Inside Kowloon’s Last Walled Village – and the Lucky Tin Hau Temple That Will Escape Demolition

Gone barber - 2010 - Photograph of Christopher Dewolf

For centuries, people have flocked to Nga Tsin Wai to celebrate Tin Hau, the goddess of the sea. This year will be different. Barbed wire fences now surround the village, which is located along the Kai Tak River in Wong Tai Sin District, surrounded by a working-class neighbourhood of public housing estates and derelict factories. The sound of jackhammers pierces the air beyond the fence. The last walled village in Kowloon is being demolished.

Nga Tsin Wai entrance in 2010 - Photograph of Christopher Dewolf

Nga Tsin Wai’s entrance in 2010. Photograph by Christopher DeWolf

There are plenty of walled villages in the New Territories, distinctive settlements surrounded by high granite walls built for protection from pirates and bandits. But Nga Tsin Wai is the only such village that remains in the urban areas of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. Its redevelopment was announced in 1998 by the Land Development Corporation, which was replaced in 2001 by the controversial Urban Renewal Authority, a quasi-governmental body that buys up old buildings and sells them as a package to big property developers. Some of the URA’s other projects include the redevelopment of the Graham Street market in Central and the demolition of Lee Tung Street — better known as Wedding Card Street — in Wan Chai.

Eviction Notice - Photograph of Alexander Synaptic

Eviction Notice. Photograph by Alexander Synaptic

Nga Tsin Wai has dragged on for nearly two decades because its residents have fought ferociously against redevelopment. Every time the URA managed to buy one of their houses, it wasted no time in demolishing it, giving the village a pockmarked, ragged appearance. That was the situation in 2010, when I made my way through Nga Tsin Wai’s arched gateway. Many of the pitched-roof houses were abandoned, while others had been demolished, leaving behind empty lots that had been invaded by banyan trees and weeds.

Like other walled villages, Nga Tsin Wai’s narrow lanes were arranged in a tight grid pattern, with a gatehouse at one end and a temple at the other. Unlike other villages, however, Nga Tsin Wai’s fortifications had mostly disappeared, replaced by a solid row of shacks and shophouses that faced outwards to the surrounding neighbourhood. Villagers ran variety stores and hardware shops; one side of the village’s periphery was occupied by outdoor barbers who snipped and trimmed under the shelter of vinyl awnings.

Inside, all was quiet, except for the temple, where smoke billowed out from an incense tray. An elderly woman stood nearby. She introduced herself as Wong Por Por – Grandma Wong. “Before you do anything else, pay your respects to Tin Hau,” she instructed. “She looks after me even though I don’t offer her money or incense. If your heart is there, she’ll take care of you.” We faced the altar and bowed three times to offer our respect.

Nga Tsin Wai’s history dates back nearly 700 years. Its name means “the walled village in front of the yamen,” referring to the Chinese military outpost located nearby, in what later became the Kowloon Walled City. The village temple was first built around 1352, and like many temples in Hong Kong, it was dedicated to Tin Hau, in order to protect residents when they left home to fish.

The village’s bond with Tin Hau is strong. In the 1930s, refugees from the Japanese invasion of China began squatting on the farmland around Nga Tsin Wai and nearby Po Kong Village, which made villagers angry because their crops were ruined and the squatters refused to pay rent. Villagers in Po Kong blamed Tin Hau for their misfortune and set the goddess figure ablaze. This act of sacrilege shocked Nga Tsin Wai, especially since the founders of Po Kong were descendants of Tin Hau herself. Soon after Po Kong disavowed Tin Hau, the village was destroyed by the Japanese army, which invaded Hong Kong in 1941.

Nga Tsin Wai retains its faith. Wong explained that, on the 23rd day of the third lunar month – that’s April 29, 2016 – hundreds of former villagers and their families return to Nga Tsin Wai to pay homage to Tin Hau.

