Published: 10:07, January 7, 2022 | Updated: 18:01, January 7, 2022
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Hidden gems in your backyard
By Rebecca Lo

Cultural tourism has taken off as more people are discovering lesser-known destinations in Hong Kong. Rebecca Lo takes a walk on the wild side.

Tzu Chi Environmental Action Center opened in November, following a green restoration of the original building. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

A visit to Lai Chi Wo requires commitment. Energetic day trippers can hike 16 kilometers from Wu Kau Tang through Plover Cove Country Park to get there. Alternatively, there is a single daily ferry departing weekends from Ma Liu Shui pier near University MTR station. 

The 90-minute ride transports culture seekers to a three-centuries-old Hakka village near Sha Tau Kok’s border with Shenzhen. Formerly the ancestral home of the Wong and Tsang clans, the walled compound housed 600 villagers in its heyday. In recent decades, as families moved into urban Hong Kong or emigrated abroad, it was abandoned. 

Through efforts by the Centre for Civil Society and Governance at the University of Hong Kong, with support from HSBC, Lai Chi Wo is getting a new lease on life as a self-sustaining community. It was recognized with a UNESCO Asia-Pacific Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2020 and a citation by the American Institute of Architects Hong Kong Chapter (AIA HK) in 2021. 

The Hok Shan monastery and the Hing Chuen Yeuk Siu Ying school in Lai Chi Wo. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Lai Chi Wo is popular with city slickers seeking slower Sundays involving harvesting crops and feasting on traditional Hakka dishes, if only for a few hours. Group tours are available through the Hong Kong Countryside Foundation, established in 2011 by Sir David Akers-Jones and Leung Chun-ying, who a year later would become Hong Kong’s third chief executive. The NGO aims to be a vehicle for involving the public in countryside conservation.  

Lai Chi Wo is one of many cultural tourism endeavors that have popped up to meet demand as Hong Kong people venture off their couch and into the jungle. Faced with strict travel restrictions, those with itchy feet and holiday leave to spend are seeking enriching activities on home ground.

Last month, Slow Food Hong Kong organized a day tour of Lai Chi Wo that included a Hakka lunch and ginger harvest exercise for parents and children. In May, AIA HK crafted a Lai Chi Wo excursion with a focus on conserving the village’s stone houses. Architect Vicky Chan, the initiative’s organizer, spotlit community efforts toward self-sufficiency through sustainable agriculture and tourism with a guided tour of Lai Chi Wo’s farm and greenhouse.

A plant-based cooking demonstration takes place at the Tzu Chi Environmental Action Center. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Local cafes and shops do a brisk trade on weekends, when visitors arrive by the boat load. Snack vendors selling biscuits and wife cakes — stationed at the village entrance, by a tourist center that was formally Siu Ying Primary School — welcome hungry arrivals fresh off the boat.

Enter the village walls, and you’ll find Very Ginger HK, which specializes in products made from locally grown turmeric and ginger. Along with souvenirs, the store sells turmeric-flavored ice pops during summer and nourishing teas in winter. For those seeking more substantial fare, Ming Kee and Foo’s Cafe dish up Cantonese favorites including the former’s chicken rice congee special.

The ancient Hakka walled village of Lai Chi Wo forms part of the Hong Kong UNESCO Global Geopark. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Those seeking greener pastures will find distractions aplenty. A nature trail closely follows the village walls and snakes up the hill to Five-Finger Camphor, so named because the tree’s roots resemble a hand. To the south of the village are pastures where crops such as coffee beans are grown. 

“It’s refreshing to see this side of Hong Kong,” says American architect J Lee Rofkind, a participant in the AIA HK tour. “Lai Chi Wo feels like another world.”

The first Saturday of every month, budding and established farmers convene at the Lai Chi Wo Farmers’ Market to swap stories and sell produce. This and Lai Chi Wo’s many small businesses exemplify the village’s slower pace of life combined with the retail savvy of Hong Kong entrepreneurs.

A plaque from the Buddhist school that once stood on the same spot as Tzu Chi Environmental Action Center serves as a nod to the site’s history. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Green teams

A slower pace often encompasses a relatively sensitive approach to resources and the marketing acumen to get that message across. Both Lai Chi Wo and Tzu Chi Environmental Action Center in Tai Wai espouse sustainability as a critical element that people can integrate into their everyday life.  

The latter was originally a Buddhist primary school for disadvantaged rural children, operated by Chi Hong Ching Yuen. The school was founded in 1954 by Singaporean businessmen and brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, best known for their Tiger Balm ointment and Tiger Balm Garden, which has since been revitalized into Haw Par Mansion. After relocating the school to Sha Tin, Chi Hong donated the Tai Wai premises to the Buddhist charitable relief organization Tzu Chi Foundation Hong Kong. 

The exhibition, Common Understanding, Common Consensus, Common Action, at Tzu Chi Environmental Action Center, looks at environmental damage caused by humans. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Due to the dilapidated conditions of the structure, Tzu Chi began renovating the premises in 2019 with support from the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust. Architect Corrin Chan was entrusted with installing sustainable features including solar panels, natural ventilation and eco-bamboo on surfaces such as flooring, doors and handrails. Bricks made from recycled polyethylene lining on paper containers are used as paving stones. Daylight was maximized through large windows that look out on the green hills surrounding the complex.

“We reused the yellow clay that formerly clad the building as the base material to make new bricks to surround an old well on the premises,” says Chan. “We kept the original trusses after removing the false ceiling.”

The exhibition, Common Understanding, Common Consensus, Common Action, at Tzu Chi Environmental Action Center, looks at environmental damage caused by humans. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The result is a complex that retains its country charm, yet is appointed for public use with flexible rooms ideal for informal interactions. Outdoor corridors and terraces link the spaces, underscoring the connection between the architecture and surrounding Tai Wai landscape.

Tzu Chi opened to the public in November as a jack-of-all-trades venue, with a roster of educational programs for the community and its schools. 

Along with a comprehensive recycling depot for the community, there is a dining hall that hosts vegetarian cooking demonstrations and workshops. Its multipurpose space offers topical events such as a discussion on the subject of Buddhist vegan food that adheres to philosophies of traditional Chinese medicine. 

The center’s Da Ai Technology Room displays a variety of recycled apparel and accessories, with details of how many plastic bottles were reused in each case. 

Visitors can get away from the bustle and din of city life to spend a day at Tzu Chi Environmental Action Center, which is also the site of a shark-themed installation (left) by woodwork artist and diving enthusiast Lam Che. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

An exhibition titled Common Understanding, Common Consensus, Common Action, is displayed in the ground-floor Planet Room. It underscores how natural catastrophes blamed on wind, fire or water often bear the fingerprints of human influence. The show features Carbon Reveries by artist h0nh1m (Chris Cheung). The interactive ink installation depicts a bamboo forest, which drains of color at the touch of a warm hand.

Upstairs, in the Jockey Club Eco Co-Creation Space, a second exhibition, A Breeze from the Woods, presents sculptor Lam Che’s commentary on ocean conservation. The threat to its animals is captured through an installation consisting of 108 wooden sharks.

“As opposed to demolition and reconstruction, restoration preserves not only the structure but also the original intention for the building at the time of construction — that is, to provide education,” says Chow Yuk-lin, a longtime volunteer at the Tzu Chi center.

“Architecture makes no noise but tells stories of the past,” notes Chan, the architect who oversaw the restoration of Tzu Chi. “Going forward, we hope that this structure can breathe again. Its green architecture is a means of expressing the Action Center’s aim of promoting environmental protection.”