Why Visit Lamma, the Island with a Surprising Portuguese Name?

Most people who arrive on Lamma Island let out a sigh of relief. Gone are the skyscrapers of Central, the narrow alleys of Sheung Wan, the air-conditioned megamalls of IFC and Pacific Place. Traffic exhaust has been replaced with a light iodine breeze; sterile façades by a thick jungle teeming with snakes, butterflies and frogs. All this is just 25 minute by ferry from Central.

It is a world so different, yet so accessible. Lamma’s largest settlement, Yung Shue Wan, can at times seem like a microcosm of the melting pot that Hong Kong’s history has managed to produce. You can just as easily grab an organic halloumi and rocket wrap as you could a dish of stir-fried chilli clams. The only thing you won’t find here is a McDonalds or a Park’n’Shop – it does take its village status seriously, after all.

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Kids jumping off a pier. Photo by Nicolas Petit

Yung Shue Wan’s diversity is by no means recent. Lamma has a long history as an attractive place for foreigners. Its original name was Pok Liu Chau (baak3 liu4 zau1 舶寮洲), meaning “foreigners’ docking place.” It has been a famous port for foreigners since the Tang and Song dynasties over 1,200 years ago. Its current name, Lamma, results from an error by Alexander Dalrymple, the first hydrographer of the British Admiralty in the 1760s. He misread a Portuguese map’s description of a muddy bay — lama in Portuguese — thinking that was the actual name of the whole island. The Chinese subsequently adopted a version of the name, producing Naam4 Aa1 (南丫) meaning “south fork.”

But this island is far from being a muddy southern fork. In fact, sometimes you can fool yourself into thinking you’re on the Amalfi coast, when all the lights of the restaurants and houses light up after sunset, and the cascading slope above Yung Shue Wan’s harbour twinkles with mischief to the sound of gently crashing waves.

If you wake up early enough, you will find a small market by the sea, busy with people buying cuttlefish, shrimp and sizeable fish destined for steaming. All have been caught by the handful of ageing local fishermen who still live on the island. Lamma has been inhabited since the Bronze Age, but Yung Shue Wan’s history only goes back to the early 19th century, when a wave of migrants came from what is now Shenzhen. Different clans and families set up their own little villages around the harbour, each with its own schools, altars, burial grounds and gathering spaces. Nowadays it seems like one big village, but if you keep an eye out you will still find specific family names, symbols and ruins of previous village gates.

For centuries, the main activities were fishing and agriculture, with several fertile plains claiming space in between hills, making Yung Shue Wan the largest settlement on the island. The population stagnated after World War II, however, as many residents moved to the city for more opportunities. Things began to change in the 1960s, when a new ferry pier was completed, facilitating travel between Lamma and Hong Kong Island. In the 1970s, the plastics industry enjoyed a bit of a boom on the island, and in 1982, the construction of the massive Hong Kong Electric Power Plant on the island brought an influx of mostly British engineers to the island, as well as pubs, restaurants and cafes to serve them. This mix of traditional fishing village and expat living has created a rare lifestyle found in very few other places in Hong Kong.

“There were actually more gweilos before, at least more British expats,” says Ying Tse, a vegetable vendor who is known as the best source of local gossip. “Many engineers and teachers worked here before the handover. Since then many of them have been replaced by Europeans such as French, Spanish and also Russians.”

Catching fish at sunset. Photo by Nicolas Petit

The island currently has about 6,000 residents, with about 80 percent of them living in Yung Shue Wan, whose name means Banyan Tree Bay (jung4 syu6 waan1 榕樹灣). This is where most of the islands services can be found, including clinics, schools and shops. (Lamma’s other major port, Sok Kwu Wan — affectionately called “Picnic Bay” by the British — consists mainly of seafood restaurants and a fishing farm.) The island’s peacefulness largely results from its location, but also the fact that there are no cars or tall buildings; all village houses are limited in size by the 1972 Small House Policy, which gives male indigenous villagers the right to build a three-storey, 2,100-square-foot house.