Alms board_2016

A long list of donors who honour Tin Hau – 2016 – Photogrpah by Christopher Dewolf

I returned to Nga Tsin Wai last week. Though the village has been fenced off, large banners announcing the Tin Hau festival have been hoisted near the alms board, which records the names of those who have donated money to the temple. Two men sat beneath one of the banners – one older and wiry, dressed in a red jersey, the other younger, muscular and tattooed, wearing a grey t-shirt and burgundy shorts. They both introduced themselves as Mr. Ng. “Almost everybody in the village is named Ng,” explained the younger man. 

The last of Nga Tsin Wai’s residents were forced out in January, but the Ngs explained that anywhere from 200 to 300 people will return for the festival. “Maybe a bit less this year,” said Young Mr. Ng, gesturing to the fence. A security guard watched us from the other side. I asked how they will reach the temple now that it is surrounded by barbed wire. “They’ll let us in through the back,” said Old Mr. Ng.

Village entrance in 2016 - Photograph of Christopher Dewolf

Village entrance in 2016. Photograph by Christopher DeWolf

The current redevelopment plan calls for the village to be replaced by two high-rise apartment towers. The temple and a handful of historic stone houses will be preserved in a so-called “Conservation Park” that will be open to the public. The URA says that, because many of the original village houses had been demolished and rebuilt over the years, there is no need to preserve the village in its entirety.

Architect Wallace Chang thinks that approach is misguided. “It’s not the individual buildings that are important, it’s the village itself, the site, its relationship with the surrounding river and context,” he says. Chang grew up next to the village in Tung Tau Estate and he remembers visiting it when he was a child. “When I was a kid we were always running around the area and it was part of the adventure – going into the village.”

Several years ago, Chang was invited to consult the Wong Tai Sin District Council on the village’s redevelopment. For years, he had focused on converting the once-polluted Kai Tak River from a concrete nullah into a green corridor for the public. “The river and the village are interrelated,” he says. “It’s just like a necklace – one of the jewels is the village.”

Strictly speaking, the river isn’t actually a river – it’s a nullah, a kind of drainage channel built to collect floodwater after the sea near Nga Tsin Wai was filled in to build the former Kai Tak Airport. In the years after World War II, the nullah became badly polluted by sewage and factory runoff; Chang remembers it was foul-smelling and nearly black. Decades later, pollution controls improved the water quality to the point that fish and birds had returned. But the government planned to cap the channel with concrete, similar to what has been done to many of Hong Kong’s other nullahs. Chang and a group of community organisations lobbied to save the waterway.

Gone barber - 2010 - Photograph of Christopher Dewolf

Village barber in 2010. Photograph by Christopher DeWolf

Their campaign was successful. Not only has the nullah been officially rebranded as the Kai Tak River, work is underway to install naturalistic landscaping, greenery and pedestrian promenades along its banks. Chang thinks it isn’t too late to push for a more complete conservation strategy for Nga Tsin Wai, one that would maintain the integrity of its built form, similar to the way a number of New Territories walled villages have been preserved. “Now that the river is recognised as something beneficial to the environment, we have a stronger base to say the village is a necessary part of that environment,” he says.

There may not be enough ammunition to fight that battle. Chang notes that the developer contracted by the URA to carry out redevelopment work is Cheung Kong, which is owned by Li Ka-shing. “Hong Kong’s richest man,” says Chang. “We’re fighting a superpower.” After centuries of warding off attacks by outsiders, Nga Tsin Wai has finally fallen victim to the greatest weapon of all: money.

Back at the village, I asked the Ngs what they thought about the redevelopment plans. Older Mr. Ng gave a bitter chuckle. Young Mr. Ng scowled. “The government and the URA are scum. They have no morals,” he said. “They betrayed us and killed our home. But we will always come back. This is our history.”

Nga Tsin Wai Village is located on Tung Kwong Road near Tung Tau Estate, Wong Tai Sin.

This year, Tin Hau is celebrated on April 19, 2017

Note: This article was updated with historical details about Nga Tsin Wai. To read more about the village’s history, read Beside the Yamen, a monograph by P.H. Hase published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. Thanks to Daisann McLane for the tip.

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