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Hidden Hong Kong: The Five Great Clans of the New Territories

By Catharina Cheung 6 May 2020

Header images courtesy of @cm.kn and @adaleesy (Instagram)

The concept of strong family ties has always been deeply rooted in the Chinese worldview. Maintaining a respectful relationship for one’s parents, elders, and ancestors is seen as the backbone to establishing a good society. The ancient text Classic of Filial Piety, a purported transcript from the Qin-Han era of a dialogue between the philosopher Confucius and his student, has historically been the authoritative source of this key virtue.

During the New Culture Movement of 1911, the Chinese entered a period of disillusionment, regarding Confucian values as obstacles to modernisation—filial piety included. Under Mao Zedong’s socialist regime and Cultural Revolution, loyalty and dependence on the state instead of the family were indoctrinated into society instead. But such fundamental values are not so easily erased from the identities of entire cultures, and the idea of kinship remains strong, especially in southern China. Here’s a look into five of Hong Kong’s oldest family clans.

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A brief history

A lineage, sometimes also referred to as a clan, is a patrilineal group of Chinese people sharing a common ancestor and surname. This relation is reinforced by ties to an ancestral village, or even a common spoken dialect of Chinese sometimes unintelligible to those outside their village or clan. Each lineage will also have their own zupu, a textual register of their genealogy containing their origins, records of illustrious members, and names of the male line. Updating the zupu is an important task undertaken by the eldest member of the clan, and many such registers are still being actively used today.

There are a lot of Hongkongers whose family roots trace back to ancestors who moved down from mainland China. Among these are the Five Great Clans of the New Territories: five families that settled early into Hong Kong, and became sizable in the New Territories area. These lineages are the Tang, the Man, the Hau, the Pang, and the Liu, and they have been in the area for over hundreds of years, witnessing Hong Kong’s growth into the glimmering Pearl of the Orient that it is today. These historical bloodlines have preserved their legacies, such as the migration of their founding ancestors, village establishments, and the formation of the local geomancy.

The Tang clan

The Tangs are one of Hong Kong’s oldest families, and can trace their lineage back 30 generations in Hong Kong and 86 generations in the Mainland. In China, their surname is romanised as Deng, and they originate from Jishui in the Jiangxi province, the first out of the five great clans to settle in Hong Kong in the eleventh century. The Tangs are mostly based in Kam Tin, and their most famous village is Kat Hing Wai, which is a traditional walled village with a moat.

The Tangs based in Lung Yeuk Tau in Fanling even have claims to be of royal descent, as they are descendants of Tang Lum, who was the eldest son of a princess in the Southern Song dynasty. She was married to Tang Wai-kap, and their oldest son Tang Lum moved to Lung Yeuk Tau towards the end of the Yuan dynasty.

Within a few centuries, the clan prospered and branched out into the surrounding areas, establishing five walled villages (all ending with the Chinese character wai, meaning walled) and six villages. These are Lo Wai, Ma Wat Wai, Wing Ning Wai, Tung Kok Wai (also known as Ling Kok Wai), and San Wai, as well as Ma Wat Tsuen, Wing Ning Tsuen (also known as Tai Tang), Tsz Tong Tsuen, San Uk Tsuen, Siu Hang Tsuen, and Kun Lung Tsuen—collectively referred to as the “Five Wais and Six Tsuens.”

Because of their long history being in Kam Tin and Lung Yeuk Tau for more than 900 years, the Tangs still practice their traditional village customs to this day. Apart from communal ancestral worship during the spring and autumn equinoxes every year, they also hold lantern lighting ceremonies to bless newborn baby boys from the twelfth to the fifteenth day of the first lunar month.

The Lung Yeuk Tau Tangs will normally host such ceremonies at the Tang Chung Ling Ancestral Hall, and the Kam Tin Tangs at the Tang Ching Lok Ancestral Hall. Built in the early sixteenth century, the Tang Chung Ling Ancestral Hall is one of the largest such halls in Hong Kong, and sits between Lo Wai and Tsz Tong Tsuen. It was built and named for a sixth-generation Tang descendant, and houses the soul tablets of the Song dynasty princess and her husband Tang Wai-kap. It was declared a monument in 1997.

Even though younger members of the clan will have chosen to live outside the traditional village compounds and closer to the city instead, ceremonial gatherings and festivities will usually draw them back. Additionally, the clan also celebrates a Taoist ritual called the Tai Ping Ching Chiu Festival along with people from the neighbouring villages. Performed to invoke peace, this festival is held every decade, and the next one will be in November 2025. The Tang lineage are now spread among the New Territories, in the areas of Kam Tin, Ping Shan, Ha Tsuen, Lung Yeuk Tau, and Tai Po Tau, but they jointly hold an ancestral worship ceremony at their ancestral graves on the seventeenth and nineteenth days of the ninth lunar month every year.

