Growing Pains in a Hong Kong Backwater

Last month, two stray dogs were found dead on a Mui Wo beach. News of their fate spread quickly through the nearby villages. “It was definitely a poisoning,” said a worker in a beachside restaurant. She explained that people walking through the nearby hills often felt intimidated by the dogs.

But who would do such a thing? “Those people coming from D.B.,” she said with a scowl, referring to Discovery Bay, the upscale development north of Mui Wo.

Mui Wo has long been a shabby sprawl of rural villages on Lantau Island, prized for its eccentric lifestyle and cheap housing. But recent years have seen an influx of transplants looking for suburban luxury at prices far lower than those in Discovery Bay or Sai Kung. As village houses are bought and renovated, property prices have more than doubled in the past five years, and the government now plans to spend HK$300 million on beautification and leisure facilities over the next few years. All of the change has been met by audible grumbling from some long-time Mui Wo residents. “The yuppies are taking over the asylum” is how one blogger described it.

“Sometimes people come to live here and they don’t seem to quite understand that they’re coming to live in the country,” said Jacqui Green, an animal welfare advocate who has lived in Mui Wo for more than 20 years. She said that she was certain the dogs found dead last month had been deliberately poisoned by someone who considered them a nuisance.

Many newcomers seem taken aback when they encounter Mui Wo’s laissez-faire atmosphere, said Green. On one occasion, a woman who had just built a new house called her to complain that it had been overrun by village cats. Green agreed to neuter the cats, but only after she explained that the cats were part of village life. “To me, it was a typical situation where somebody gets a piece of land, builds a house however they want and moves in without realizing what it is going to be like, without taking into account village customs and habits,” she said.

For decades, Mui Wo’s relative isolation made it a popular place to live for anyone who wanted to get away from the pressures of urban Hong Kong. It became home to one of the most diverse populations in Hong Kong, a mix of indigenous villagers, Chinese from other parts of Hong Kong, Filipinos, South Asians and Western expats. Among the expats, there has always been a division between middle-class professionals and what one resident called “whiskey tangoes” — a euphemism for “white trash.”

Some residents admit that the low prices were what first drew them to Mui Wo. “I came here because it was cheap,” said Larry Feign, a cartoonist who has lived in Mui Wo for 19 years. “I couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. A friend of mine brought me out here and i thought it was kind of ugly, garbage everywhere. I learned to love it.” He now pays homage to his village, Wang Tong, through a blog called The Toilet Bar, which is named after a village shop next to a public toilet that morphed into a popular hangout.

About three years ago, he said, a wave of young families, most of them expats, started moving to Mui Wo, drawn partly by the opening of a new road to Tung Chung. “It sounds hypocritcal for me to say it, but the place is being colonized by young gweilos,” he said. “They ride around in little tricycles rather than bicycles, with the kids in the back seats being chauffeured by the helpers. I liken them to suburban SUVs. It shows just a little bit of a different attitude.”

Feign described his fondness for the casualness of village life. “The kids could go into a local village shop, take anything they want and I’d go by later and ask how much I need to pay, and they say ‘Oh, just pay when you can,'” he said. One recent morning, his wife almost missed her ferry because water buffalo were blocking the entrance to their house. “You have to like that it’s a bit sloppy and messy to really enjoy it here. That kind of thing makes it charming, and it used to be what put off those people from Discovery Bay. But I guess places like D.B. have gotten too expensive.”

The Toilet Bar

Prices for a village house in Mui Wo have increased sharply with the influx of newcomers. One resident who bought a village house three years ago for HK$3.1 million has seen its value rocket to HK$7 million. “If you’ve been here for awhile, you remember how low prices used to be,” said Jennifer Bauch, a property broker who opened shop in Mui Wo in 2007. “Now they’re up 60 percent and it’s a shock. But if you’re coming from Sai Kung, the prices are still relatively low. It’s good business here for brokers because of all the expats.”

Mui Wo’s population now stands at 6,100, according to an estimate by the Planning Department, and it is expected to increase to nearly 7,000 over the next several years. The growing population and changing demographics are straining Mui Wo’s rural infrastructure. Though the government plans to spent HK$300 million to build a new waterfront dining area and recreational facilities, it does not yet plan to address what residents say is most sorely needed: a new school and community gathering space.

“I see new people on the ferry almost every day and most of them have young children — they’re going to need a good school,” said John Schofield, a member of the Living Islands concern group, which sees itself as a watchdog for development on Hong Kong’s outlying islands. Mui Wo’s only secondary school closed in 2007. Last year, plans to move a school for troubled youth, the Christian Zheng Sheng College, into the building were met with furious opposition. Some Mui Wo residents hurled invective at the school’s principal and students at public hearings.

But those fighting to open a new school say that aren’t opposed to Zheng Sheng, they are simply looking out for the interests of Mui Wo’s families, whose children currently attend schools in Tung Chung, Kowloon and on Hong Kong Island. One third of school-age children in Mui Wo are non-Chinese, said Rosa Ma Suet-fan, who is a member of the South Lantau Education Concern Group, so the group is working to convince the government to open a bilingual secondary school.

On a muggy evening earlier this week, Schofield and Ma chatted about Mui Wo with two other residents, Maria Currie and Louise Prescott, at the China Bear, a popular waterfront pub. “The rising prices mean that people are forced to live further and further out,” said Prescott, an Englishwoman who moved to Mui Wo five years ago from Jakarta. “There’s a snowball effect. Once one house is renovated, others follow.”

Ma recalled her first encounter with Mui Wo. She was living in Discovery Bay when she went for a hike and glimpsed Mui Wo from high up in the hills, she said. It reminded her of the long-since-demolished Ngau Tau Kok village she grew up in. When she finally moved to Mui Wo, “the villagers would smile, say hello and offer their freshly picked vegetables or bananas straight from the trees,” she said. “Of course, when people of different cultural backgrounds live together, people have different perceptions of how things should be done.”

One example of those differences in perception, she said, are the walls that some newcomers build around their houses. “The indigenous villagers never demarcated their property like that,” she said. The disposal of debris from renovations and constructions is another tricky issue that can lead to resentment between neighbours.

Improving communication between Mui Wo’s increasingly diverse inhabitants is top on the agenda of Rainbow Wong Fuk-kan, who represents Mui Wo on the Islands District Council. He is pushing for money to build a community centre for Mui Wo residents to “get together and organize activities, to have a place where people can have fun and relaxed social gatherings, and where we can set up language classes,” he said.

For now, such plans are nothing but a dream. Meanwhile, Mui Wo continues to change, and its residents continue to look on with mixed feelings. Mark Legartha has lived in an old house along the Wang Tong Stream for 14 years. The roof is falling apart, he said, and he has no money to fix it, “but at least it blends in with the village. The new houses stick out like sore thumbs.”

As he stood outside his house, waiting for his lunch to finish cooking, he looked at the languid stream across the way. It was quiet but for the buzz of insects in the afternoon heat. “The yuppies are coming in, but at least this hasn’t changed,” he said.

Another version of this story appeared in the July 4, 2010 edition of the South China Morning Post.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Sunday July 04 2010at 09:07 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Society and Culture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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