Header image courtesy of @tho.calson (via Instagram)
Modern skyscrapers continue to overtake Hong Kong’s skyline day by day. While the city has always been famed for its contemporary buildings and ultra-convenient way of life, ramshackle fishing villages that once belonged to old coastal settlements are concealed behind thick coats of vegetation in remote corners of the city.
When Hong Kong embarked on its industrial journey in the 1980s, thousands of villagers abandoned their lifestyle on the shore and flocked to the city in hopes to find prosperity and success. Within a few decades, fishing villages that once teemed with life faded, along with their unique fishing heritage. We take a look into the abandoned fishing villages across Hong Kong whose skeletal legacies tell tales of coastal life from a not-so-distant past.
Beyond the gateway to the expansive hills of northern New Territories, the Plover Cove Reservoir is the largest freshwater reservoir in Hong Kong. For hiking enthusiasts, the undulated rolling hills of the Pat Sin Leng trail is a rewarding challenge that ends at a lookout with views of the Tolo Habour and Sai Kung. For history devotees, however, the Plover Cove Reservoir hides the forgotten tales of its earliest inhabitants.
Before the Plover Cove Reservoir was built in 1960, the former inlet was home to a cluster of six major fishing villages. Back in the day, villagers farmed, fished, and cultivated scallops to support their living. Although the reservoir answered a demand for running water in the New Territories, villages were abandoned and subsequently drowned at the bottom of the basin. Everything that spawned the charming inlet disappeared within nights.
Every year, when the water level at Plover Cove Reservoir recedes, the village ruins of Ha Wan (下環), Chung Mei (涌尾), and Wang Leng Tau (橫嶺頭) re-emerge. Pottery shards, glittering under the sunlight, are revealed. Stone grinders embellished with geometric carvings reappear along with fishing nets and wooden rods. Among fallen beams of stone are stairways and a stone plaque that reads “Wang Leng Tau, home of the Lee clan.”
On the southwestern corner of Lantau Island, a line across the ocean separates the brownish, muddy water of the Pearl River Estuary from the pristine blue water of the Eastern Sea. Named after this unique intersection and built in 1729, Fan Lau (分流) was once a vital defence port, a fishing village believed to be controlled by Chinese pirates, and a transit point for ships from Guangdong heading to Lei Yue Mun.
Fan Lau is reachable only by foot through the Fan Lau Country Trail, a scenic hike that meanders through groves, marshlands, and remote villages. While Fan Lau boasts pristine beaches with powdery sand and crystal-clear water, it is also a place of long-lost memories.
Tucked away from civilisation, this indigenous village is scattered with crumbling walls overtaken by weeds. While many of the houses have collapsed, a handful has miraculously endured the years of neglect. You can find patterned glass windowpanes—popular in the 1950s to 1970s—shielding the interiors of broken homes. Large chimneys and kilns built with red bricks have stood sturdy against the harsh ravages of time.
A Tin Hau temple at the furthest corner of the Fan Lau Miu Wan (分流廟灣) has stood gracefully as the guardian of the sea, and as a place of worship for villagers. In the temple’s anteroom is a traditional bed with embroidered slippers by its side, representing the home of the well-respected water deity.
In-between the forests on the furthest-flung island of Hong Kong’s so-called “Jumanji Island” are remains of its former life as a fishing village. Tung Ping Chau was once a fishing village with over two thousand inhabitants across 10 towns on the 1.6-kilometre peninsula.
Like all other abandoned villages in Hong Kong, Tung Ping Chau’s population began to dwindle in the 1940s when residents bid farewell to the fishing village in order to start a life in the city.
Today, the village houses are occupied with all types of curiosities and fragmented debris. Many are engulfed by banyan trees and Chinese morning glory, which give the deteriorating edifices a new sphere of life. A few dwellings amongst these villages are still inhabited by remaining families, whose doorways are marked with brightly coloured fai chun (揮春; spring couplets) with their unattached corners flapping in the wind.
While you are exploring the dramatic sea stacks and siltstone landscape on Tung Ping Chau, why not also stroll through the abandoned villages and imagine how life may have looked like mere decades ago?
Rooted in the hills and dense greenery of Sai Kung is Hei Tse Wan, an off-beat settlement that few venture into. Hei Tse Wan was a Hakka village that conquered the bay decades ago.
Past the Sheung Yiu Heritage Museum—a whitewashed Hakka village built in the nineteenth century—are antique lime kilns that were used to turn crushed seashells into pottery, bricks, and clay objects. Hei Tse Wan is just a few steps beyond this historic structure, where stone-built houses are consumed by trees and silvergrass.
A narrow path deeper into the lush forest opens up to Po Kwu Wan. Stretching across the bay lies a half-moon-shaped wall that was once necessary for the villagers at Hei Tse Wan. It had two gates to trap fish and sea creatures during high tide and acted as a pond to grow seafood. Po Kwu Wan is now an Instagram sensation for its quartz-like water and wall formation sandwiched between the pond and the sea, on which all visitors have to catwalk across.
For decades, So Lo Pun (鎖羅盆) has acted as a splendid backdrop to a long list of paranormal occurrences. During the Japanese occupation, villagers who tried to flee the village were beheaded on site, making it one of the most haunted villages in Hong Kong. Another tale follows a group of villagers who travelled back to So Lo Pun from the city for a celebration, only to find the entire village empty with piping hot food still on the tables.
Despite its ghostly past, So Lo Pun—once home to 60 to 70 families of the Wong clan during its peak years—continues to attract mystery enthusiasts and heritage conservationists. A short distance from the Starling Inlet, its former villagers relied on fishing, clam digging, and farming for a living.
Many of the village houses in So Lo Pun have been engulfed by roots and vines whose stems twine around trees and branches. It’s difficult to imagine how this area, now completely shrouded in dense vegetation where wild buffaloes roam freely, used to be a series of picturesque, farmed terraces.
In the shadows of the Tsing Ma Bridge, Ma Wan echoes a melancholic past. For over 200 years, Ma Wan was an analogue of Tai O, featuring pang uk (棚屋; “shack house”) communities with houses built on wooden stilts above tidal flats. By 2000, only around 800 villagers chose to remain on the island, once famous for its industrious output of homemade shrimp paste and dried seafood delicacies.
While many of the city’s abandoned villages have been left untouched for decades, Ma Wan is a relatively recent story. In 2011, residents in the old village were evicted to make room for a residential development expansion. Fittingly frozen in time like—the calendar hanging on the wall of a dilapidated room still reads “January 2011”—countless houses are left to crumble on their own. Inside what resembles the kitchen of a former home, a ceramic Kwan Tai (關二哥, guan1 yi6 go1) figurine stands on a surface patched with bright olive tiles. Above the tidal flats outside, deserted fishing boats sweep across the shore against the march of time, sunset after sunset.