Header image courtesy of Dr Martin Williams
Did you know there is locally produced salt in Hong Kong? Yim Tin Tsai (鹽田仔; “Little Salt Field”) contains one of Hong Kong’s only salt pans. Surprisingly, this little island once sustained 1,200 people through farming, fishing, and salt-making—before everyone left their village houses to live more urbanised lives on Hong Kong’s mainland.
What was once an abandoned island has since been revived by a group of motivated villagers. We now get to enjoy its cultural and ecological features, and the Yim Tin Tsai Arts Festival encapsulates the small community perfectly in with how it “exemplifies the peaceful co-existence of Roman Catholicism and Hakka culture.”
Boasting only 0.24 square kilometres in land area, the petite island of Yim Tin Tsai is perfect for a one-day on-foot exploration with the family and little ones. Follow the latest instalment of our island-hopping series for a look into Yim Tin Tsai and all the things there are to do on this once-forgotten island.
Yim Tin Tsai (鹽田仔; “Little Salt Field”) can trace the significance of its name to about 300 years ago, from when the Hakka folks of the Chan family made their way to the small island all the way from Shenzhen.
At the same time as the establishment of the village, Catholic priests also arrived and began preaching about the Catholic faith. Villagers developed sustainable methods of fishing, farming, and salt farming to sustain themselves. Local production and exportation of salt helped the island rise economically, and Yim Tin Tsai was at its most prosperous in the 1940s, with over a thousand residents and salt fields that stretched six acres.
However, rural life became increasingly difficult—salt was produced in China and Vietnam for cheaper and education opportunities were limited. It prompted the wave of emigration to Hong Kong’s mainland, with the last family moving out in 1998. Yim Tin Tsai then became uninhabited and was named “Hong Kong’s ghost island.”
A movement to revitalise the island started in 2000 amongst the descendants of the original villagers. Donations were collected to renovate and conserve the historical chapel in 2004, a year after Joseph Freinademetz, the reverend who set up the chapel, was canonised by Pope John Paul II. Continuous support led the descendants to create the heritage trail around the old Hakka village homes and to revive old salt fields.
Planning ahead but with no prior ferry booking: Make your way to Yim Tin Tsai from the Sai Kung Public Pier in 15 minutes by kaito (街渡; small motorised ferry). Round-trip tickets ($60) are available at the reception counter, which can be found at the rightmost of the pier next to Hung Kee Seafood Restaurant.
Note that there are multiple kaito operators at the pier, so look for those with the Yim Tin Tsai flag hoisted. Trips to and from the island are only available on weekends on an hourly basis from Sai Kung Public Pier and a specific time schedule from Yim Tin Tsai Pier. A sticker that indicates admission to the salt pans and the Yim Tin Tsai Heritage Exhibition Centre to see Hakka cultural artefacts is also included in the purchase of your ferry ticket.
Here are the timings for your reference:
|From Sai Kung Public Pier||From Yim Tin Tsai Pier|
|10 am||12.20 pm|
|11 am||2.20 pm|
|12 am||4 pm|
|1 pm||5 pm|
Book in advance for your group: Take this opportunity to plan your trip and book transportation in advance. At $60 per head, pre-booked visits are available through email at [email protected]—there must be a minimum of 10 people for a group visit and 20 for a guided visit. Parties with fewer than the minimum attendees will be charged the same. For instance, a group of 16 will charged the same as a group of 20 for a guided visit.
Group arrival and departure times to Yim Tin Tsai are to be self-arranged as well—with the earliest kaito leaving at 9.30 am from the Sai Kung Public Pier, while the latest departs Yim Tin Tsai at 5 pm. In special circumstances, arrangements by the Salt and Light Preservation Centre, the non-profit organisation founded by village descendants to conserve and nurture the cultural and ecological values of Yim Tin Tsai, will be made.
Yim Tin Tsai is not only filled with activities, but also picturesque sights. From architecture and nature to art and food, the island is perfect for a day trip, and if you want to really spend time appreciating the sights and history of the island, you might want to carve out another day just to enjoy the different activities in their entirety.
