Green Tea and Politics: The Surprising History of Hong Kong’s Abandoned Tea Plantation

It was not easy to reach Ngong Ping in the 1960s. And yet every Friday evening, Sarah Driver and her family boarded a ferry to Silvermine Bay, after which they bundled themselves into a Land Rover and journeyed for three hours over rutted country tracks. Their destination was Hong Kong’s only tea plantation, a 28-hectare highland paradise created by Driver’s stepfather, Brook Bernacchi, one of Hong Kong’s most doggedly progressive politicians.

Bernacchi was the first Westerner to live on Lantau and, for a time, Driver was the only European girl on the whole island. Hers was an unusual childhood by any standard, but especially in the context of Hong Kong. Less than 25 kilometres from the high-rises of Central, Driver spent her days in a rural idyll of mountains, buffalo and Buddhist monks.

tea plantation

Brook Bernacchi at his tea plantation on Lantau. Photo courtesy HKU Libraries

“The tea plantation was remote,” she recalls in an email sent from her home in England, where she runs a winery, Rathfinny Estate, with her husband. “We arrived in the mist to be greeted by 17 dogs. In summer it was rainy and misty, the dogs were damp and the walls ran with water. We picked tea, throwing it into big baskets, though I never mastered flinging it over my head! When typhoons came in, the island was cut off completely, we lost electricity and played mahjong and Monopoly by candlelight, bizarrely making toffee on the gas stove. On the sunny days, it was clear and hot, the bougainvillea and passion fruit hung over the patio and we begged to go to the beach at Cheung Sha. In winter it was dry and cold and one year we had a smattering of snow. There was always a risk of fires and we often fought them with long brooms as they raced across the plateau.”

The family’s home was named All-Knowing Lotus Villa (gok3 lin4 jyun2 覺蓮苑), a modest white-washed structure with a pitched tile roof. Bernacchi had built it in 1947, when he acquired 81 hectares of land on the Ngong Ping plateau, next to the Po Lin Monastery, a Buddhist enclave that had been established some four decades earlier. It was an eccentric endeavour, but then again, Bernacchi was never one to take the beaten path.

Born in London in 1922, Bernacchi finished his law studies and joined the bar in 1943, after which he enlisted in the Royal Marines to fight in World War II. He was part of the first wave of British troops that arrived in Hong Kong after the end of the Japanese occupation in 1945. Bernacchi stayed on, joining the Hong Kong Bar Association and delving straight into local politics.

This was an era of reform led by Hong Kong Governor Mark Young, who had spent the previous four years in Japan’s notoriously brutal prisoner of war camps. Young saw postwar reconstruction as an opportunity to change the structure of colonial rule in Hong Kong. In 1946, he proposed the Young Plan, which called for the transformation of the Urban Council into a fully elected body that would oversee the city’s day-to-day affairs, as well as elected representatives in the Legislative Council, whose members had always been appointed by the governor. But Young suffered from poor health, and in 1947 he resigned and was replaced by the ardently conservative Alexander Grantham, who sought to delay and dismantle as much of the Young Plan as possible.

That motivated Bernacchi to establish the Reform Club with his friend Elsie Elliott (today known as Elsie Tu), another British expatriate who was dismayed by the intransigence of the Hong Kong government. They were particularly concerned by the atrocious living situation of refugees who had fled civil war in mainland China. “Conditions here were horrifying then,” Bernacchi said in 1990. “There was no social welfare, very little in the way of education and as late as 1952 the government was flatly refusing to contribute anything towards a housing situation rapidly reaching crisis point in the face of the influx of refugees.”

tea plantation

Brook Bernacchi, third from right, overseeing the development of Chater Garden in 1978. Photo courtesy HKU Libraries.

By then, much of the Young Plan had been scrapped, but two of the Urban Council’s 13 seats were made open to election. Bernacchi won one of them in 1952. It was the start of a prodigious career that made him the face of Hong Kong’s progressive opposition in the postwar decades. He was a constant thorn in the side of the government, always pushing for more democracy and more social welfare.

All the while, Bernacchi was also a tea farmer. The bounty of the tea plantation around All-Knowing Lotus Villa was sold under the brand name of Lotus. “The only Hong Kong tea,” announced a billboard on the estate. “Special produce of Ngong Ping with the mountain flavour.”

Bernacchi was indeed the only commercial producer of tea in Hong Kong, but he was by no means the first person to have cultivated it. For centuries, Hakka villagers had been growing tea on the upper slopes of Hong Kong’s mountains. In 1986, anthropologists P.H. Hase, J.W. Hayes and K.C. Iu described tea cultivation in Mau Tso Ngam Village, a settlement nestled below Kowloon Peak. “Tea trees are planted here and there on the edge of the hills near the village,” they wrote. “Most families own a few trees, while others are owned by the ancestral trusts of the village.”

Families produced tea for their own consumption, while tea made by the ancestral trust was used as offerings to the gods. Villagers picked tea in the second ten-day period of the third lunar month, which often coincided with Ching Ming, when families clean their ancestral tombs. “If the tea is ready, worshipping can conveniently be combined with tea picking in a single one-day trip,” wrote the scholars. “The middle of the third lunar month is the time when the new young tender leaves are at their full size but have not yet thickened and coarsened – the best possible time for picking them.”

Men and women picked the tea leaves together, but it was up to the village women to process the tea. First, they steamed fresh leaves in a dry wok, pressed them to remove any moisture, then returned them to the wok for two hours of roasting. Four or five days of work in March produced enough tea to last a family for a year.

An advertisement in Ngong Ping for Lotus tea. Date and source unknown

Lotus tea was targeted at Hong Kong’s city dwellers. At its peak in the 1960s, the plantation employed 30 workers, many of them ex-convicts – one of Bernacchi’s many charitable initiatives. “We produced a gorgeous black tea, a delicate jasmine and various others,” recalls Sarah Driver. “We also had an unusual tea made from large red leaves picked at certain times across the plateau and up the mountainside.”

But it soon proved impossible to compete with tea imported from mainland China, and the operation was scaled down. Bernacchi’s commitment to Lantau never wavered, however. He funded the construction of a school in Ngong Ping and served as chairman of the New Lantao Bus Company, the only form of public transport on the island.

When Bernacchi developed terminal brain cancer in 1994, he handed over the reins of the plantation to one of his employees, Chan Woon-chi, who opened a small restaurant and teahouse. Although Ngong Ping was quickly turning into a major tourist attraction, thanks to the construction of the Tian Tan Big Buddha in 1993, the plantation struggled to stay afloat. It was eventually converted into a hostel before finally being abandoned in 2014, its remnants still visible beneath a massive pine tree on the path that leads south from the Po Lin Monastery. The path, once named Bernacchi Trail, has been officially renamed Lantau Fun Walk. 

Lotus brand tea long ago ceased to exist (although you can still taste Hong Kong-grown tea at the Kadoorie Farm, which produces green tea on the slopes of Ma On Shan). The majority of Bernacchi’s property was sold off over the years, including a section expropriated by the government to build a tourist attraction called the Wisdom Path. But his stepchildren managed to hang onto a couple of hectares around the All-Knowing Lotus Villa, which they continue to use as a holiday house. Driver makes a point to visit whenever she returns to Hong Kong. It’s a small effort to make for keeping an overlooked part of Hong Kong history alive.

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