An Island Apart: Tung Lung Chau, Hong Kong
There are two sides to Hong Kong: a vertical city of frenetic streets and heaving metro stations where commuters run between platforms to catch the next train, and an astonishing wonderland of hiking trails, secluded beaches, and more than 250 outlying islands. One of the highlights of my recent trip back was a half-day excursion with my father to Tung Lung Chau. Literally “East Dragon Island,” the 242-hectare outcrop of volcanic rock – about 70 percent the size of New York’s Central Park – guards the eastern approaches to Victoria Harbour. Only a handful of permanent residents live in modest houses built on hillsides above the north shore; you won’t find a school or doctor’s clinic. Tung Lung Chau is separated from the mainland by a narrow channel called Fat Tong Mun, which got its name (“Buddha Hall Strait”) from the historic Tin Hau temple at nearby Joss House Bay.
The motorized kaito ferry to Tung Lung Chau only runs on weekends from Sam Ka Tsuen village on the Kowloon side and the mainly residential district of Shau Kei Wan in eastern Hong Kong Island. I’m thankful we’ve arrived well ahead of the 10:30 departure: behind us, the line of families, campers, and young couples with their dogs gets much longer in the half-hour we spend waiting by the quay. A couple dozen of our fellow day-trippers will have to take the next boat at noon. My father and I nab two of the last seats upstairs, where we settle in for the scenic 40-minute passage out through the Lei Yue Mun strait, past rugged Cape Collinson; Hong Kong’s first car-cyclist-pedestrian bridge; and the high-rise apartment blocks of Tseung Kwan O, a satellite town housing 420,000 people.
Our general plan is a bit of light hiking between Tung Lung Chau’s old and new piers to see some coastal scenery and a pair of little-known heritage sites, before catching the 2:30 ferry back. I instantly feel my footsteps slow down when we disembark at Nam Tong, where a small boat bobs on the jade-green waters outside Hung Shing Temple. That name certainly rings a bell. Growing up, I’d walked past its 19th-century equivalent in the Wan Chai neighborhood many times, but never learned about the folk deity venerated within. The story goes that Hung Shing was a saintly government official who lived more than a thousand years ago during the Tang Dynasty: he dedicated his life to serving the people in the coastal area of what is now China’s Guangdong province, building a meteorological observatory that helped save lives in the typhoon-prone region. It’s said that Hung Shing protected mariners from natural disasters even after his untimely death; modern-day fishermen still worship him as the God of the Southern Sea.
My father and I follow a paved trail uphill into the trees, turning away from the direct route toward Tung Lung Chau’s new pier. Much of the path is mercifully shaded from the midday sun, but after 10 minutes or so it opens out into a windswept area of low shrubs; up ahead lies a circular lookout with commanding views of Fat Tong Mun. Off to the northwest, the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon sprout from the mountainous landscape like bamboo stalks. A concrete stairway of 460 steps leads down to the shoreline and the reason we’ve made this detour: the largest of the seven Bronze Age rock carvings identified across Hong Kong. Nobody knows for sure when it was created and by whom, but the petroglyph – said to depict a dragon descending to the sea – bears striking similarities to the geometric patterns that adorn ancient pottery and bronze vessels found in the territory. Experts have dated the mysterious rock art to around 1,000 B.C.
Throughout Chinese history, dragons have been a potent symbol of imperial power, representing successions of men who their subjects revered as the Son of Heaven. These rulers never had any reason to visit the fringes of the empire, but there was one instance when the dragon did leave his comfortable palace to sail the South China Sea. Near the end of the Southern Song Dynasty, the sparsely populated area that would one day become Hong Kong hosted the imperial court as it fled the advancing Mongols. In 1277, after a two-month sojourn in Kowloon, eight-year-old Emperor Duanzong and his entourage briefly sought refuge on Tung Lung Chau, before moving along the coast, stopping at Mui Wo village on Lantau Island along the way. Subsequent dynasties paid scant attention to this sleepy region on the edge of China proper. It became practically deserted from 1661–1689 thanks to the Great Clearance, a devastating policy of forced depopulation along a vast swath of the country’s coastline. Three successive edicts issued by Qing rulers declared a ban on human settlement up to 25 kilometers (15 miles) inland to deny aid and potential support to Taiwan-based rebels who were loyal to the previous Ming Dynasty.
Only in the early 18th century was there some recognition of Tung Lung Chau’s strategic location. Qing authorities built a fortress atop a craggy headland at the entrance to Fat Tong Mun in a bid to suppress piracy, which was even more prevalent here than the Caribbean. Armed with eight cannons and home to a garrison of around 25 men, the remote outpost was eventually abandoned in 1810 because it became too difficult to supply and maintain. It wasn’t until 1979 – nearly 140 years after the British took over – that archaeologists began to clear the overgrown ruins of vegetation and partially restore the fort, a project that would take the next three years to finish. Careful excavation work was carried out in stages and the final phase wrapped up only in 1997, the year Hong Kong was handed back to China. Most day-trippers spend a few minutes inside as there isn’t much to see apart from the hefty rubble stone walls and the remnants of former guardhouses arranged around a central courtyard. We tour a small visitor center in a nearby stone cottage, reading the explanatory boards about the fort’s history and the multi-year restoration process, with pictures of ceramics unearthed at the site.
Backtracking via Nam Tong, the ruined fortress lies around 40 minutes away from the Bronze Age rock carving. The only challenge for us is tackling the relentless flights of stairs back up to the main trail in the summer-like heat – after that the hike seems no different from a walk in the park. A niggling worry in the back of my mind that we’d have to rush to catch the ferry proves happily unfounded. With roughly an hour to go, there’s still enough time for a quick lunch at one of the makeshift eateries serving comfort food just up the slope from the new pier.
My father and I end up sharing two Hong Kong classics: scrambled egg and luncheon meat sandwiches and a heap of greasy (but oh so delicious) stir-fried beef hor fun. The latter is perfectly cooked over intense heat that gives the noodles slightly caramelized edges, a fleeting charred aroma, and a smoky flavor, creating what Cantonese cooks call wok hei – literally “breath of the wok.” At this point, I must recall a funny story that transpired one summer in Vancouver during my teens, when my brother and I had our wisdom teeth pulled out. For our first meal after the procedure, mother cooked pasta in tomato sauce but promptly put it in a blender and turned the whole thing into orange goo. My not-very-empathetic father had bought takeout from a nearby Cantonese restaurant, and was obliviously wolfing down his tantalizing beef hor fun right across the table from my brother and I. We haven’t forgotten it since.
The route to the new pier descends past an open-air diner named “Thai Fat Boy Store” where the young proprietor busies himself grilling satay on a brazier out front. He doesn’t strike me as being particularly rotund. Of course, my own life experience has taught me that Hongkongers can often be candid and brutally honest – if I’ve put on a few pounds, just about everyone in my extended family will tell it straight to my face. We follow the cement pathway along a lovely stretch of pebble-strewn sand, until I come across something that makes me do a double take. Is that not a coconut palm? While the quintessentially tropical trees are nothing special in Indonesia (I count as many as eight outside my bedroom window), this solitary example on the edge of Tung Lung Chau’s beach is the first one I have ever seen anywhere in Hong Kong. It’s an unexpected discovery to cap off a quick outing that briefly makes me re-evaluate my lifestyle choices. As we wait at the pier for the ferry to arrive, I find myself imagining what it’d be like to swap the buzz of the big city for a more peaceful and isolated existence on an island like this. ◊