Header image courtesy of @mongkoklovers (via Instagram)
To refer to this neighbourhood in Ma Wan as “abandoned” tells only half the story. Evacuated only a decade ago, these unkempt buildings still retain signs of daily living, a presence that remains within (somehow still intact) wood-rimmed portraits amongst concrete piles from a crumbling staircase. Located in Ma Wan, a tiny island occupying just 0.97 square kilometres between Lantau and Tsing Yi, this eponymous ghost town is one of the most photogenic and fascinating attractions of this quaint locale. Here’s everything you need to know to explore Ma Wan’s ghost town, an abandoned island village.
Originally known as Tin Liu (田寮), the old village on Ma Wan has a heritage that can be traced back to the late eighteenth century. The first recorded settlers of the area were the Chan clan, who had come from nearby Tsing Yi island. Evidence suggests that there used to be occupants in the area as far back as 3,000 BC; archaeological excavations in the late 1990s discovered human remains and tombs, with indications that they were built in the late Neolithic to early Bronze Ages.
For the past two-and-a-half centuries, this collection of brick houses and pang uk (棚屋; stilt houses) used to comprise a bustling fishing village that was famous for its seafood and homemade shrimp paste. Agriculture and fish farming were the main modes of business for Ma Wan’s inhabitants, earning them a serene and comfortable lifestyle that peaked at a considerable level of prosperity between the 1960s and 1970s. During the following decade, a population of around two thousand inhabitants were calling Ma Wan home.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that things began to change. Previously deemed as geographically impossible, the completion of the Tsing Ma Bridge and Kap Shui Mun Bridge in 1997 overturned the Hong Kong government’s assumption that Ma Wan was not reachable by the Lantau Link highway. It marked the first occasion where people were able to travel between the island and the urban areas of the city by land, no longer only relying on ferry services. It led to a rapid decline in the island population by way of relocation, leaving the total neighbourhood size at only 800 people by the year 2000.
At the same time, a few hundred metres north, the groundwork for a luxury housing project was being laid by Thomas Kwok, the billionaire chairman of Sun Hung Kai Properties. Named Park Island, this high-rise complex racked up a cost of $12.5 billion and was completed in the year 2006. Right next door, Kwok’s evangelical passion project—consisting of a biblical theme park—was erected and opened to the public a few years after as Ma Wan Park. Although these developments did not bring in record-busting amounts of tourists to the island, the literal ground-breaking during its construction had sparked a mass exodus of Ma Wan’s native dwellers—or rather, their eviction.
Collaborating with the Hong Kong government to offer compensatory living quarters, the Park Island developers had struck up an offering—more so a forced deal—with villagers to trade their land for a brand-new three-storey villa house. Families who have passed down their home through the generations were removed and relocated. Though some were satisfied, painted signs protesting the move were left dotted around the village.
Then came 2014. In a shocking turn of events, Kwok was trialled for bribery and sent to jail. It was revealed that his construction of Ma Wan Park was, in fact, a ploy to trigger the eviction that allowed Park Island to be built in the first place. Destined for demolition, the emptied-out neighbourhood of the village was instead left to slowly decay at the hands of nature, as the village was caught up in further land disputes.
To get to the “ghost village” is fairly straight-forward, as it is mainly concentrated within the modest area around Ma Wan Main Street. Most of the homes have been fenced off behind government-issued wires, but a handful are still accessible. Half-swallowed by the winding tree vines trying to claim back their domain, only a whisper of the old schools, local diners, and Hong Kong-style provision stores (士多; si6 do1) remain.
Between visits from weekend explorers and wedding photographers, there are still tiny glimpses of life. When evening sets in, the street lamps in the village still light up, and so do the windows of several old buildings. Although its name implies that paranormal existences circle around the area, a legend has yet to stick. A spectre in white lurking behind those who dare fish at night, a strange childhood memory of being pelted with pebbles while camping on the beach of Ma Wan—these are just a few tales that add to the spooky air of the village. There are also rumours, however, of uncompromising inhabitants staying behind to become squatters in their own homes, offering a less chilling explanation.
Although caved out, most of the concrete structures of the old town buildings remain intact and show off the architectural features of fishing village homes. Usually composed of two or three storeys, the ground level is often reserved for shopfront purposes, whilst upper floors are living spaces and for storage—this “business at the bottom, relaxing up top” approach was embraced by many of the villagers.
It is precisely the little details all around that really convey the essence of what life was like on Ma Wan, from fluttering couplets that are somehow still snugly adhered to front doors to dust-encrusted chairs scattered all around. It must be an extra level of eerie to look at the spreads of ancestral portraits and family photographs that have been left behind. It must have been a sudden and coerced departure if something so important was left behind.
