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9 June 2018
I never forgot Cheung Chau. Back in 1978 it was one of the most exotic places I’d ever seen. Hong Kong itself was exotic enough with markets in the narrow alleys, and people living on junks, but Hong Kong also had much that was familiar – crowds and tall buildings, traffic and public transport. Cheung Chau had none of that, and I’d never seen anything quite like it. Somehow this little island captured my imagination and wouldn’t let go. Cheung Chau, meaning Long Island, is one of the 260+ outlying islands of Hong Kong. There is still a ferry from Central on Hong Kong Island that takes you there and you still arrive at a peaceful fishing village. I remember the narrow streets, the ramshackle buildings and stores, and most of all how quiet it was. There were no cars on Cheung Chau, no vehicles at all. It dwelt in my imagination as this kind of tumbledown unpolished gem where people lived simple lives close to the water. It wasn’t shiny, but it had realness, and character.  So on this recent visit to Hong Kong I was determined to get back there.

A few days ago I pulled out the scrapbook I’d made of my travels back then and looked at my few faded grainy photos. I was surprised to discover it hasn’t changed that much, at least not the view of the street that runs alongside the harbour.

And neither has the main street.

I was also surprised to discover that today the population of Cheung Chau is about 22,000. It was probably half that, or less in 1978. There are still no cars, only diminutive service vehicles, and the fishing fleet is still active.

I don’t have long to explore Cheung Chau, and I don’t go far. The island is wide at both ends with a narrow waist, and the ferry deposits you at the town on the west side of the narrowest part of the island. It doesn’t take long for me to walk straight across and discover the beach on the other side. It’s not that I was looking for the beach. I didn’t even remember that it was there, but if you walk from the ferry into the town you soon come to a wide-open square, and on the far side of it is an ancient sacred tree that the local people regard as lucky.

From there if you just follow your nose it’s pretty inevitable that you’ll end up at the beach. The centre part of this dumbbell-shaped island is so narrow that you can walk from one side to the other in less than ten minutes.

I wander along the beach for a while, enjoying the mild weather, but it’s really the town I’m interested in, the town and the people. So I walk the streets back towards the seafront looking for ordinary daily life.

I explore some of the back alleys and narrower streets. Buildings seem to pile on top of one another but few are higher than three stories and there’s a feeling of cohesiveness, as if the buildings have collected themselves together into one entity.

From a little way up a hill I look down into cluttered courtyards decorated with plastic chairs, fishing gear, brooms and mops and umbrellas, and clotheslines hung with laundry. I walk down narrow alleys,

every one of them adorned with bicycles, and some lush with planters and small gardens.

A woman pushes a cart of cardboard to be recycled,

small shops and restaurants line the narrow streets,

and although just a short walk away from the residential area it is quite busy, the entire place feels homey and easy-going. Families are out shopping.

Everyone is walking or on bikes. No one rushes. Life seems gentle, relaxed, unhurried.

I get back to the harbour and walk by the infinite assortment of seafood restaurants lined along Pak She Praya Rd running parallel to the waterfront. There is a whole world of life to see on the water.

People live there, in all manner of boats, jam-packed together, elbowing for space. If the streets feel relatively free and easy, the harbour is packed. The boats come in all shapes and sizes, and in all stages of dilapidation, cobbled together with tarps and tubing, some string and a prayer.

There are several elderly junks offering a comparatively spacious home,

and fishing trawlers,

and in between all the boats, in spaces you’d hardly believe even existed, are men going about their business on the water.

Cheung Chau has become a popular weekend destination for Hong Kongers wanting to escape the crowds and the heat of summer in the city, and I can see why. And I imagine at the height of the season the streets, and the beach, and the hiking trails and restaurants are a lot more crowded.

Forty years ago Cheung Chau was a charming sleepy fishing village with nothing much else going on. Fortunately it has retained much of its character despite the passage of time and the influx of tourists. I could still feel its beating heart.

Back in 1978 my travel companion and I took a ferry from the docks at Central to a small fishing village on Lantau Island. From there we hiked a trail through lush forest that led us up over the central hills to the Po Lin Monastery. In those days I was not so interested in monasteries, but I remember it being a fairly unassuming place shrouded in mist and mystery. We continued on the trail to another small fishing village on the other side of the island and caught a ferry back to Central. The whole feeling of the island was that it was a largely unknown backwater – quiet, peaceful, mostly uninhabited, shrouded in fog, lost in time. I don’t remember how we found out about the hike back in those pre-internet days. Probably from a book called something like Asia on a Shoestring.

They built a huge much-needed new airport on Lantau. And a freeway connecting it to Hong Kong Island and from there to the mainland. And a Disneyland resort. And a whole new town. From pictures I see that Po Lin Monastery is now a quite grand affair, and close by there is also a colossal bronze Buddha. I knew it was no longer the island I’d been to forty years back so considering my short stay in Hong Kong on this visit I decided not to return.

I do return to Lamma Island. I have no memories of Lamma. The only reason I know I went there is that I have a single foggy faded photograph that, although labelled Lamma Island, is actually a view from the hills of Lamma.

From this recent trip

There’s a fishing village on the eastern side of the island called Sok Kwu Wan (Rainbow Bay) that you can reach by ferry from Central. The village of Sok Kwu Wan on land is not much more than a low-key row of seafood restaurants and small stores,

but the harbour has a life of its own.

On the water there is another kind of village: fish-farming frames and small ramshackle floating homes fill the bay.

All told there are about 300 people living in this sleepy community.

It is one of the few places that has retained the customs and traditions of the old fishing families. Close to the crowded high-rises and streets of one of the busiest and most densely populated cities in the world, just a thirty-minute ferry-ride away, is this entirely different realm immersed, despite some modern trappings, in a kind of slow easy timelessness.

There is a four-kilometre paved pathway from Sok Kwu Wan on the eastern side of the island to Yung Shue Wan (Banyan Tree Bay) on the north end of the island. Well if you count ferry dock to ferry dock it’s closer to five kilometres. It takes you past a small Tin Hau temple dedicated to the Sea Goddess Lin Mo; follows around the curve of Sok Kwu Bay past beaches where people walk their dogs on this fresh June day; past a huge cave where the Japanese concealed speedboats to use on suicide missions; through leafy gardens and a small village;

past some sitting areas and pavilions for enjoying the view; along the ridges of the dry hills with views back to the fish farms of Sok Kwu Wan, and across to other islands;

and through pandanus and bamboo groves;

until finally you come to Hung Shing Ye Beach

and so on into the village of Yung Shue Wan which is this

and this

and this

and much more.

Lamma is the third largest of all Hong Kong’s islands, and most of its estimated 6000 people live in Yung Shue Wan. It’s a vibrant town with stores and restaurants and a significant ex-pat community that gives the place an east-west feel. Like Cheung Chau there are no vehicles except those needed for services and emergencies. People walk or use bicycles, and there’s a three-story limit on the height of buildings. No high-rises allowed here! Lamma in known for its alternative lifestyle and easy-going attitude.

I poke around some of the narrow alleys

and pass the Tin Hau Temple

on my way to the main street that runs parallel to the bay. Here there is the life of the town: pubs, grocery stores, shops, handicrafts, cafes, an international mix of restaurants,

and right on the sidewalk a place to buy really really fresh fish.

As I leave on the ferry I look back at Yung Shue Wan and wish I’d had more time there.

My visits to both Lamma and Cheung Chau were a bit rushed with both packed into one day. I only had three days in Hong Kong and on the first one the rain came bucketing down and pretty much put an end to going anywhere. On the third day I went hiking.

Next post: hiking the Dragon’s Back.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2019.