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Keeping it real: The wonders of Tai O

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Concerned by government plans for its future, Bruce Marsh reveals what makes Tai O such a well-loved tourist attraction and uncovers a little bit of its history.

Tucked snugly away in the south-western corner of Lantau, Tai O fishing village is locked in the past. Having developed as a fishing harbour and saltern (an area where salt is made) over the past 200 years, it is rich in history and local colour, and as one of the last bastions of Hong Kong heritage to survive territory-wide development, it is a fantastic place to observe traditional village life.

wonders of tai o

Fishermen still live in squatter huts and brightly coloured stilt houses, built above a matrix of waterways, and as recently as the 1960s, villagers caught 30% of all seafood sold in Hong Kong. While the fishing industry has dwindled, salted fish and shrimp paste vendors still eke out a living, as do purveyors of Tai O’s famous coal cooked egg waffles.

“I find Tai O a great tourist attraction as there are no malls and franchised business. You get to interact with the business owners, and their shops cater to both local residents and tourists,” opens Merrin Pearse chairman of Living Islands Movement (LIM).

wonders of tai o

Noting that the government is discussing building a light rail link to Tai O from Tung Chung, increasing the existing ferry service from Tung Chung and Tuen Mun, introducing a water taxi service from Tung Chung, and widening the surrounding roads to allow increased traffic access, Merrin says tourist numbers will have to be strictly limited going forward if Tai O is to retain its unique character.

Maritime heritage and fishing lore

wonders of tai o

Today, Tai O is mostly inhabited by Tankas or boat people – a nomadic southern Chinese ethnic group who first settled there over two centuries ago, having previously lived on junks in the South China Sea. Though many now live onshore in stilt houses, some of the older ‘sea gypsies’ still live on their boats. People flock to Tai O, the so-called ‘Venice of Hong Kong,’ to soak up the village’s maritime heritage and fishing lore.

Tai O comprises an intriguing maze of small alleys and footpaths, and its buildings are usually interconnected, mirroring the tight-knit  community that lives on and above the water. Wander down Tai Ping Street and you can visit the tiny workshop of Nam Mo Gong, the only remaining Nam Mo in Tai O.

“Nam Mo, traditional Taoist religious practitioners, were once very important in the daily lives of fishermen in villages like Tai O, where they would bless boats and festivals and even act as exorcisers,” explains Lantau-based tour guide Stephen Tse of Hong Kong with Stephen. Today, Nam Mo Gong is the last of a dying breed, still selling religious artefacts out of his 100-year-old family business.

Not surprisingly, worshipping deities who protect fishermen and sea traders is still a regular practice in Tai O, something you can observe at 1746-built Hung Shing Temple. At Kwan Tai Temple, locals have prayed to the god of fraternal brotherhood, loyalty and righteousness since 1488, in the hope that he will protect them from harm.

At nearby Fan Lau Fort, built in 1729 to protect ships on the Pearl River Delta, you can get a feel for Tai O’s piratical past. Stories that would be impossible to substantiate have Tai O as the base of daring smuggling and piracy operations, with the inlets of the river providing not just protection from the weather but an excellent hiding place.

Characterful colonial outpost

Author of The Tiger Hunters of Tai O (2017) John Saeki describes Tai O as a “murky and fascinating outpost… a place that positively reeks of character, tenacity and rugged independence.”

wonders of tai o

John chose to base his book in Tai O after visiting the Tai O Heritage Hotel, previously the 1902-built Tai O Marine Police Station. Set in 1954, Tiger Hunters sees Eurasian police officer Simon Lee banished from the comforts of Central to a wild and rugged land (Tai O), for having an affair with the police commissioner’s daughter.

“The Old Tai O Marine Police Station book is full of great photos and anecdotes about colonial life at the station,” John opens.

“There are pictures of young operators at the radio, recruit football teams and sweaty gweilo officers. And in another book Tai O Love Stories of the Fishing Village, by Wong Wai King, I found a picture of a pair of marine policemen on a sampan in the 50s, both looking young and lively, one with his sailor’s cap roguishly cocked to one side, the other ostentatiously showing off a big watch on his wrist… I wondered, what’s all that about?”

While John is quick to point out that he is not a historian, Tiger Hunters references dramatic events in history – the march of the British colonialists, the opium wars, China in transition, the Second World War – and their impact on Tai O.

“There are terrible stories of the Japanese occupation, of starvation, violence, forced labour, and a torture chamber set up in the old Tai O Gas Station,” John says. “But there are stories of resistance too, for example from Wong Kei-tsai, said to be a triad, who always carried a pair of guns, and helped out the resistance by smuggling salt and bringing in food from mainland ports. And there were Tai O villagers who joined the guerrillas on Lantau’s hillsides.

“The Tai O Marine Police Station was liberated briefly by the resistance fighters until the Japanese took it back. As far as I know, it’s the only strategic site in Hong Kong that was wrestled back from the Japanese during the occupation.”

Should you visit what is now the tastefully renovated nine bedroom Tai O Heritage Hotel, you’ll be treated to the story of a rogue Indianpolice officer who killed his English superior, and held his wife and child hostage there in 1918.

wonders of tai o

What the future holds

Moving on from Tai O’s colourful past, the question is how will development plans, outlined in the Lantau Blueprint 2030+, affect the village? On the surface, Tai O seems well protected, as the blueprint advocates development in the North and conservation for the South, but there’s no denying that the government wants to up tourism on Lantau and grow its population. So, what does the future hold for Tai O?

“The tourist capacity of Tai O does need to be limited,” LIM’s Merrin reiterates. “Widening the existing road and increasing the number of bus permits for the closed South Lantau Road will only flood Tai O more than it already gets each weekend.

“While plans to build a cable car extension from Ngong Ping to Tai O have been scrapped, the ideas to build a light rail link from Tung Chung and to ‘improve’ access to the village by road, ferry and water taxi will open up Tai O for more mass development, unless the right urban planning rules are put in place.”

It’s hoped that the government will tread carefully with its development plans in and around Tai O. After all, as Merrin says, “Do we really need another Stanley-type place where the rawness of a very historic village has been lost?”

wonders of tai o


• Hong Kong with Stephen, www.stephentourhk.com
• Living Islands Movement, www.livingislands.org.hk
• Tai O Heritage Hotel, www.taioheritagehotel.com
• The Tiger Hunters of Tai O, www.blacksmithbooks.com

Images: by Andrew Spires and www.wikimedia.org

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