Hong Kong’s Colonial Heritage, Part XIV: The Rural Decay of Yu Yuen

Yu Yuen is haunted. Among the urban explorers and mischievous teenagers who seek out this decrepit mansion, rumour is that its ornate rooms are home to ghosts. But the reality is that it is haunted by something else: neglect. Once a proud country villa, this historically significant property has been left to rot, caught in a web of murky New Territories affairs and government policy that does little to protect Hong Kong’s heritage. 

Although it is less than 15 minutes by foot from Long Ping MTR, Yu Yuen isn’t exactly on the beaten path. It emerges unexpectedly from a landscape of densely-packed village houses and container yards. In one direction is the massive grey Nin Jiom factory, where the famous Pei Pa Kao herbal cough syrup is made. In the other, a new crop of highrises rises near the MTR station. 

The mansion itself is in a pitiable state: its windows are broken, its walls are stained with mildew and wild vegetation is beginning to undermine the structure. What was once a front garden is now overrun with parked cars and delivery trucks, a gilded fountain standing incongruously in the midst of them. Nearby, a concrete archway is orphaned from the walls that once encircled the property. Two characters are embossed above a locked gate: Yu Yuen (jyu4 jyun2 娛苑) – Joyous Court.

If it seems like all the joy has been leached out of this dreary landscape, things begin to make more sense when you walk down the surrounding village lanes, which are lined by well-tended shrubs and potted flowers. A short stroll will bring you to the I Shing Temple, a well-maintained grey brick structure dedicated to Che Kung and Hung Shing. It was built in 1718 by residents of Wang Chau, an agglomeration of six villages: Sai Tau Wai, Tung Tau Wai, Lam Uk Tsuen, Chung Sum Wai, Fuk Hing Tsuen and Yeung Uk Tsuen. 

Together, these settlements represented an important base of power for the Cantonese-speaking Punti clans that first settled around Yuen Long during the Song Dynasty (960–1279). Unlike the rocky, inhospitable shores of Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon peninsula, which were sparsely inhabited when the British colonised them in the mid-19th century, the fertile lowlands of Yuen Long were thickly settled by farming communities that had been there for centuries. When Britain leased the New Territories from China in 1898, many of those communities took up arms against colonial rule. 

The resulting conflict is known as the Six-Day War of 1899. It started when the British raised their banner atop Flagstaff Hill in Tai Po—today home to the Green Hub in the restored Tai Po Police Station—and villagers burned it down. The resulting conflict was short but intense, taking the lives of 500 people, all of them native inhabitants of the New Territories. The British scored a decisive victory, but the uprising was fierce enough that colonial administrators set up a special set of rules in order to better manage the population of the newly leased area. Villages were allowed to maintain traditional laws and customs related to land inheritance and land usage, giving the New Territories a distinct indirect system of governance that relied on local intermediaries like village chiefs.

This was the context in which a young man named Tsoi Po-tin rose to power. Born in Tung Tau Wai in 1877, he grew up to become a construction worker and eventually started his own business, Wing Yick and Company. As York Lo notes in an article for the Industrial History of Hong Kong Group, Tsoi’s success drew many of his fellow villagers into the construction industry, and he became a community leader. In 1915, he helped launch a new market in Yeung Long, and in 1919, he co-founded the nearby Pok Oi Hospital. Over the next two decades, Tsoi’s company emerged as one of the top contractors in Hong Kong, leading the construction of buildings like the Sham Shui Po Police Station and Matilda Hospital, along with many landmarks that have since been demolished.

In 1926, Tsoi joined forces with other influential New Territories residents to launch the Heung Yee Kuk (hoeng3 ji3 guk6 鄉議局, literally “rural council”), a statutory body that represents the interests of New Territories villagers. The new organisation was formed in response to mounting grievances against the colonial government. In 1906, the government had insisted that village property be regulated by crown leases, which upset many villagers, who felt it undermined the traditional land rights they had been promised. Then, in 1923, the government began regulating and taxing the construction of village houses. Tensions boiled over in 1925 when many villagers joined the Canton-Hong Kong strike, an anti-colonial movement that paralysed the city’s economy for 16 months.

