On an uneven mountain road deep within the northeastern New Territories, a man in a broad-brim ranger’s cap hacks away at the loose brambles strangling the path that leads into his ancestral village.
It’s a tough job for just one man, but he has no choice. Mark Sung is the sole resident of Kuk Po, one of several abandoned or semi-empty villages lining the hillsides along the shores of Starling Inlet, slowly being submerged by the surrounding greenery. Known as the “ghost villages” of the New Territories, these largely deserted settlements were once home to a bustling Hakka community that was thought to have numbered in the hundreds at its peak in the 1940s and 1950s.
“People think I’m strange, living here by myself. But this is what I prefer,” says Sung. “You’re surrounded by trees and forest. You get fresh air. It’s a different world.”
The villagers are believed to have migrated to the area in the late 1600s, following the end of a temporary evacuation order from Guangdong’s coastal areas during the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). The evacuation zone, which included the whole of Hong Kong, was ordered by Qing Emperor Kangxi to deny Ming loyalist forces a base of support. After the order was lifted, a new wave of settlers returned to Hong Kong, cultivating acres of land and raising livestock, leading a self-sufficient lifestyle on the fringes of the Chinese empire.
For centuries, the Hakka thrived. Yet in the 1960s, the industrialisation of post-war Hong Kong and the arrival of mainland refugees sparked mass migration away from the countryside. Following a period of famine and starvation in mainland China as a result of disastrous agricultural policies under Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward campaign, multitudes of mainland Chinese citizens immigrated to Hong Kong.
From 1961 to 1981, as many as half a million refugees are estimated to have entered the city, with the majority settling in the New Territories. The influx of immigrants into the countryside created more competition amongst the region’s farmers, depriving many locals of their livelihoods. As the population of Hakka villagers also reached a peak in the 1960s, overcrowding put more pressure on natural resources. Unable to compete both in the agricultural and burgeoning manufacturing sectors, many took advantage of their right of abode as British subjects to relocate to the United Kingdom in search of a better life.
Now the villages are largely abandoned, save for a handful of elderly residents and the occasional city dwellers who return in the Lunar New Year to burn incense for their ancestors and clean their family houses. Since the villages lack a functioning local economy, most village home owners prefer to live and work in Hong Kong’s urban areas. As the villages are also surrounded by country parks, which are protected by the government, the area must abide by various land-use restrictions. Villagers argue that these restrictions prevent the area from becoming economically viable, while environmentalists say property and infrastructure development would harm the natural setting. As you make your way through the area, you’ll see clusters of tree stumps where villagers have chopped off the tops of old trees in protest against the government’s plans to zone the area as a region for conservation.
In recent years, there have been plans to revitalise the villages in an attempt to preserve their heritage. One such project is the revival of Lai Chi Wo, a scheme initiated by academics, volunteers and rural residents who aim to create a viable economic model for the city’s villages as well as promote sustainable farming and other practises. While the project has been hailed a success and garnered substantial attention – even earning a mention in Lonely Planet’s 2016 Best in Asia list – it is an exception. The majority of the villages remain in rapid decay, trapped in a state of abandonment.
Despite these challenges, the villages hold an inescapable allure. Trees and vines grow sporadically in and out of their crevices, and their traditional structures harken back to the community that once flourished. The trail that weaves through the settlements takes you through an oasis of undisturbed greenery, alongside waters teeming with wildlife. Each village is a time capsule showing a sliver of a forgotten life and a reminder of the city’s roots – the city that was once nothing more than a backwater of rural communities.
To tour the villages, start by visiting the sparsely populated Luk Keng – a quiet community nestled between the Pat Sin Leng and Plover Cove country parks. From the Fanling MTR station, board the 56K minibus bound for the Luk Keng Terminus, which stops in front of a cha chaan teng located just outside the village. A popular meeting point for hikers who wish to explore the region, it specialises in all-day breakfasts and piping hot milk tea: the perfect start to the hours-long trek.
Once at the terminus, follow the path straight ahead and make your way into the village, where you’ll find a string of old houses facing a half-empty carpark with a few luxury cars. Some buildings are well-kept. One building has the numbers “1968” carved into its upper facade, presumably marking the year it was erected, and contains two cleanly-swept doorways adorned with antithetical couplets written on auspicious red paper. Others are crumbling structures that have long since caved in. Towards the centre of the village, there is a small shrine where residents and villagers who return on special occasions pray and burn incense. An empty playground and basketball court sits across from the houses.
