From backwater to gateway city, Tung Chung’s is a story of rapid growth and development. Is it an example of too far too fast or a symbol of Hong Kong’s economic miracle? Martin Lerigo reports.
Go back just 30 years and Tung Chung hummed to the sound of nets being cast, fish being scoured and racked for drying, and fisherfolk swapping notes on where they might find the next big shoal.
Wind the clock forward and the current soundtrack is one of over 100,000 people going about their everyday business, MTR commuters wending their way to Kowloon and beyond, international commuters headed for far-flung lands, cable cars swaying in the breeze and a gigantic serpent rising from the sea in the form of the Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge.
Older folk, who have watched the canvas change from calm and uncluttered in their childhood to the Pollockesque kaleidoscope of today, must marvel at how it has all been possible in such a short space of time. The majestic Lantau and Sunset peaks now cast their shadows across a valley floor that once knew only small stilted shacks, long since replaced by Goliathan tablets of concrete and steel.
Space for all?
It was just 27 years ago that first ground was broken in the opening chapter of this amazing transformation. Phases one and two of Tung Chung new town were complete by 1997, in time for the opening of the new Hong Kong International Airport. Built to the north, on reclaimed land at Chek Lap Kok, the airport is a prize-winning feat of modern engineering.
A population of just 20,000 at that time has mushroomed to 115,000 and is expected to grow to 185,000 within the next 10 years. Beyond that there are plans for over 250,000 people to reside in the shadow of the great peaks that tower above.
As it stands, Tung Chung is a study of contrasts, old and new. While massive, modern housing developments and gleaming malls predominate, you don’t have to look far to find old-style village houses, dai pai dongs (open-air food stalls) and ancient temples.
Tung Chung Fort is a seldom visited and rather lonely relic of the town’s rich past. The fort dates from the 12th century Southern Song Dynasty. Now the home of the Tung Chung Rural Committee, this unique piece of local history seems all but forgotten, tucked away out of sight and hidden from all but the most inquisitive. Its six remaining cast-iron cannons point directly at Leviathan Yat Tung Estate, which towers in the distance, testament to the amazing change development has brought to Tung Chung.
For those who care to hike into the hills, the view from Sunset Peak is like a cast of tiny ants beavering away below, building the latest in a long line of major infrastructure projects – the Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge, boundary crossing facilities, Tung Chung West housing extension, the list goes on. It’s as if an engineers’ convention has turned Tung Chung into a competition for the grandest and boldest project that can be thought of. More is to follow with a third runway at the airport, the Tung Chung East extension, Sunny Bay reclamation and Gold Coast tunnels.
All of this development is not without controversy, of course. The government is billing Tung Chung north as Hong Kong’s gateway to the Pearl River Delta, a centre for service and logistics that will help build centres of excellence for Asia’s world city. Some parts of the community welcome development on Lantau North and see it as a means to boost economic growth and prosperity. Others see many of the projects as a sop to the developers, white elephants that are not worth the money and are not in the interests of all Hong Kongers.
The third runway has already been challenged by judicial review, and eco groups, both international and local, are up in arms about the effect development plans will have on local wildlife. The dolphin supporting groups, in particular, are very concerned about the future viability of Hong Kong’s Chinese White Dolphins should yet more silt and sand be thrown up into their feeding grounds.
Many people do not realise that Tung Chung Valley is a biodiversity hotspot within Asia, ending in a lush river estuary with mudflats and mangrove which provide habitats for precious flora and fauna. Some progress has been made between the government and green groups on giving protection status to this area but significant ecological damage has already been done.
There are hard choices to be made around the balance between conservation and development. Maybe Hong Kong could start to embrace the very best models of sustainable development that are practiced around the world. Now, that would be something we could be proud of: Hong Kong, a world leader in giving the environment top billing when deciding where and how to develop – an expertise that could be modelled and copied by others. Maybe one day.
For the next few years, residents will have to get used to the ever-constant presence of construction, as the bridge sections, tower blocks and tunnel portals continue to evolve. Who knows what the little backwater of the 1980s will look like in another 30 years, be sure to take some photos so that you can remember what used to be.
Images: Terry Chow and Martin Lerigo