When Lunar New Year comes round, it all gets very Chinese in Hong Kong. Against the everyday backdrop of hanging roast ducks, smoky temples and clatter-filled mahjong parlours, the city is suddenly spiced with seasonal Chineseness.
Words Mark Parren Taylor
Just look around! Glowing red lanterns, embroidered tangzhuang silk jackets, pockets stuffed with red lai see gift envelopes and poetry couplets pasted around doorways. Banquet tables heave, fireworks hit the heavens and the air is heavy with lucky wishes…
And for just a few days the city quietens down – streets are deserted, markets are hushed – as urbanites head out, back to home towns and villages to be with family.
These are journeys that we visitors can make too. Journeys to a more esoteric, less hard-nosed side of the city. At any time of year, not only ‘CNY’, we can discover corners of the SAR’s (special administrative regions) 1,100km2 that (despite their relative proximity) are far removed from 21st-century downtown… that are a little more traditional, more Chinese perhaps.
Journeys as short as 30 minutes from Central district can transport us to a diﬀerent place – to market towns in the New Territories, to ﬁshing villages on the Outlying Islands. This is where we wave adieu to the big city and acquaint ourselves with Village Hong Kong.
From East to West
One subway stop across Kowloon Bay from Hong Kong Island’s eastern end, Yau Tong is a mammoth MTR station that services the residential blocks crowding around it. But follow the pedestrian signs, and the 10-minute stroll leads to a harbour of trawl boats and, tucked beyond, little Lei Yue Mun.
From afar it all looks quiet and curious: a low-rise, haphazard village of lean-to dwellings and sheds. But head inside and you’ll discover winding, covered alleys, lined with ﬁshmongers and seafood restaurants and little shops selling home-made biscuits or sun-dried oysters. During the week these makeshift arcades are the domain of porters carrying fresh ﬁsh to waiting trucks, but on weekends they teem with city folk looking for some seaside dining – and an escape from the chains on the high street.
At the opposite end of Hong Kong, huddled around creeks on the western edge of Lantau Island, Tai O is another ﬁshing village that has become a popular destination for townies keen to dip a toe in the waters of the city’s bygone era. Tai O’s quirks are its pang uk stilted shacks, plank walks and salted-ﬁsh and shrimp-paste shops. Many of its 300 buildings are clad in sun-glinting tin – a ﬁre-defence measure initiated after a third of the village was burned down in 2000, leaving 90 families homeless.
The thing about Tai O is that you can easily head onto the water here. Tour boats roam the village and the Pearl River estuary coastline; kayak excursions are available for those with energy to burn; some sightseeing trips head further out to sea in search of pink dolphins.
Islands and lowlands
On car-free Cheung Chau Island, there’s a diﬀerent mood altogether. A lively township occupies the island’s pinched waist with an ever-busy harbour and quays on one side, and a beach on the other. From this hub, paths lead in all directions – to a rewarding lookout in the north, secluded sandy beaches in the south and a one-time pirate’s cave (alas, no treasure chest) in the southwest.
Nowadays the only pirates you could possibly run into in Hong Kong are those selling dodgy goods in a Kowloon street market. But these waters, and lands, have proved rich pickings for centuries. Marauding bandits forced many village communities in the valleys and lowland north of Hong Kong to build defensive structures, right up until a century ago.
Kat Hing Wai is a prime example of a New Territories walled village. Alas, it’s a little oﬀ the beaten track and, other than the elderly ladies wearing half-veiled hats who sit at the gate (a photo op costing HK$10 per model!), it’s really only of interest to diehard historians.
More satisfying, the Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trail is a two-hour countryside amble out of Fanling (a small town in the north, reached by the East Rail Line). The trail links several historical villages (ﬁve of them walled), passing quaint temples and the Tang Chung Ling Ancestral Hall, which dates from the 16th century. En route to Fanling, Tai Po Market is a convenient stop-oﬀ point for a bite to eat. It’s home to the Hong Kong Railway Museum (in the 1913 station) and centuries-old street markets where country folk bring homegrown vegetables and herbs to sell.
Near and far
Back amongst the high-rise towers of downtown Hong Kong, not far from Central where many of our journeys can start, you don’t have to look very far for neighbourhoods with a village vibe. Just oﬀ Hollywood Road, PoHo district is an upcoming hipster retreat of cafés, restaurants and boutiques. And not too far away, Sai Ying Pun is the epitome of a city village. It’s a multi-textured district, focused around a grid of streets on the lower (but nonetheless sometimes steep) slopes of Victoria Peak. Alongside the original resident community there are burgeoning expat and ‘yupster’ crowds and a fast-evolving food scene that’s both compact and rewardingly varied.
It’s a useful spot to get a true taste of village Hong Kong. If you can’t make Tai Po’s Farmers’ Market, for example, head to Locofama for contemporary Chinese cuisine using locally grown organic veggies; if the seafood restaurants of Cheung Chau are out of reach, try Fish School for fresh local catch selected daily by chef David Lai.
Denpasar and Jakarta to Hong Kong
Flight Time 4 hour 30 minutes
Frequency 21 ﬂights per week
5 Senses – Taste
YUNG SHUE WAN
Lamma Island’s main settlement Yung Shue Wan (from Central Pier No. 4; 30 mins) is a good spot for a leisurely
seafood lunch by the water. Andy’s Sau Kee (43 Main St) does a tasty ginger fried rice. From there, the Family Walk path passes Hung Shing Ye Beach (30 mins’ walk), where you can stop for a cup of homegrown herb tea at Herboland
(southern end of the beach), or hit the barbecue pit and grill up some produce picked up in the township.