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Reflections on a Hong Kong hike

Yuen Tsuen_1

There is an old Chinese idiom which expresses a person’s unbreakable ties to their family, hometown, and ancestral land: “Falling leaves return to their roots”.

Both my parents have direct ancestry from Taishan (Toisan), a region west of the Pearl River Delta that is broadly known as Sze Yup. Literally ‘Four Counties’, it is the humble place of origin for millions of overseas Chinese. My mother fondly recounts her college days when a sprinkling of Taishanese phrases, formerly the lingua franca in American Chinatowns, would get her a discount on fresh produce.

Like my family, most Hong Kongers are really from somewhere else. Few belong to the indigenous clans who settled in the fertile plains of the New Territories, or are sons and daughters of the fishing villages dotting the coastline.

The other weekend I joined a five-hour hike led by Henness, a young activist whose ancestors were some of the original settlers of Hong Kong. With two other friends, we walked the Yuen Tsuen Ancient Trail from Tsuen Wan to Shap Bat Heung, the ‘eighteen villages’ on the fertile Yuen Long plain. Until the British built Castle Peak Road in 1933, local farmers took this route to carry their produce across the hills and down to Tsuen Wan Market.

Today, precious little of that agricultural heritage remains. Including Lantau and the smaller outlying islands, the New Territories is home to roughly 3.7 million people – more than half of Hong Kong’s population. Much of the available flat land has been turned into a sprawling mass of low-rise housing, container storage yards, and densely populated new towns.

The Yuen Tsuen Ancient Trail, now supplanted by a road tunnel and rail line, serves a purely recreational purpose. On the trail we encountered both young and old: families, elderly couples, groups of walkers in their forties or fifties, all looking for some fresh air away from the smog and traffic of the city.

As much as I enjoyed the hike, I found that the most interesting part was yet to come. From the endpoint at a barbecue area overlooking Yuen Long New Town, we hopped aboard a taxi to Ma Tin Tsuen, Henness’ home village, for afternoon tea and a stroll through the original walled settlement. There we saw vegetable patches, papaya and other fruit-bearing trees. Across from his family’s ancestral shrine, Henness showed us a communal kitchen with a wood-burning stove and giant wok – perfect for cooking hearty delights such as lap mei fan: fragrant rice topped with a delicious assortment of cured meats.

It is a common symptom of city life – and the demands of a money-oriented, consumerist society – that we are disconnected from the land we inhabit. But even in a place as densely populated as Hong Kong, there are still pockets where firewood is fuel and fresh produce is harvested from the soil, just as it has been for generations. 

35 Comments Post a comment
  1. In Indonesia there’s a similar idiom which says “Buah jatuh tak jauh dari pohonnya”. So what’s for Chinese is leaves, for Indonesians it’s fruits. 🙂 We always feel that urge to trace our roots, to learn about a place our ancestors called home. No matter how far we’ve gone, we always want to understand ourselves. Really love your photos, James — despite the smog it still looks like a nice day to be out in the nature.

    January 26, 2015
    • Thank you, Bama. 🙂 I guess that idiom is shared across many cultures and continents!

      January 26, 2015
  2. A walled settlement. No wonder that was the best part of the day.

    January 26, 2015
    • Entering the village was a real eye-opener – I’m so glad we got the chance to visit.

      January 26, 2015
  3. I love Hong Kong. I find it incredible that there is so much green space in such a tiny place with so many high rise buildings. I walked on some of the trails, but the village sounds wonderful.

    January 26, 2015
    • That is the beauty of living here… I love the fact that you can find deserted hiking trails (and beaches) just half an hour from the most crowded city streets. Hopefully I’ll be back in the village for a traditional feast and celebration – our guide told us there was one coming up in March.

      January 26, 2015
  4. beautiful pictures and beautiful history!, congratulations for this publication!

    January 26, 2015
    • Muchas gracias, a veces es fácil olvidar la belleza de mi ciudad!

      January 26, 2015
      • Cierto, a veces valoramos más lo que está lejos de nosotros sin darnos cuenta de las cosas bellas y maravillosas que tenemos a nuestro alrededor. ¡Me parece muy interesante tu blog! (No sabía que hablabas español) Saludos!

        January 27, 2015
      • ¡Saludos a tí tambien! Hace unos años, estudié la lengua en la Universidad de Salamanca. ¡Fue nueve meses de locura y pura felicidad! Cuando no había clase, viajé por muchas partes del país – Asturias, Valencia, Las Canarias… la verdad es que empecé este blog para recordar mis experiencias allá. También, el nombre tiene su fuente en el lema nacional de España.

