There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 28 November 2016

To Sai Kung and Deeper into the New Territories: Part 6 of Hong Kong and Macau

Hong Kong is one of our favourite cities - this was our fourth visit and I would be disappointed if it was our last. We have always stayed in Kowloon, an exciting, vibrant place whose 2.1 million residents pack themselves into under 50km²*. It is the crowds that give Hong Kong its vitality, and they are also the reason I doubt that I could live there. I am used to having space; the hordes and their energy are a wonderful novelty, but eventually I fear they would grind me down.

Our friends Brian and Hilary lived in Kowloon for 20 years before moving to Stafford. Like me Brian appreciates the countryside, open fields, trees and unconfined fresh air, simple restoratives that Kowloon conspicuously fails to offer. How then did they cope?

A slice of Kowloon
In 2005 we stayed in a hotel called the 'Seaview' and this was the sea view, only available from the 14th floor breakfast room
Hong Kong island was ceded to the British in the Treaty of Nanking in 1843. The Kowloon peninsula, as far north as Boundary Road was added in 1860. Both are densely populated in the extreme.

Boundary Road Kowloon, everything to the right of the road is in the New Territories
In 1898 the British acquired the New Territories from the Qing emperor on a 99-year lease. The New Territories comprise a large block of land north of old Kowloon, and also the 'Outer Islands', Lantau, twice as big as Hong Kong island, Lama which we visited on Thursday, Chung Chau which we visited in 2005 and 2010, and many others. The territories make up almost 90% of Hong Kong's land, but house only half its population. There are some densely populated areas, urban Kowloon has expanded north from Boundary Road to the Kowloon ranges, and there are many other settlements of towering residential blocks, but there is also a green rural hinterland.

Map (borrowed from Wikipedia) showing the New territories in green, Hong Kong Island and 'old' Kowloon in grey
In their later years in Hong Kong, Brian and Hilary rented a weekend cottage in a quiet village that was everything Kowloon is not. Perhaps it was a survival strategy. We have often admired their painting of the cottage with its backdrop of fields and hills, and today they were going to see the real thing.

We took the MTR north and east to Diamond Hill, well beyond Boundary Road, so legally part of the New Territories, but being on the northern edge of the urban sprawl it is administered as part of Kowloon. This was an area of squatter camps until the 1960s, but times have changed.

Diamond Hill and the Kowloon Ranges, photo taken from the Chi Lin Nunnery in 2010
No diamonds were ever found here, the name is derived from a misunderstanding of a Cantonese word for ‘quarry’, but if gemstones are required they can be found in the Plaza Hollywood shopping mall which glitters inanely above the MTR station. In its basement, providing a welcome touch of gritty realism, is the bus station. We met Brian and Hilary there and boarded a 92 bus for Sai Kung, running (no, not really, I exaggerate) upstairs and bagging the front seats like a gang of kids.

Kowloon is further south and east of where the name appears on this map.
Diamond Hill is north east of Kowloon city, Sai Kung is further north east on the coast
The thirty-minute journey was largely through the urban margin, a land of bus stops and fly-overs, there were rural sections too and the odd moment when urban and rural clashed dramatically.

Clash of rural and urban on the way to Sai Kung
We found Sai Kung lounging in gentle sunshine beside a harbour of pleasure boats and fishing craft. It felt very much a separate town, its style different from the urban sprawl which is not so very far away.

Sai Kung from the top of a bus
Alighting at the bus station we headed towards the minibuses for the next stage of our journey.

Minibuses are integrated into the transport system and use the same octopus card readers. As the authorities kindly allow older visitors to obtain senior octopus cards (at no charge) each section of the journey cost the princely sum of HK$2 (20p). We have used Hong Kong buses before, but not the minibuses and if Brian and Hilary had not been with us we would not have been able to; they have numbered routes like regular buses but no fixed stops, you stand by the road and wave when you want to get on and give the driver a shout when you want to get off.

We took the No 7 minibus north and a little east from Sai Kung into the large irregular-shaped peninsula which makes up most of Sai Kung Country Park. This was a genuinely rural area, nothing but vegetation beside the well-made two-lane road, precipitous green clad hills in the middle distance and blue sky above. Hong Kong was showing off its best November weather, warm and clear with fresh air from the South China Sea rather than smog drifting down from Shenzhen.

After some 15km Hilary said, 'We're here,' and the bus came to a halt in a place which seemed, to my inexpert eye, to have no distinguishing features at all.

'This way,' she said. The minibus disappeared into the distance as we set off down a narrow concrete path, identical to the motorcycle tracks that criss-cross rural Vietnam.

Down the concrete path to Pak Sha O
The path winds through the jungle to the village of Pak Sha O, just a few hundred metres from the road. A traditional Hakka village, it has been largely (some sources claim ‘completely’) deserted by indigenous people and revived by ex-pats. The paddy fields were unused for years but are now operating as a market garden. The company that owns it is not local and the men toiling in the fields are ‘guest workers’ from the ‘mainland’ (i.e. the People’s Republic of China, not Hong Kong).

Market gardening at Pak Sha O
When Brian and Hilary had their cottage, Pak Sha O still had indigenous residents and before reaching the village we went to pay our respect to Mrs Yeung, their former neighbour. There was nobody at the Ancestor’s Memorial Hall and very little to commemorate any of the former villagers. It felt a sad and neglected place, but people move on and eventually they no longer remember the hall of memories.

Memorial Hall, Pak Sha O
In the village, Brian and Hilary's house had new tenants, though they were not there on a Monday.

