How a Catholic Village in Hong Kong Was Saved From Extinction – and Won a UNESCO Award in the Process

The sampan’s diesel engine putters as we make our way to Yim Tin Tsai, one of Hong Kong’s most unusual villages. A portrait of Jesus hangs from the aft of the boat, a place you might normally expect to find an image of Tin Hau, the goddess of the sea. Colin Chan, the village chief, notices me staring. “This is a Catholic village,” he reminds me.

Its religion isn’t the only thing remarkable about Yim Tin Tsai. Located on a small island off the coast of Sai Kung, about 25 kilometres northeast of Central, the village was first established about 300 years ago by Hakka migrants, who made a living by producing salt. It thrived until the 1940s, when it was home to as many as 1,200 people. By the time Chan was elected leader in 1999, though, Yim Tin Tsai was on the verge of extinction, its homes ruined and overgrown by vegetation. The Catholic diocese was eager to shutter the village church for good.

Chan put a stop to that. Over the past two decades, he has rallied the village diaspora to fix up the church, a number of houses and the historic salt pans. His efforts earned a UNESCO Asia-Pacific Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2005, but there is still plenty of work to be done. “I always knew it would be a difficult job,” he says.

It’s a misty spring day and low clouds are swirling around the Sai Kung hills as we approach the village pier, which was rebuilt and extended after Chan lobbied the government. The scene ahead is remarkably picturesque: there’s a small sandy beach, beyond which rises a cluster of small, pitched-roof houses on a gentle knoll. In a typical Hong Kong village, you would normally be greeted by a temple or shrine, but here, it’s the buttressed walls of St. Joseph’s Chapel that overlook the pier.

We disembark the sampan and walk towards the pier house, a two-storey white structure that has been converted into a shop for weekend visitors. Water laps gently against the shore. The air smells fresh and mossy. We are joined along the path by a pair of large, friendly dogs, their ample bellies suggesting the generosity of the 800 visitors who come to the village each month – not to mention Chan and his contractors, who make the trip over from Sai Kung nearly every day to continue their renovations.

As we pass a row of stone houses in varying states of decay, Chan gestures to one that has been restored. “That is my ancestors’ house,” he says. “It’s a hundred years old.” He lives in Sai Kung, but he and his family use the house as a retreat. Though we are barely three kilometres from Sai Kung’s busy town centre, it feels like we have travelled much further. There is no noise, only birdsong.

Chan traces his ancestry back to the village’s earliest inhabitants. He spent the first seven years of his life on Yim Tin Tsai, before his family moved to Sai Kung in 1970, when he was seven years old. He was sent to study in the UK when 13 and didn’t move back to Hong Kong until 1989.

“Everyone was related in the village – we all had the name Chan,” he explains. “It was really fun. You could run around and do whatever you wanted.” His elder brother taught him how to fish, and which of the village’s abundant wild fruits were delicious – and which ones were poisonous. “I was lucky because I’m the youngest one,” he says. “My elder sister and brother had a lot of household work, even farming. For me, it was a happy time, but for them, it was tough.”

Chan says about 90 percent of the villagers were Catholic, and most had a portrait of the Virgin Mary in their homes, in the place where most Hong Kong villagers would have an ancestral altar. Catholic missionaries arrived in Yim Tin Tsai in the late 19th century. As in other parts of China, they found particular success with Hakka people, who were marginalised by the dominant Cantonese-speaking population. Today, Hakkas are disproportionately more Christian than other Chinese ethnic groups, a fact that historian Koen de Ridder, in his book Authentic Chinese Christianity, attributes to their tight-knit communities and history of conflict with the Cantonese. 

St. Joseph’s Chapel was built in 1890 by Josef Freinademetz, a German-Italian missionary. There was no resident priest, but one visited regularly from Sai Kung to celebrate mass. A nun would often stay for several months to teach villagers how to say their prayers in Hakka. Without the permanent presence of clergy, the island’s faith was reinforced by the villagers themselves, who developed a distinctly local kind of Catholicism that incorporated a number of Chinese traditions, especially for weddings and funerals. According to village lore, Yim Tin Tsai had been plagued by pirate raids in the 19th century, but after its conversion to Christianity, the spirit of St. Joseph chased them away.

Villagers still return to Yim Tin Tsai every May to celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph. In 1990, after moving home from the UK, Chan attended the feast and was dismayed to find his hometown in ruins. Like Chan’s family a few decades earlier, most villagers had left for opportunities elsewhere. “All the houses were falling apart,” he says. “I thought about how to bring the village back.”

He started by rallying support from his fellow villagers. “I spent about six years doing communication between all of the villagers in Hong Kong, the UK and abroad,” he says. Village elections are held every four years, and around 500 village descendants are eligible to vote, regardless of where they live. Chan ran for office in 1999, winning against a chief who had been elected by acclamation for years. His first order of business was to convince the Catholic diocese not to abandon the chapel, which was falling apart after years of neglect. Instead, he raised money for renovations, and the church was restored in 2004. Inside, a stained glass rose window depicts Jesus with Josef Freinademetz, who was canonised by Pope John Paul II in 2003.

The next step was to restore the salt pans, which sit in a wetland just beyond the village. “They had been abandoned for at least 100 years,” says Chan. “I asked my father, my uncle, my grandfather – they had never seen them being used.” Salt making was crucial to Yim Tin Tsai’s livelihood for centuries, part of a thriving Chinese salt trade that formed an important part of the country’s economy. At some point in the 19th century, though, Yim Tin Tsai was surpassed by salt making on the mainland, and its salt pans were abandoned. Chan thought the pans would be a point of interest for school groups. For the moment, they are used to make souvenir batches of salt for visitors, but Chan hopes to start salt making workshops in the near future.

Trailed by the dogs, we make our way down a narrow concrete path to the salt pans. We turn around to look at the village, its houses strung neatly along the hill. Chan points out the eight houses he has restored one by one. He describes his mission in almost spiritual terms. “I dreamed the pier would be extended, and it was. I dreamed the church would stay open, and it did. My ancestors’ house, the salt pans – it all happened,” he says. “Now I hope I can renovate everything else. That’s my dream.”

Hourly kaito services are available from Sai Kung to Yim Tin Tsai every Saturday, Sunday and public holiday. Click here for more information.

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