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The Lungs of Hong Kong:

– Lantau Island –

By Celina Sczyslo

Greater Hong Kong Region © Peter Hermes Furian

Lantau Island is Hong Kong’s largest island located west of Hong Kong, which is almost half of its size. It offers a beautifully diverse scenery with its rocky coast, the lush thick forests and mountainous terrains including the 934 metres high Lantau peak, the highest point of the island, which is famous for a breath-taking sunrise view. Due to the scarcity of residential developments and the abundant indigenous forests, Lantau island is also referred to as the ‘lungs of Hong Kong’, providing the resources and space for biodiversity to flourish. Not long ago, archaeological findings indicated that humans have been inhabiting the land for centuries already: Its convenient location at Pearl River led to the development towards an important place for trade, shipping and fishing. Accordingly, many fishing villages were to be found on the island originally. For instance, one of the oldest settlements on Lantau island is Tai O, which is also referred to as the ‘Venice of the East’ – its famous stilt houses were and partly still are home to the fishermen and their families. The residents made and are still making a living selling traditional salted fish and shrimp paste, also connected to the village’s former status of being the centre of the salt production in the area. Nowadays, the villagers also take advantage of the tourism developments here and earn money from taking tourists out to sea or along the river in their boats. 

Lantau Island as Lungs of Hong Kong

Tai O, stilt houses, homes of fishermen and their families © Findingbeyond

Lantau island has experienced a major increase in popularity and tourists like to come for hiking and enjoying nature, as well as the white beaches. Just a few hotels can be found along those sites, which led to an increasing number of locals renting their homes to visitors that are staying for a longer period of time while others are coming just for a day trip via the ferry. This tourism development can be closely related to the highly improved infrastructural facilities that developed over the years, especially also with one big project that started in 1991: the Hong Kong International Airport. Being an important driver of tourism for the city, the building of the airport also included developing new infrastructure, such as a road, transit railway, and sewage treatment facilities. Also, bridges from the airport to the mainland were needed as its location was the island of Chek Lap Kok, land that was formerly covered by traditional, fishing and farming villages and now reclaimed by the government for this enormous project. Those and several other villages that were partly inhabited by indigenous communities, as well, therefore were relocated, or urbanized and developed to provide accommodation for the airport workers and new settlers. A new town was built in formerly rural areas, which also held many historically significant monuments and archaeological findings. This did not only have an impact on the surrounding environment, and specifically the coastal marine ecology that is home to the unique Chinese white dolphins of which nowadays only around 40 remain living here. It certainly also affected the inhabitants of those villages undergoing changes due to the airport project in different ways. The inhabitants of some villages were relocated, while others were undergoing significant developments. The people that were resettled faced changes in family and overall community organization, economic activities, religious rituals, community activities and many more areas of their lives, while some reported that they felt their culture and identity to be threatened. The history of the villagers of one specific village, for example, goes back 200 years and can nowadays only be found in the past of the older generation – due to the needed relocation the beautiful large paddy fields and landscapes are not their home anymore, but were replaced by 3-storeyed buildings provided to them. This caused some villagers to feel a loss of their connection to their former ancestral land, with their history and cultural heritage being closely tied to it. Similarly, inhabitants of another small village had to move to the urban newly developed Tung Chung New Town or other public estates, where the new housing was in contrast to the fascinating natural scenery they called home before and therefore called for overall readjustments in their lives. The government took measures to make that transition as easy and smooth for them as possible, by moving traditionally and culturally  important sites, temples or trees to the new settlement, and supporting the establishment of facilities like communal houses to strengthen the community belonging. 

History and Resettlement

Chek Lap Kok, 1991 in the beginning stages of the planning of the airport © South Morning Post China

Historically, the land cultivation and ownership were handled according to former indigenous cultivation activities: when the ancestors came to the island they cultivated the valley as they wished and owned the piece of land that they were working on. Now, their descendants were being categorized into ‘indigenous’ and ‘non-indigenous’ groups which determined their qualification for compensation for the governmentally reclaimed ancestral lands. Only those indigenous villagers legally owning land or a house were qualified for compensation in form of new multi-storied houses, otherwise they were rehoused to governmental public housing arrangements. To properly arrange those village removals, committees were formed in 1994 and government officials visited the villages to get an understanding of the way of living and communicate with the locals. However, during such conversations, villagers tend to feel helpless, and negotiations were therefore not balanced. They knew about the consequences of being relocated and the destruction of their village, and feared that the environmental setting would be changed completely, and they would lose their past. In the case of one village, a new village leader emerged during this period of change that went beyond the point in time that the airport was finished in, 1998. This new leader was able to earn the respect of the officials during the negotiations, by telling the story of the Fan people, who were the earliest settlers 600 years ago. He created an important reference to the community’s past. He made sure that the old village setting was mostly kept, with a temple being relocated, and significant feng-shui trees moved to the newly built village, as well. Other inhabitants that were not able to qualify for compensation, who did not have the papers or could not identify themselves as ‘indigenous’ through such documents indicating ancestral heritage, were facing forced resettlement to the New Town of Tung Chung by themselves. Communities were thereby divided, and many feared to lose their identity as an indigenous resident in the urbanized area. The interference with the original social organization of the villages was therefore common. Once these resettlement arrangements were completed and executed, the newly rehoused villagers needed to find their place and role within this unfamiliar environment, commonly facing difficulties with that responsibility: police reinforcements and events were planned to help with those issues, though  increasing crime rates in the New Town threatened the inhabitants, and they were seemingly perceived as outsiders. They needed to deal with rejection of the city community and had a hard time integrating themselves caused by the strong communal identities and independence, and a lack of historical ties of those. One of the biggest challenges was therefore the need to develop a whole new community identity in Tung Chung – while fearing to lose their own.

Ma Wan Village viewed from Kap Shui Mun bridge


Last Thoughts

Tai O © Indre Velaviciute

Many are not aware of the backgrounds and struggles that the people of Lantau Island were facing during this significant and huge project that was the Hong Kong International Airport. Nowadays, the airport is one of the busiest passenger airports worldwide. With more than 68 million passengers in 2016 it was ranked as second busiest airport for international travellers. Consequently, it was and still is a driver of tourism and economic development, however, it is important to consider both perspectives to understand the complexity of the backgrounds and the land it is built upon, paying respect to those affected by such developments. 

 If you are interested in more detailed information on the different villages and how the resettled villagers dealt with the relocation and preservation of their heritage, please consult the sources of this article linked below.



Ping (2004) | Corpuz et al. (2012) | Lonely Planet 

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