We are a group of students from the University of Hong Kong, studying Masters of Journalism. With Hong Kong being so densely populated and economically driven, the mass often overlook all the unique cultural values that the city possesses. On that note, we decided to explore Ma Wan’s cultural and historical features by means to recite and retell the story behind this semi-abandoned island. The transformation of Ma Wan, from a traditional fishing village to a commercialised landmark depicts how globalisation has slowly buried most of Hong Kong’s irreplaceable customs.
Despite being a slightly inconvenient place from the city center, Ma Wan is home to people from all walks of life. Years and years ago, it was an island that could be accessed only by boat, with a fishing village being the home to people who lived and worked there.
Now, from natives of the island, a martial arts group that intends to preserve culture and traditions of the Tin Hau festival, to foreigners and locals who have moved there to be distant from the urban scenes of Hong Kong, the people of Ma Wan feel very strongly about their identities and reflect this through their stories of life in Ma Wan.
Being a relatively small island with an abundance of history to tell through its culture and tradition, the place now thrives to tell the story which has been left untold. The tale of the village that used to be will be told. Now left abandoned, with just a few families who still refuse to leave the old village, some locals who are not originals still manage to tell the story of how this island has become home and part of their identity.
by Mari Chow, Natasha Fernandes, Charlene Li
Located between Lantau and Tsing Yi, and part of the Tsuen Wan District,Ma Wan is an island with an area of 0.97 sq km.
LEARN THE HISTORY
TOTAL POPULATION IN 1980s
TOTAL POPULATION in 2000
HOUSES IN THE OLD VILLAGE
With the new developments completed more than 10 years ago, almost all the villagers from the old town were relocated in the northern part of the island. Before this though, some of the house near the shore were stilt houses while a majority of them were 3-storey bungalows.
In 2012, about 20 families lived in the old village. By 2017, only one family was left, refused to move out and gave up their right to obtain a 3-storey village house as a compensation by the developer. The old village is all there is left of the old Ma Wan traditions, it is full of history and stories. It is also a popular place for villagers to exercise, or to walk their pet. The old temple is still located there and opened for people to worship; it was listed as a heritage building recently and could not be demolished but only preserved or relocated.
Although urban development seems to have successfully stamped out the culture and heritage of this island, old villagers are trying their best to keep the history going. The old village is quietly decaying, waiting for the government to demolish and replacing it with yet another modern development, like the Noah’s Ark or the Park Island housing estate.
Before 1900s, Ma Wan was an isolated island with only regular ferry services operated by villagers which was connected to Sham Tseng. Water transportation used to be the only way to get to this island, and now residents can get through by various other transportations. The Lantau Link (the bridges) was proposed and built by the government, and since then the island started to change and develop drastically. Despite that, Ma Wan is becoming increasingly isolated, the water route from Tsuen Wan West to Ma Wan was terminated.
No private cars are allowed there, all transport, including buses and ferries, must be operated by the developer or with its approval. The only ways residents can travel in and out of this island are taxi or buses from Tsing Yi, Kwai Fong, Tsuen Wan, the airport, and a ferry service from Central.
From left to right – aerial shot of Ma Wan in 1976, 1982, and 1983. Source from the Hong Kong Image Database, originated from the University of Hong Kong Library Collection.
- 1794 Visits by the British and occasional visits by pirates
- 1897 Set up of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs
- 1900s-1930s Fong Yuen Study Hall, formerly the Chan Study Hall, was first built by the Chan clan of Tin Liu before the 1900s. The Chan Study Hall was rebuilt with Western influence and renamed as “Fong Yuen Study Hall”, literally meaning a nice place for study, in the 1920s to 30s.
- 1950s-1960s “Sunset Industries” fishing and farming in HK in long-term decline. Many abandoned the struggle of having to fish, tied up their boats and went to work in factories.
- 1960s A factory near the pier was closed down forcing large-scale of younger generation to leave the island which caused a significant aging effect on the community.