Yung Shue Wan’s residents have a love-hate relationship with the power plant, which mars the skyline but keeps the village from becoming another Discovery Bay. The power plant’s three smokestacks have even inspired the branding behind the Yardley Brothers craft brewery, which was launched by Lamma residents Luke and Duncan Yardley.

A walk through Yung Shue Wan on a quiet weekday reveals a mix of locals and expats who have been working together to take care of the island for years. Some have become institutions like Nick the Book Man. With his long Dumbledore beard that he hasn’t shaved since he married his Finnish wife 20 years ago, it is hard to miss him and his book stand on Yung Shue Wan Main Street. He spends his days beside his books and is able to converse about any of them for at least half an hour. He has become a bit of a Lamma celebrity and mainland Chinese tourists often request photos with him. “It’s most likely because of my beard,” he laughs.

After growing up between Hong Kong and the UK, Nick settled in Lamma in 1982 and hasn’t looked back since. He has been through the Hong Kong education system, attending Diocesan Boys’ School as well as boarding school in the UK. He also helped set up Island School on Hong Kong Island, before working as a sports journalist for some time. “We are very lucky on Lamma,” he says. “It is incredibly safe and for a long time, the rents were low. We’ve lived in the same flat for 20 years.”

Many of the island’s long-time residents complain of escalating rents. Despite its tight-knit community, Lamma has not remained untouched by Hong Kong’s soaring property prices. Its best-of-both-worlds lifestyle — calm yet convenient to the city — has also attracted residents who can afford to pay more.

Despite the rising cost of living, though, islanders don’t seem inclined to go anywhere. “We were all born here,” says Ying Tse, gesturing at her mother and her colleague Shirley. “We are technically outsiders since we are not original islanders, who were mostly fishermen. But we have been here for three generations. My grandfather came from the mainland [China] in his twenties, my mother was born here on Lamma.”

She says the indigenous village clans were once more active, organising large celebrations for Tin Hau’s birthday, the Dragon Boat Festival and Chinese New Year. “Nowadays, they still take place, we still set up the bamboo theatre and have the lion dances, but the young people are not as involved as before,” she says. “I wouldn’t go anywhere else though. This is home.” .

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Fisherman going back home. Photo by Nicolas Petit

It is hard to find a Lamma resident who does not rave about how much they love living on the island. Most of them take the conscious choice to live among the birds and the bugs, to be ten minutes away from a beach, to slowly recognize all the faces around them, to have the luxury of wolfing down an excellent pain au chocolat right after a plate of Yeung Chow fried rice and a Hong Kong milk tea. You can grab a craft beer and watch the fishermen drinking Tsingtao beers and cleaning their nets in front of their personal TV, housed in a metal chest that they only open when the horse racing is on.

When the sun sets over the bay, and the fishing boats rock gently over the golden water as the tide comes in, some children jump off the small pier for a swim. It is one of the few places in Hong Kong where you can be truly free, without letting go of the comforts we have become accustomed to. It can be yours for the day – just 25 minutes away.

Where to eat  

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Andy’s Seafood Restaurant. Photo by Nicolas Petit

Andy’s Seafood Restaurant (壽記海鮮酒家)

For a more local Chinese seafood experience on the island, go to Andy’s on the seafront. You will spot their discreet entrance opposite Ying Tse, the vegetable lady. Head through the restaurant to the seafront patio out front. Their standard Cantonese fare is excellent: fried rice, noodles, green vegetables and meat. Just be careful when you order seafood as the restaurant charges market price for dishes such as lobster, crab or steamed fish. It is usually worth the price, but double check first to avoid any surprises when the bill comes.

43 Main Street, Yung Shue Wan +852 2982 0210
Open daily from 11:00-22:30

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Lamma Grill. Photo by Nicolas Petit

Lamma Grill

If you are looking for American comfort food like hamburgers with thick-cut fries, ribs or buffalo wings, the Lamma Grill is the place to go. Enjoy a pint of Yardley Brothers Lamma IPA on the waterfront terrace while you wait for your order. Or head to the Grill’s new sister establishment, the Lamma Express, for a piping hot pizza that wouldn’t make an Italian cringe.

