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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.”

Lone heron

Starling Inlet

Luk Keng village

Abandonment

Village houses

Notice

Sunset

23 Comments Post a comment
  1. There are few things as sad as abandoned houses, let alone villages. When did they all emigrate, James, do you know? And isn’t it so Hong Kong that a commute of over an hour is too far to live – in so many places in the world, people are glad if they have only an hour or so to commute – especially when you’re going home to the peace and beauty of places like that.

    Your last shot, the upside down sky-that-looks-like-water is terrific 🙂

    November 9, 2012
    • Most of the villagers seem to have left in the 60s – which sounds about right because those times were very hard for Hong Kong. My grandparents and parents tell me of the chronic water shortages (two hours of running water, twice a week) and the socio-political upheavals that trickled over from the Cultural Revolution. There were even bombs on the streets; many of them were put together in the laboratories of left-leaning schools.

      You’re right Meredith, an hour seems reasonable enough in many parts of the world. When I was there I kept imagining how beautiful it would be if someone made an effort to restore those houses. Living in a place like that would beat a small urban shoebox any day of the week!

      The cirrus clouds that afternoon were something else; it reminded me of the patterns on paper marbling. 🙂

      November 9, 2012
      • I see what you mean about the watery marbling effects of the sky that night!

        I’m so glad we had this little aside, because I didn’t know things had been so bad in Hong Kong in the 60s – Australia was still so Euro-centric back then we heard nothing of Asia on the news -except Viet Nam, of course.

        November 9, 2012
  2. The story Luk Keng is a kind of story I love from any place that I visit when traveling. A once lively town turned into a deserted place, a tranquil village turned into a bustling metropolis. Such contrasts in history always fascinate me.

    By the way I can totally relate to what Meredith said about places around the world where people feel lucky if they can commute in hour or so – yesterday I went to Bogor which is about one to two hours away from Jakarta depending on the traffic. A lot of people commute between both cities everyday and thinking of that makes me realize how lucky I am to live only a few minutes walk from office.

    Another great story James!

    November 9, 2012
    • Thank you Bama! It is true that Hong Kongers are absolutely spoiled when it comes to the transportation system… a delay of 20 minutes on the metro will be enough to make the CEO step out and issue a public apology! Everyone expects it to run like clockwork, right down to the very minute.

      November 9, 2012
  3. really beautiful photos, thanks for sharing your experiences!
    xx
    http://wattwewear.wordpress.com/

    November 9, 2012
    • You’re welcome Rony! Thanks in turn for dropping by.

      November 10, 2012
  4. It’s sad that a place that seem so peaceful and in a beautiful location is abandoned. But I guess its good to know that in a dense city like HK, there’s still a place left that seem to be untouched, yet to be developed.

    November 11, 2012
    • There are quite a few untouched pockets of HK – and some of them are just a stone’s throw away from all the hustle and bustle!

      November 19, 2012
  5. I admire how you took some time of your days and go visiting these interesting places. This is a beautiful post, considering you were visiting a deserted place. Those picture of abandoned houses and one with the notice really caught my eyes.

    November 12, 2012
    • Thanks Robin, it was easy to see the village on a quick afternoon trip over the weekend. 🙂

      November 19, 2012
  6. Hey James! 🙂
    I am so glad that while in Hong Kong we “accidentally” stayed in the New Territories, it’s just amazing how green and peaceful it is up there, about an hour’s away from Hong Kong’s unique busy, colourful and ever-exciting streets…It’s sad there isn’t much going on in villages like the one you visited and a little surprised too, so many people here in London choose to live in the suburbs because it’s more quiet, I thought more people would want to get away from the city’s bustle at the end of the day in HK too…

    November 13, 2012
    • Hi Sophie! 😀
      I’m surprised myself… even though the rent is considerably cheaper I guess HKers must be put off by the commuting times. I too am glad that you got to experience the New Territories – sometimes it amazes me how people come and go without ever seeing that side of Hong Kong!

      November 19, 2012
  7. I love this story James. You bring another story about Hongkong 🙂

    November 13, 2012
    • Thank you Danny, I’m glad you enjoyed it! 🙂

      November 19, 2012
  8. A beautifully conceived post James. And gorgeous photos.
    A pity about the beautiful village being abandoned. Commuting has never been a part of the Asian psyche, probably because of the lack of efficient public transport. But things are changing, here at least and I am surprised places like these haven’t been snapped up by developers in HK, which is miles ahead as far as public utilities are concerned!
    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if these houses could be restored without turning the skyscape into a clone of the one across the water?

    November 25, 2012
    • That’s an interesting observation Madhu! Perhaps the aversion to commuting comes as a product of living in historically tight-knit communities. I’ve noticed in the countryside (both in HK and Mainland China) that even with space aplenty to spread out, the buildings in small towns and villages are always closely grouped together. Although remote by HK standards, Luk Keng is served by a minibus – I’m not sure of its frequency but that means it’s plugged into the public transportation network.

      I too would love to see these houses restored, they are just so full of character and history!

      November 25, 2012
  9. I’m an Australian soon-be international airhostess. I hope one day I will be able to visit here, it looks so so so beautiful!! xx

    December 1, 2012
    • I’m sure you will – Hong Kong is such a compact place, and easy to get around!

      December 7, 2012
  10. Lovely 🙂

    February 6, 2013
  11. Reblogged this on fiverrearn.

    May 17, 2013
  12. Luk Keng was my resident for the first five years of my life. The last time i stayed there was in Dec 1988 for a few weeks. I miss so much, brings back memories now i see this blogg.
    As the oldest son in my family, i still own one of the houses.
    Maybe one day i will have the time and resources to make the village look better.
    There is a lot of history behind this, i am suprised no one has yet written a full article about Luk Keng.

    July 4, 2013
    • I’m glad you stumbled across this entry – it amazes me that you have such a personal connection with the place! Perhaps now is the time to write down Luk Keng’s oral history before it is forgotten…

      July 5, 2013

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