What Happened to Hong Kong’s Underwater Villages?

If you walk a couple of blocks east of the bustling Tsuen Wan street markets, you’ll come across a cluster of five-storey apartment blocks. They’re unremarkable but for their balconies, which are painted a shade of dusky shade of red that brings to mind the sunset over the nearby Rambler Channel. Laundry hangs limp in the summer heat while tropical plants creep around the mouldering concrete.

At first, this just seems like an older part of Tsuen Wan, which was built as an industrial suburb in the 1950s. But there are a couple of details that give away its peculiar vocation. There’s a temple on the top floor of one block, its location meant to avoid the gods being trampled underfoot. And then there’s the name of the blocks: Shek Pik New Village.

As you might guess, there was indeed a Shek Pik Old Village, but any trace of it is now sitting under 24 million cubic metres of water in the Shek Pik Reservoir, which opened in 1963. The apartment blocks in Tsuen Wan were built to accommodate the displaced villagers.

They aren’t the only ones of their kind. In several other parts of Hong Kong, including Tai Po and Sai Kung, entire neighbourhoods were shaped by the city’s need for drinking water. Entire villages were flooded for the Shek Pik, Plover Cove and High Island reservoirs, taking with them centuries of built heritage. But little attention has been paid to these settlements, their histories or their traditions.

underwater villages

Wang Pui Tsuen in Shek Pik in the 1950s, before it was submerged for the Shek Pik Reservoir. Photo courtesy HKU Libraries.

A new permanent exhibition in Sai Kung is attempting to change that. Located in the Man Yee Wan Village Recreation Centre, a low-slung compound of canary yellow buildings that was originally built as a school for displaced village children, the show brings together photos, oral histories, furniture, ceremonial artefacts and everyday objects that delve into the lives of two villages that were flooded by the High Island Reservoir in 1978.

The villages, Man Yee Wan and Sha Tsui, were located about eight kilometres east of Sai Kung town, next to a seawater channel that ran through a lush valley beneath green mountain peaks. Their history goes back to the Great Clearance of Xin’an County, in 1661, when the Qing Dynasty’s Kangxi Emperor ordered the evacuation of the entire coast.

Hong Kong has always been on the fringes of Chinese empire, and as such it was a haven for rebels – in this case, Ming Dynasty loyalists who refused to accept the authority of the Qing, who came from foreign Manchu stock. Kangxi’s clearance was meant to root out any remaining resistance to his rule. More than 16,000 people were driven from their homes, and for eight years, imperial soldiers were authorised to kill anyone who was caught in Hong Kong.

After the evacuation order was lifted in 1669, fewer than 10 percent of Hong Kong’s original inhabitants returned. That provided an opportunity to the Hakka, a marginalised people who lived in enclaves throughout southern and central China. Hakka families came to Hong Kong and began establishing new homes on the fallow land.

The rich soil and bountiful sea of Sai Kung allowed the newcomers to catch fish and grow sweet potatoes, rice, corn, and peanuts. They harvested longan and lychee from the trees that grew wild in the region. When the villagers had surplus crops, they loaded them into sampans and took them to Sai Kung town, a Cantonese settlement, where they shopped, watched opera and visited barbers.

Both of the villages were home to several clans, which lived together in interconnected houses. Social life in Man Yee Wan revolved around temples dedicated to Tin Hau, the goddess of the sea, and Tai Wong Yeh, the patron saint of fishermen. Villagers spent weeks preparing for their respective feast days – Tin Hau’s in the spring, Tai Wong Yeh’s on the eve of the winter solstice. During the Tin Hau festival, villagers built an elaborate floral shrine that would be exploded by firecrackers at the end of the celebrations, with each villager rushing to pick up pieces of the shrine as lucky tokens.

By contrast, Sha Tsui Village was Catholic, like nearby Yim Tin Tsai. There were no temples, no ancestral hall, just a church and its associated rituals. Weddings were the only events that followed Chinese tradition.

Even after the British leased the New Territories in 1898, life continued as it had for centuries. Village schools taught their children in Hakka, and the Sai Kung exhibition includes an introduction to the language. “Have you eaten yet?” is sik6 faan6 mei6 aa3 in Cantonese, but siit fan m zen in Hakka.

There are also cheeky turns of phrases. When a girl is born into a Hakka family, people will say they have received a “zu njug bad,” which literally means a bowl of pork. “The term stemmed from the wedding ritual with the Hakka bride carrying bowls of pork meat to her own parents on the third day after marriage,” explains the exhibition text.

underwater villages

High Island Reservoir under construction in 1973 – photo courtesy HKU Libraries.

Things began to change in the 1950s, when more and more villagers left to find work in the United Kingdom. But there was even more upheaval in the rest of Hong Kong. The flood of migrants that washed over the city after World War II and the Communist victory in mainland China put a serious strain on the city’s resources. With China closed off to the outside world, the city had to rely on its few reservoirs for drinking water, and by the 1960s, they were running dry. Water rationing made life miserable for millions of people. And so the government planned more reservoirs.

Unfortunately, the land most suited for these huge new bodies of water — Shek Pik on Lantau, the valley around Man Yee Wan in Sai Kung and Plover Cove in Tai Po — were occupied by several hundred villagers. The government drew up plans to resettle them. In Tai Po, new housing was built along Plover Cove Road, next to the historic market town along the the shores of the Lam Tsuen River. A few blocks were set aside for the Shek Pik New Village in Tsuen Wan.

underwater villages

he resettlement area in Sai Kung town shortly after its completion in the 1970s, as seen in the exhibition.

The High Island Reservoir was even larger than Shek Pik or Plover Cove, and so the resettlement of its villagers was in some ways more transformative than what happened in Tai Po and Tsuen Wan, which were also home to a growing number of migrants from the mainland. In 1970, land was reclaimed next to Sai Kung town, right in front of the historic Tin Hau Temple, and the government built seven ancestral halls and ten blocks of five-storey apartment buildings to accommodate the roughly 500 displaced villagers. Existing Sai Kung residents were upset that buildings might block the Ting Hau Temple, cutting off its feng shui, so a series of open spaces were reserved, creating a path between the temple and the sea.

Today, this resettlement estate — officially known as the Man Yee Wan/Sha Tsui New Village — forms the heart of Sai Kung town. The seaside location and leafy open spaces have made it a coveted place to live and linger, and the ground floor of the five-storey resettlement blocks are filled with restaurants and cafés. There are few obvious hints at this neighbourhood’s underwater past, but now you know where you look.

The Man Yee Wan Village Recreation Centre is located at 25 Man Nin Street in Sai Kung. Click here for more information.

underwater villages

Sai Kung town in 1983, shortly after the completion of its resettlement area, adjacent to the original town centre – photo courtesy HKU Libraries.


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