- 1963 The Ma Wan Fong Yuen School was built to provide a more proper education for students.
- 1965 The emergence of “the Fishermen’s Village”. The US charity helped by donating a generous donation to the government to build 24 tiny housing units on the hill overlooking the harbor for some fishermen and their families.
- 1970s Early 1970s, many fishing rafts were seen again continuing the island’s fishing traditions.
- 1989 The two bridges joining the New Territories with Lantau would cut across, and be supported on, Ma Wan Island. Over the next few years, people protested and argued for an access road.
- 1994 The government gave a draft/conditional design and construction of an accessible road.
- 1997 “Salvation”. After the completion of the Lantau Link, development started to sped up. There was the new residential (Park Island), a “New Tin Liu Village” and relocation of the families from the old town to the new town began. The Ma Wan Park project begun.
- 2005 The ferry service between Ma Wan and Sham Tseng stopped running.
- 2008 Urban taxi permitted access into Ma Wan from 8pm to 7am.
- 2012 Urban taxi fully permitted access. Ferry service between Ma Wan and Tsuen Wan stopped running.
Digging deeper to find out what the identities of the indigenous on Ma Wan were like. Government records from 1965 dubbed Ma Wan as an old-fashioned island of the that time. The inhabitants of the island were known to be independent, and known to be extensively reliable on their own resources.
Even though the proximity from the capital of the British Colony was less than seven miles, the people of Ma Wan did not involve themselves much with other parts of Hong Kong, mostly they stayed in their own circle. It took them sometime to realize the need for integration and eventually they accepted a group of students to help the natives build a footpath for the island.
Instigated by the Hong Kong Social Welfare Department, the students who were also known as ‘Benevolent Godfathers’, took their time and effort to help the community.
EXPLORE THE AREA
Currently, there is a(1) A theme park – the Ma Wan Park and Noah’s Ark; (2) A luxury residential estate development by Sun Hung Kai Properties – the Park Island; (3) Two housing villages, with the indigenous villages from the old villages relocated there as part of the deal between government and developer. It was said a phrase three of the theme park will be coming up soon, but the wait has been almost a decade already.
PEOPLE IN MA WAN
Everyone has a story of their own to tell but, there are those stories that if you dig deeper you’ll see the connection from one story to another, which reveal a bigger picture and the genuineness of a place. So, to discover Ma Wan from different perspectives, the following people were reached out to, to illuminate more about what life is or was like in Ma Wan.
BENNY SO KAM-CHEUNG
BACKGROUND: Born and raised in the Ma Wan Old Village
IDENTITY: Indigenous village representative
Born and raised in Ma Wan Old Village, 61-year-old Benny So Kam-cheung decided to take up the post of the Indigenous Village Representative out of his love and sense of belonging to this place.
“Ma Wan is an island. Unlike many other different villages in Hong Kong such as Yuen Long or Sai Kung, we are united because of the location independence,” So said.
The village was a small community in the past, with all daily necessities available. There were restaurants, stationary shops, supermarkets, even a school and clinic around the area. The rural committee serves like “the government”, helping to coordinate the villagers and taking care of suggestions and complaints.
“It would take us so long to go to the town,” he said, “That is why we set up everything we needed here, and different villagers would take up different roles to operate them.”
Despite having a strong connection to the people and the place, So moved away to work when he was 19 years old. But, he was never detached from Ma Wan. “Although I have moved to Kowloon, I come back every weekend to visit my parents who lived here. My son also lives here too,” he said.
A lot of indigenous villagers moved to the city for work but, they came back to Ma Wan after the Lantau Link was connected. But, they are no longer living with the same living style because of a deal between Hong Kong Government and Sun Hung Kai Properties were made decades ago to claim part of the Ma Wan land, including the old village, and eventually they built a residential estate — Park Island and the Noah’s Ark-themed Ma Wan Park.
