Island Life in Hong Kong

cc1.jpg

One of my favourite things about Hong Kong is its geographic diversity. In an area of just 1,100 square kilometres — about twice the size of Montreal Island — you’ll find astoundingly dense urban areas, rural villages, country parks, mountains and dozens of islands. The islands are particularly noteworthy. Traditionally home to fishing villages, many are now laid-back escapes from the stress of city life, car-free and connected to the rest of the world only by ferries and the damp sea breeze.

Earlier this year, when I was last in Hong Kong, my girlfriend and I caught a late-afternoon ferry to Cheung Chau, a small but densely-populated island. Its name means “Long Island” in Cantonese and, on a map, you can spot it by its barbell-like shape: two chunky and misshapen pieces of land linked by a narrow isthmus. The ferry from Central, which takes about 30 minutes, brings you right to the heart of the isthmus, on which the bulk of Cheung Chau’s population lives. On one side is a busy fishing harbour; on the other, a sandy beach.

The first thing you notice about Cheung Chau is the lack of cars. The island has been inhabited by centuries and most of its development has taken the form of tightly-packed buildings, few of them taller than three stories, set along narrow, winding streets. Pedestrians and bicycles rule the island; the only motorized vehicles are little gas-powered trucks used by the fishing industry and tiny electric police cars, fire trucks and ambulances. Coming from central Hong Kong, where bikes are used only by deliverymen, it’s a pleasant surprise to find a community where they form an essential part of daily life. Hundreds of bikes are parked all along the waterfront promenade, and nobody bothers locking them, presumably because there’s nowhere a thief could take them; anyone caught surreptitiously loading bikes onto a boat would probably be viewed with suspicion, to say the least.

cc1.jpg

cc1.jpg

cc1.jpg

cc1.jpg

Life in Cheung Chau is relaxed. Seafood restaurants with outdoor seating crowd the waterfront. The island’s back streets sometimes open expectedly into small plazas filled with aunties and uncles whiling away the afternoon; kids play basketball or hang out at the beach. There are a number of temples on Cheung Chau, some of them quite old, and the island is home to an annual “bun festival” that celebrates the Taoist god of the North, Pak Tai, whose image supposedly chased away pirates in the eighteenth century. The festival coincides with Buddha’s birthday, and for three days of the week-long celebration, the entire island goes vegetarian. Even McDonald’s refrains from serving meat or dairy during this period.

cc1.jpg

As in many parts of Hong Kong, there’s a casual relationship between private and public space on Cheung Chau, and it’s not unusual to see people cooking or watching television outdoors. Outside every front door there are piles of shoes and sandals and, often enough, a small altar in which incense is burned to appease gods and ancestors.

cc1.jpg

cc1.jpg

cc1.jpg

The island is mobbed by daytrippers on the weekends. I noticed banners advising its residents that bikes and all other vehicles were prohibited on Saturday and Sunday, presumably because the crowds are too thick. In the week, though, things are quiet, but there is a palpable rush of energy as the sun begins to set, rush hour ferries discharge commuters and the restaurants gear up for dinner. Some skip dinner and head straight for the sweets, stopping by vendors in the back streets who dish up custards and other treats. We bought some delicious red bean pancakes from a Japanese man; they were warm, soft and fluffy.

cc1.jpg

cc11.jpg

Before catching the ferry back to Central, we walked to the southern edge of the island, which is protected by a park, and then back to the beach, where the waves lapped quietly in the blue light of dusk.

cc12.jpg

cc13.jpg

See more photos of Cheung Chau here.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Monday August 18 2008at 10:08 pm , filed under Asia Pacific and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

3 Responses to “Island Life in Hong Kong”