18 March 2016
A Village Reborn
Just a few years ago, a tiny outlying island of Hong Kong was struggling for survival. Its traditional industry – salt production – had long been abandoned, the village school was closed, and hope for the future appeared bleak among the dwindling population.
Today, Yim Tin Tsai is bustling again – the salt pans functioning, its school a heritage centre - thanks to a community collaboration to revitalise a once nearly forgotten 300-year-old Hakka village as Hong Kong’s latest eco-tourism attraction. Their efforts have earned the salt pans of Yim Tin Tsai a prestigious UNESCO (United Nations Organisation for Education, Science and Culture) award.
In its finding for the 2015 Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards, UNESCO’s jury noted that the initiative “celebrates an overlooked form of industrial heritage and contributes to pushing the envelope of conservation practice.”
The project overcame a lack of historical records by using a field-based methodology of in situ investigation to inform the conservation process, the award notes state. The conservation work used simple local building materials and techniques to return the salt pans to working condition. These saltpans now serve as an educational hub for students and an eco-tourism destination for a growing number of visitors.
“Coordinated by the members of the Chan clan who originally built the salt pans,” notes UNESCO, “the project has rekindled an interest in the history of Hong Kong’s early development and sets an innovative approach to the conservation of industrial heritage landscapes.”
The award further builds on the existing status of the island’s Catholic church, St Joseph’s Chapel at Yim Tin Tsai, a Grade II listed building on the Hong Kong historic register and recipient of a 2005 UNESCO award for culture heritage conservation. Set on a cliff face, the magnificent chapel is the first site greeting visitors as they arrive by sea.
Yim Tin Tsai is just a 15-minute boat ride from the Sai Kung public pier, in the New Territories. Up until the mid-1990s, when the residents had all but moved away, it had been, for generations, a largely self-sufficient community adept at salt-making, farming and fishing. The village name was their badge of honour: Yim Tin means “salt pan” in Cantonese, while Tsai means neighbourhood.
Nicholas Chan, a descendent of the island’s pioneers, said the village’s population of 30 to 40 residents had converted to Catholicism following the arrival of a missionary in the 1860s. The villagers started moving out in the 1950s and 60s, but returned twice a year to attend chapel for the Feast of Saint Joseph and a village annual meeting. After the chapel was restored about 12 years ago, with the help of the parish, more people returned for the ceremony.
The plan to revitalise the community by resuming salt production kicked off in 2007 when a research team, formed by a group of specialists, was set up to investigate if restoration was even possible. “They spent two years exploring how salt pans should be restored, understanding corrosion statues and their functions--how they were used in the past,” Mr Chan said.
By October 2012, Salt and Light Preservation Centre Ltd, a registered charitable organisation set up by a village committee, had raised HK$6 million towards restoration costs. Half came from a charitable education fund, the rest from church-affiliated organisations.
Today, some 32,000 visitors make their way to the island each year to explore the restored and remnant buildings, and to hear the stories of the island’s colourful history. Researchers, educators, students, parent-children groups and religious groups also come. Mr Chan regards it as a milestone that the island’s cultural heritage is once again being passed on to younger generations.
“Researchers have found some relics dating back 2,000 years – these items are exhibited at the heritage centre.” he said. “Many university students are here to explain the stories behind the items while serving guests.”
Another Side to Hong Kong
Wouter van Male, a Dutch entrepreneur who runs tours for Hong Kong residents, said more people are keen to explore the other side of Hong Kong. “Visiting old Hakka villages, marvelling at views from the highest peaks, enjoying the roar of a waterfall, walking through a sea arch, swimming at a beautiful beach, learning about Hong Kong's unique geology or just having a relaxed stroll through the woods – the possibilities are endless,” he said.
Mr van Male turned his love of Hong Kong’s great outdoors into a business in early 2014, after shifting gears from his job in the plastic recycling trade.
A large part of the Hong Kong Geopark, a unique natural area of Sai Kung, which includes outlying islands, is hard to navigate without a local guide, he explained. Mr van Male organises a private boat, and leads groups of 10 to 15 people, often with Yim Tin Tsai on the itinerary.
A half-hour walk takes in the salt pans (where the salt is not certified for human consumption, but may be purchased as a souvenir), to the exhibitions of traditional village life displayed at the old school, and through abandoned houses where residents just walked away, leaving their possessions behind.
Corporates on Board
A local village guide also runs three types of tours: devotional tours, where participants visit various sites to study and pray; eco-tours, which take in the mangroves enabling city folk to get closer to nature; and cultural tours, visiting the salt pans, St Joseph’s Chapel, Hakka-style houses and the heritage centre.
In recent years, corporate training has been introduced for companies, which can book in for one-day team building exercises.
Yim Tin Tsai is rebuilding, but cost challenges remain. The funds initially donated have only covered about two-fifths of the estimated HK$120 million required to fully restore the 100,000 square feet area.
Mr Chan credited the government Lands Department for helping to re-pave some of the roads and restore dangerous slopes and staircases. He also praised the government’s decision to take over the salt pans when the salt-making industry died out, and for agreeing to return ownership to the villagers so that they could proceed with the restoration plan.
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