        January 28, 2015
      • Pues eres un superman jeje, porque veo que no solo lo has aprendido sino lo dominas a la perfección. ¡Mis felicitaciones por ello!. Yo viví 18 años en Venezuela y creo que daría para más de un blog ir hablando sobre tantos lugares encantadores de allá, pero empecé por este otro blog para ir ganando en experiencia sobre como utilizarlo y dar un poco de optimismo al mundo que no se por Hong Kong pero aquí los noticieros son bastante pesimistas. Nos seguimos leyendo, ¡un abrazo!

        January 28, 2015
  5. Beautiful post and images James. Your description of the village took me back to my childhood home. My mom cooked on a firewood stove until after I left home! The smoky flavour of her fish curries is hard to duplicate in my sterile kitchen 🙂

    January 26, 2015
    • Thank you, Madhu. 🙂 I suppose that is the price of our modern conveniences… we gain a reliable supply of fuel, but our cooking lacks the depth and earthiness that comes from using firewood or charcoal.

      January 27, 2015
  6. That looks amazing, and this is coming from someone who loves Shenzhen!

    January 26, 2015
    • Well, Shenzhen is just a short hop away from this area! To be honest I’m not such a great fan of that city myself – I’ve always preferred the more organic nature of Hong Kong.

      January 27, 2015
      • Haha.. I’m the other way around.. I find HK (city and Kowloon) very claustrophobic! Perhaps the New Territories would offer as much space as Shenzhen does. I also prefer the metro in SZ but HK has the internet and more international of the two airports of course.

        January 27, 2015
  7. Must be amazing trekking through an area where some of your cultural roots lie. Love the vibrant colors, and anywhere where there are trees bearing tropical fruit is a winner for me!

    January 26, 2015
    • Yes, I wasn’t expecting the red foliage at all! Had I known about this, I would have gone at least a month ago to catch those colours at their peak. The village experience did make me wonder about “going back” to my ancestral region… perhaps someday!

      January 27, 2015
  8. So beautiful!!

    January 27, 2015
    • It was definitely a perfect day to go hiking!

      January 27, 2015
  9. Gorgeous!

    January 27, 2015
    • Yes it is worth a visit, and the hike is not difficult at all!

      January 28, 2015
  10. Wow, beautiful pictures! I’ve been told that Hong Kong is a must when visiting China. Now I have a chance to explore the natural beauty within there 🙂

    January 27, 2015
    • It feels somewhat different from the rest of China… thanks to those 150 years of British rule! I would say Hong Kong is a good place to ease yourself into the country. 🙂

      January 28, 2015
  11. “Falling leaves return to their roots” – I like that. One of the cool things about HK is that nature is right around the metropolis. I think Cape Town is the only city I’ve been to with mountains and sea so close by.

    January 27, 2015
    • Absolutely Jeff, it is not a side of Hong Kong most people expect to see! I would love to visit Cape Town someday… for now I’ll have to do it vicariously through your blog.

      January 28, 2015
  12. beautiful photos u have! it is in my hiking list to conquer :):)

    TWB

    January 28, 2015
    • Thanks Alex! You will conquer it for sure… it is super easy compared to the one we did in Sai Kung. 😀

      January 29, 2015
  13. Such a great post for me to lessen my homesickness of HK here in the States…the pockets of countryside and true village life is still the brilliance of HK that I love and great seeing it in your photos and writing, as there is so much to see & do in this great city ~

    February 1, 2015
    • Thank you, Randall. Despite growing up here, I feel like I have seen only half of what HK has in terms of villages and hiking trails. There is always more to discover!

      February 1, 2015
      • Exactly, with all the trails and islands and then just the relatively vast countryside, for me it will be impossible to even consider uncovering all parts of this great city… Cheers!

        February 2, 2015
  14. xavier cagnion #

    Can I get the contact of Henness as I would love to do this hiking next time I go to HK?

    February 2, 2015
    • Hi there – sorry it’s taken me this long to reply. I have been on hiatus since the beginning of this month! I’ll have to ask Henness first, though I’m sure he will happily oblige.

      February 11, 2015
  15. Thx for these photos on hidden corners and trails up in the hills there. Wonder if many HK locals go there.

    February 4, 2015
    • You’re welcome, Jean. Actually quite a few locals know of this place! We came across a number of large groups and some families too.

      February 11, 2015

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