The Man clan

This clan claims descent from Man Sai-go, who originated from Sichuan. The Mans then moved to Jiangxi and eventually migrated further south, settling near the area of San Tin in Yuen Long during the fourteenth century. For approximately six centuries, the Mans mainly made their living by cultivating a strain of red rice along the Sham Chun River—a produce that is special because its paddies are of brackish water. The development of the originally marshy lands by the Mans is immortalised in the area’s very name: San Tin means “new fields.”

One of Hong Kong’s best-preserved ancestral halls sits within San Tin: the Man Lun Fung Ancestral Hall. Named after an eighth-generation Man, it features ornate fascia boards running along the roof which depict scenes from Chinese folklore, and was declared a historical building of notable merit in 1983.

Another building of interest nearby is the Tai Fu Tai mansion. Built in 1865 during the Qing dynasty, it was the residence of Man Chung-luen, and is a great enduring example of a traditional Chinese dwelling for the scholar-gentry class. It features multiple courtyards, a garden at the back, and even a roofless room that Chung-luen used for writing poetry under the moon and stars. Located in the main lounge are two wooden carvings bearing both the Han Chinese and Mun Qing Manchurian script, which were gifts from the Emperor Guang-xu in 1875. Interestingly, there are some Western elements to this Chinese dwelling as well, such as the doors with detailed Rococo-style carvings comparable to those used in eighteenth-century France.

A notable personage among this lineage is Man Tin Cheung, who was a scholar-general and a great hero in the Song dynasty. A statue commemorating this soldier, who was known for his strict moral code and a sense of righteousness, stands on top of a hill just east of the village.

Because of its far-flung location next to the Lok Ma Chau border to Shenzhen, most of San Tin’s inhabitants have chosen to leave and the area remains quirkily underdeveloped. A good number of Mans have spread overseas, mainly to the United Kingdom or the Netherlands. Because of this, villagers supposedly have developed a tendency to ask rare Western visitors to San Tin whether they are British or Dutch!

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The Hau clan

The surname Hau originated from a title of Chinese nobility, often translated as the rank of ‘marquis.’ The Hau lineage moved to Hong Kong towards the end of the twelfth century, during the Southern Song dynasty, and have settled in Ho Sheung Heung, Sheung Shui, for more than 600 years.

Ho Sheung Heung is comprised of four villages, namely Nam Pin Wai, Pak Pin Wai (also known as Lo Wai), Chung Sum Tsuen, and Chung Wai Tsuen. Of these, Pak Pin Wai is a walled village. The Hau Ku Shek Ancestral Hall in the area was listed as a declared monument in 2003. The Hau clan have also settled in three branch-villages, which are Yin Kong, Kam Tsin, and Ping Kong. The Hau Mei Fung Ancestral Hall in Kam Tsin is also a declared monument; this village also houses the Earth God Shrine and the Hau Chung Fuk Tong Communal Hall—Grade One and Two historic buildings, respectively.

There is quite a bit of distance between the four settlements, so while the Haus recognise that they are kin and will uphold the obligations of mutual aid, they have split into four politically distinct units under four different leaderships. Interestingly, these old clans sometimes got into skirmishes with each other, and one particular incident involving the Haus and the Mans had lasting consequences.

The San Tin Mans were numerous but poor, and for years they resorted to terrorism of sorts, taking annual protection fees from weaker villages in return for patrolling and guarding against bandits and thieves. The Haus living in the village of Ping Kong eventually felt they were strong enough on their own, and stopped paying the Mans. The Mans then grouped together and attacked Ping Kong, but the Haus had called in reinforcements from their clansmen in Kam Tsin, and killed the leader of the Mans. They lost heart and beat a hasty retreat, but not before destroying the Hau ancestral hall located outside Ping Kong. Since then, the Haus have rebuilt their ancestral hall inside the village walls—possibly a unique instance in the New Territories.

Similar to the Tang clan, the Hau lineage also hosts the Tai Ping Ching Chiu festival every decade, with the last instance in 2018. This occurs in Ping Kong, one of the very few villages in Hong Kong to still continue this practice. Going through the Hau zupu genealogy book, the first five males who toss both the ‘Holy Cups’ face-up are chosen as the representatives to lead the ceremony. The festival itself involves a lot of special ceremonial events such as running a mock horse through the village which will collect the villagers’ names and send them heaven-ward, and having a ‘ghost king’ catch evil spirits which will then be burnt at the end of the ceremony. The Hau lineage will then gather for a traditional basin meal banquet called poon choi, and each household in the clan will receive a cut of roasted pork.

