“Indigenous” people in Hong Kong
When you think of “indigenous” people in Hong Kong, you would probably think of New Territories’ indigenous inhabitants (新界原居民) – those male descendants who have a special “right” to build three-storey “small houses” (“丁屋”, in colloquial Cantonese) in a registered village of the New Territories. They are represented by the Heung Yee Kuk, or Rural Council. Not the type of indigenous villagers living in remote forests or islands like the ones we see in National Geographic.
Tung Ping Chau, a remote island in northeastern Hong Kong
Some years ago, a university classmate of mine was visiting Hong Kong from the United States. During his short stay in Hong Kong, he had done some research on tourist attractions – one of which was Tung Ping Chau (東平洲), a rather remote island in the northeast of Hong Kong. I recalled that the island was so remote that there was no signal for my phone whilst I was there. Yes, such place do exist in Hong Kong. It was quite an experience.
My friend found that a ferry would go there every Saturday morning from Sai Kung, and depart from Tung Ping Chau back to Sai Kung that evening. You can’t miss the ferry because there was only one available per week. If you miss it, you will have to find a lodge (or someone willing to let you in, or build your own camp) to stay until you somehow charter an unlicensed speed boat to escape the island. He booked two round-trip tickets and there we went.
I met an indigenous villager for the first time
When we arrived in Tung Ping Chau, we had a whole day to hike – through the forests and abandoned villages, and whatnot. It was up to us to explore. There were many abandoned village houses because almost all of the villagers have moved to the city. So we were simply there taking photos of the forest and abandoned houses, until we walked into what looked like a make-shift “tent” surrounded by pots and pans.
As I was taking more photos, I heard a noise, calling out, “Hello, friend!” I couldn’t see anyone, but the noise came from the tent’s direction. I heard again, “Friend!” and again, “Friend, friend!” I walked closer, and a slim tanned middle aged man wearing nothing but shorts emerged from the bushes. I didn’t know what to make of this, and walked closer with my friend, with much curiosity.
Mr. Tam’s ancestors have lived there for 300 years
The man introduced himself as Mr. Tam. I introduced myself and my friend, who did not understand Cantonese. Mr. Tam told us that his family has lived here for 300 years in his little wooden house next to the tent. The little house had only one floor – it was really one room. He explained that 300 years ago, ancestors moved here from a village in China and have lived on this island ever since.
Except for Mr. Tam himself, the Tam family no longer live on the island because they, including his children, have all moved into the cities. He was the only one left who was willing to stay on this island and watch over the ancestral home. Otherwise, the little house would be abandoned like all those other houses. Mr. Tam allowed me to take a look inside the little house (see photo above).
He invited me into his home and offered me traditional tea
Mr. Tam is really kind. He asked if me and my friend would like something to drink, and fetched us some sweet traditional tea from his pot. It tasted like a mixture of Chinese sweet soup and traditional medicinal tea. It was a little scary being offered a drink by a complete stranger – you are on this remote island, meet a stranger, and he invites you into his home, and offers you some tea – this could easily have turned out like the movie Hostel. If you haven’t seen it, watch it.
Many of us would refuse if offered a drink by a total stranger (except those soft drink ladies offering samples). What if it was poison? But I remember taking a cultural anthropology course in university, where I learned this concept called “participant observation,” coined by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. Malinowski spent many years in Papua New Guinea living amongst the native peoples. His concept of “participant observation” was that to understand a people’s culture, you must participate in it as if you are one of them.
And me and my friend drank the tea. Don’t worry, I was fine (or else I won’t be here writing this post). I talked to my friend after, who said, “I was hesitant at first but then he looked quite healthy so I thought I probably won’t die from drinking his tea!” Mr. Tam later explained that we must have met because of “緣” (“fate”, “destiny”, or “cause” in English), and pointed to the “緣 Cause” wind chime hanging at his door (see above photo of Mr. Tam’s home).
The indigenous way of life
The house had no electricity. There was no telephone signal. No TV. No internet. No Facebook. No WhatsApp. Just himself in his little house. There was no way out of this island other than a weekly ferry, unless he had chartered (or built) a boat to escape. Theoretically he could have swam to nearby islands, or to China. How he lived was to do some shopping every week in the city for an entire week of supplies and would come back and make-do for the rest of the week.
I never thought that there were native peoples actually living on deserted islands in Hong Kong. But none of the inconveniences mattered – Mr. Tam had connection with the land. After all, he felt a deep personal connection with an island where his ancestors had lived for hundreds of years. He felt he was doing his filial duty watching over his ancestral home. Through my visit of Mr. Tam’s home in Tung Ping Chau, I came to have some strong reflections on what it means to be a “real” HongKonger.
Mr. Tam’s example challenges us on the perception of a HongKonger. There is not one “true” stereotype or model on what a HongKonger should be. Just when you thought HongKongers must be city dwellers, Mr. Tam challenges this by living in his ancestral home of 300 years, in a remote island with no electricity or telephone reception. He is a true HongKonger whose roots have been here for 300 years. I hope Mr. Tam’s descendants will continue to watch over their ancestral home for generations to come.