As soon as you cross the canal that runs through the heart of Tai O, Hong Kong’s westernmost settlement, you can see what makes this place so special. The waterways that separate the three parts of the village are lined with stilt houses, many also fitted with rickety terraces that allow residents to sit outside, above the water, as they prepare and eat food, repair their fishing nets, or chat with family and neighbours. These wooden houses started to appear about two and a half centuries ago, when some of the fishermen living on sampans—flat-bottomed wooden boats with a rounded shelter on top, typical of the fishermen in Southern China—near the coast settled on land.
“Only fishermen used to live in the stilt houses,” says Timmy So, a graphic designer, the co-owner of Café Solo on Kat Hing Street and a third generation Tai O resident. Nowadays, some can be rented for those who want to restore and operate them as public spaces, but government funds for taking care of the traditional architecture of Tai O have often been an afterthought. These style of houses are called pang uk (paang4 uk1 棚屋), a word meaning “shack houses,” which goes straight to the fact that what we find unusual and quite aesthetically pleasing today, was the poorest, most rudimentary kind of housing for fishers and their families.
A most unusual place
Tai O’s name simply means “big inlet” (daai6 ou3 大澳 ), but that belies the many surprises it has to offer – including, but not limited to, the pang uk. Visiting this village of just under 8,000 people means having one’s curiosity stimulated by unusual temples, a seemingly endless variety of local snacks and drinks, some unique architecture and hidden fables and myths. Not to mention, of course, the open sea views, that make for very romantic sunsets.
Getting there takes a bit of time, as Tai O lies in a secluded part of western Lantau Island, but public transport abounds. From Tung Chung, you can take a bus or a taxi: bus number 11 takes about an hour, while a taxi will get you there in 30 minutes. From Mui Wo, bus number will take you a bit more than one hour, while a taxi will be 35 minutes. You could also take the CKS ferry running from Tuen Mun to Tai O via Tung Chung and Sha Lo Wan: calculate around 50 minutes on the fast ferry, and half an hour longer on the slow ones. Some very very lucky people have spotted a pink dolphin or two along the way.
Speaking of dolphins: from Tai O you can also take a 20 minute boat tour, for just HK$25, to go out to sea in the hope of seeing the dolphins. However, do bear in mind that conservationists warn that this type of trip, with its speed and frequency, is actually highly disruptive for the animals, already imperilled by the constant reclamation works at Chek Lap Kok, maritime traffic, and the construction of the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge.
No matter how you get to Tai O, though, you arrive more or less in the same spot, just at the entrance of the village. The area is made up of three different sections. Two are part of the main landmass of Lantau, while one is the little island of Tai O proper, now attached to Lantau by two drawbridges, Sun Ki Bridge, built in 1979, and the Tai O Chung drawbridge built in 1996. Before this, people were able to cross through a hand-pulled rope drawn ferry. The drawbridge is lifted only for very big occasions, like the Dragon Boat Festival – one of the main festivities in Tai O, which is celebrated in a rather special way here.
The dragon boats are taken out one day before the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar in order to collect the main statues from the four main temples of Tai O, scattered around the four corners of the village: the Yeung Hau temple. Its name (joeng4 hau6 楊侯) can be translated as Marquis Prince, and it was erected is in memory of Yeung Leung-jit, believed to have come to Lantau with the last two Song emperors, two young boys running from the invading Mongols who would eventually establish the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). Yeung was later deified as a symbol of courage and loyalty. The temple was built in 1699, while the Hung Shing Temple (hung4 sing3 洪聖, the God of the South Sea); the Kwan Tei Temple (gwaan1 dai3 關帝, the God of War); and the Tin Hau Temple (tin1 hau6 天后, the Goddess of the Sea). On the day of the festival, statues are placed on sacred sampans and paraded around Tai O, to drive away ghosts.