Brian and Hilary's house is on the left of this group, Pak Sha O
The Yeung’s house was derelict, their family moved away long ago and no longer need it.

The Yip's house, on the right of the group is derelict, Pak Sha O
The village felt like a forgotten backwater, the buzzing of insects and fluttering of butterflies, the only activity. All was peaceful, seemingly a thousand miles from the bustle of Kowloon, though in reality that is only a short distance away. To prove there are still indigenous residents an old woman came out of her house with a night-soil bucket and deposited the contents on her vegetable patch.

Pak Sha O and its peaceful surroundings
Our protracted wander evoked happy memories for Brian and Hilary, among them Mrs Yeumg pottering out with her night soil bucket and tipping the contents onto her vegetable patch. We were just amazed that such tranquillity is possible in Hong Kong. [update: All was not as it seemed. Planning permission has been given to build 30 houses in Pak Sha O, despite it being in a country park and there being no access road. Read the full story in the Sai Kung Buzz]

We made our way back up the concrete path. One memory Hilary shared was of her daughter Lauren encountering a king cobra near here. Unless your unlucky enough to step on one in the undergrowth, any snake should slither away from you as fast as you run from it. That is the theory and it worked for Lauren, much to Hilary’s relief. I hope never to have to put it to the test.

Lynne and Hilary walk back up the path from Pak Sha O
Back on the road we waited for the minibus. Brian and I walked down to the corner to make it come quicker. (What do you mean ‘silly’, it worked).

Making the bus come quicker
Back in Sai Kung we strolled along the harbour looking at the fishing boats and pleasure craft.

Sai Kung Harbour
....and then the sea food restaurants lining the harbour. The spectacular shellfish included several species I had never seen before.

Shellfish collection, Sai Kung
I think we were looking for a recommendation Hilary had been given, but we sat down at the last restaurant in the line so I don't think we found it. I doubt there was really much to choose between any of them in menu, quality or price.

Faced with such a huge variety of sea food it was easiest to choose the set menu: fried squid, aubergine and mince, clams in black bean sauce, mushrooms and vegetables, and fried rice. It was very good, but if I had the fortune to be a regular visitor I would be more adventurous and explore the menu in depth, like the young Chinese couple at the next table who worked diligently at dismantling a couple of crabs, a messy but obviously pleasurable business.

Lunch at Sai Kung
Well-fed, we strolled round the town.

Lynne and Hilary explore Sai Kung
 There is not a lot to see in Sai Kung,but we dropped into the Tin Hau temple,….

Tin Hau temple, Sai Kung
… - always worth a look.

Inside the Tin Hau Temple, Sai Kung
And then it was time to leave the New Territories. When the 99-year lease ran out in 1997 the New Territories had to be returned to China. Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon peninsula had been ceded to Britain in perpetuity so they could legally have been retained. Hong Kong without the New Territories would have no airport and an international border bisecting urban Kowloon.  Worse, if a modest portion of the New Territory’s 3 million residents attempt to migrate south, already densely populated areas would become unsustainable. Better, then, to negotiate a settlement with the Chinese for the whole territory which recognised Hong Kong’s unique position. The resulting ‘one country, two systems’ has generally worked well for almost twenty years. How long it will continue is anybody’s guess.

That evening, unlike the previous one, I agreed with Lynne that lunch had been both excellent and filling and we did not want to go out to eat again. Not for the first time on this trip we dined on cocktails and peanuts.

*Kowloon has 43,000 residents per km², by comparison Manhattan, by far New York’s most densely populated borough, has a sparse 28,000. 


  1. Many happy memories but I have to say that ‘How then did they cope?’ and ‘It might have been a survival strategy’ is so far from the truth. We had the most amazing time in Hong Kong and we were so lucky to live there for 19 years. I could write a book about it!

  2. You asked how we coped with living in Kowloon, very easily thank you! We had three sports fields in our housing complex. The Kowloon Cricket Club just round the corner where I played lawn bowls, hockey and squash at various times. We relaxed by the pool and, in our later years there, Josh and I even camped out on special occasions for the night on the pitch with the added bonus of draught lager very close to the tent! We owned two cars which gave us quick access to the countryside for picnics and, in the summer, many beaches. We shared a boat for eight years and the cottage for a further three. Kowloon was a good base to live and we felt very fortunate.

    You mention the public light buses ( mini buses ). They now have designated stops in the urban areas but still stop on request in the more rural setting.

    Seafood was always a tricky thing to order in restaurants in Hong Kong. It could be eye wateringly expensive and all expats had a story of getting caught with a very large bill. That is why we often went for a set menu to be sure of what it would cost. Hong Kong crabs are swimming crabs with very little meat in their legs and,apart from the delicious black bean sauce they were cooked in, I always thought they were more effort than they were worth. Cromer or now Devon crabs are far superior in my humble opinion.

    1. Clearly you must have coped as you stayed there 19 years. I think I might find myself struggling in that many weeks.
      I am shocked to learn you were playing lawn bowls at that age! Now I would be less surprised.
      I thoroughly enjoyed the seafood meal, I was just musing what I might do were I a regular. I am sure your opinion on the relative merits of crabs is absolutely right, and probably not really very humble - why should it be!

    2. Lawn bowls was a young persons sport in HK. I started aged 23 but gave up when Lauren was born. We had an Army Teachers League on a Tuesday evening during the summer term and I bowled for the KCC on a Saturday. Mark McMahon, the son of one of our teachers started as a teenager and won the World Indoors Pairs Championship in 1991.