Believed to have been established by members of the Chan clan in the early 1700s, Luk Keng was inhabited by more than 100 people during wartime, according to one 80-year-old villager who grew up there. There are now only about ten people living in the village, and most of them are elderly residents, he adds. “Back then, of course it was much more lively,” says Chan, who lives there alone with his cat. “But everyone left after the war.”
For Chan, living in Luk Keng is relatively easy because the village is easily accessible and close to the border town of Shau Tau Kok. His children all live in the U.K. now, but they send money to him and usually return for a few months during the Lunar New Year. When asked whether he has plans to move to a more urban area, Chan shakes his head and laughs. “This is our family home. Where else would I live? I don’t have the money to go out and buy a place,” he says. “Who knows how the world will change in the next ten years, and what will become of this place.”
Chan Fung Kee (陳鳳記)
Address: Luk Keng Road, Sha Tau Kok, Fanling
Phone: 2674 0931
Hours: Open 9:00-17:30 Monday to Friday, 8:00-17:30 Saturday and Sunday
Upon leaving Luk Keng, follow Bride’s Pool Road and pass by an open-water recreational fishing pond before veering left onto Tiu Tang Lung Path. The path takes you along the coast of Starling Inlet, where the water has remained pristine as a result of an enforced buffer zone around the border with China that blocked development and remained off-limits to visitors without permits until 2012. Continue on for about 20 minutes and you’ll reach the “ghost village” of Fung Hang.
Despite its proximity to Luk Keng, Fung Hang is markedly more decrepit. Peering into the village from the roadside, you’ll see rows of old houses in various states of disrepair. Some are so rundown they’re nothing but a pile of bricks, with trees and vines growing from their centres. Village dogs bark and growl at visitors on the path leading into the settlement, which passes a shuttered restaurant with no owners in sight. A sign written in bold red paint at the entrance warns visitors that they’re trespassing onto private property.
Only a handful of people remain in Fung Hang. One is an 83-year-old woman named Wong, who lives alone and spends her days sleeping, cooking and cleaning her family’s house. Her son, who has long moved out, returns weekly with groceries. “There were many children here, decades back. Now there’s none, and nothing much to do here,” she says, shooing away a village dog sniffing at her porch. “When there’s a typhoon, the wind comes right up to my door. I’m not scared though – I’m used to it.” In addition to an ancestral hall dedicated to the Cheung family, the village also contains a shrine where villagers burn incense and leave tea for the gods.
Spend another 20 minutes on Tiu Tang Lung Path and you’ll soon see a skyline of village houses in the distance, across swathes of deserted fields. You’ve entered Kuk Po, a virtually uninhabited village that housed about seven Hakka clans over the centuries. Walking towards the village, a fork in the road will lead you to Kuk Po’s abandoned Kai Choi School and Hip Tin Temple.
Erected in 1931, the schoolhouse was built using village funds. Functioning as a community hall where residents could discuss village affairs, it also houses a temple that contains an altar to Kwan Tai or the God of War. To accommodate a growing population, the villagers added an adjacent building in 1964. Yet mass migration in the following years forced the school’s closure in 1993. Peering through the windows, you can still see a blackboard hanging at the front of the classroom next to a simple plaque displaying the names of various sponsors. A few chairs and tables remain scattered across the floor, which is littered with shards of broken glass and other debris.
The centre of Kuk Po lies a short walk from the school, past fields of untamed grass studded by grazing cows. Once home to over a hundred villagers, it sprawls between paddy fields and banana trees. Some who have left return occasionally to escape the city. The Yeungs, for instance, come back on the weekends to run a restaurant serving Hakka-style seafood and stir-fry. But the village now only houses one permanent resident: 58-year-old Sung.
Sung, whose family migrated in the 1960s to Scotland, first laid eyes on his ancestral home during a visit back to Hong Kong in the 1980s. In 2007, he decided to return to the village and live there permanently, working part-time as an English teacher. Although every day is different, he says he spends his time patching up the village, clearing debris and planting fruits and vegetables. “Most people only like living in the city now. But working in Hong Kong, you’re just a slave to the system,” he says. “I like it here. The environment is still quite natural. The most difficult thing is keeping the trees out.”
Sung Gei Store (松記士多)
Address: Kuk Po Village, Sha Tau Kok, Fanling
Phone: 2679 9148
Hours: Saturday and Sunday, 11:00-18:00. Closed for periods during summer.
The path from Kuk Po to Yung Shue Au is where the real hike begins. The concrete road is soon replaced with a dirt track that leads uphill into the forest. Mushrooms the size of a child’s fist dot the grassy the trail, which runs beside three small streams. A few traditional Chinese graves, most likely erected by villagers, sit in well-kept clearings facing the water, across from which the Yantian Port of Shenzhen can be seen in the distance.