Until then, the relationship between the colonial government and villagers had relied on informal advisers like Li Kwan-lan, a village leader whose residence, Fat Tat Tong, is now a declared monument. The Heung Yee Kuk created a more official framework, with 27 rural committees representing 651 villages. Its relationship with the colonial government was often contentious, but more often than not, the Kuk had its way. That was certainly the case in 1972, when the Small House Policy was introduced, giving every male indigenous villager the right to build a three-storey, 2,100-square-foot house—exempt from land premiums—within the boundaries of their village. 

In the lead-up to the 1997 handover from British to Chinese sovereignty, the Kuk’s influence ensured the inclusion of Article 40 in the Basic Law, guaranteeing that “the lawful traditional rights and interests of the indigenous inhabitants of the New Territories” be protected by law. Since the handover, the leader of the Heung Yee Kuk has maintained a permanent seat on the Executive Council, which acts as the Chief Executive’s cabinet. The Heung Yee Kuk has often been described as running a kind of parallel state in the New Territories – one newspaper columnist likened it to the Mafia, while the South China Morning Post has labelled it “an empire of rural leaders.” There is no doubt that it is one of the most powerful organisations in Hong Kong.

And therein lies the paradox of Yu Yuen: one of the most important sites in the founding of the Heung Yee Kuk has been left to rot. Tsoi Po-tin built the house as a summer retreat in 1927, at the peak of his influence, when he lived in Causeway Bay with his four wives and many children. Unlike Fat Tat Tong and some other rural villas, which were built in the Chinese Renaissance style, Yu Yuen bore more resemblance to the European-style structures that Tsoi’s construction company had built all over Hong Kong.

It is a sturdy, symmetrical structure with a red brick façade, colonnaded verandahs, Tuscan columns flanking the entranceway, and a rotund cupola. The house opened onto a landscaped garden with a fountain, and an entrance gate was flanked by a poetic couplet: “Jyu4 laam5 jyun5 saan1 cing1 jan4 waa2 / Yun2 waan4 gaa1 syu6 hung4 jip6 gwai1” (娛覽遠山青人畫;苑環嘉樹紅葉歸). It’s hard to translate, but roughly speaking, the first part describes an idyllic landscape of people frolicking in the mountains, like in a painting, while the second is an ode to a place where autumn leaves can fall in peace.

In 1949, the Overseas Chinese Daily listed Yu Yuen as one of the New Territories’ four most renowned estates, along with General Li Fook-lam’s Hong Lok Yuen in Tai Po, Sir Robert Ho Tung’s Tung Ying Hok Pok in Sheung Shui, and Wong Sze-wai’s Pun Chun Yuen in Tai Po. Several years earlier, that notoriety had attracted six burglars, who snuck into Yu Yuen through the skylights, stealing thousands of dollars in cash and jewellery. 

Tsoi died in 1949. The villa remained in his family’s hands until 1991, when they sold it to Profit Rich International, a company run by Lau Wong-fat, a billionaire rural strongman who led the Heung Yee Kuk from 1980 until his death in 2015. And that’s where Yu Yuen’s troubles began. It went from summer estate to storage facility, and its garden was paved over and used to park cars. In 2002, the owners submitted an application to redevelop the site into village houses, which attracted the attention of the Antiquities and Monuments Office (AMO). They evaluated the old mansion and deemed it worthy of preservation, giving it a Grade I listing, the highest before a building is declared a monument. Permission to raze the site was denied. 

In response, Lau left the house to rot. In some cases, the government may work with a landowner to develop a conservation plan, perhaps offering a subsidy to help finance renovations. But not here. In 2010, the AMO downgraded Yu Yuen to Grade II, which requires only selective preservation, saying the building’s decay had undermined its historic value. The following year, South China Morning Post reporter Joyce Ng asked Lau about the villa. He told her it was “company business” and said that he had never visited the house. Now that Lau is dead, it is unclear whether there are any plans to redevelop Yu Yuen. A recent visit revealed the building’s exterior walls are being consumed by banyan roots, while its high-ceilinged ground floor is filled with mould and heaps of rubbish. 

Despite the decay, it’s still possible to appreciate some of the architectural finery that Tsoi, a master builder, incorporated into the residence: carved wooden balustrades, green ceramic tiles, ornamental window grilles. A few artefacts linger in the upstairs rooms, including a Art Deco-style metal bed frame and a child’s tricycle. Some might consider it spooky. But the only thing scary about Yu Yuen is what its fate may hold. 

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