers made it to the urban areas – say Kowloon or Hong Kong Island, they were allowed to stay. But if they were caught in the countryside the refugees faced deportation.”
Remote by Hong Kong standards, Luk Keng is at the end of the main road, a short drive from the restricted border area – a no-man’s land closed off to all but the indigenous residents. It seems lively enough at first, with a gaggle of cyclists and hikers assembled at a mass of informal eating places, plastered wall-to-wall with printouts of visitor photos, presumably local celebrities, amid the plastic furniture and fluorescent lighting.
Once off the main road however, the village houses stand mostly abandoned and overgrown, many still with red paper blessings affixed on either side of the front door. Only a small handful show signs of occupancy – air conditioning units, potted plants and laundry hung out to dry.
We walk past a fenced off enclosure, designated a sitting-out area – a vague, generic public space that seems to be the fate of leftover pockets of land within the urban centre. Beside it lies a children’s playground, surrounded by a barrier in wire mesh. My eyes are drawn to the brand new look of the spring riders, a chipmunk and a seahorse, taking pride of place on a red rubber mat. But these days, it seems there are no children in the village.
48 hours later I am sitting at the hairdressers for my monthly appointment. When I recount my weekend excursion to the area around Bride’s Pool, the barber asks me if I went as far as Luk Keng. I comment on its semi-abandoned state, concerned that it may soon join the list of abandoned villages already dotting the New Territories. “Most of these villagers have emigrated to other countries,” the barber offers. “The UK, America, Australia…”
I wonder aloud about Luk Keng’s potential, and its appeal to city dwellers seeking a quiet respite among the mangroves and fishponds. Would it be viable to restore these houses – many in traditional brickwork and grey tiled roofs – for full-time residents? He muses at the thought. “Places like Luk Keng, they’re good for holiday homes. But for commuting into the city, these villages are far too remote. You would need maybe an hour, an hour and a half to reach the urban areas.” My barber holds a comb beside my ear and continues cutting. “Hong Kongers want to be close to all the action – convenience is the most important thing.”