Lo Ting: The Legend of Hong Kong’s Rebellious Human-Fish Hybrid

His most well known representation sees him as a tall, gangly figure, aloof and unconcerned as he walks nonchalantly, balancing his arms. He has large eyes, the head and the torso of a fish, and long human limbs that end in rounded palmate forms, neither hands nor feet. This is Lo Ting (lou4 ting4 盧亭), Hong Kong’s own mythological creature. According to some legends, he is nothing less than the ancestor of Hong Kong people.

According to the myths that describe him, Lo Ting is a being half human and half fish, who lives in tribes of Lo Tings on the island of Lantau—in particular around Tai O—and spends time both ashore and swimming in the sea. The first known mention of a Lo Ting goes all the way back to the Tang Dynasty (618–907),  in the text Records of the Unusualness in Lingnan (Lingbiao YiLU, 嶺表異錄), the name Lingnan referring to the land and culture of today’s Guangdong, Guangxi and Hainan provinces. It was written by Liu Xun, a Tang official who was posted to the southern regions at the end of the ninth century. He compiled this volume to describe the area. This is the only nugget of information he offers: “Lo Ting, who fled to the islands and lives wildly there, eats mussels and uses shells to build walls.”

This is one of the few descriptions of Lo Tings that appear before the Qing Dynasty (1636–1911), according to Chris Chan, anthropology researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. Most were found in local gazettes, which were detailed compendiums of everything of note that was happening, or was located, in a particular geographical region. They would generally include the important people living there, but also local customs, buildings, food items, flora and fauna, and of course also anything supernatural of note. Around the 15th and 16th centuries, in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), these local gazetteers started to list Lo Tings as representatives of an amphibious species. “But it was all done in a very passing way,” says Chan.

They were described in more detail in the Qing Dynasty, thanks to the work of Qu Dajun, a Guangzhou poet and scholar born in 1630 and who became part of that group of literati torn apart by the dynastic change. Loyal to the Ming, for a certain time he even joined an armed rebellion against the Qing, which was soon quashed, and became an itinerant scholar, travelling around the Jiangnan area south of the Yangtze River, while also researching his native Guangdong. In his book New Discourse on Guangdong, he describes Lo Ting in the category of Things with Scales. The combination of scientific and historical observation mixed with more supernatural descriptions of mythical beings and esoteric beliefs was a standard feature of this type of book, in which fantastical facts and creatures would enliven more common locales.

The Pink of Sea by Ant Ngai Wing-lam – WWF collection

What is more interesting about Lo Ting in Qu’s book is that here, for the first time, we get a few more details on his origins. The Lo Tings had tried to fight the Eastern Jin Dynasty (310–420) but were unsuccessful, and had to flee far from the capital, which at the time was in Nanjing. They landed in Lantau. Lo Tings have large eyes and a long tail. But in order to put themselves safely out of the grasp of the imperial authorities, the Lo Tings started a life of in-betweenness, partially on land and partially at sea.

According to other historical sources and gazetteers, the flight is the transformation into myth and legend of a real event – and Lo Ting is a half human-half animal symbol of General Lu Xun. A popular character in martial arts novels and films, Lu Xun was an official from Guangdong who in 411 launched an attack against Jin imperial forces with a 100,000 strong army. Initially, his rebellion was successful, and he managed to reach as far north as the Yangtze. But there he suffered a defeat and had to make a hasty retreat south, with his troops dispersing along the Chinese coast and all the way into Vietnam. Having tried to subvert the state, he put himself in a barbarian, monstrous condition, and became an outcast – and eventually, a Lo Ting.

“Lo Ting was described as a rebel, as someone who had led a rebellion against the state but had failed,” says Chan. “In this sense, his progress from human into partially non-human made sense, as he was politically and morally outside of the state, of the norm and of the centre.”

Throughout the centuries, the Lo Tings have lived a rather secluded life at the margins of the bureaucratic and political order, seemingly content with their status. But this seclusion was interrupted in the years before 1997, as the impending transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong from Great Britain to China led many people to reflect on Hong Kong’s identity. Among them was the artist, art critic, curator and academic Oscar Ho. He organised an exhibition, Museum 97: History. Community. Individual, straddling the date of the handover on July 1, 1997 and which featured some Lo Tings. They became even more prominent one year later, when Ho organised a show called Hong Kong Reincarnated: New Lo Ting Archaeological Find. 

Exhibition catalogue – Hong Kong Reincarnated

The first show had been an attempt at filling in the very large gaps that many Hongkongers found in the official ceremonies and narratives linked to the handover, and it tried to counter the fact that “Hong Kong people have never been the key speakers in this important affair”, as Ho wrote in the exhibition catalogue. Ho asked a group of local artists to contribute works and materials that would better express the local histories that were missing from the official pomp and discourse. Among them was a statue of Lo Ting made by Jimmy Keung Chi Ming, an artist who worked as a set designer in the film industry. It has since become one of the most recognisable and iconic representations of Lo Ting.

