Header image courtesy of @kevincheng_photography (via Instagram)
A name that barely registers for most Hongkongers, Sha Tau Kok is among the least charted territories on the city’s map. Falling squarely within the restricted zone between Hong Kong and mainland China, the rural village hamlet has been fenced off from public entry since 1951, accessible only to local residents and permit-bearing individuals.
Although the government has started opening up parts of the forbidden frontier zone in the recent decade, the town itself remains locked away and largely viewed by most through a cloudy lens of mysticism. While Sha Tau Kok may not be a destination we can explore, its rich legacy nonetheless deserves to be told and appreciated. Read on to unravel the story of how a once-bustling economic hub transformed into a forgotten border town teetering on the brink of existence.
Having quietly slipped through the net of our collective consciousness over the past half-century, many may be surprised to learn that Sha Tau Kok was once a thriving town. Occupying the northernmost corner of Hong Kong, the proximity of Sha Tau Kok to mainland China meant that it was historically a convenient landing place for mainland Chinese immigrants. In fact, Sha Tau Kok was one of the earlier settlements to develop, its history stretching back to the seventeenth century.
With the early wave of immigrants hailing from southeast China during the early Qing dynasty, Sha Tau Kok’s original inhabitants were primarily Hakka or Hoklo people. While the two ethnic groups differed in their main source of livelihood—the former coming from a background of fishing while the latter of agriculture—the town’s unique location facing both the coast and land proved to be a geographical sweet spot, allowing both groups to thrive naturally in their new environment. Very soon, the town began to take shape and fill up with settlers.
By the early nineteenth century, the famous “Alliance of Ten” was founded. 10 local Hakka village districts banded together in order to defend against pirates and establish a stronger market network. With this strategic alliance, Sha Tau Kok emerged as a bustling village town and a nuclear trading hub for its surrounding communities. At the centre of everything was the Tung Wo Market, which served as a platform of trade for local crops and fish. It enjoyed its run for a century between around 1820 and 1930, boasting some hundred shops in its heyday!
Sha Tau Kok hit a major bump in the road in the late nineteenth century in face of British Imperial encroachments. Occupying such a frontier location, Sha Tau Kok was thrust front and centre onto the political stage with the Second Convention of Peking when the New Territories was to be acquired by Britain.
Sha Tau Kok was split into two by the Shenzhen River: South of the river would be under British sovereignty, while north of the river would be part of Chinese territory. While the vast majority of the area fell into British rule, two village districts of the 10 alliances—Sha Yu Chung and Yantian—as well as Tung Wo Market remained governed by Qing. Even so, the shake-up seemed to have little discouraging effects on Sha Tau Kok’s growth.
After the leasing of the New Territories, the western end of the water channel ran dry and a stone plaque was erected in the early twentieth century to mark colonial boundaries. What was once a section of the river turned into a short, 250-metre street later named Chung Ying Street (中英街)—“China England Street.”
Border controls were relatively lax, so villagers straddling the two lands were still allowed to freely interact and trade with one another. Driven by the natural trade convenience between the two lands, the demarcation line soon began populating with stalls on either side and eventually transformed into Sha Tau Kok’s new economic axis.
In an attempt to further boost economic activity and facilitate the flow of people and goods, an extension branch of the Kowloon-Canton Railway connecting Fanling and Sha Tau Kok opened in 1912. However, the line was short-lived and fraught with problems. After the parallel-running Sha Tau Kok Road was built in 1927, railway traffic further plummeted, and the Sha Tau Kok Railway ceased operations the following year.
Despite comfortably clearing its first hurdle, the slippery combination of Sha Tau Kok’s politically sensitive location and economic success would inevitably become a double-edged sword. With the outbreak of the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s came a great tide of Chinese refugees fleeing to Hong Kong. As a result, Sha Tau Kok turned into fertile grounds for smuggling and illegal immigration.
As illegal cross-boundary activities were spinning out of hand, it became clear to the Hong Kong government that tighter border regulations were necessary. In wake of this, the Frontier Closed Area was established in 1951 and Sha Tau Kok was made a restricted zone. By this new order, a wire fence was put up along the border and only those who possessed a permit could enter and exit the buffer area.
Although local residents were allowed to stay, the new restrictions made going in and out of the town a great hassle. Moreover, just a year after the Frontier Closed Area was ordered, the local government implemented a curfew in an attempt to prevent weapon smuggling amidst the Korean War. Villagers were required to be in their homes from midnight to 4 am. Even after the war, the curfew was kept to curb illegal immigration.
All at once, everything came to a dramatic halt and the town fell into eclipse. The downturn was further compounded by the simultaneous onset of industrialisation in the 1950s and 1960s. As Hong Kong’s industrial development began to pick up, the younger generations moved out into the urban centres to seek better education and job opportunities, leaving the older generations to tend to their declining businesses.
In 1978, China’s newly implemented open-door policy brought on renewed hopes of economic revival for Sha Tau Kok. Although Sha Tau Kok remained difficult to access from Hong Kong, the borders loosened to allow tourism from mainland China; and with the area being the only place in Hong Kong that was open to individual Chinese tourists, the town bounced back to experience a golden period of prosperity throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Chung Ying Street became a shopping haven for mainland Chinese spenders looking to get their hands on Hong Kong and foreign goods. At its height, the area served nearly 100,000 tourists a day, many of whom came with the purpose to purchase daily necessitates like watches, clothes, and soaps.
However, since the implementation of the Individual Visit Scheme in 2003, wherein mainland Chinese residents could freely visit Hong Kong and Macau on an individual basis, Sha Tau Kok lost its value as an exclusively accessible shopping zone, and the town receded into obscurity once more.
Since 2012, the Hong Kong government has started opening up parts of the Frontier Closed Area, significantly reducing its land coverage from 2,800 hectares to 400 hectares. Intrepid travellers are now able to wander into the northern mountains and villages that have been sealed away for over 60 years. And still, the elusive Sha Tau Kok remains tucked away in the restricted zone, glimpsed only in passing from the outside.
However, the lack of connectivity from the rest of the city has rendered Sha Tau Kok beautifully suspended in time, with much of its rural charms and Hakka heritage faithfully safeguarded by the remaining 4,000 residents.
Steeped in history, the town now proudly plays host to four declared monuments and dozens of graded historical buildings. Among the most recent addition to the list is the Hip Tin Temple. Rebuilt in the late nineteenth century to replace an earlier temple from the Ming dynasty worshipping the deity Kwan Tai, the Hip Tin Temple is one of the few surviving temples associated with the late Tung Wo Market and valued as a historic testament to Sha Tau Kok’s early development.
If there is one constant through the ebbs and flows of Sha Tau Kok’s chequered history, it’s the presence of a resilient community holding on to their heritage and history. Even as much of the younger working generation has moved out, the town comes alive during the weekends and holidays, with families returning to their homesteads and upholding age-old traditions. And perhaps with a bit of luck, this sentiment will be just enough to draw the border town of Sha Tau Kok out of its marginal existence.