Header images courtesy of @mandymackenzieng and @sam_bingying (via Instagram)
With little written documentation of Hong Kong before British colonisation, the history of our city’s humble beginnings as a small fishing village has always been partially veiled in the mists of time, and how we come to understand it is largely through what has been passed on to later generations through preserved customs and oral traditions.
One such folklore that emerged from Hong Kong’s early days is that of Lo Ting, the half-man, half-fish hybrid species that allegedly inhabited the Lantau Island area and is hailed as the “ancestor” of Hong Kong people. Read on for a brief history of these mythical merpeople and the legacy left in their wake.
The story of Lo Ting is often spoken in relation to the beginnings of Hong Kong, which cannot be separated from its indigenous people. Comprised of four main tribes—the Tanka, the Hoklo, the Hakka, and the Punti—these indigenous ethnic groups started forming sizable communities in Hong Kong during the Song dynasty (960 to 1279 AD), but the forebearers of the boat-dwelling Tanka people are said to have been surviving off the coast of Hong Kong since an unknown time long before that.
With a rather hazy idea of the origins of these nomadic people, various conjectures and myths have been forged to account for their emergence; and a prevailing local story told of how the sea-based Tanka clans were descended from a species of merpeople known as Lo Ting (盧亭). Historically pegged as social outcasts and scorned by the land-dwelling Hoklo, the negative stigma of the Tanka people’s perceived inferiority is likewise reflected in the less-than-flattering—and even barbaric—portrayal of Lo Ting.
Mentions of Lo Ting in ancient Chinese texts date back as early as the Eastern Jin dynasty. However, popular imagery of the half-fish, half-human creatures has changed significantly over the centuries. Modern depictions are generally based on what has been described in documents from the Qing dynasty. One frequently cited source, New Narratives of Guangdong (廣東信語) by Qing scholar Qu Dajun, indicated that Lo Ting resided along the coast of modern-day Lantau Island and were characterised by their black-and-yellow eyes, short, brownish fur, and long tails.
Much like their alleged descendants, Lo Ting primarily fished for food and rarely interacted with land dwellers, except when they bartered their fish with the residents of Tai O in exchange for chicken. The mysterious hybrid had a peculiar penchant for chicken blood, and would occasionally even sneak onto land and steal chicken to appease their insatiable appetite. They did not speak human languages and would dive underwater when frightened, staying in the sea for upwards of three days at a time.
As bizarre as this all seems, the origins of these waterborne creatures were not completely fabricated out of thin air, but actually traces back to a historical figure Lo Chun from the Eastern Jin dynasty (317 to 420 AD).
Towards the end of the fourth century, the Eastern Jin dynasty was terribly misruled and the nation was in dire straits. Riding on the wave of internal political chaos, Lo Chun led an uprising to overthrow the corrupt monarchy, charging a strong army of 100,000 men to the capital.
Yet, after Lo Chun had defeated the area surrounding the capital, he conceded to an offer made by the imperial government that would appoint him a provincial officer of Guangzhou. This was done to the effect that Lo Chun and his army would retreat to the far-flung southern corner of the country, away from the political battlefield.
In 410 AD, only a few years after accepting the concession, Lo Chun grew disgruntled and attempted to launch another attack against the Eastern Jin dynasty, but faced fierce retaliation from a northern rebel army led by Liu Yu, who had his eyes set on the throne. After losing numerous battles, Lo Chun’s army was almost entirely destroyed. He and his remaining troops were forced to flee southwards and sought refuge in Hong Kong. Later, Lo Chun was chased down all the way to modern-day Hanoi, where he was cornered to a point of no escape and ultimately committed suicide.
Although Lo Chun could not save himself from his ill-fated defeat, his surviving troops lingered on Lantau Island, spending the rest of their days in the hidden caves along the Lantau coastline and predominantly engaged in fishery-related activities. Leading a rather hermitic life, the descendants of these former army men eventually evolved into the half-human, half-fish beings later known as Lo Ting. Some versions of the story regard Lo Chun to be the first of the Lo Ting species.
Despite their otherworldly demeanour, Lo Ting people mostly kept to themselves and posed little threat to people on land. And yet, legend has it that they were embroiled in a tragic massacre during the Song dynasty. In 1197, the Song government wanted to exert an absolute monopoly of salt and prohibited all private salt-making, much to the detriment of the Lo Ting, who relied on salt-making for their livelihood.
They protested when their salt and salt pans were confiscated, but they were met with severe opposition. In a bid to suppress the roaring crowds, the Song army charged into Lantau Island and wiped out the majority of the Lo Ting population. It is posited that the few that managed to survive the massacre became the early ancestors of the Tanka people.
The story of Lo Ting remained rather obscure throughout the centuries, and has only started to crop up again in more recent decades. In the late 1990s, against the backdrop of the handover, Lo Ting was brought to the forefront of cultural discourse. The half-fish, half-human creature was seen as an analogy for Hong Kong’s hybridised post-colonial identity, caught straddling the cultural milieus of China and Britain.
Oscar Ho, an art critic and associate professor at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, notably explored this in his three-part exhibition Museum 97, which took place at Hong Kong Arts Centre from 1997 to 1999. The trilogy exhibits an array of sculptures and artworks inspired by Lo Ting, as well as fabricated archaeological findings of Lo Ting, giving space for artists to respond to the ambiguous period of change through the narration of an alternative history that is created by and uniquely belongs to Hong Kong people.
Since 1997, Lo Ting has been a subject in a number of other local popular culture media spanning plays and movies to television shows. These include the 2014 outdoor theatre production by Theatre Horizon entitled Luting: Goodbye History, Hello Future; the 2019 TVB series Our Unwinding Ethos; and the 2016 romantic comedy fantasy film The Mermaid, co-written, directed, and produced by Stephen Chow. It is evident from these later-day portrayals of Lo Ting has shifted from previously an angle of bigotry and intolerance to sympathy.
Unlike history, myths and their meanings often change with the natural progression of culture and society to fit with the times. The mythical figure of Lo Ting was once strictly attached to the historically segregated Tanka people, but through artistic, literary, and pop culture re-imagination, it has evolved to represent the ancestor of Hong Kong people at large. Regardless of how the story of Lo Ting will continue to be retold, the heart of the myth marks its importance in its homage to the beginnings of Hong Kong and the hybrid features of our city inherently made up of migrants.