The coastal road leading into Shek O is breathtaking. The journey to the small coastal village on the D’Aguilar Peninsula, the southeastern tip of Hong Kong Island, is just long enough to give you time to realise what you are leaving behind: the noise and pollution of the city, the busy streets and the narrow horizon between tall buildings. These are replaced by wide bays with sandy beaches, small streets winding between colourful houses and the soothing sound of waves lapping at the rocks. It is a village that brings you a step back in time. Not too far back – but back nonetheless.

zolima_nicolas-petit_shek-o-7This month, the village is busy getting ready for the 19th edition of their Tai Peng Ching Chiu Festival, also known as the Spiritual Purification Festival (taai3 peng4 ceng1 ziu3 太平清醮). The festival is a traditional Taoist ritual asking for peace and rest in the area. In Shek O, it only takes place every ten years. The villagers of Shek O and the adjacent villages of Big Wave Bay and Hok Tsui gathered about 200 years ago to decide they would gather every ten years to ngon1 lung4 (安龍) – “pacify the dragon.” The ceremony involves placing the grains of five crops — rice, wheat, barley, rye and maize — into an urn, before burying it behind the ancestral shrine on a hill. Only after the ritual is performed, can the villagers ask for the dragon’s blessings for health, safety and bountiful harvests.

Andy Li, the spokesperson of the Shek O Resident’s Association, which was set up in 1965, explains the community’s take on the festival. “It is the 19th edition instead of the 20th, because we skipped the cycle during the Japanese occupation,” he says. “Otherwise, it is the most important festival for us. Even people who have emigrated come back to celebrate. They bring their children with them to meet everyone and visit their ancestral roots.”
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Festival traditions have been passed down through the generations, with each round reinforcing the transition of knowledge from old to young. “The older generation teaches us every time, reminding us which aspects to follow, which rules to obey,” says Li.

The village started preparations for this five-day fête three years ago. “First we have to elect the festival representative, then we have to fix the dates and book everything and of course we have to raise money,” says Li. “It is a huge organisational effort that everyone takes part in.”

In the days running up to the opening date of November 9, villagers are still coming in and out of the association with donations in their hand. They can offer names of the living or deceased relatives to be blessed during the ceremonies. Many have their children in tow, instilling a sense of community from an early age. A little girl leaves with a lantern in exchange, to be hung outside their house in solidarity with the festival.

Shek O welcomes anyone to take part in the Tai Peng Ching Chiu, even if they are not native to the village. There is just one main rule: abstain from eating meat. For the five days of celebration, even the shops and restaurants refuse to sell meat. “Oh yes, we all become vegetarian,” smiles Sara Ng, owner of the locally renowned Black Sheep restaurant. “It is something we do all together. We serve Western food at the restaurant, but I love to make traditional Chinese vegetarian dishes (ji6 zaai1 食齋) for the grannies. They really appreciate it.” It is not about prohibition, but rather about embracing an aspect of the ritual as a community.

As a child growing up in the village, Ng has many memories of village celebrations. “The highlight of this festival is definitely the finale, when the Ghost King Parade takes place. This year it is on [November 12], starting in the morning around ten o’clock and all throughout the day. We all walk behind the huge figure of the Ghost King on a long bamboo pole, whose job is to take care of the ghosts and keep them happy. We go all the way to Big Wave Bay and back,” she reminisces.

zolima_nicolas-petit_shek-o-9The Taoist festival is aimed at keeping the community peaceful and purified with the help of deities and ghosts, but even the ghosts have to compete with the other important member of Shek O’s daily life: the beach. Shek O has always been a beach community. Nestled between a north beach and a south beach, its name means Rocky Bay (sek6 ou3 石澳). The main beach became a popular swimming destination in the 1940s and since the festivities were always held on the ground now occupied by the beach carpark, celebrations have to wait till swimming season is over.

Carefully built by expert craftsman over the carpark, the bamboo theatre is the meeting place and centre for all village festivals. The concrete tarmac turns into a sacred space of rituals, music and offering for the village. Tai Peng Ching Chiu is not the only festival on Shek O’s calendar; in the nine years in between, the village celebrates the yearly Tin Hau festival, which it skips for the chiu to avoid the burden of too much partying. Shek O is a village happy to sing to its own tune.

zolima_nicolas-petit_shek-o-5A little under two centuries ago, in the 1840s, Shek O had about 200 inhabitants. By the 1990s, that had only increased to 2,000 inhabitants. It is one of the few places in Hong Kong that has maintained both a strong village network and a small size. Originally settled by Punti (Cantonese) people along with Hakka people, it was also home to Chiu Chow and Hoklo boat people. The dominant family clans were the Chans (the most common family name in Hong Kong and in Xiamen, the hometown of many overseas Hoklo), the Lis (the most common surname for the Hakka), the Laus and the Yips.