The Pang clan

The Pang lineage is based in the northern part of the New Territories, with three principal hamlets in Fanling Wai. This is comprised of Ching Wai—also known as Chung Wai, and the only walled hamlet of Fanling Wai—Pak Wai, and Nam Wai. Fanling Chung Wai has distinctive features such as a pond, cannons, and watchtowers. The entrance gate tower has three circular gun holes built in and, along with the watchtowers in the southwest and northwest, are Grade Three historic buildings. Fanling Wai’s cannons were buried during the Japanese Occupation, and were only excavated in 1986; they are now on display in front of the walled village.

Originally from Chaozhou in eastern Guangdong, the Pangs have lived in Hong Kong since 1190. They have since amassed various kinds of corporate property, and a large portion of these landholdings are held by their ancestral trusts, categorised under zhou or tong. Zhou, meaning “ancestors,” is for properties made available when a Pang male passes away without dividing his estate to male progeny, or if he doesn’t have anyone with his name to leave it to. The zhou property is then named after the deceased, and the income from the corporate property paid out to close agnatic kin, with the stipulation that the descendants worship the ancestor—this is a remnant of the past when having proper respects and care paid to the dead are of utmost importance. Tong organisations are established by donations from clan villagers, who pool money together to buy land for renting out.

The income from the Pang clan corporate assets is mainly used to fund ceremonies such as ancestor worship, ritual celebrations, and education. Like the Tangs, they also celebrate a religious event for good luck and prosperity once every decade, with the celebration lasting four days and five nights. Over the Lunar New Year, there is a ritual for the religious purification of the lineage that also celebrates the addition of new males in the clan; the Pangs also hold ancestral worship ceremonies at the Pang Ancestral Hall (also called Tai Tak Tong) during the spring equinox, and at the ancestral graves during the ninth lunar month every year. After these ceremonies, there will usually be a basin meal banquet hosted in the ancestral hall as well.

As for education, the Pang ancestral trusts also funded the lineage’s schooling. For instance, the Tsz Tak Study Hall was funded by the Tsz Tak trust and named for its founding ancestor. Originally, lineage members would receive free education in this study hall; students later received subsidiaries to attend school outside the village instead. From 1936 to 1957, it housed the government-subsidised Fanling Public School, and is now a Grade Two historic building used for ancestral worship of the Sze-yan lineage. What remained of the ancestral trust revenues after funding rituals and education would traditionally be divided among trust households in the form of pork—a common practice among such clans in the New Territories. With the Pangs, the amount of pork distributed would be divided per male member.

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The Liu clan

The first Liu arrived in Hong Kong from the Fujian province towards the end of the Yuan dynasty, the fourth of the five great clans to settle in the territories. They have not branched off elsewhere, and the lineage still lives in the one village-cluster in Sheung Shui. By the seventh generation, the Lius had greatly expanded their numbers and lived all around the Sheung Shui area in small settlements. A geomancer was among them and, according to the Liu genealogy, advised that they all come together to form a village so they can retain close familial relationships with mutual aid available. They eventually did as recommended, and moved together to the village of Tsung Pak Long.

Sheung Shui Wai is the core of the area traditionally occupied by the Lius, and its construction was finished around 1584. Wai Loi Tsuen is the original settlement, and is one of the rare few rural settlements that has retained its original moat. As the population grew, other settlements were added: Po Sheung Tsuen, Chung Sum Tsuen, and Mun Hau Tsuen were founded between 1819 and 1898. These villages are collectively named Sheung Shui Heung.

The Liu Man Shek Tong Ancestral Hall in Mun Hau Tsuen is the clan’s main ancestral hall, and has been a declared monument since 1985. In Po Sheung Tsuen, the Liu Ying Lung Study Hall—a traditional building consisting of two halls with an open courtyard in between—is a Grade Two historic building, and has also won an Honourable Mention in the 2006 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Culture Heritage Conservation.

The Liu lineage is one of seven clans in the city that still perform the annual Spring Rite, which takes place on the second day of the second lunar month. Performed by members of the village committee, this rite worships the Dragon God, God of the Earth, and more deities. They also have ancestral worship ceremonies at the ancestral graves on the ninth and 10th days of the ninth lunar month every year. This ritual includes inviting deities, presenting offerings, and the sharing of roasted pork, after which the Liu lineage members will then hold a poon choi banquet to mark the end of the ceremonies.

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Catharina Cheung

Senior editor-at-large

Catharina has recently returned to her hometown of Hong Kong after spending her formative years in Singapore and the UK. She enjoys scouring the city for under-the-radar things to do, see, and eat, and is committed to finding the perfect foundation that will withstand Hong Kong’s heat. She is also an aspiring polyglot, a firm advocate for feminist and LGBTQIA+ issues, and a huge lover of animals. You can find her belting out show-tunes in karaoke, or in bookstores adding new tomes to her ever-growing collection.

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