There are several ways to get to the starting point of the winding road towards the village. Although private vehicles are not allowed into Ma Wan without a special permit, there are buses running between the area and several MTR stations, as well as an option for ferry service.
Take the Ma Wan Rural Committee Road until you notice a small alley to your left marked by signs for the Salvation Army Camp. Go down this lane until you reach the end, where you take a left and continue down until you reach Ma Wan Main Street. This is the road that winds throughout the village and will take you around a large part of the noteworthy spots covered in the article.
Starting from the pathway that branches out from the Ma Wan Rural Committee Road, you will encounter a set of stone steps that points towards the direction of the Shek Tsai Wan Pier. The way is labelled with signs written in Chinese, though following where the arrows are facing will also suffice.
A rickety little wooden pier awaits at the fringes of the little route, along with remnants from old fishing rafts and rotting stilted units. Step onto the planks and enjoy the expansive panorama of the Tuen Mun highway and the western coastline of the island. On some days, you may even catch a lone fisherman perched upon a rock, patiently waiting on the still waters to thwart his calm with a slight tug on his fishing line. For an extra breath-taking view, try timing your visit to this spot for sunset, which you can follow up with a spooky night tour of the old village.
Weave your way back onto the main road from before, passing the first forked road to the second fork. Turn right and follow the route, past the modern townhouses until you see a small track. Keep moving down the path and the Fong Yuen Study Hall will come into view. This stunning pre-war building was built by the Chan clan in the early 1900s and served as the main and only academic institution on the whole island for quite some time.
Showcasing a mix of Chinese-meets-Western architecture, the rectangular two-storey building mixes traditional Eastern sensibilities that were updated with foreign touches, paralleling the move towards a modernised educational system. The cream concrete finish was a departure from the typical timber-based constructions from that era, and the unique balcony design put colourful auspicious symbols to the forefront. The entire building has since been restored by the government, with the inside being revamped to display the history of schooling on the island.
Rounding out back to the Ma Wan Rural Committee Road, head downwards via Fong Yuen Road towards the southwestern corner of the island. Along the way, you will be exposed to the array of abandoned houses that star as the main attraction of the trail. It is wise to take the government trespassing warnings seriously, and just because there is a whole load of junk left behind does not mean you should add more garbage to the piles.
Keep to the track through the trees towards the water and you will reach the edge of the coast, where the Zan Lau Monument (鎮流碑; zan3 lau4 bei1) serves as a checkpoint. It is a stone slab inscribed with a Buddhist prayer, originally installed by local monks as a protective stele for nearby fishermen who had to brave rapid waters and gloomy storms.
Continue east along the coastline for a few minutes and you will reach the Kowloon Gate (九龍關; gau2 lung4 gwaan1), a palpable piece of history that dates back to the Qing dynasty in the nineteenth century. It was erected by British colonisers, standing as a taxation plant and preventative pitstop to curb opium smuggling by sea.
The channel between Ma Wan and Lantau is known as Kap Shui Mun (汲水門; kap1 seoi2 mun4), or alternatively as “Throat Gates.” Its name is a play on the previous moniker of “Rapid Water Channel” (急水門; gap1 seoi2 mun4), which was altered to take on a more auspicious implication of trapping wealth, as water is considered a symbol of fortune in Chinese culture. Next to it lies the original Ma Wan Rural Committee Office, which had operated as a customs office up until 1899.
Up ahead sits the Ma Wan Public Pier. Though no longer buzzing with commuters like it used to be a few decades ago, the location remains active with visitors who are looking to chase the sunset or simply looking for a place to relax at. A glistening silver statue of a dolphin is in view, dedicated to the white dolphins that used to congregate around the area. They are an endangered species nowadays, so catching sight of one is much rarer.
Notice an open space near the beginnings of the pier—this used to be a popular spot for villagers to spread out batches of shrimp under the sun so that they can dry up their supply in preparation to make their special shrimp paste. Beside this zone is the old Ma Wan Children’s Playground, which is a much-photographed spot.
Perhaps the crown jewel and final stop of the ghost village walk, the southern Ma Wan Tin Hau Temple sits towards the end of the Ma Wan Main Road. Rumour has it that it was commissioned in the late eighteenth century by none other than the legendary Cheng Po Tsai, the most well-known local pirate in Hong Kong. Overlooking the sea, it was created to place protection over the neighbourhood’s seafaring inhabitants. It is one of the smaller temples dedicated to the deity, but is still well maintained, playing host to annual traditional festivals up until now.