Island Stories, Part III: Hong Kong’s Outcast Islands

There is a time-honoured way for dealing with malcontents, contagions and criminals: bundle them up and leave them on an island.

Shogunate Japan created Dejima to contain Dutch influence; Qing China confined foreigners to Shameen in Canton and Kulangsu in Amoy; the British Empire exiled its most dangerous foe to Elba and then the more remote St. Helena; Venice used Poveglia as a quarantine station and asylum, like New York would later do with North Brother Island, while San Francisco penned up the city’s most dangerous crooks on Alcatraz – “the Rock.”

With 263 islands — and, in the past, many more — Hong Kong has been spoilt for choice when it comes to islands on which to offload the city’s problems. At various points, Hei Ling Chau, Sunshine Island, Green Island, the Soko Islands and parts of Lantau have all served as holding stations for criminals, refugees, drug addicts, lepers, people with contagious diseases and the mentally ill.

Hei Ling Chau was home to a leper colony for over two decades after the 1950s. It was during this time that it was euphemistically renamed from Ni Ku Chau (“Nun Island”) to its current name, literally “Joyful Soul Island.” The island’s roughly 100 inhabitants were relocated south to Cheung Chau or east to Shap Long Village on Lantau, replaced by up to 540 lepers.

Leprosy is an ancient scourge that has troubled humankind for thousands of years. But by the time Hei Ling Chau was designated a “lazar house” — so named for the biblical beggar resurrected by Christ — cures had already been developed and were rapidly being improved. Hei Ling Chau was less about containing the disease than it was about protecting sufferers from social stigma and relieving the public’s fears amidst an influx of refugees from China. As in leper colonies worldwide, even when curative treatments were available, many chose to stay on the island here they were accepted rather than face the often cruel outside world.

When the leprosarium was closed in 1974, correctional services took over the island and in the 1980s turned it into a closed resettlement camp for Vietnamese “boat people” escaping instability, persecution and poverty in their home country. At its peak, Hei Ling Chau housed 2,411 refugees, some of whom lived there for the better half of a decade. Although conditions were less restrictive on the outlying islands than in the infamous camps at Whitehead and Chi Ma Wan, the irony implicit in the island’s name only deepened.


Hei Ling Chau isalnd – Source KowBay_Flickr

Today, Hei Ling Chau is still home to a drug addiction treatment centre that provides court-mandated treatment programmes for convicted drug-users as an alternative to prison. In 2004, the government proposed a HK$12 billion superjail on Hei Ling Chau, but the plan ran aground when it came up against overwhelming public opposition.

Chau Kung To, Hei Ling Chau’s nearest neighbour, was also an island of refugees, a time when it was rechristened Sunshine Island. But the sanguine monicker suited Sunshine better: it was devised as rural community where displaced farmers from the mainland could continue their bucolic lifestyles and gradually ease into their new lives in Hong Kong

Gus Borgeest, the founder of this model farming community, was himself a refugee. Born in Ningbo, he was inspired to become a Quaker during his experience in a Japanese wartime internment camp. In 1951 he fled Shanghai and arrived in Hong Kong with just HK$2 in his pocket. As he got to know people living in squalid squatter camps, he learned that many were once proud farmers, and determined to help them regain their dignity through self-help rather than waiting for government handouts. With the colony’s most fertile land occupied or beyond his means, Borgeest rented tiny, rockstrewn Chau Kung To for a mere HK$180 a year. After studying and saving for two years, he invited the refugee families to settle the island.

As word of “Sunshine Island” spread, it won the support of charities, private donors and religious groups all around the world. Local students and RAF volunteers came to help build reservoirs and irrigation channels, experts from the Agricultural and Forestry Departments advised them on farming, pig-raising and greening. Ten years after he washed up on Hong Kong’s shores, Borgeest won “Asia’s Nobel Prize,” the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award, for establishing what the committee called “a model for resettlement and rehabilitation of refugees that enhances their self-respect and productive capabilities.”

“Today, there is a steady turnover of refugees who are taught the skills of resourceful self-support and graduated with small savings to pioneer on Government-assigned plots on other marginal land in the Colony,” the award citation read. “Sunshine Island is heartening evidence that one man can instill among his fellows the will to conquer adversity.”


View from on the Soko Islands from the summit of Lantau Peak

Further south, the far-flung Soko Islands offered only the faintest glimmer of hope to the Vietnamese refugees living in limbo there. Tai A Chau, the largest of the chain’s 11 islands, was also the site of a closed camp erected in 1990. It was once home to a Hakka farming community of up to 200 souls, plus a few dozen fisherfolk living afloat in the bay, until a developer bought the village land in the 1980s for a resort that never materialised, and the islanders, like those from Hei Ling Chau, took their windfall with them to Cheung Chau.

The Tai A Chau camp was meant to be something better than the others. It was purpose-built and, by virtue of its isolation, less harsh: inmates had free reign of the island, which, four and a half kilometres from Lantau, presented no realistic opportunities of escape. That didn’t stop everyone at the camp, some of whom attempted to cross to Lantau on jury-rigged rafts and were either tracked down or lost at sea before they could make landfall.

In the runup to the 1997 handover, the camp was demolished to ease Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty along, and has remained barren and uninhabited since. If members of the Mui Wo Village Committee get their way, however, it will become home to yet another displaced populace: the area’s feral cattle, which landowning grandees view as an impediment to further development and profit-making in the pristine South Lantau countryside.


Shek Kwu Chau island  is home to a drug rehabilitations  centre and soon to the world’s largest incinerator.

Like the “lazaretto” for beggars on Round Island proposed by Hong Kong’s police chief at the turn of the century, or the megaport on reclaimed land around the Po Toi islands to free up more land for flats in Kowloon, this scheme seems unlikely to go ahead. But another just might: power company CLP has applied to build an offshore liquid natural gas (LNG) terminal on Tai A Chau that many fear will disrupt the migration routes of green turtles, whale sharks and seabirds, and displace resident finless porpoise populations that have already been placed under enormous pressure. So far this year, two dozen finless porpoises have already washed up dead on Hong Kong’s shores, 15 of which are believed to have been killed by marine traffic.

A low-level radioactive waste facility began operating in 2005 at Siu A Chau, Tai A Chau’s smaller neighbour, to store material which had previously been hidden away in disused air-raid tunnels. Meanwhile, on Shek Kwu Chau, the next-nearest island to the Sokos and also home to a drug rehabilitations centre since the 1960s, dredging and reclamation are underway to build an incinerator that will be one of the world’s largest and most expensive. Green groups say that facility is poor and polluting solution to the city’s waste problem, at a time when reuse, recycling and waste reduction should be the top priorities.  

These are all reiterations of the same age-old paradigm that has drawn powers to see islands as a solution to their dilemmas – out of sight, out of mind. But by rediscovering and exploring these distant isles, we might do one better than just protecting them from further harm. We may even compel Hong Kong’s urbanites, developers and bureaucrats to seek long-term, holistic solutions to our city’s problems rather than simply ferry them off to some forgotten island beyond the view from the office towers lining Victoria Harbour.  

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