December 11, 2008
Hong Kong Leftovers
An abandoned house in Nga Tsin Wai village.
In October — it was only two months ago but it seems like a lifetime has passed — I spent a fast week in Asia. Mostly I was there on assignment for Travel + Leisure to stay a few nights in a swank Shanghai hotel but, on the way, I dropped in on my friend Daisann in Hong Kong. We spent a pleasant few days going on little field trips around town, checking out places that she’d been meaning to visit, but hadn’t.
One such place is a 650 year old walled village, Nga Tsin Wai, in a section of Kowloon that’s not far from the site of the former airport, Kai Tak. In another part of the world, a village so ancient, one that was still inhabited by the same families who’d always lived there, would be preserved and treasured. Not so in Hong Kong. This enclave of ultra narrow lanes and ramshackle houses is slated for redevelopment. By the time we arrived, most of the village had been emptied out. Actually, the plan, in which a couple of the more picturesque old buildings, including the temple and the clan hall, will become attractions in a park sandwiched by 25 story residential towers, pretty much epitomizes the local idea of preservation.
What will be irrevocably lost is Nga Tsin Wai’s distinct quality of place: the woman cooking in the open air kitchen beside the arched gateway that provides the only access to the village, the corrugated metal buildings with the trees and shrubbery growing out of every crack, the open air barbers serenely shaving their customers. As we walk the village, lane by lane, I start waxing poetic about the beauty of the village’s little houses, how villagers use many of the same strategies that originally made Frank Gehry famous, Daisann cautions me not to get too sentimental. She points out that these house likely lack basic amenities like heat and running water. She has a point, although I notice the occasional air conditioner poking through a wall, so there must at least be electricity.
It makes me sad that this unique little enclave, one that weathered even the Japanese invasion, is on the brink of extinction. Whatever is allowed to remain will be prettified beyond recognition. The village’s genuine character (see photos below) will vanish into thin air.
The entryway to Nga Tsin Wai, with an outdoor kitchen to the left.
Corrugated metal is a common form of siding.
Skinny, skinny lanes and the occasional green roof.
Artwork above the temple doorway.