Being the Indigenous Village Representative, his job includes protecting the right of a villager such as concessionary right (丁權), also named as the Small House Policy, that was put in effect since 1972 to provide indigenous villager who is a “male person at least 18 years old and is descended through the male line from a resident of 1898 of a recognised village (Ding)”. Eligible applicants will be given a house (村屋) of not more than three storeys and within 700 sq feet. Right of a dead villager is also part of his job too, So will have to keep a record and help them register a “villager grave” around the area.
Walking pass the old village, So still remembers every bit and pieces there.
“This was a tuck shop, and the playground here, was always full of kids running around.”
And he stopped by one of the buildings saying,
“This was my home”.
"This is my root, the place where I was born and raised,"said Benny So Kam-cheung.
BACKGROUND: Lived in the Ma Wan Old Village for 34 years until 2005
IDENTITY: A foreign resident who integrated into the community for more than three decades
1.Tell us briefly about who you are.
I arrived in Hong Kong in 1965 to join the Government Information Services (GIS). For the
last of my 14 years in that department, I was an Assistant Director of Publicity, running all of the government’s publicity programmes.
2. Why Ma Wan?
In early 1976, I headed a team to clean the beach at Ma Wan as part of our Clean Hong Kong campaign. I fell in love with the island and decided I would acquire a retreat so that I could spend my weekends there. Some weeks later, I persuaded the headmaster of the local school to let me rent his two-storey villa — the only building on the opposite side of the bay – for HKD300 per month.
3. Did you ever participate in the local festivities (Tin Hau festival)?
I donated funds to the Tin Hau festival and was always offered front row seats in the opera house. Every Chinese New Year, the lion dancers would come and perform at our front door.
4. How well did you integrate with the locals of Ma Wan?
Even though I speak little or no Cantonese, I found the islanders very welcoming and friendly, and had no trouble integrating into the community.
5. Do you feel that Ma Wan has become part of your identity?
Very much so. My 34 years there were my happiest in Hong Kong.
6. How was life like at Ma Wan before the 1997 handover?
Ma Wan was an idyllic rustic retreat before Sun Hung Kai was permitted by the government, in 1991 as I recall, to let them develop Park island there. The creation of Park Island brought far more profound changes than it did before the handover in 1997.
7. Were you the only non-indigenous person who was able to gain the benefits of the compensation, could you tell us more about that?
As a close friend of the last colonial Chief Secretary, Sir David Ford, I invited him to lunch at my old Ma Wan village home in 1989. I conducted him on a tour of the island and convinced him that we villagers were suffering from the impact of the new Tsing Ma bridge complex. As a result, the government engaged in discussions with Sun Hung Kai that led to the offer of new homes for all us villagers in the area designated for the Park Island development.
8. What do you miss about living on the island?
After renting the former headmaster’s home for ten years I decided, in 1986, to purchase a newer, three-storey villa in Sports Road, on the other side of the bay. It was the last house on that road, occupying the site of the present car park below the hill where the observatory now stands. The fung shui was excellent and I was very sorry to leave that house, but Sun Hung Kai’s offer of a new three-storey villa, plus flat, in the relocated village was too good to refuse.
9. After the handover, what significant changes did you encounter?
I moved back from Canada to occupy the new village home in 2005, finding the island greatly changed; not so much as a result of the handover but (as mentioned above) because of the towering new community of Park Island. This of course brought us considerable advantages – faster ferry service to Tsuen Wan and Hong Kong Central plus regular bus services – but I did miss the old gaido route to Sham Tseng.
10. Why did you leave the island?
In 2010, at the age of 75, I found I could no longer expect regular employment. Since Hong Kong is a very expensive place to live without a pension, (I had always served the Hong Kong Government on contract terms) I decided I would have to sell my home andmove to a less costly country where I could live on the income derived from that sale.
"My 34 years there were my happiest in Hong Kong,"said Peter Moss.
