July is lychee season in Hong Kong, and if you walk into the hills above Pai Tau Village, you will notice a rustling in the trees overhead. Look up: there’s a monkey gorging himself on ripe fruit. Try not to get hit by the pit when he tosses it on the ground.
Pai Tau is one of those distinctly Hong Kong places where rural and urban collide. To get there, you take the MTR’s East Rail Line to Sha Tin station. Exit the train, push your way through the crowds to reach the escalator and doot your Octopus card as you leave the station. You’re confronted by a busy bus terminus and an even busier shopping mall to the right. Take the footbridge to the left.
IKEA looms in the distance, along with the high-rise headquarters of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. But there’s something else to grab your attention: a row of old stone houses facing a brick plaza. A leafy hill studded by colourful, blocky dwellings rises behind them. There’s often a pushcart piled high with sweets and dried fruit in the plaza, beyond which is a cheerful row of potted palms and bonsai trees. Laundry hangs from bamboo poles in front of the stone houses, which are decorated by faded friezes that span the façade beneath low-pitched tile roofs.
A generation ago, those houses would have overlooked the muddy flats of Sha Tin Hoi — known by the British as Tide Cove — which drained the Shing Mun River into Tolo Harbour. Although Sha Tin today is a prosperous suburb, the quintessential face of middle-class Hong Kong, it was a rural backwater until the 1970s, when Sha Tin Hoi was filled in and developed into a high-rise New Town, one of a network of bedroom communities designed to ease the overpopulation of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.
Today, most people would probably consider Sha Tin to be unremarkable, but it’s a symbol of how the hyper-density of urban Hong Kong gives way very quickly to a rural kind of life – and how these two sides of the city have yet two be truly reconciled.
Pai Tau Village was settled in the 19th century by the Lam clan, who migrated here from northeastern Guangdong. Its name, “Headland Village” (paai4 tau4 cyun1 排頭村), reflects its position on the eastern flank of the ridge that once overlooked the mudflats. Although the Lams were relative latecomers to Sha Tin, their settlement is considered one of the district’s original nine villages, which are part of a formal alliance that supports the Che Kung Temple, which was built after an epidemic swept through Sha Tin in 1629.
The area came under Hong Kong’s control in 1898, when the New Territories was leased to Britain for a period of 99 years. As with other villages, the colonial government delegated control to Pai Tau’s traditional leaders, creating a legal distinction between urban and rural Hong Kong. In 1910, the new Kowloon Canton Railway passed in front of the village, and Sha Tin Station connected it to the rest of Hong Kong. But trains passed infrequently along the single-track railway, and the biggest change was a trickle of prosperous city-dwellers who built ornate country houses in the hills around Pai Tau. For the most part, village life remained much as it had for generations before.
More significant changes came after World War II. Migrants fleeing civil war on the mainland began settling in the hills above the village, erecting makeshift homes and small farms. In 1949, a lay Buddhist teacher named Yuet Kai arrived in the village and began work on the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery, carrying building materials piece by piece up the hills. The monastery attracted other Buddhist organisations, and today they dot the back lanes of Pai Tau. The sounds of ringing bells and ritual chanting float through the woods.
Some of the mainland settlers who came to Sha Tin after World War II opened pigeon farms, supplying the famous Lung Wah Hotel with poultry for its signature dish. But one of them, Yip Ki-hok, was more interested in bees. In the early 1980s, he moved into a small house on a leafy knoll above Pai Tau. He captured wild bees, moved them into wooden beehives and began harvesting honey.
Yip had become familiar with bees in his native village, which is about 100 kilometres northeast of Hong Kong. “It was very tough because we were so poor,” he says. “We didn’t even have sugar. My uncle had a beehive so he had honey. When I was seven, I realised this was a way to make food, so I went with a cousin all over the hills to look for bees.”
Beekeeping appealed to Yip, and by the time he was in his 20s, he had more than a hundred hives. “That was during the Cultural Revolution,” he says. “At that time, if you had three ducks that laid some eggs, people would consider you bourgeois. When people saw that I had so many hives, they thought I was rich.” Yip was denounced three times by his fellow villagers, but he had enough friends that on each occasion he managed to escape persecution.
Yip made it through the Cultural Revolution unscathed, and in 1983, he decided to move to Hong Kong to join his wife, who had come here earlier. At first, they settled in a squatter village near Shek Kip Mei, and he began to replicate his rural life in the middle of the big city. “As soon as we arrived I started raising bees again,” he says.
But the honey his bees produced in Shek Kip Mei wasn’t up to his standards, so he began scouting for a better location. That’s when he found Pai Tau. Its sheltered hillside location has given it a rich diversity of plant life. “The most important are the flowers,” says Yip. In the spring, bees draw nectar from lychee and longan flowers; in the winter, they are drawn to the duck foot tree (aap3 goek3 muk6 鴨腳木). Each season produces a remarkably different type of honey: lively and clear in the summer, delicate and creamy in the winter.
Today, Yip’s apiary — the Wing Wo Bee Farm — is one of Hong Kong’s leading producers of raw wild honey, and its product can be found in specialty food shops around the city. But it’s hardly a big business. Accessible only by foot, surrounded by forest, it’s hard to believe Yip’s farm is only a short walk from one of Hong Kong’s busiest MTR stations.
Heading back down towards the station, the whirr of cicadas blends with the sound of automated announcements drifting over from the railway platforms. A few years ago, this part of the village was filled with banners protesting the government’s plan to build a footbridge from the station to IKEA. Around the same time, the government had attempted to fence off the village plaza, claiming it was government land the villagers had been illegally occupying for decades. It backed down after the protest campaign.
The village recedes as you walk up the ramp that leads to the station and the high-rises beyond. A few hundred feet is all that separates two worlds.