The treasures of Ping Shan
Long before the British set foot on Hong Kong’s shores, five great family clans took root in the New Territories. Of these, the oldest and most influential was the Tang, with a history of local settlement going back 900 years. It is a lineage rich in tradition and folklore: one branch even claims royal descent, thanks to an ancestor who married a princess as the court fled southwards ahead of the Mongol army.
The Tang were known for producing scholars and imperial officials, and a monument to their prowess – stands on the boundaries of Tin Shui Wai new town, mere metres from its hulking railway station.
Six generations after the clan arrived in the New Territories, legend has it that ancestor Tang Yin-tung had a dream. He saw a group of stars that gathered and dropped onto a field in Ping Shan. And so a pagoda was built at that very spot, not just to improve the feng shui of the nearby villages, but to ensure success in the prestigious imperial civil service examination.
The tower was named Tsui Sing Lau, or ‘Pagoda of Gathering Stars’, and is the oldest such structure in Hong Kong, dating from 1386. On its top floor is a statue of Fu Shing, or ‘Champion Star’, the deity said to determine whether scholars would pass or fail their exams. Oral histories recount that the pagoda once stood seven stories high, until violent storms took their toll and reduced it to only three storeys.
Tsui Sing Lau Pagoda also marks the starting point of the Ping Shan Heritage Trail, which winds through several tightly-packed villages towards an old hilltop police station, built by the British to keep an eye on their restive subjects.
Halfway along the trail lies the Tang Ancestral Hall, one of the largest of its kind in Hong Kong and also its most exuberant. Dating from 1273, its three halls are grouped around two internal courtyards, and the building is still used as a meeting place and venue for traditional ceremonies. The hall boasts intricate detailing on its wooden beams and brackets, along with glazed ceramic sculptures adorning its tiled roofs.
Yu Kiu Ancestral Hall stands just next door, and was built in the early 16th century with an identical layout and a design that closely resembled its earlier counterpart. Between 1931 and 1961 it was used as a primary school for the local villagers.
But two of Ping Shan’s architectural treasures were erected much later, less than thirty years before the British took possession of the New Territories. Doubling as an ancestral hall and a place for study, Kun Ting Study Hall was specifically constructed in 1870 for those who were taking the imperial civil service examination. Its richly carved details in wood and stone are a joy to behold, as are the colourful folding doors within. Four years later, neighbouring Ching Shu Hin was built as a guesthouse for visiting scholars and dignitaries; it is a final testament to the historic wealth and status of a famous clan, now numbering at least 25,000 in the New Territories alone. ◊