It’s not unusual for a place to be referred to as an “urban village,” often referring to a particularly tight-knit neighbourhood or a commercial district whose merchants’ association has tried to foster a sense of small-town nostalgia. In the case of Hong Kong, however, actual villages do exist in the midst of a large metropolis. Dozens of them are scattered throughout Hong Kong’s outlying districts, some of them seaside fishing settlements, others old farming communities that have been absorbed into the city. For the most part, these villages retain a distinct culture and appearance, and they are one of the most remarkable aspects of Hong Kong’s urban form.
The villages owe their continued existence to politics and geography. Although it covers just 1,000 square kilometres, about a quarter of the size of Greater Montreal, Hong Kong’s physical landscape is remarkably diverse, ranging from fertile agricultural lands to mountains and barren, wind-swept hills. Less than a quarter of its landmass is actually developed, with most of the population concentrated in area with extremely high population densities, like Kowloon, the north shore of Hong Kong Island and a smattering of cities and towns in the New Territories, the large swath of land between Kowloon and the Chinese border.
The New Territories are where most of Hong Kong’s villages are found. In 1898, when this area was leased to the British government for 99 years, it was already populated with a smattering of old agricultural villages, most of them settled during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Many of the indigenous villagers were not happy living under a new colonial master so, in order to appease them, the British gave them special land ownership and political rights. To this day, many villages are populated by families that have lived there for generations, and each is still governed, at least symbolically, by a leader drawn from one of the village’s deeply-rooted families. Even as Hong Kong has grown and evolved, this political arrangement has ensured that many villages are remarkably stable.
Of course, that doesn’t mean they are shut off from the city around them. While some particularly isolated villages have been abandoned or depopulated as their inhabitants move to more central areas, others have gained cachet as affordable, quasi-suburban alternatives to the massive tower developments that house most of Hong Kong’s middle class. Pan Chung Village is one example. Located across the KCR tracks from Tai Po, less than a five minute walk from the Tai Po Market on one side and the Tai Po railway station on the other, Pan Chung was originally a tightly-packed walled village, but it has gradually spread outwards.
Walking through the village’s narrow, car-free streets is an experience far removed from the noisy bustle of urban Hong Kong. Like most villages, the buildings here are relatively new, having been built or rebuilt in recent decades, and nearly all of them take a form reminiscent to the Montreal triplex or the Boston triple-decker, with one flat per floor, each accessed by a single interior staircase. This arrangement, so much more personal than in a typical Hong Kong neighbourhood, encourages a kind of relaxed familiarity and, in many ways, a very intimate streetscape. When you consider that village flats are also much larger and cheaper than those in more central parts of Hong Kong, it’s easy to see why village life has lately enjoyed a resurgence of popularity, especially among expatriates from Western countries.
Tags: Exploring the City, Hong Kong, New Territories, Villages