It’ll be a little over an hour before you reach the first of many ruins that make up what is left of the Hakka village of Yung Shue Au. Truly a ghost village, it’s completely abandoned and left in total disrepair. If there used to be a sign at the entrance, it is now long gone. The 15 or so village houses have been taken over by the forest, with twisting roots and tree trunks forcing their way through the many eroding walls. The upper levels of several houses have caved in, and all that’s left inside are broken pieces of wood and other debris. Thin sheets of moss cover the remaining wooden poles that support the structures.
In front of a few porches lie small terraces or plots that may have been used to house livestock or grow vegetables and fruits. While the majority of the houses seem to be village homes, it’s impossible to be sure. Many seem intact from the outside, but when you peer in all you can see is wild shrubbery – and enormous cobwebs with spiders the size of a man’s handspan.
The trail from Yung Shue Au to So Lo Pun is likewise engulfed in wilderness. In some areas, the trees are so dense that you can barely see the sunlight cutting through from above. The track cuts through a series of small waterfalls, one of which you’ll eventually have to cross before reaching the final stretch of a pathway that steers you into the valley village. It will have been about half an hour before you’re greeted by the first few structures that were once part of So Lo Pun. Translated from Cantonese, the name literally means “the compass is locked.” Legend has it that compasses would frequently stop working in the area, leading villagers to change it’s name from So Nou Pun (鎖腦盆) to So Lo Pun, according to local media. Surrounded by a mangrove forest, the village is believed to have been inhabited until the 1970s, when it still housed hundreds of villagers.
The ramshackle structures at the village entrance are little more than a pile of derelict bricks bundled in a clearing. Yet as you continue into the village, you’ll see more houses that have fared much better, which some that look semi-livable. With red antithetical couplets decorating the porches of almost all the houses, it’s more picturesque than Yung Shue Au. While the place is entirely deserted, there are signs that villagers have returned in recent years. A large, black banner protesting the government’s zoning plans is strung up on the wall of one building, for instance. As you continue along the footpath, passing a clearing with a small shrine and a stairway on the left leading up to a few old mausoleums, you’ll also see an orchard with pink flowers growing from idle plots.
Stepping away from the orchards of So Lo Pun and a stretch of beach with panoramic views, you’ll quickly find yourself on a rocky upward path that will take you to Lai Chi Wo in about half an hour’s time. An emergency phone booth is tucked on the side of the trail for those who require assistance. An abandoned boat lies stranded near a stream, where large crabs scuttle in and out of a collection of holes in the sandy mud. Keep going until you see a thin jetty with a light beacon perched at the end. It’s there that you’ll find the sign to Lai Chi Wo, along with several plaques providing visitors with information on the area’s geography and history.
Abandoned in the mid 1990s, the village is said to have been founded in the 17th century and have housed up to 200 residents in the 1950s. Now, Lai Chi Wo is the site of a revitalisation project managed by the Kadoorie Institute of the University of Hong Kong that encourages students, volunteers and village retirees returning from abroad to participate in agricultural and educational activities. The village is also part of the Hong Kong UNESCO Global Geopark. Since the programme’s 2013 inception, six villagers have returned to the village to live and run small enterprises and three new families have settled there. Funded by HSBC, the project aims to craft a sustainable development model for village life by integrating socio-economic development with environmental and historical preservation. Activities including sustainable farming, conducting research and producing natural handicrafts. At present, there are more than 200 village houses, barns and sheds still in intact in the area.
Eddy Tsang, a 66-year-old village retiree who returned to live in Lai Chi Wo four years ago with his wife, welcomes the project. “I hope it can be constructive for the village, and help it not become forgotten,” he said. “I don’t want there to be too much development though, or it will affect the village.”
Born and raised in Lai Chi Wo, Tsang attended the local village school before immigrating to the UK when he was 16 years old. Life in the village was harsh back then, and nobody ever had enough to eat. Villagers only had a few plots of land, so overpopulation made it eventually impossible to survive there, he said. “Kids had to look after the cows, and we didn’t have kindergarten,” he says. “We started school very late, like at eight years old or even eleven years old for the girls. There wasn’t much to do here. We played hide and seek, played with marbles, paper dolls and yo-yos. We caught birds, ran around and caught fishes and crabs in the water.”
Also known as Uncle Yee, Tsang now runs a Hakka-style snack store that opens whenever he’s available. “Now, life here is very relaxing. Water and electricity is adequate and it’s very safe,” he says. “We’re living a good life.”
Uncle Yee’s Store (二伯士多)
Address: Lai Chi Wo Village
Hours: Monday to Sunday