THE GERMAN BROTHERS
BACKGROUND: Live in the Ma Wan New Village with wife and kids
INDENTITY: Residents in the new village
Both Christian and Arne Schickentanz came to Hong Kong because of work and fell in love with the country. They lived in different districts but they ended up finding Ma Wan most comfortable to live in.
Arne has a family and he chose to live in the village houses because of the spacious flat. The spacious flats also reminded him of the apartments in Germany. He also said that it is easy to adjust living in Ma Wan because transportation is efficient as compared to Germany.
Christian chose to live in the village houses too because of serenity. He stated that, as Hong Kong is a fast pace city, there is a lot of stress and Ma Wan is the only place that could help him relax, relief stress and provide him with personal space.
They also like how their neighbors are friendly and polite although, they don’t personally know each other. Christian stated that he lived in a friend’s place in Discovery Bay but he really didn’t like it there. And one of the reasons why is because he felt like the place is like a microcosm, that it felt really separated from the Hong Kong society.
Despite adjusting to the environment in Ma Wan, they are still having trouble communicating fluently with the villagers. Christian had lived in China for seven years so he can communicate in Mandarin but not in Cantonese. The brothers want to learn how to speak Cantonese so that they can talk to the people in the village.
They found the abandoned part of the island just like any other tourist, they saw it from the bridge when taking the bus into Ma Wan. They didn’t find it surprising, especially for Christian because he had seen worse in Mainland China. He said that it would be a totally different situation if he had come straight from Germany.
They claimed that Ma Wan is a safe place to live in partially because there are no private cars allowed, so that the area isn’t packed with random people. They also claim that people in Ma Wan don’t call them names such as “Gweilo” or “Laowai”. This is also one of the reasons why they like living in Ma Wan, they feel like they are a part of the Hong Kong society, part of the Ma Wan community.
"I feel more integrated and accepted in the Ma Wan society than in other areas,"said Christian Schicketanz.
JAMES HAMILTON LAI
BACKGROUND: Open a vintage museum in the Ma Wan New Village
INDENTITY: A vintage collector in love with the atmosphere of Ma Wan
The Vintage Live museum is owned by James Hamilton Lai and Yuri Muzi Summer and it was built in 2010. The museum used to be located in Mong Kok but due to the money-driven environment in that area, James and Yuri decided to continue their development in Ma Wan.
They chose Ma Wan to start their private museum because they think that this place is full of historical stories and cultural features. The residents here have a slower pace of living compared to the ones in the city areas. For one to enjoy and admire antiques, they need to spare some time to understand the items instead of only trying to make money.
Ma Wan is constantly developing due to modernity, many people in this era do not understand the importance of these items. This museum provides people with the information they need to understand the history and culture of this place along with the antiques from this island. Some antiques were found on one of the beaches on this island, some were donated by the old villagers. Old villagers shared their experiences and stories on an item with James and Yuri hoping that they can get the right information.
Due to new developments, the old village may be demolished after a few years. Although high rise buildings may satisfy accommodation needs but, having high rises means having malls and hotels nearby. Ma Wan will slowly become a tourist destination, but James wants to keep the history of this place alive. He agrees that development is needed, but there should be a balance between a place’s culture, history and modernity.
James is concerned that in the future Ma Wan will become too commercialized. Ma Wan is surrounded by the natural environment, if Ma Wan is turned into a commercialised area, the future generation will not be able to experience or grow up in a natural environment anymore. Hence, the museum is one of the options to keep the future generation educated about the history and culture of Ma Wan.
"Ma Wan is a place of culture, with an atmosphere of knowledge and civilization,"said James Hamilton Lai.
THE TIN HAU FESTIVAL
PRE TIN HAU CELEBRATION DINNER
Surrounded by its scenic views of the sea, the Island of Ma Wan back in the days used to serve as a main source of income for villagers in the area as they fished and made shrimp paste, as mention earlier.