Right by the bridge, on Tai O Road, if you turn left onto the waterfront promenade, you will be walking next to the old salt fields, no longer in use, that form beautiful ponds just by the mangroves. Along the opposite road, Wing On Street, you should make a stop at the small Tai O Rural Committee Historic and Cultural Showroom before hitting the village. This little museum is a little run down but informative and it will help you situate what you will see next in a wider context, thanks to old photos and displays of local material culture: from kitchen utensils such as wooden moulds and ceramic vessels, to straw hats and straw coats used to repel water, and all sorts of fishing tools. There are also many old photos that give a clear idea of what Tai O used to look like.
Land and sea
Tai O’s way of life has changed significantly in the past few decades: long known only as a fishermen village, famous for its production of shrimp paste and salt. Its population split its time between water and land, and as a result faced centuries of discrimination from settled farmers and the bureaucracy, who felt they could not trust such a semi-nomadic people. Many believe that the population that spent half of their life on water and half of it in the pang uk are at the origin of the legend of the Lo Ting, Hong Kong’s mythical ancestral inhabitants. They used to be called Tanka (daan6 gaa1 蜑家 ) a very problematic term—the first character means “parasite” or “insect”—that is today substituted with seoi2 soeng6 jan4 (水上人), People on the Water—if they are not referred to simply as boat people.
Perched over the water, connecting land and sea, the pang uk are a potent symbol of the maritime heritage of Tai O and its people. An ongoing Polytechnic University project has been working on studying the characteristics of the houses and their architectural evolution. You can see the results of some of their investigations, on specific aspects like the internal structures of the old pang uks and the variety of pang uks that are found in Tai O, hanging in well-visible panels around the village. (Some are displayed prominently outside of Café Solo’s entrance.)
If you pay attention while walking alongside Shek Tsai Po Street, for example, you can see a few examples of the first generation of pang uk, characterised by a vaulted roof that looks strikingly similar to the covered sections of the old wooden sampans. According to one of the panels installed by university researchers, the roofs of these old homes were made with bamboo and covered with leaf and tin plate, which are fastened by old fishing nets. The whole structure sits on stone pillars extracted from the Chek Lap Kok quarry.
Pang uks don’t look particularly comfortable, and they can get a severe battering when strong typhoons wash over Hong Kong. Slowly, they are being abandoned by residents, but a few of them are being turned into pleasant bars, coffee shops and restaurants, allowing this rare type of vernacular Hong Kong architecture to survive. “These huts are quite rudimentary,” says Timmy So, the café owner. “Sixty years ago the situation was very different, and so was the lifestyle that could be had in a pang uk, when people were still willing to live there. There was no water and no electricity, people had to use firewood to make fire for cooking, or go to the mountain stream to fetch water to drink and wash.”
Tai O snacks
Speaking of sustenance: on Market Street, you will be constantly distracted by the impressive variety of local snacks. Some are just impressively big versions of street foods that are popular across Hong Kong, like fishballs, which here are about the size of a tennis ball. Other snacks are more specific, like grilled dried krill, the same kind of silvery shrimp that is used to prepare the famous Tai O fish paste, which has a distinctive aroma and deep pinkish brown colour. (Though it was once fished locally, most of the krill is now imported from the mainland.) You’ll find jars of the paste piled high in many stalls, and some tourists come just to buy some. As food writer Clarissa Wei explains, it is a common ingredient in stir fries, where it serves the same function as fish sauce: “It adds a hit of umami to everything. It is very nice, very piquant.” You can also find powdered versions, and other fish and dried preserved vegetables, mixed with chilies and salt, lining the stalls, with careful descriptions of their contents.
