Hong Kong’s Industrial History, Part II: Mining

A taxi is making its way up a twisting, single-lane road, pulling over every so often to let oncoming traffic pass. Eventually, the road comes to an end, next to a grove of palm trees and the rushing water of a mountain stream. Tin-roofed houses rise across the water. Dogs bark. The sound of an erhu warbles through the crisp air.

The suburban high-rises of Ma On Shan are just two kilometres away but they are a world apart. This is Ma On Shan Village, tucked into a gulch beneath its namesake peak. Until 1976, this was a mining town that produced between 200,000 and 400,000 tonnes of iron ore per year. Today, it is a reminder of a forgotten part of Hong Kong’s industrial history.

“We get a lot of visitors from other parts of Hong Kong, and even some from overseas,” says a volunteer docent at the Lutheran Yan Kwong Church, which doubles as a mining heritage centre. “People always associate Hong Kong with fishing villages, so they’re surprised to find this kind of mining village up in the mountains.”

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A Catholic Church that served miners and their families in Ma On Shan is now abandoned – Photo by Christopher DeWolf

The church is a humble whitewashed structure that overlooks the village, facing off against St. Joseph’s, a now-abandoned Catholic church on an opposite hilltop. If you make the journey here, you’ll find exhibits on the area’s mining history, as well as a camp for schoolchildren and a café serving single origin coffee. On a recent Saturday afternoon, the church pews were filled with schoolchildren listening to stories about life in the mines.

The Ma On Shan mine was opened in 1906 by the Hong Kong Iron Mining Company, which ran it as an opencast site until 1949, when it was purchased by the Mutual Trade and Mining Company, which extended operations underground. At the time, there was a huge demand for iron ore, thanks to the destruction caused by World War II; iron ore is a major component of steel. Most of what emerged from the Man On Shan mine made its way to Japan.

As production surged, the village’s population swelled to 10,000 people, many of them former Nationalist soldiers who fled from mainland China after the Communists won the civil war in 1949. The Lutheran church and a church-run school were built in the early 1950s to serve the miners and their families. Every day, miners trudged underground, excavated up iron ore and hauled it up to a ropeway that carried it down to the pier at Wu Kai Sha, where it was transferred onto boats.

The only way to reach the village was by walking an hour uphill from Wu Kai Sha. There was no electricity and no fresh water aside from that which flowed through the village stream. “Life expectancy in this village was very low,” a lifelong villager told journalist Gang Yang in 2013.

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An Urban Council map of Hong Kong’s mining activities, 1991 – Image courtesy Hong Kong Industrial History Group

Living conditions have improved since then, but only as the village fell into the decline. When Ma On Shan’s reserve of iron ore began to dwindle in the 1970s, coinciding with softening global demand for steel, the mine shut down, its tunnels sealed up and abandoned. HK Urbex ventured into the abandoned mine a few years ago, making their way around abandoned mining equipment in the eerie caverns. “It’s dark, very dark,” says explorer Echo Delta.

If all of this sounds exceptional, it shouldn’t: the Ma On Shan mine was one of many in Hong Kong. There were at least a few dozen commercial mining operations in Hong Kong, according to a 1991 government map of the city’s mines and mining prospects. Zinc, copper, graphite and magnetite were just some of the minerals extracted, from Pak Lap in far eastern Sai Kung, to Yi O on the western shore of Lantau.

Some of these mines have vanished completely. Before it was transformed by the construction of the Hong Kong International Airport, Chek Lap Kok was a small, hilly island off the coast of Lantau that was home to a graphite mine that was in operation for more than a century. Needle Hill, on the east side of the Shing Mun Reservoir, was once home to a tungsten mine. A 1961 report in the journal Economic Geology described barren hillsides “well scared by disused open-cast workings and dumps of rock debris.” Today, it’s hard to spot the old mine under the lush blanket of greenery.

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An old entrance to the Ma On Shan iron ore mine has been preserved in the village – Photo by Christopher DeWolf

Other mines are enshrined in Hong Kong’s toponymy. Mui Wo sits on the shores of Silvermine Bay, where River Silver flows into the sea. The silver mine in question was inaugurated with dynamite in the spring of 1886 by an entrepreneur named Ho A Mei. Silver was first discovered in the area around 1619, as reflected in the name of Pak Ngan Heung — “White Silver Village” (baak6 ngan4 heong1 白銀鄉) — which has a Man Mo Temple that was built in the late Ming Dynasty (1573-1620). “Legend has it that the [temple] was built to resolve an issue regarding the silver mine,” reports historian Tymon Mellor.

Ho worked in the gold mines of Australia in the 1850s, a time when thousands of men from Guangdong province were heading overseas to hunt for gold in Victoria, California and British Columbia. Many of them met with failure, trapped by economic bondage in ghettoised Chinatowns, but Ho found success. He returned to China and used his expertise to reopen an abandoned mine in Huizhou. After it began to make a profit, he was drawn to Lantau, just across the water from the thriving British colony of Hong Kong.

Until Ho came along, nobody on Lantau had been able to extract silver from the ore in which it was contained. The mine opened with great fanfare in front of an audience of “about thirty European residents of Hongkong and large number of Chinese,” according to a March 28, 1886 report in The China Mail. After an explosion revealed the mineral vein, guests took home pieces of ore as souvenirs and returned back to the beachfront “for toasts and tiffin,” according to Mellor.

The mine operated for ten years, producing about 60 tons of silver. But it was hindered by illness among the workers and bureaucratic hassles from government officials in Guangzhou who were keen to extract a 10 percent royalty from the operations. Ho never managed to make a profit off the mine, and after Lantau and the rest of the New Territories were leased to the British in 1898, a report by the Director of Public Works speculated that “Chinese official interference and bad management” were to blame. Ho died five years after the mine closed.

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The Ma On Shan Mine in 1972 – Photo courtesy Information Services Department

Many accounts in the early 20th century suggested that there is still plenty of silver lurking underneath the surface of Lantau. Nobody was able to gather the resources they needed to reopen Ho’s mines. If you walk inland from the shore of Silvermine Bay, you might come across the last sign of their existence: a tunnel into the earth, sealed by concrete and an iron fence.

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