Today, however, with locals on the island mostly buying their produce from supermarkets or from nearby areas like Tsuen Wan, fishing for money has declined. As you walk along the old fishing area, hardly will you see any boats moving because most of the fisherman are too old to work while their children now working in either the commercial or financial field.
Despite this being a problem, the natives of this place are still strong believers of the Goddess of the Sea, Tin Hau, mostly because of her powers. The Goddess’ birthday has since become an important event, a festival, celebrated annually on the 23rd day of the third month in the lunar calendar but, the festivities begin days in advance for villagers.
Even though this festival is celebrated all throughout the many Tin Hau Temples across Hong Kong, the scenes during the festival in Ma Wan are totally different mostly because of the presence of the old temple within the blocks of abandoned village houses.
There is a sense of serenity and calmness but at the same time festival vibes are vibrant all throughout the day.
At about noon, lion dancers perform outside the old temple while many families who once used to reside in the old come by to pray and visit their old homes. During late afternoon, the opera house under the large bamboo structure begins with villagers and everyone else welcome to enjoy the art and culture.
Unity, togetherness and integration during this time of the year can be felt when you are situated at temple at the old village. Majority of them, especially the older generations one, returned to their place of birth and gathered together during this annual event.
Even though the old village’s plans are still undecided and may very soon be demolished, plans for the village’s old temple is set, it will be preserved or relocated if restoration of the old village goes forth, so as to preserve its culture and tradition of the indigenous people of the island.
For some of the footages in the videos about the Tin Hau festival, we would like to give credits to Sean Seah for providing us with some drone footages and b-rolls.
TIN HAU FESTIVAL CELEBRATION
WHAT DOES THE VILLAGER THINK?
Benny So, an indigenous villager, takes part in the Tin Has festival celebration every year. His memory of the celebration was there since he was born. “It was a huge annual event. Kids ran around, people gathered to watch the lion dances and performance,” he said.
In the Tin Hau temple, a name tag with the four So brothers’ name is found, for donating money. “My mum treated it seriously every year,” he recalled, “and we follow her, follow the ritual.”
WORDS FROM THE PERFORMER
Hong Kong Chow Biu Martial Arts Association is a non-profitable organization that aims to perform and promote traditional Chinese martial art. With 64 years of history, the group has been performing the Tin Hau “birthday celebration” in Tin Hau Temple for more than three decades.
“We are here at Ma Wan performing every year. If the old temple moves, we follow. If it is demolished, well, we may not exist anymore,” Keith Shek Ka-kit, the president, expressed the uniqueness of Ma Wan’s annual celebration to the group along with his his individual enthusiasm towards the place.
In the past when the old village was still there, villagers would simply stand by their doorposts and watch the group’s performance; but now, since they have moved to the new village, not many will go back to the old village for the performance. It is a pity for him to have noticed the number of audience decreasing each year. “We understand that it was just the changes of society and culture: younger generation care less about traditions, or people prefer watching television at home instead of watching us under the sun,” he said.
“But we will insist the tradition and safeguard the ritual,” he said, “because this is what we love.”
EXPLAINING THE RITUALS
GODDESS OF THE SEATIN HAU
Benny So Kam-cheung, Indigenous Village Representative of Ma Wan
Chan Sung Ip, Tsuen Wan District Council Member and Representative of Ma Wan Rural Committee
Christian and Arne Shicketanz, Two German residents of the Ma Wan New Tin Liu Village
James Hamilton Lai, Founder of the Vintage Museum located in Ma Wan
Yuri Muzi Summer, Founder of the Vintage Museum located in Ma Wan
Keith Shek Ka-kit, President of the Hong Kong Chow Biu Martial Arts Association
Peter Moss, Former Assistant Director of Publicity of the Hong Kong Government Information Services and Former resident of Ma Wan Old Village
Sean Seah, videographer of the Hong Kong Chow Biu Martial Arts Association
Simon Chu, Chairman of the Hong Kong Archives Society