GHOST VILLAGE, LIVE MARKET: Old Culture in Modern Hong Kong

I’ve taken two trips to China to do research for a historical novel. Tortillas from the Chungking Café will be loosely based on the family history of my Chinese-Mexican grandmother. Here are more of my journal notes on Hong Kong, as I continue “Tracing China’s Past”:

April 13, 2008
Hong Kong, China

We visited a place that retained some of the traditional beauty of old Hong Kong: Hoi Pa Village and Tak Wah Park.

Yesterday my translator ZhuZhu and I took the Metro to Tsuen Wan, one of Kowloon’s outlying housing estate districts. Don’t let the term “housing estate” fool you; in Tsuen Wan, as elsewhere in Kowloon, most people live in tiny apartments in dismal, repetitive high-rises. However, we visited a place that retained a vestige of the traditional beauty of old Hong Kong: Hoi Pa Village and Tak Wah Park.

Hoi Pa means “embankment by the sea,” and once upon a time this village did sit on the coast. But, like much of Hong Kong, the area has been filled in with land. “Reclamation” they call it, although I don’t know how you can reclaim land that was never there in the first place. As for the village’s people: they were reclaimed by modern Hong Kong. Some 300 people once lived here, but the last of them left in 1980. It’s just a ghost village now, with barely enough room for the ghosts.

Only three of Hoi Pa’s buildings have survived.

Only three of Hoi Pa’s buildings have survived: two homes and the ancestral hall. They’re simple, rectangular structures of green-gray bricks with sloping green tile roofs. The upper walls feature bas relief paintings of flowers, branches, and birds. The windows are tiny, probably because the buildings were constructed before the days of storm windows and modern insulation. Yet these homes suggest that even the village’s humblest families gave thought to the importance of beauty in their lives.

These homes suggest that even the village’s humblest families gave thought to the importance of beauty in their lives.

This was a village of the Chan clan, who were Hakka people. The hall is named after Chan Yi Cheung, an ancestor who lived hundreds of years before the Chans moved here. The Hakkas suffered persecution under several Chinese dynasties, forcing them to move from place to place. In the 19th Century they resettled here in Tsuen Wan, under orders of the Qing Dynasty. The hall was last renovated in 1909.

In the latter half of the last century, as modern development swept over Hong Kong, this remnant of old Hakka culture was saved and incorporated into Tak Wah Park. The park is a sweet, old-fashioned retreat, walled off from the sensory overload of the city. It has several ponds, including a large one with a waterfall spilling over a pile of gwai shek, which means “strange rocks.” Gwai shek are meant to be small replicas of the mountain peaks of China’s more rugged landscapes, such as the karst peaks of Guilin.

Tak Wah Park has several ponds, including a large one with a waterfall spilling over a pile of gwai shek, which means “strange rocks.”

Zhu Zhu and I were once again amused to see men of all ages playing Chinese chess while other men gathered around to offer raucous encouragement – and probably to place bets. “Chinese people must be very patient,” I said to Zhu Zhu. “I think an American would shush everyone and tell them they were ruining his concentration.” Then again, one guy did look a bit put out at the unsolicited advice.

Men of all ages played Chinese chess while other men gathered around to offer raucous encouragement. One guy looked a bit put out at the unsolicited advice.

Other men sat reading newspapers or chatting. I asked Zhu Zhu if she knew what they were saying, but she didn’t recognize the dialect. She said they must be speaking Hakka. So the past lives on, even if the ghost village doesn’t.

Tsuen Wan Market is a gai see, or “wet market.” A gai see features fresh produce and distressingly fresh animals.

We left the park and walked a couple of blocks to Tsuen Wan Market, which is a gai see, or “wet market.” A gai see features fresh produce and distressingly fresh animals: chickens living on top of each other in dark cages, fish gasping their last in an inch or two of water, shrimp flopping around in their death throes, and clams spitting water high into the air – their final statement on the indignity of it all. One still-living fish was cut in half, the pulsing lung exposed for the perusal of those who enjoy that delicacy.

Clams spit water high into the air – their final statement on the indignity of it all.

I was revolted, which amused Zhu Zhu. She shrugged and said, “Cantonese people like their food fresh.” I recalled the chicken I ate in Bok Sa: it’s shriveled head presented on the plate along with the rest of it – proof of its freshness. Looking at the cramped chickens in their cages, I considered that most American chickens live little better. This wasn’t comforting.

Looking at the cramped chickens in their cages, I considered that American chickens live little better. This wasn’t comforting.

Zhu Zhu was more disgusted by the smells than the sights. I stopped pinching my nose long before she did. “I don’t like shopping in a wet market,” she said. Me either.

Still eager to earn my A for participation, I bought us a couple of plums. They were imported from America. “I came all the way to China to eat American plums,” I said, and we both laughed. They weren’t very good. We bemoaned modern growing methods, which ensure plentiful crops and giant fruits, but little real flavor.

Feeling homesick after three weeks in China, when Zhu Zhu and I parted I indulged in a Starbucks chai latte. It didn’t help. That little taste of home wasn’t enough to evoke the feeling of home.

6 thoughts on “GHOST VILLAGE, LIVE MARKET: Old Culture in Modern Hong Kong

  1. Susan Blumberg-Kason

    This is a great post! As difficult as that market must have been, I think it’s wonderful you trekked out there. I had friends who lived in Tsuen Wan, and I think I ate at a restaurant near the MTR station, but besides that I never ventured into the depths of that area. I regret that. Agreed on the public housing estates. Here they’d be called ghettos, but compared to the way many people in HK used to live, they truly are estates!

    Reply
  2. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    The wet market was interesting, if nothing else, Susan. As cruel as it seemed, it strikes me that modern supermarkets tend to disconnect us from our food. I think it might be easier to eat healthy, and more difficult to waste, if our food were not so processed and we could see what we’re really eating – not just a bunch of dead matter, preservatives, boxes, and bottles.

    I know what you mean about the public housing. When you read the history, it’s clear that these big blocky buildings have made life more manageable in a crowded country.

    Reply
  3. Zee

    “Yet these homes suggest that even the village’s humblest families gave thought to the importance of beauty in their lives.”

    I love coming here and reading about China. Oriental art and architecture is one of the most beautiful in the world. The Chinese have great taste. It’s little wonder the people in the settlement also decorated their houses any way they could.

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  4. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    Indeed, traditional Chinese architecture can be quite beautiful, Zee. But as the country becomes increasingly overpopulated, most people in the cities seem to live in ugly carton-like boxes filled with tiny apartments. Can’t blame them – where are they going to put everyone?!

    I’m glad to hear that you love coming here & reading about China, because I’ve sure been writing about it a heck of a lot lately. I’m going to finish blogging about this first trip, and then take a brief break and write about America’s Route 66 before I return for a quick peek at China research trip #2.

    Reply
  5. Rachel Cotterill

    Great pictures. I think the chess – complete with interference – is pretty universal. We were learning Chinese chess and playing on the train, and the guard came along to tell us where we were going wrong! 🙂

    Reply
  6. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    So glad you like the photos, Rachel. Thanks. Though I’m better with words, I love taking pictures, and it tickles me when they work. I think you’re right about the game interference being universal – it felt sort of like being around a hot Black-Jack table in Vegas. Good for you for learning to play Chinese chess. I’d like to try it sometime. However, I’m afraid I might not get too far with it. I’m a bit impatient about games or puzzles that require me to think several moves ahead.

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