36 Main Street, Yung Shue Wan +852 2987 1447
Open daily from 12:00-00:00

Dak Kee Cha Chaan Teng (德記茶餐廳)

If Cantonese comfort food is what you’re after, head to the local tea restaurant for a hearty breakfast of peanut butter French toast with hot milk tea, or a hard-to-beat value lunch of fried noodles or steamed pickled vegetable and meat patty. Their club sandwich and deep fried chicken wings are finger licking good too.

16 Back Street, Yung Shue Wan +852 2982 2987
Open Tuesday to Friday from 07:00-17:00

Green Cottage

For Sunday brunch or an outing with vegetarian friends, the Green Cottage is the local spot for friendly service in a cosy atmosphere. Go for energising smoothies and abundant breakfasts.

26 Main Street, Yung Shue Wan, +852 2982 6934
Open Monday to Tuesday from 6:00-18:00, Wednesday-Friday 6:00-22:00, Saturday 6:30-22:00, Sunday 07:30-22:00

Carlos’ Tapas Bar 

Do as the European islanders do and head to Carlos’ Tapas bar on Main Street for a good glass of wine and some Spanish bites like tortilla de patatas or a portion of paella in the evenings.

54 Main Street, Yung Shue Wan
No regular hours, but open most evenings from 18:00 until late.

Keen Hing Granny Tofu Dessert (建興亞婆 豆腐花)

Some people come to Lamma with the sole mission of indulging in a bowl of tofu pudding served with red sugar and ginger juice (dau2 fu2 faa1 豆腐花). The sweet snack is served in an outdoor stall set up on the path from Yung Shue Wan to Hung Shing Yeh Beach. It is impossible to miss on weekends: just follow the crowds in hiking gear and fluorescent backpacks.

Back Street, Yung Shue Wan, Lamma Island
No regular hours, but open most days from morning to afternoon.

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Stairways to heaven. Photo by Nicolas Petit

Where to hike

There are many hikes on Lamma island, depending on the level of difficulty and length you are after. The most popular by far is the 4km Family Trail that connects Yung Shue Wan with Sok Kwu Wan. You can start from either direction depending on what you feel like eating afterwards. For more culinary choices, it’s better to end your journey in Yung Shue Wan, but if it’s seafood you’re craving, then go in the opposite direction. There is one stall offering frozen pineapple along the way. You could also throw in a beach swim at the end of your hike, either at Hung Shing Yeh or Lo So Shing beaches. This hike takes you past the famous kamikaze caves, which the Japanese used to conceal speedboats when they invaded Hong Kong in 1941.

Where to swim

From Yung Shue Wan, follow the signs towards Hung Shing Yeh Beach, which is a 20-minute walk from the ferry pier. Rent an umbrella from the shop at the bottom of the hill (about HK$50 for the day) or set up in the shade of the trees that line the edge of the beach. There are also BBQ pits where you can cook your own food. You can also hike to beaches on the other side of the island, such as Lo So Shing. Visit the Turtle Bay (Sham Wan) beach in the winter; during the summer, it’s a protected hatching ground for turtles.

How to get there

A regular 25-minute ferry ride connects Yung Shue Wan from Central Ferry Pier 4 every day of the week (HK$17.10 one way on weekdays, HK$23.70 on Sundays). Services to Sok Kwu Wan depart from the same pier but are less frequent. Check the HKKF website for timetables. Yung Shue Wan is also connected to Aberdeen via Pak Kok Tsuen by a slower ferry service (about 35 mins) by Tsui Wah Ferry (HK$19.00 one way) and to Sok Kwu Wan by Chuen Kee Ferry.

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Lamma Ferry heading home. Photo by Nicolas Petit

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