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5 fascinating facts about Lantau

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By Stephen Tse 

1. Where does the name ‘Lantau’ come from?

The English moniker for Hong Kong’s largest island likely originated from the imperfect shape of Lantau Peak—named 爛 (Lan, meaning broken) 頭 (Tau, meaning head) 山 (Shan, meaning mountain) by local people.

The Chinese name—Tai Yue Shan (大嶼山)—is an evolution of the 11th century Tai Hai Shan (大奚山), meaning big (大, Tai) island (山, Shan) with barbarians (奚, Hai) living on it—a possible reference to the island’s original inhabitants, the Yiu people (傜人), before the arrival of the Han Chinese.

2. Who is the last Nam Mo Lo of Tai?

Nam Mo (喃嘸), traditional Taoist religious practitioners, were once very important in the daily lives of fishermen in traditional villages like Tai O, where they would help people to bless boatsand festivals and even act as exorcisers. Cantonese people often call them Nam Mo Lo (喃嘸佬)—Lo (佬) in Cantonese meaning ‘chap’.

Today, there remains just one Nam Mo in Tai O named Nam Mo Gong (喃嘸江), who has a tiny workshop full of religious objects—a family business, which has been running for nearly 100 years—and a small shrine at the end of Tai Ping Street.

3. Did expatriates live on Lantau 400 years ago?

In the western part of Tai O lies a tiny village called Fan Kwai Tong (番鬼塘), 番 meaning foreign, 鬼 being similar to gweilo—the centuries-old Cantonese slang for caucasians, and 塘 meaning pond. The name probably therefore means a village with water resources where foreigners live.

This theory is backed up by local families who have passed stories down through the generations about Europeans living in the area. Some suggest they may have been Portuguese or Dutch—no one knows exactly—however their presence makes sense due to Lantau’s proximity to Canton (廣州), or Guangzhou—the most important trading centre in southern China.

4. Did Lantau almost become another Macau?

The first Europeans to travel to China by sea were the Portuguese, who made contact with Chinese soil at Guangzhou in the Pearl River Delta in 1513. Shortly afterwards, the colonisers established a settlement called Tamão, known in Chinese as Tuen Mun (屯門). The location of Tamão is unclear—some suggest it was Lintin Island in the Pearl River estuary—now known as Nei or Inner Lingding Island—while others suggest Lantau.

The Tamão settlement was destroyed by Ming China in 1521, and the Portuguese people expelled. It was another 36 years before they successfully established another settlement in Macau in 1557.

If Tamão was located on Lantau, and if it had prospered, the island may have developed very differently. Perhaps we would have casinos, Macanese cuisine and colonial buildings, and maybe we’d even be driving on the right.

5. Do Lantauers actually speak Cantonese?

The indigenous people in the rural villages of Lantau are not ‘true’ Cantonese speakers and even local people from the city may not be fully able to understand what the island’s senior citizens are actually saying.

The dominant language in Hong Kong originated from Canton (廣州) and is a dialect of Yue (粵語), a Sinitic language that is spoken in the southernmost part of China.

There are many varieties of Yue language.

For instance, the fishing people in Tai O speak Tanka dialect (蛋家話), which contains some interesting slang words relating to weather and fishing that outsiders cannot understand.

Further inland, some farmers speak Waitau dialect (圍頭話), Wai meaning walled village. This dialect is even more difficult to understand, with city folk perhaps able to grasp around 80 to 90% if they listen very carefully.

There are also many villages on Lantau whose residents speak Hakka (客家). Hak (客) in Chinese means guest people, referring to newcomers to the island after the 1690s. Hakka is not a Yue dialect and is practically incomprehensible to Cantonese speakers.

Inevitably, as time moves on, and the rural population of Hong Kong continues to give way to urbanisation, it is likely that many of these native languages will disappear.

Contact Stephen Tse, tour guide at Hong Kong with Stephen, via the contact form at www.stephentourhk.com.

This article appears in The Best of Lantau 2017/ 18 annual guide. Read it online here or email [email protected] for your FREE copy.

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