Tai O is a fishing village that sits on the North-western coast of Hong Kong’s largest island, Lantau Island. Famous for her wide array of seafood, stilt houses & fishing culture that continues to attract many visitors.
During the weekends, Tai O gets really crowded with people from the city & tourists flocking to this unique village for a laid back & mini cultural experience. Photographers find this place a haven for interesting shots; yet others enjoy getting away from the hustle & bustle of downtown Hong Kong & for foodies it would be an exciting hunt for fresh & tasty seafood & all kinds of delectable street snacks.
What was formerly the Old Tai O Police Station built in 1902 by the British Government as one of the first colonial police stations that guarded the western border between China & Hong Kong. The station was closed in 2002 & left in a dilapidated state until conservationist lobbied for complete restoration. Officially re-opened on 27 Feb 2012, Tai O Heritage Hotel aims to restore not only this historic site but also use it as a platform to celebrate its rich history & rejuvenate the historic Tai O fishing village. This non-profit social enterprise provides local employment & uses local ingredients to support sustainable growth of the village. Tai O Heritage Hotel has received an Award of Merit at the UNESCO 2013 Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation.
The Boat stopped briefly at the Shek Tsai Po Ferry Pier to alight some passengers before continuing out to sea. Keep a lookout to your right & General Rock would appear prominently at a certain angle. This popular local landmark is a natural phenomenon crafted by pounding waves, wind & weather erosion.
The Boat ride took about 20 mins as we moved rather slowly over choppy waters with some wind resistance upon approaching the Zhujiang River Estuary or Pearl River mouth as some know it to be.
After Tai Chung Bridge was completed in Oct 1996, the rope drawn ferries were phased out. This newer steel pedestrian bridge made crossing the different sections of Tai O town much safer & easier. By the side of Tai Chung Bridge is an inconspicuous pier where we took a HK$25 Boat Tour out to sea to try our luck at catching a glimpse of the endangered “Pink Dolphins” & more importantly the Stilt Houses.
As we passed under the Tai Chung Bridge going inland, the vista of the stilt houses unfurled before us. It was intriguing & I felt as if I had been whizzed decades back.
“Venice of Hong Kong” as some fondly call Tai O; is really a poorer cousin of the glamorous water city in Italy. The Stilt Houses are called “pang uk” in Cantonese & many of them were destroyed when a big fire broke out in 2000.
The Tai O community has had to withstand many challenges in recent years, some of which are natural disasters like fire, floods & typhoons & even economic downturn as they were once a prosperous fishing port.
This fishing village supposedly started since the Ming Dynasty, sits on a strategic geographical & ecological location which is suitable for building stilt houses. The many little inlets & water channels between Lantau Island & Tai O makes it a sheltered place for anchoring boats & ships.
Tai O’s stilt houses remain one of the most authentic examples of what Southern China fishing villages looked like. The waters around Tai O yield good catches too, so it was not surprising that it flourished into Hong Kong’s most important fishing port for about 200 years.
Stilt houses though unique, are actually very basic structures made of wood planks & not really sturdy or strong like concrete ones but the fishermen who lived in them would probably be thankful for a proper bed to sleep on, minus the rocking motion when drifting out at sea.
Modernity has caught up here too. Some of the houses have been upgraded or rebuilt using reinforced concrete stilts that support & bear the weight of the houses better. Satellite dishes, TV antennas, air conditioners & electricity in the stilt houses are now commonplace & they are hardly shanties.
Way before Tai O grew in prominence as a fishing port, a thriving salt production industry was already in place. During the mid to late 18th Century, salt was smuggled out of Tai O to Macau, Hong Kong, the Pearl River Delta & through Hong Kong to other places on the coast of China.
With the arrival of the British, the salt industry was encouraged & expanded. Thus apart from smuggling, legitimate trading was done with the Philippines & also some sold in Hong Kong for industrial purposes. From 1936 onwards there was another surge in demand when the Japanese blockaded the coast of China cutting out the import of foreign salt.
Tai O became a salt smuggling hub & a hotspot for illegal immigrants. The tides turned after WWII, when the competition from imported salt overwhelmed the salt field operators forcing them to close during the mid 1960’s. Today, little remains of this once important industry & memories of salt production in Tai O has been relegated to history.
Rumours abound in Tai O that during the heydays, smuggling, piracy & pirate hideouts were the norm. Making our way around the stilt houses that line both sides of the inlet, it is not difficult to envisage pirates smuggling firearms, drugs, tobacco & even people into & out of Hong Kong & Mainland China.
Before the advent of electricity, the stilt houses were lit by kerosene lamps at night. It can get rather dark & dingy indoors & when the sun sets over the horizon, it seems like the perfect setting for clandestine activities under the cover of darkness.
The Sun Ki Bridge was built in 1979. Residents in Tai O used to punt across the river before the bridge was built but as you can imagine travelling between the tiny island with the many tiny inlets & waterways was rather inconvenient.
Currently, there are many tiny restaurants & shops selling dried seafood all over Tai O town; a clear attempt to cater to the hoards of hungry visitors that descend especially on the weekends & an obvious shift towards raking in tourist revenue.
The traditional fishing lifestyle has lost its lustre as it provides a fluctuating & meagre subsistence & is very labour intensive. Many young people living in Tai O are drawn to the glamorous lifestyle & stable income that downtown 9 to 5 jobs offer.
Kudos goes to the Hong Kong Heritage Conservation Foundation Ltd who mooted the initiative for conservation of Tai O & a revival of the traditional fishing village. Plans are underway to rehash some salt marshes to show & educate people on salt production. Biking, hiking & walking trails from Tung Chung to Tai O enthrall the adventurous. Much has been done but more will done to promote tourism, create employment opportunities, & support for the local community. We can all look forward to a more authentic & interesting experience on our next visit to Tai O!