The Home Nobody Knows: Vivienne Chow Explores the Soko Islands

This article is brought to you by Oil Street Art Space.

Writer Vivienne Chow was born and raised in Hong Kong, but when she told people exactly which part of Hong Kong her family was from, she was usually greeted with befuddlement. “When I tell people my family came from Tai A Chau and Siu A Chau, people have never heard of them,” says Chow. “People really don’t know these islands. It’s really fascinating. I come from a place that no one knows.”

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Siu A Chau island – photo by Vivienne Chow and Edwin Lee

You’ll be forgiven if you are among those who have never heard of them, either. Tai A Chau, daai6 aa1 zau1 (大鴉洲) and Siu A Chau, siu2 aa1 zau1 (小鴉洲) are the largest of the 11 Soko Islands, an archipelago on the far southwestern edge of Hong Kong’s territory, just off the coast of Lantau. The second character in their names, aa1 (鴉), literally means “crow,” but it carries with it the connotation of something crooked or dishonest.
Since the early 1970s, all of the island’s habitants, including Chow’s family, have left the islands to find new opportunities elsewhere. They are now uninhabited. But it’s just part of a long history of human settlement that isn’t fully understood, which is what prompted Chow to start a new project named Since Ancient Times in collaboration with the Oil Street Art Space (Oi!), the community-oriented arts venue on Oil Street in North Point. “It’s a storytelling project about my family history,” explains Chow. “There will be interviews with my family, with a focus on the female characters. Then there’s also a fictional part.”

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Vivienne Chow is creating a fictional reimagining of what her life was like – photo by Vivienne Chow and Edwin Lee

There are scant records of life on the Soko Islands, but in 1937, a cadet officer in the Hong Kong civil service named Walter Schofield mentioned them in a talk about the territory’s outlying islands. He noted that both of them are shaped like a dumbbell, and described Siu A Chau as having “quite a good harbour and a fishing village of huts very different from ordinary Chinese dwellings,” although he did not elaborate on exactly how they were different. As for Tai A Chau, Schofield said it had “two or three villages on its dumbbell isthmus. There is a shrimp paste factory here which exports to Europe and America.”
Chow traces her family’s history on Siu A Chau back to the “middle of the Qing Dynasty” – around the turn of the 19th century. But she actually has roots on both islands: her grandfather married a woman from Tai A Chau and made the 1.5-kilometre journey between the two islands to join her. As Hong Kong boomed in the decades after World War II, however, the islanders gradually moved away. “My father’s generation began moving out in the 1970s,” says Chow. Eventually, her grandparents and great uncle were the only three people left on Tai A Chau. She remembers visiting them when she was a young girl. “There was no [running] water or electricity,” she says. “They had been living a self-sufficient life, they caught their own fish, they grew their own vegetables, they raised their own poultry and pigs. That has always been the livelihood of the islands.”

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‘Since Ancient Times’ snapshot of Vivienne Chow on Siu A Chau. Photo: CL

Chow grew up on densely packed Cheung Chau, the outlying islands’ equivalent of the big city. She still recalls the times her grandparents came to visit with gifts of seafood they had caught themselves. “Uni. Sea fish. Prawns. Crabs,” she reminisces. “I can still remember the fresh uni. We had a lot without knowing they were actually very expensive. I still remember seeing these crazy looking creatures – they were still alive. The black needles, they were moving slowly in the blue plastic sieve. It was really, really weird.”
Today, the islands are deserted, except for a Tin Hau temple maintained by the descendants of former Tai A Chau residents. “It’s like a jungle,” says Chow. “It doesn’t feel like Hong Kong at all. You can still see the ruins of the village houses where my family used to live. The great thing is there’s nature, beautiful beaches, clean water, very dense woods. It’s a very green place.”

Chow’s mission is to capture the spirit of the people that once inhabited that lush environment. “There is my mother, who married into the family, my aunts—my father’s younger sisters—my grandmother and my great-grandmother,” she says. I had the opportunity to meet my great-grandmother when I was a child. Part of it will be their personal memories, but my grandmother and great-grandmother are not here anymore so their stories will be told through the memories of others. I’m interested in exploring the fluidity of memory and how unstable memories can be. That’s an important part of the project.”
Another important aspect will be the role of women in island life. “For me, they are the people who keep the story going,” says Chow. “They are the ones keeping the whole family together.” And yet they have been largely written out of history. As with other Chinese societies, the islands were patriarchal, to the extent that Chow’s original ancestor—the woman who first migrated to the islands in the middle of the Qing Dynasty—is not even acknowledged on her own grave. “Only the names of her sons and grandsons were carved on the tombstone,” says Chow.

With no formal records of that mysterious ancestor, Chow will create a fictional reimagining of what her life was like. “I have no idea where she came from,” she says. “There have been stories from the other families on Tai A Chau. But those are stories about their ancestors, not my ancestors. Maybe it’s relevant, maybe not, but it’s impossible to verify. So rather than treating it entirely as fact-based research, this is a creative reinterpretation of what I have found, a re-imagination of what happened before she arrived, why she made the move.”

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The islands are deserted, except for a Tin Hau temple maintained by the descendants of former Tai A Chau residents – Photo by Vivienne Chow and Edwin Lee

That underlines another aspect of the project, one that brought it to the attention of the curator of Oi!, Ivy Lin. “[Chow’s] family are some of the earliest immigrants to Hong Kong,” she says. “They came to Hong Kong by sea and settled on an island. That is interesting to me because Oi! is by the sea – it was founded in 1908 as the clubhouse of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club. Most of the stakeholders were from England. It was another group of immigrants to Hong Kong. That is the meeting point – people who came here from elsewhere. There are a lot of complicated reasons why people settle here.”

Oi! is about to embark on a major expansion into new space next door to the historic yacht club, which will include additional exhibition halls and outdoor areas open to the public around the clock. “We will have lots of new programmes and new directions,” says Lin. The possibilities are open – and the same can be said for Chow’s project. She is just getting started and the final result remains to be seen. Expect plenty of videos as well as some kind of publication, but exactly what shape those will take will be determined by how the project progresses.

“I hope the audience, if they come across the project, they’re not just learning the stories of these islands and these families,” says Chow. “I hope it will inspire them to ask themselves about their roots and to reflect on where they come from. It’s an interesting exercise as a human being. Where we come from is an integral part of who we really are.”

Release dates for Vivienne Chow’s project are to be confirmed. To watch Vivienne Chow Experimenting Oi! preview click here

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