By ALICE ZHAO
KONG KONG – The shipman smiled and said “take care” when I boarded his wooden boat. It was 2:00 p.m. The sun unintentionally baked passengers waiting for the ferry. Tinted lenses from tourists reflected the glimmering aqua rippling the Sai Kung Ferry. When the boat was loaded with 28 passengers, the shipman leaned forward and gripped the wheel. With the putt-putt booming, a white line tracked on the turquoise surface, we were heading south, to the abandoned village–Yim Tin Tsai.
The 15-minute boat ride landed me on the village of Yim Tin Tsai, an abandoned village in a forgotten island. Standing on the pier, I saw houses with indistinct tiled roofs, a rustic look tucking away in lush green plants. Hong Kong is never short of unsurprising contrasts. In a city where housing price ranks atop worldwide and most people cram themselves in tiny high-rise apartments, rural homes sit abandoned.
As the pebbled alley leading to the inland ascents, a thick tree stands at the entrance, as if guarding the villagers already gone. I recognized it from the sightseeing guide as the Age-Old Tree. There I knew my cast-away journey had begun.
Deserted houses stood in the mud ground, doors open and windows broken. Some remained well-preserved, with pink ceramic tiles covering the wall and aluminum alloy framing the window. Some seemed much frailer, with dilapidated walls hardly enclosing the space once called home. Some plants had intruded the room, finding themselves a civilized ground.
In a decrepit home, debris covers every inch of the floor; a potter bowl sits at the edge of the traditional countryside stove; two old-fashioned coats are hung on the stained wall.
The houses all face the south, engulfed by hills. In this way, the villagers in the past could have more sunshine to dry their grains and be protected from typhoons. Yim Tin Tsai was once a Hakka village. The first generation immigrated from Yim Tin, now parts of Yantian District in Shenzhen in the 19th century. The population once reached its peak of 500(some say more than 1000). Catholic missionaries started preaching and built the chapel in Yim Tin Tsai 150 Years ago, a benchmark of the early development of the catholic religion in Hong Kong.
The church remains the most well-preserved building on the island, known as St. Joseph’ Chapel. The Cross stands out on the red roof. Tourists waited patiently beside a bronze bell in front of the chapel to take pictures. Built in 1890, the chapel is the landmark of the village. In 2005, the village was given an award by the UNESCO (Asian-Pacific) for its preservation of the cultural heritage.
An overgrown path sided by green bushes led me way up to a pavilion standing on the south edge of the island. To the east, across the mangrove green, I saw the village’s graveyard. The younger generation had left the island their ancestors had immigrated, while the old stayed forever. To the south, across the glistening navy blue of sea, on the Kau Sai Chau Island, people were playing golf on the green course. Some left the island towards the urban for fortune, while some left their fortune towards the island for leisure.
From the pavilion, a five-minute walk south led me to the Jade-Girdle Bridge. The bridge curves to the edge of Kau Sai Chau Island as a crescent. The navy aqua along both sides remains still, flicking with constant ripples. Both edges extend to the thick greenery of various trees and bushes. Tourists sit cross-legged on the bridge, chatting, resting, taking pictures, shedding sweat…Overhead the sky turns less light, as the sun starts withdrawing its heat.
My last stop was the salt pans. This was how the village name, Yim Tin Tsai(鹽田仔), comes from. The early villagers derived their livelihood from the yim tin, salt pans, using natural evaporation method. At high tides, the sea water would be channeled into the pans and can be dried by the heat of the sunlight till the salt crystallized
Today, the salt pans are still glistening with water silvered by the sunlight. Along the bank, crabs claw around, busy with their leisure in the cozy sunlight.
While waiting for the boat back to Sai Kung, I talked with friends of plans in the evening. Monkok, Tsim sha Tsui, MTR…Words popped out as we sat in the abandoned island. In an hour, I would be back to the bustling streets choked with crowds and traffic. A look back on the Age-Old Tree was my last glimpse of the village before I boarded the boat, heading to the steel-and-glass urban Hong Kong.