Tai O offers both savoury and sweet snacks. Some are Hong Kong favourites like the perfectly refreshing tofu pudding (dau6 fu6 faa1 豆腐花), but there are also some rarities, like frozen sliced fruits on a stick, which can be
eaten as a lolly. (Papaya, pineapple and watermelon are most common.) There ar ealso egg waffles cooked directly on charcoal, once a common sight in the urban areas but no longer. You can also buy little bags of sun-dried salted duck egg yolks, a true Tai O specialty, that can be used in stir fries, as a condiment for deep fried fish and fish skin, as an ingredient in cakes and pastries, or as a condiment for congee. The sun hardens the yolks so much that they can simply be grated on top of food. On a sunny day you can see the little golden globes drying in the sun in round straw trays, or even in something as mundane as repurposed beer boxes. Before trawling was banned in Hong Kong in 2013, the whites of the duck eggs were used to strengthen the hemp fish nets through a steaming process. Now, the whites are scattered in the fields together with compost.
The same straw trays are filled with krill shrimps that need to be dried, both to be grilled and to be milled into paste, as are many other kinds of fish, parts of fish, and molluscs, all left to metamorphose into umami bombs by sitting under the sun.
The shops on Market Street also have a full array of culinary souvenirs hanging in intriguing displays: fully blown blowfish, plump cuttlefish, delicate starfish, and various internal fish organs, dried and exposed, that require a keen knowledge of marine life anatomy to be recognised. If that doesn’t suit your sense of decor, you can also get bottles of home made, cold herbal drinks: lemon barley water, mountain begonia, and mulberry tea among others.
The sea is never far
Other than food and pang uks, Tai O also has more than its average share of temples, altars, and various other signs of devotion to the gods, in addition to the four main temples cited above. But in the religious realm, too, you will not be allowed to forget for long that this is a village of fisherfolk. A few of the temples have two or three stacks of whale bones in a corner, some of them ribboned by a characteristic red and gold piece of fabric, as the vertebrae of these powerful creatures used to be worshipped by fishermen, who considered them powerful sea gods. Many of the ancient myths and stories that can be seen depicted on the temple columns and ceilings are chosen from those that deal with the seas, and sea creatures, being mastered by sages or valiant fishermen.
A day in Tai O will probably not be enough to wander around and make sense of everything this intricate village has to offer. Just remember that it gets very very crowded on holidays and weekends, for the Dragon Boat Festival and for the lantern festival.
Where to go in Tai O
Tai O Bakery
66 Kat Hing Street
+852 2985 8621
Open Monday to Sunday, 10:00–18:00
There are people who think it is worth coming to Tai O just to have a saa1 jung1 (莎翁), a fried sugar puff that costs HK$15, from this little bakery. It’s a popular treat, so make sure you come before 2pm, after which all the saa1 jung1 are gone, although if you miss them, you can console yourself with peanut sesame mochi, egg tarts and coconut tarts.
79 Kat Hing Street
Irregular opening hours
Take just a few steps from the bakery and you will pass by Café Solo. You can walk straight towards the canal to the café’s little terrace, and enjoy very good coffee with a snack or an ice cream as you watch the slow water activities of Tai O: small boats passing by, fish swimming, birds flying, and cats curling in the sun.
Tai O Heritage Hotel
14 Shek Tsai Po Street
+852 2985 8383
If you are feeling flush, you can stay here the night and enjoy some amazing uninterrupted views of the South China sea as soon as you wake up – but expect to pay around HK$3,000 for a double room for this heritage hotel, which is housed in a 19th century former police station. For a lot less money, you can have a cocktail or dinner on the top floor of the hotel, and enjoy a beautiful sunset from there.
Tai O Rural Committee Historic and Cultural Showroom
5 Wing On Street
Open Tuesday to Sunday, 12:30–17:30
+852 2985 7229
Stop by this small museum before exploring the village, as just half an hour with these displays will give you more context for what you are going to see. Tai O’s material culture is illustrated with great variety. Bear in mind that captions are only in Chinese, there is no air conditioning, and the lights could easily have been better positioned, but you will definitely see rare Tai O objects and old photos that show how the village has changed through time.
Old Tai O Pier
Shek Tsai Po Street
Just down from the Heritage Hotel is the long strip of concrete of the Old Tai O pier, now in disuse. You can walk along it as the sun starts to set, and just sit down and rest while taking it all in, after having walked around all of Tai O in one day.