The second exhibition took the Lo Ting metaphor even further, and went straight into the allegorical power of the legend, sparking a revival of the myth that is still growing today. The exhibition was organised as a fabricated archaeological dig, in which a number of artists and researchers produced objects that were then presented as archaeological finds that established the proof of the Lo Tings’ existence. The interplay between fact and fiction was so well constructed that, looking through the old catalogue and the pictures of those first shows, it can be at times a little difficult to disentangle what is what.

The Pink of Sea by Ant Ngai Wing-lam – WWF collection

Ho says he came across the story of Lo Ting as he was researching Hong Kong histories in the 1990s. “All I found were mostly fragments, but I was totally fascinated,” he recalls. This research formed the base of Hong Kong Reincarnated’s blend of fact and fiction. In the catalogue for the exhibition, Ho wrote of a massacre in 1197 on Lantau island, in which Song Dynasty soldiers, in an attempt to take over the local salt industry, killed nearly all the Lo Ting and most of the Tanka boat people living there. While there are no records of Lo Tings having been decimated at that time, the massacre really did happen, and was the means through which the local salt industry went from being controlled by indigenous local people into the hands of Song Dynasty (960–1279) officials, who established a monopoly and prohibited anyone unlicensed from producing salt.

The mention of Tanka people is not fortuitous.  It establishes a possible link between the specific location of Lantau, Tai O, and the Lo Ting myth: today they are addressed as 水上人 (seoi2soeng6jan4) or “people on the water”. It is a disappearing community that lives on water, using their fishing boats as dwellings and seldom sets foot ashore. Through the centuries, they encountered restrictive immigration policies and were at times denied permission to disembark or faced discrimination from settled farmers. They had no other choice but to settle on the water.  A floating fishing community that, according to the legend, could also be the direct descendant of Lo Ting.

Today, there are just a few representations of Lo Ting around town –  and none are permanent. Until August 1, an exhibition at Tai Kwun called Portals, Stories, and Other Journeys, curated by Michelle Wong, is dedicated to the archive of the late Hong Kong artist Ha Bik Chuen and how it has inspired other artists. Visitors will encounter a full scale replica of Jimmy Keung’s Lo Ting, engaged in a compelling shadow play against a screen on which is projected a moving image of Lantau Peak. The original statue by Keung is also temporarily on view at the Maritime Museum until August 12, as part of an exhibition, Maritime Crossroads, on Hong Kong’s history as a port of trade. Lo Ting is used as a prop for describing the close relationship between Hong Kong and the sea.

While Lo Ting may not often be visible in everyday Hong Kong life, the legend continues to inspire local artists. Lam Tung-pang’s 2019 work “Image Coated” shows a pensive Lo Ting looking out across Victoria Harbour. Last year, Kacey Wong produced a short film called Quarantine in which an outcast human goes off to live alone on an island, where he meets and merges with a silver fish, resulting in a creature that bears no small resemblance to Lo Ting. The props from the film were part of a show by Nicole Schoeni held in 2020. Another artist, Clara Cheung, offered the first female representation of Lo Ting in her 2017 work “Lo Ting Toy Story – Salute to My Grandmother Who Was a Fishmonger,” which was made by adding Barbie-style legs and arms to a fish head and body. Cheung has been researching the Lo Ting myth both as an artist and as an art critic, connecting her own interpretations and those of other artists to the current search for a Hong Kong cultural identity.

In theatre, too, Lo Ting has become a useful device to tell a story of in-betweenness, and of the attempts of those who are not part of the elite to have a voice. The Theatre Horizon group has been working with the Lo Ting legend over a series of three productions. The first was simply called The Lu-Tings (using an alternative spelling of the two Chinese characters), which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2014. It was the story of a tribe that was trying to survive an expanding dominant culture, only to end up being violently suppressed. In 2015’s Century Old Dreams of a Fishing Harbour recounts the history of Hong Kong through the Lo Tings’ point of view. That was followed in 2019 by Lu-ting: Goodbye History, Hello Future, which examined Hong Kong’s fate after large protests.  

The number of artists that are picking up the Lo Ting’s myth, and adapting it to their own vision of Hong Kong at this precise juncture seems to be increasing – like the pastel-coloured, dreamy fish-headed creatures of Ant Ngai Wing-lam, who navigate the city with a certain cautious surprise, shy and silent. As the theme of Hong Kong’s identity and of its relationship with the larger world keeps being revisited by local artists, the metaphors to which the myth of Lo Ting lends itself so perfectly are approached more frequently.

“Lo Ting is part of the local history of Lantau Island,” says Oscar Ho. “How people interpret history is up to them. Some might see it as political, some might see it as local heritage with a potential for cultural tourism. Some might see it as a symbol of Hong Kong or as a funny myth. Some simply as BS. The ambiguity is what I am looking for.”

Photos and videos courtesy of Ant Ngai Wing-lam, Asia Art Archives (AAA), Clara Cheung, Ilaria Maria Sala, Kacey Wong, Majo Design and Para Site Hong Kong.

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