Guided tours ($30 per person) are available and especially suitable for first-timers to the island. In just two hours, you will learn the history of Yim Tin Tsai—retracing the footsteps of the Catholic missionaries and St Joseph’s Chapel, learning about Hakka culture by visiting the Yim Tin Tsai Heritage Exhibition Centre, and the salt pans.
If you prefer something more experiential, their spiritual retreats may be to your liking. Opt for the pilgrimage ($30) and the Road of Reconciliation ($30), both of which are two-hour activities that will help you become more in tune with your faith through mediation, prayers, and reflections.
In-depth tours, which last for three hours, are also offered for those wishing to go on a spiritual journey ($45) or attend a taizé prayer service ($45). On the other hand, the chapel is free to visit and available for group praying and meditating activities. Donations are welcome and receipt for tax exemption is available upon request.
Larger groups, organisations, and schools can also collect themselves in the activity room. At an hourly rate of $200 per person, audio-visual utilities, air-conditioning, tables, and chairs are included. Fittingly, preparation meetings with instructors ($500) are also available for mini-lectures about the island.
For those who think spirituality is too woo-woo and would rather experience the wonders of Yim Tin Tsai through good old elbow grease, the sea salt-making workshop ($100) is the activity for you. Hosted by the salt pan’s full-time volunteers, participants will learn how seawater forms crystals and get to examine trays of salt in different stages of the production process over a two-hour workshop. Lastly, you will get to harvest and sweep up some crystals yourself and bring home the salty fruits of your labour! Be sure to contact the salt pan workers on Facebook or Instagram before your visit to check for the most up-to-date workshop schedule.
Yim Tin Tsai is wholly built on Hakka culture—from the people and food to its architecture. Despite covering only six acres of land, the island embodies multi-cultural influences. Chinese tiles pitched on the village houses alongside the European architecture of St Joseph’s Chapel present a new combination of East-meets-West.
Such village houses, which were mostly built in the 1950s on the hillside of the southwestern part of the island, are structured as duplex units. The symbiotic relationship of the Hakka and Catholicism is also reflected in the interplay of these constructed houses with nature—families mainly relied on natural lighting and ventilation to carry out daily activities. Each unit has a yard in front of the house with trees planted for shade and shelter.
St Joseph’s Chapel has taken on multiple forms over the centuries. In 1890, the current iteration replaced the old church, as Reverend Joseph Freinademetz preached about the Catholic faith and villagers got baptised. The architecture of the chapel is simple, but still represents the aesthetic combination of Catholicism and rural Hakka culture. In 2005, the conservation of the chapel was recognised by UNESCO and won an Award of Merit. Successively, in 2011, the Hong Kong Antiquities Advisory Board rated the chapel as a Grade II historical building.
As the only active well for the entire village, the Spring of Living Water provided enough for drinking, washing, and other needs for more than a thousand villagers. It was instrumental to agricultural activities as well, as freshwater was sourced here for fishing and farming. A small reservoir was eventually built to store water. Due to this crucial forethought, the Spring of Living Water got the villagers of Yim Tin Tsai through a drought in the early 1960s.
Apart from getting a glimpse of life as a Hakka villager, the island also offers a look into the future with the concept of an “open museum.” The Yim Tin Tsai Arts Festival, a three-year pilot scheme, presents the co-creation and collaborative efforts of Hong Kong’s budding artists and villages through an exhibition of art installations, scattered across the island to highlight the cultural and ecological significance of Yim Tin Tsai.
The aim of the Yim Tin Tsai Arts Festival is to “tell stories closely related to the people of the island [and] to showcase the harmonious co-existence of human and nature.” As a result of the conservation efforts of the early 2000s, the festival is used as a launchpad to continue the revitalisation of the island and community.
As the island gained popularity amongst local and overseas tourists, there are now more options for food on the island. Chef De Yim Tin is a quaint little restaurant by the pier. With indoor and outdoor sitting available, the private kitchen serves drinks and a limited food menu. Its chef and owner is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, equipping him with the experience and skills to execute and plate dishes to perfection. Enjoy your set lunch and dinners with a killer view as you wait for your kaito back to Sai Kung. Call (+852) 9100 7990 to book ahead.