Sara Ng remembers being able to understand the Hoklo dialect when she was younger, though by the time she got older, there were not many of them around anymore. The Hoklo people were boat people who only occasionally settled on land. The unshielded bay of Shek O was often exposed to rough waves and high winds, making it difficult to moor there and tough for the Hoklo to stay. Shek O is geographically linked by road to the two fishing and market centres of Stanley and Shau Kei Wan, but it was not as well-situated for boat fishing as its neighbours. The tough conditions meant many local fishermen would use fishing nets from shore and most other residents were inland farmers.

Even during Ng’s childhood in the 1960s, the residents still had many fields in the hills behind Big Wave Bay and Shek O, growing greens, sweet potatoes, garlic and fruits such as mango, tangerine and pomelo. Though highly self-sufficient, weekly trips to Shau Kei Wan were necessary for manufactured goods such as peanut oil for lamps and services from herbal doctors, fortune tellers and blacksmiths.

zolima_nicolas-petit_shek-o-6Its position on the outskirts of Hong Kong meant that villagers did everything in their power to keep internal relations positive, even searching for wives from other villages as far as Kowloon instead of between local clans to avoid any bad blood. Its remoteness means that even today, Shek O is a world apart from the rest of Hong Kong. There are no longer any full-time fishermen or farmers, but there are still no supermarkets or 7-Elevens. The one and only bus route terminates at the village entrance. Its inhabitants like it just the way it is.

In recent years, Shek O has become an increasingly attractive spot for expats searching for somewhere different in the city, even though real estate is hard to come by. Most houses in the village are not rented, but have been inherited through generations. Once newcomers stay, they often find it difficult to leave.

“When you grow up here, you are so free. You grow up surrounded by nature, with no pressure,” says Ng as she waves to another neighbour who walks by. “All my family is here and everyone knows each other. There is a lot of mixing and we get to see the children grow up. The beach is special, the view is stunning and the waves are a sight. Why would you want to leave?” After spending an afternoon here, it seems obvious.

Now nearing the end of the swimming season, the beach is still busy at sundown with residents coming home from work and heading straight to the water, while the bamboo theatre for the festival’s Chinese opera performances is being set up over the carpark. It is finally the time for the patient gods and ghosts to be honoured. After all, they have kept the village peaceful for so many years.

The Tai Peng Ching Chiu Festival runs from November 9 to November 13, 2016. The Ghost King Parade takes place on November 12. The next Tai Peng Ching Festival will be celebrated in 2026.

 

Here’s a selection of our favourite places for a relaxed day in Shek O.zolima_nicolas-petit_shek-o-13-1

New Black Sheep Restaurant

An institution in Shek O for the past 15 years, loyal customers keep coming back for Western mains and the Belgian chocolate mousse dessert, while ravenous hikers rush here post-hike for the famous pizzas. Try the merguez pizza if you’re up for something with a bit of spice.

330 Shek O Village, Hong Kong, +852 2809 2021
Open Monday to Friday 18:00-22:30, Saturday-Sunday 12:30-22:30

Shek O Yuen Chiu (Tea Place) 石澳元潮

This unassuming Chinese tea house doesn’t have an English name. Walk down Shek O Village Road and when you hear the sound of mah-jong playing, then look to your left. That’s where you will find 90-year old Mr. Chan preparing one of the best milk teas in Hong Kong. Open for over 50 years, they still make their milk tea traditionally with a large strainer pot and serve up the silkiest mix you can imagine.

Open only for breakfast, brunch and early lunch. No phone.

Happy Garden

If you are undecided, head for Happy Garden to get your fix of Thai favourites and Chinese tea restaurant classics. Grab a table on the roof for a view of the beach over the carpark while your lips tingle from the heat of one of their fresh prawn and green mango salads, or dig into their signature curries, stir-fried morning glory and stuffed chicken wings.

786 Shek O Village, Hong Kong +852 2809 4165
No specific opening hours. Any time before lunch up to late dinner

Ben’s Back Beach Bar

For an evening cocktail on the quiet side of the beach or a taste of some locally brewed beer, head to this favourite local chill-out spot with a view. They are dog-friendly too.

273 Shek O Village, Hong Kong +852 2809 2268
Open Tuesday to Friday from 19:00-01:00, Saturday-Sunday 14:00-01:00. Closed Monday.

Head to the beach

Rent an umbrella and a chair from the nice ladies wearing Hakka hats who congregate near the main carpark. A lounge chair will set you back HK$40 for the day and an umbrella about HK$50.