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Hong Kong’s Ancient Walled Cities

 2017-09-14    ThomasIronmonk    Sights    Hong Kong    339  

Hong Kong, that sparkling city of Asian modernity, floating on islands of the South China Sea. Its image is rooted in the world’s mindset as an oriental Manhattan – a place of global finance, enormous malls, and luxuriant hotels. But it wasn’t always that way. In fact in the annals of history Hong Kong, at least the skyscraper forest we know and love, was forged from war along the pirate-ravaged coast of Guangdong Province.

Before the British turned up with their trade ships packed with opium to vend illicitly in Guangzhou, Hong Kong was a spattering of islands mostly used for fishing and salt production by various groups including the Tanka boat people, Punti Cantonese as well as clans of Hokkian and Hakka. By the Tang Dynasty, when Guangzhou was at the heart of a global trade network now known as the Maritime Silkroads, a military base was established on Tuen Mun. 

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By the time of the Qing Dynasty, maritime prohibitions meant that but a few thousand Chinese lingered in Hong Kong. In those desperate times, many even used their walled villages to shelter Japanese pirates. But when Britain annexed the island in 1841, and then the Kowloon Peninsula in 1860, things began to change quickly.

Hong Kong soon became a major entrep?t attracting immigrants not just from Europe but Mainland China as well.  Conflict and chaos in the latter Qing and early Republican era, drew more and more groups to settle in the relatively stable territory of Hong Kong and many established walls towns and villages, as was customary on the Mainland, to protect themselves from rival clans.

Perhaps the most famous, indeed an infamous walled city in Hong Kong was the Kowloon Walled City, which evolved from humble beginnings in the Song Dynasty into an enormous slum of 50,000 people at its peak. But Triad activity, prostitution, and gambling lead to its demolition in 1987 and subsequent reconstruction as a park.
Population and commercial pressures have lead to the destruction of much that was old in Hong Kong housing. However, in remote areas, some heritage survives, and for the history-minded traveler, the last of Hong Kong’s ancient walled towns and villages are well worth seeking out and exploring.

Tsang Tai Uk

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Sha Tin new town is a thriving place half way down the MTR line from Shenzhen to downtown Hong Kong. Some of the earliest immigrants here were the Hakka people, who built walled villages upon their arrival to protect them from their foes. Tsang Tai Uk is one of the last to survive, built in the 19th century by the Tsang clan. Constructed around a courtyard and ancestral halls it totals more than 6,000 square feet and features the typical central courtyard and ancestral hall. Walk in and time travel back to the world of the Hakka in the Qing Dynasty.

MTR: Che Kung Temple

Kat Hing Wai

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Photo Source: Peter Lam

Deep in the northwest of the New Territories, just outside the town of Yuen Long, Kat Hing Wai was established over 500 years ago during the reign of the Chenghua Emperor of the Ming Dynasty though the walls were built later, during in the early years of the Kangxi reign of the Qing Dynasty. This place, home to punti people, saw some action when in April 1899 locals rebelled against British Colonial rule using the walled village to hide in. After several attacks by British troops, the iron gates were blasted open and then shipped to London for though they were later returned. Today the village of Tang clan remains completed surrounded by a thick wall though they won’t attack curious traveler if you come to photograph this fascinating living museum.

MTR: Kam Sheung Road

Fanling Wai

Way up near the Shenzhen border, Fanling Wai is a walled village fronted by a lovely jade-colored pond. Fanling Wai was established by the Pang Clan, who arrived in Hong Kong way back in Song Dynasty. It wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty however that the place got its walls. As well as the protected gate-tower and Sam Shing Temple, there are some great watchtowers and even some old canons to check out around the village complex.

MTR: Sheung Shui


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