Hong Kong’s Colonial Heritage, Part XII: Fat Tat Tong, a Window Into Rural History

In the far northeastern corner of Hong Kong, where an emerald valley threads between two ranges of hills, a one-lane concrete road makes its way to Ha Wo Hang Village. It passes over a murky stream, slips past a small shrine and curves around a camphor tree that leans out and over the road. The village itself is like so many others in the New Territories, with a few dozen three-storey houses arranged haphazardly along a maze of footpaths and lanes. For feng shui reasons, all of them face out towards the valley fields, the stream and the hills to the north. 

It looks ordinary, but it isn’t. That’s because, when the narrow road gives way to an even narrower footpath, a mansion rises in the distance. This is Fat Tat Tong, one of Hong Kong’s most recent declared monuments. Built in 1933, it was home to a wealthy family that helped found the Heung Yee Kuk, the influential organisation that represents the interests of the New Territories’ indigenous villagers. Architecturally, it’s a perfect example of the eclectic style favoured by southern Chinese emigrants who made their fortunes overseas. Historically, it’s a symbol of Hakka resilience and the agricultural communities that are an overlooked part of Hong Kong society. 

And yet the old villa appears abandoned, its façade rutted and mildewed, its forecourt cluttered with worn-out furniture, bicycles and a motorcycle that has sat there for years. When Zolima CityMag’s photographer Kevin Mak visited on a recent sunny day, a man emerged from the house and advised him—in a friendly but stern tone—not to trespass on private property. Hong Kong has 129 declared monuments, ranging from old police stations to university halls to grandiose mansions like King Yin Lei. But very few are like Fat Tat Tong. Of all the declared monuments in the city, it’s the only one that still functions—at least officially—as a private residence. 

The building’s story begins with a man named Li To-wan. Born sometime in the 19th century, he was the descendant of the Hakka settlers who had established Wo Hang two hundred years earlier, after migrating south from the mountains of Fujian. The name Wo Hang literally means “rice pit” (wo4 haang1 禾坑), referring to the agricultural bounty the first settlers enjoyed. In the 19th century, the Hakka villages around Sha Tau Kok banded together to create the Shap Yeuk (sap6 joek3 十約)—the Alliance of Ten—which established a market in Sha Tau Kok. Along with earning income, it helped the Hakkas gain an edge against the powerful Cantonese clans that had historically dominated the northern New Territories. Relations between the two groups were tense, and in 1855, they erupted into open conflict as Hakka and Cantonese fought each other throughout the Pearl River Delta. As the situation devolved into a genocidal war, many young men left to seek their fortunes overseas. Li To-wan was one of them. 

Li made his way to Vietnam at a young age. It’s not clear exactly what he did there, but whatever it was, he came back a wealthy man. As was usual among rural families, a tso (zou2 祖)—a kind of family trust—was established to manage Li’s fortune. Li’s eldest son, Li Kwan-lan, ran the tso. By the 1920s, he had become an influential local figure who advised the governor on affairs in Sha Tau Kok, a crucial role given the resistance to colonial rule the British had encountered when they leased the New Territories in 1898. Li also co-founded the ​​Committee for the Keeping of the People’s Property in the Leased Territory of Kowloon in 1924. (That committee was the forerunner to the present-day Heung Yee Kuk, one of the most powerful political organisations in Hong Kong – so powerful that its head enjoys a permanent seat on the Executive Council, which advises the Chief Executive.)  In 1933, the tso built Fat Tat Tong under Li Kwan-lan’s orders.

The design of the house reflected the kind of Sino-European architecture that was popular among wealthy rural families at the time. Similar houses could be found all over the Pearl River Delta, including the famous Kaiping dialou, which are particularly extravagant versions of the style. Built with a mix of timber, brick and reinforced concrete, Fat Tat Tong combines a Hakka-style tiled roof with a flat-roofed, two-storey colonnaded verandah that is crowned by an ornamental parapet that resembles a stream of rolling clouds, punctuated by finials in the shape of balls and urns. The name reflects the jaunty appearance: Fat Tat Tong literally means “Wealthy Hall”​​ (faat3 daat6 tong4 發達堂).

The house contains five interconnected apartments, each with its own separate entrance on the ground floor. In the rear, the apartments open onto a courtyard bordered by a row of outhouses containing a separate kitchen for each unit. Li Kwan-lan and his family moved into one of the apartments while his three brothers and their families lived in the others. The fifth unit was used for storing farm equipment. Every harvest, crops were laid out on the forecourt to dry in the sun. 

Fat Tat Tong’s path to conservation began when the Antiquities Advisory Board (AAB) launched an evaluation of 1,444 historic structures around Hong Kong. In its report, it noted that Fat Tat Tong had been subjected to few alterations over the years, and its original layout and historic features were well preserved. Even the traditional stoves and chimneys in the backyard kitchens had been retained. The AAB recommended Grade I heritage status, which Fat Tat Tong was awarded in 2010. That automatically made it eligible for consideration as a declared monument, Hong Kong’s highest level of protection: the only kind of heritage status that protects a building from demolition or major alterations. In 2013, AAB members toured the house and decided that it was worthy of the distinction.

As a declared monument, Fat Tat Tong will be restored at government expense, and the Development Bureau has allocated HK$7.953 million to fix up the building. The first step was a technical analysis of its building materials, which revealed—among other things—that the house was originally painted with a mix of powdery lime and pig’s blood, which is apparently a traditional Hakka technique. The analysis also revealed that the timber used came from China fir and Shorea trees, and its roof was made from a mix of tiles made in oxygenated and deoxygenated environments. “The specific arrangement of these tiles not only provides protection from heavy rainfall but also ensures a good ventilation indoors [on] sunny days,” notes the report. 

But the major work has yet to be done – hence the quasi-abandoned appearance of the house. In response to questions from Zolima CityMag, the Development Bureau stated that the Antiquities and Monuments Office (AMO) recently conducted a structural survey and is now preparing a tender for roof repairs and other refurbishments. The restoration is slated to begin at the end of 2021 and will last two years. After that, the future of the house remains up to the Li family.

When it was declared a monument in 2013, the tso that manages the property officially agreed to open the building to the public after restoration. The AMO has agreed to foot the bill for security and cleaning, but beyond that, no arrangements have been confirmed. But it seems safe to say that this one piece of Hong Kong’s Hakka heritage has been saved for posterity. Ho Wo Hang may look like an ordinary village, but with a historic gem like this hiding behind the lookalike houses, there’s more to it than meets the eye.

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