Tang Clan: Hong Kong’s Oldest Family Looks to the Future

Crossing the tracks between rattling light rail trains, the towers of Tin Shui Wai recede and an ancient pagoda rises into view. A sentinel at the entrance of Ping Shan, the 600-year-old Pagoda of Gathering Stars (zeoi6 sing1 lau4 聚星樓) guards the land against harsh northwesterly winds and malign spirits. Nearby two feng shui ponds have been dug to shield the area, which is shaped like a crab, from being “cooked” by the flame shaped mountain range that surrounds it. 

Ensconced within Ping Shan’s borders are the three walled settlements and six villages, known in Cantonese as saam1 wai4 luk6 cyun1 (三圍六村). These belong to the Tang clan, which has called these lands home since the 12th century. Amongst these bucolic surroundings, the Tang occupied themselves with scholarly pursuits within their opulent halls, reflecting glory on the clan through achievements in imperial examinations, degrees and titles. They also tended their land, hunting deer on horseback and wild birds in the wetlands while tigers stalked the hills. Safe inside their fortifications, they repelled inland pirate raids with cannons and rifles throughout the Ming and Qing Dynasties. 

In 1898, the Qing Dynasty government granted a 99-year-lease of the New Territories to the British Empire, sparking a conflict with the Tang, who refused to recognise the takeover. Though the clan lost the so-called Six-Day War, the Tangs remain in the area while the British have gone. The colonial Ping Shan Police Station was once called the “rock that pinned the crab,” but it has now been converted into a museum that celebrates the clan’s ultimate triumph: the preservation of their land rights and traditions that continue to this day.

Between the villages of Hang Tau Tsuen and Hang Mei Tsuen, excitement is brewing at the Tang Ancestral Hall. “24th generation! Come forward!” an officiant calls into his microphone. Sweltering in the summer heat, his ceremonial robes are soaked through in a mixture of sweat and rain. A group of elderly men approaches, and as they are helped to their knees, attendants fetch bowls of rice and meat from a table laden with roast pig, fish, chicken, sweets and cake. The supplicants spill glasses of rice wine onto the ground as they bow, honouring their ancestors. 

Wooden tablets tower over them on an altar. Each tablet represents one generation in a family and bears the gilded name of the eldest son on its front with the names of younger brothers carved on the reverse. These are representations of the ancestors themselves and the ancestral hall is the centre of a clan that traces its roots back to Jiangxi in the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127). It was a fourth-generation ancestor, Tang Fu-hip, who first came to what is now Hong Kong when he settled in Kam Tin at the beginning of the  Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279). Fu-hip’s great grandson of the seventh generation, Yuen-ching, moved west where he established the Ping Shan branch of the clan. 

Present today are the 24th through to the 31st generations of the Tang clan, which would be an incredible feat of longevity from a Western perspective, but which is possible because of a historically polygamous marriage system which makes some individuals as much as 40 years older than their younger half siblings. Because of the sheer length of the lineage, land holdings and business dealings, the Tangs are arguably the longest established and most influential clan in Hong Kong.

As an institution, the Tang Ancestral Hall runs all family business and controls the pursestrings, managing the vast swathes of clan-owned land. The structure is an enduring personification of its founding ancestors. Their lines may have branched off from the main family tree but these descendants remain bound as one through ancestor worship. Today, over 130 members of the Tang clan have descended on Yuen Long for an extraordinary ceremony which marks the first update of the clan’s genealogical record book (zuk6 pou2 族譜) since the 1960s.

This ceremony is the culmination of a three-year effort by Tang Kwong-yin, of the clan’s 26th generation. Through extensive genealogical research, Kwong-yin has documented the ancestry of over a thousand fellow clansmen across the world. “My first task was to copy out the entries from the old book, and then I visited all the villages in Ping Shan seeking out relatives who could provide information,” he explains. “Most importantly, I had to record the names of every relative’s father and their son to clearly determine where they fit in the family tree. I also need to record their grandfather (zou2 fu6 祖父) and great grandfather (taai3 gung1 太公).”

Seated in his ancestral village house, Kwong-yin is surrounded by calligraphy brushes, ink and paper, but his means of updating the record book are not so antiquated. “I type the details into a computer database using a software specifically for recording family ancestry,” he explains. The task has been arduous, with distant relatives who are difficult to locate and some who were suspicious of a stranger seeking personal information. The process was further hamstrung with Covid preventing the clan from convening in their hall. “Not many village elders are able to use Zoom,” Kwong-yin chuckles. “And besides, many of our records are actually stored in the hall. We’re not that modern.”

Traditionally, only males are recorded. Female descendants are left off the record since they do not carry the family line and marry into other families. Where women have been recorded they are the wives of clansmen and often only their surname is given. But times are changing. “I encourage my brother-clansmen to give their wives’ full names,” says Kwong-yin. “I think it’s important that they should be commemorated.” His cousin, fashion designer William Tang, agrees. “That’s right, times have changed,” he says. “Since the 1930s our clan has been quite avant garde in educating the women in our family and in recording wives. I hope that after my cousin’s work, perhaps in the next 50 years, that they will put all the women descendant’s names in the book.”

William, whose early collections paid loving homage to the ornate frescoes of his Ming- and Qing-era home, is an ardent clan supporter, though he has always stood apart. “I’m a conformist because I support and promote,” the designer says. “But in another way I have been very rebellious since my teenage years. I was the first [in the clan] to announce their same-sex marriage in Hong Kong [because] I want people to know that I have a partner because it felt right at that moment to let them know.” 

In the midst of a ceremony that revolves around the preservation of a family line, this might seem poignant, but William disagrees. “I don’t want to produce another heir, but there are so many ways to have children, to have descendants. I am not a father figure but my nephews all love me and I am a very good friend to them. It is not an issue.” As to the attitudes of senior clan members, it seems they are at peace. “They know who you are but as long as you keep quiet, they think it’s okay,” says William with a smile.

Back in the Ancestral Hall, a group of Tang women gingerly approaches the altar – an action which would have once been considered taboo. Sensing their apprehension, the officiant speaks. “That’s right! Come forward!” he says. “It is a new age! A better world! Come forward and pay your respects!” Witnessing this is the youngest cohort, the 31st generation. With them lies the destiny of the clan. One day the responsibility to guide the Tang into the future will fall to them.

As the children are led away, the officiant lights paper offerings and incense then addresses the ancestors. “Today we have carried out our duties according to your will,” he says. “We have updated the ancestral book and your descendants have all come to witness this and to honour you. This task has now been completed and we will carry on the good will and duties of the family.”

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