Away from the frenzy of Kowloon and Central, Lantau Island is where Hong Kong takes a breath and slows its pace. Tightly packed lanes and towering high-rises gradually give way to forest-covered mountains and coastal vistas. On Lantau’s western coast sits a tiny stretch of land that smells of the sea and mines it for its wares. Tai O is Hong Kong’s last surviving fishing village, home to the Tanka people — a community of fisherfolk who live in stilt houses and whose lives, for centuries, have been interwoven with the sea.
Crossing the tiny bridge into Tai O is akin to turning back the dial on a time machine. The overpowering sights and smells of the fish market hit me first. Displayed in large vats and hanging from storefronts are an assortment of unique products: packets of starfish used for soup, strings of dried fish belly that look uncannily like potato chips, buckets of clams and mountains of salted fish. Jumbo fish balls fly off the shelves — the most popular snack in these parts — and determined shoppers stuff their bags with bottles of shrimp paste. Elderly locals man the stands, loudly hawking their fresh cuttlefish and other, rather alien offerings, like sea bird nests. This chaotic scene unfolds under a stifling, seaside air, heavy with the salt and smells of the sea.
Away from the hubbub of Market Street, a forgotten air hangs above the quiet village. Narrow lanes run behind the stilt homes, where locals sit outside, watching the odd tourist with impassive faces. As I wind my way through these streets, it’s evident that the population is elderly. The longstanding fishing industry is dying out, and youngsters are moving to the mainland in search of work. Tourism, however, has taken off in a big way, and busloads arrive to catch a glimpse of the “old fishing village lifestyle.”
Traditionally, the community lived in stilt homes called pang uks, built into the tidal flats. The homes are preserved to this day — many now built of tin as the original wood homes eroded over the years. I catch my first glimpse of them from the bridge at the entrance to Tai O. A jumble of colourful stilt houses rising out of the narrow creek, their balconies overlooking the water. Little tug boats, tethered to the stilts, bob beneath. Some homes are but a single floor, while the others are up to three storeys tall.
“We can’t change the size of our homes. If your grandparents had a small house, you’re stuck with it,” says 65-year-old Diana Leung, who grew up with her grandparents in the village and lived in a single-storey stilt home. When her grandfather died and her family gave up fishing, she moved to the city, but her heart is in Tai O, and she returns often to her tiny but comfortable ancestral home on the water, complete with air conditioning, a refrigerator, and a flat screen TV. She may not be able to add levels to her home, but sitting in her balcony, there’s a sea breeze and a view of the clear creek, and there’s something to be said for that.
The rhythm of life in the island still reflects its ties with the sea. A pungent odour marks the location of the shrimp paste factory, long before we see men mixing the brown goop in large vats. Outside homes and on rooftops, fish is laid out to dry under the sun, and cats roam free, having the time of their lives.
Two interconnected temples with ornate roofs stand in a square. For centuries, the fisherfolk of Tai O have visited the Kwan Tai and Tin Hau temples, to pray for good weather and good fortune. Even today, fresh incense burns in the 15th-century Ming dynasty Kwan Tai temple, housing the god of war, who controls the weather and protects the village. The 18th-century Tin Hau temple was built during the Qing dynasty, and houses the goddess of the sea. The most telling indicators of Tai O’s legacy are the enormous vertebral whalebones housed in the temple. Fishermen believed that giant fish were gods of the sea, and these bones, believed to be from a ten-metre-long, four tonne whale, were brought back on one fishing trip, and kept in the temple for the fishermen to worship.
For lunch, we wind our way to the Lin Heung restaurant. Hong Kong’s meals do not disappoint, but it was at this hole-in-the-wall establishment in Tai O that I had the most fulfilling meal — squid cakes with pork and mushroom dumplings, fresh prawn with egg, steamed clams with glass noodles, shrimp paste fried rice with dried shrimp, and bean curd tofu with cabbage.
After a languorous lunch, I wind my way to the Tai O Heritage Hotel. Housed high on a hill with an ocean view, the historic building was formerly the Tai O marine police station — a colonial-era building dating back to 1902. When the station closed in 2002, it fell into disarray, until it was restored as a hotel five years ago.
As the village opens up to tourism, a smattering of modern offerings — like the refurbished hotel and westernized B&Bs — have sprung up. Later in the day, I sip an iced latte at the air-conditioned café of the Espace Elastique B&B. With its chic interiors, rows of craft beer on display, and comforting aroma of caffeine, it’s a world apart from the heaving market and lanes redolent of dried fish just outside.
As a perfect half-day trip from Hong Kong, the slow-paced charms of Tai O are accessible even to fly-by visitors. Though the boats that bob in the water are now used to ferry tourists around instead of hauling in fish, Tai O’s legacy remains intrinsically linked to the sea.