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Your guide to Kat O, the ancient marketplace of Mirs Bay

By Kelly Eng 15 July 2021

Header image courtesy of @tea_2046 (via Instagram)

In the western end of Mirs Bay and east of Sha Tau Kok, Kat O (吉奧)—a lone and misshapen island located a mere stone’s throw away from the Yantian Harbour of mainland China—boasted a former life as a thriving ancient marketplace. Although not small in size, it is now largely forgotten, despite its rich history and attractions. Follow our guide to discover the quaint beauty of Kat O, where the last vestiges of Hakka culture remain.

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History of Kat O

Located in the west of Mirs Bay and east of Sha Tau Kok, Kat O (吉奧) used to be home to several thousands of Hakka and Tanka villagers more than 300 years ago. During the Ming dynasty, inhabitants were forced out, and it was not until the 1660s that the Hakka moved back in. With its distinct terrace and abundant natural resources, Kat O was a paradise for fishermen and farmers and served as an ancient marketplace. Its ecological environment was also used as a crucial harbour for people travelling between Hong Kong and mainland China. 

Kat O flourished in the 1950s to 1960s, with a total population of 10,000 and more. Its people were blessed with a rich marine ecosystem, while several ceramics from the Bronze Age and the Song dynasty were also found on the island. During festivities like the Tin Hau Festival, locals would celebrate and watch parades and lion dances.

On 25 October 2006, around 7,000 people landed on the “Crooked Island” to celebrate the Cheung Chau Bun Festival (太平清醮). Villagers funded at least seven million dollars to decorate the island and host traditional shows. Visitors and locals alike began the commemoration early in the morning at 8 am. 

The Birthday Parade of Tin Hau (正誕大巡遊) started at noon, while some villagers danced with fish lanterns (漁燈舞) to seek blessings from divine deities. As people celebrated the festival for six days, they also enjoyed traditional snacks, such as put chai ko (缽仔糕) and lo mai chi (糯米糍), which were sold by the locals. 

However, modernisation has led to a population decline in the island, and, in 2005, its only educational institution Kut O Public School stopped operating as well. Due to the typhoon in 2018, the villages were severely damaged with the lack of electricity and clean water. Trees plummeted while bricks from old houses scattered everywhere, and piles of litter festered until they smelled. The government, however, simply sent 19 buckets of water to assist the two hundred locals living there. Although the situation has ameliorated now, there are only fifty residents left in Kat O today, with most of them being elderlies. During the tour, one would find many abandoned houses collecting dust or deteriorating, yet its traditional culture and heritage sites remain. The locals and historians have worked hard to preserve the island's treasures, so follow us and explore the hidden gold and gems on this wondrous island.

How to get there

Aside from chartering a private boat, which gives you more flexibility on your trip, the best way to get to Kat O is via ferry from Ma Liu Shui. Keep in mind that the ferry is only available on Saturdays, Sundays, and public holidays. It departs from Ma Liu Shui at 9 am and Kat O at 15.30 pm, so be sure not to miss it.

From Ma Liu Shui:
  1. Hop on the East Rail line to University Station (Exit B).

  2. Walk for 15 minutes to Ma Liu Shui Landing Steps No. 3.

  3. It takes around one and a half hours by boat before arriving at Kat O Pier.

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Attractions

Fisherman’s Village

Once you get off the ferry, your first destination would be the Fisherman’s Village. In this leisurely land surrounded by clear water and calm greeneries, moments of peace are easily found. Scattered boats sleep quietly on the beach and waters, while wild animals roam. With two-story houses aligning near the shore, as well as bamboo shelters extending out to the sea, the locals work on their daily routine amidst the alluring melody of gentle waves.

Kat O Main Street

Kat O Main Street and its significance date back to the early eighteenth century. Nowadays, several small teahouses, dried seafood shops, and grocery stores reside here. Grab an early lunch at Yik Man (益民茶樓), the first and oldest restaurant in Kat O, before continuing your journey. With a history of seventy years, the teahouse offers authentic handmade cuttlefish balls, poached prawns, and Hakka braised pork. Unlike the crowded alleys in a hectic city, this small village allows you to freely stroll around without worrying about bumping into others. You can also try out some local snacks, including stuffed tea cake made with sticky rice flour and herbal teas.

Kat O Square

In Kat O Square is where you will find the famous Tin Hau Temple, which was built in 1763 and serves as the most prominent building on the island. Dedicated to Mazu, the Chinese goddess of the sea, the walls are decorated with Shiwan ceramics figurines. A lot of the outlying islands in Hong Kong have their own Tin Hau temples; the one in Kat O, however, is extremely important for its residents, as they make a living through fishing. Locals would pray for good weather to ensure the safety of their family members when they are out at sea. Listed as a Grade III historical building, the temple continues to act as an important landmark for the Tin Hau Festival every year.

Afterwards, visit the Kat O Geoheritage Centre, which was converted from a village school, located inside of the Ti Hau Temple. You can learn about traditional Hakka costumes and handicrafts, see exhibitions of rocks and fossil specimens, and study the cultural relics and history of the island. Most displayed items are gifts from the local residents, but there is a beautiful mural painted by local artist Elaine Chiu as well. Outside of the centre is the Lovers’ Tree—myths claim that if one catches a falling leaf from it, then he or she will be blessed with a happy marriage.

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Hiking

Go on the Kat O Nature Trail (吉澳自然步道)—a 2.6-kilometre loop route near Wu Kau Tang (烏蛟騰)—and arrive at the mountaintops of the island for a panoramic view of Kat O. The hike starts at the Geoheritage Centre. Apart from some lengthy stairs, the family-friendly path is mostly paved and easy to walk on. You will find decaying houses along the way, so feel free to explore them as long as it is safe to do so.

The Kat O Nature Trail allows you to get a wholesome view of the Kat O pier and villages. Don’t forget to take photogenic pictures with the surrounding mountains and jade-tinted sea! Afterwards, take some time to relax at the beaches and shores, too, and you will most likely encounter some fish or feral cows milling about.

Distance: 2.6 kilometres approx.

Difficulty: Beginner

Total ascent: 94 meters approx.

Total time: 2 hours approx.

Coasteering

If you are comfortable with swimming in open water, why not try coasteering to fully admire the beautiful sceneries of Kat O? Just make sure you have prior experience in coasteering, as you would need to swim and climb high cliffs for this route. Also, double-check the weather and ensure that coasteering is safe on the day you visit.

Start from Fisherman Village until you reach the western shoreline. You will first pass by the “elephant trunk” rock and reach multiple high cliffs and shimmering beaches. You can get to the biggest cave on the island by swimming a short and easy distance, and if you trek further, you will arrive at another photogenic cave and spot Shenzhen! Now that you are at the easternmost point of Kat O, just continue along the coastline to finish your trip.

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Kelly Eng

Editorial intern

From dipping hot Cheetos in birthday cake ice cream to scuba-diving despite being ocean-phobic, Kelly loves exploring new and weird things with her family and friends. While her talents are eating and napping, she enjoys dancing, writing, and socialising as well. As an advocate of pineapple pizzas and durian tofu pudding, Kelly is also a passionate fan of K-pop, romance fiction, and sea otters.

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