Hong Kong’s Outer Islands

During my second visit to Hong Kong, I marvel at the cutting edge architecture, fabulous shops and the incredible density of settlement.  But my resident son assures me there’s far more to his favorite city.   On a Saturday morning, we purchase tickets for an island called Cheung Chau and board the crowded, triple-decker ferry.

As we pull away from the glittering facades of Central district, antique junks and tugs rock at their moorings between sleek hovercraft and jet boats.  Overhead, a 757 streaks away, heading for Singapore or Seattle.  Our fellow passengers lounge, read, nap or entertain their children. The Estrela do Mar, a sleek jet boat, zips away to formerly Portuguese Macao beyond the Pearl River Delta, leaving a trail of white foam to rock a tiny sampan in its wake.

We pass US Navy Destroyer #53, its crew in tropical whites lined up along the rails at every level.  Huge loading cranes top a flotilla of barges, each with Maersk containers stacked to the sky.  Crossing the harbor, I count well over a hundred ocean-going freighters waiting at anchor to do business here, their registries reading like an atlas of maritime ports — Point Villa from Vanuatu, Haixing out of Shanghai, New Harmony of Panama.

At the bright and noisy seafront at Cheung Chau Wan (wan = bay), vendors, poise prim and dignified behind colorful piles of fruit, bubbling tubs of fresh fish and sweet smelling bunches of blossoms.  The air fills with the loud chatter of bargaining.  Shining red rental bicycles stand in lines, ready for day-trippers. Sun-faded photos of available weekend getaway spots fill agents’ plate glass windows.

We walk a hundred meters across a narrow isthmus and pop out on the opposite shore where the tumble of surf smothers village voices.  Here small hotels line the seawall above the sand of Tungwan Beach.  Wandering back along narrow lanes, getting in the mood for the slower weekend pace, we pass the cinema, bank, pet shop, tiny restaurants and shops, beer stalls, herbalists — all cheek to cheek under light cloth awnings that lift in the breeze.

We decide on the 45-minute walk along a hilly trail to Sai Wan, in the southwest corner of the small island.  At the highest point, a large cemetery is packed with elaborate stone markers.  Each grave is inset with a tile photo-image of the deceased.  The Chinese, by tradition, want to rest in a location with ideal fung shui.  That ancient art based on the deeper meaning of landscape and the environment decrees that a hillside with a view of water is a spot where a spirit can remain content.  Families visit their ancestors often, and leave grave gifts of fruit, cakes or eggs.  It’s a fine place for a picnic too, at tables with views as fine as the silent majority enjoy.

From the lane beside the Sai Wan dock, we enter a scarlet inner door to a cool, shadowed temple fragrant with incense.  Tin Hau, goddess of the sea and benevolent protector of sailors and fishermen, sits serene clothed in bright brocaded silks. Her altar table is loaded with offerings of fruit and flowers.  Flames of oil lamps dance before the image while, above, smoke from years of burnt offerings has darkened the rafters and roof tiles.

My son says we might be able to find the pirate cave near the temples.  The famed 19th century brigand Cheung Po-tsai hid out here before he reformed and agreed to help capture other pirates.  We rent flashlights from an elderly woman at the entry and find our own way through a narrow, precarious passage.  I’m expecting a pirate camp, but it’s just a cave.  After ten minutes in a spelunker’s realm I’m happy to pop out into the brilliant daylight again.  We climb up on big rounded boulders to watch the weekend fishermen, holding their bamboo poles above the sweeping waves.

From Cheung Chau Island, another ferry takes us to Silvermine Bay (also known sa Mui Wo) on huge Lantau Island.  The popular beach resort on Lantau draws families and young couples for good swimming and restaurants.  We buy snacks and wade into the cool sea, then jump on a ferry to nearby Peng Chau Island.

Like larger Cheung Chau, little Peng Chau is formed from two high knobs yoked together by an isthmus, but unique to Peng Chau is a footbridge to a tinier isle called Tai Lei.  Peng Chau is quiet, small and intimate with few holiday rentals.  Brightly painted skiffs rock on a gentle swell in the bay, while children play on the beach below Yau Wing Street.  Everything seems scaled to the sweet innocence of an earlier time, including the elegant temple to the sea goddess.

The village in the center of the island spreads both ways over slopes where neatly terraced vegetable farms overlook the sea.   We stop to watch gardeners hauling compost and watering with long-spouted buckets as they call to each other.  Not one weed mars the flawless beds.  The breeze-ruffled rows of tomatoes, carrots and kohlrabi look so well tended I imagine every plant has been given a name. From this tranquility, we gaze past the encircling headlands to one of the world’s busiest harbors.

Back in the village, on the porch of a temple, we discover an ongoing Ma Jong party.  Now, in every narrow lane, we hear the noisy click and shuffle of Ma Jong tiles.  Smacking their pieces onto hard tables with a rich brittle snap, elderly men and women, deep brown and wrinkled by the sun, play an animated game.  Jibes, laughter and paper money pass quickly between them after each frantic round.  Onlookers sit on low stools and shout encouragement or taunts under a whizzing ceiling fan.  It feels as if we’d know everyone here if we stayed a couple of weeks.

In a bakeshop across the lane, a young woman uses shiny tongs to lift fragrant buns into her customer’s bag.  A gentleman who stops in for a chat, in new white running shoes and a very English porkpie hat, carries off a sack of rolls.  Two crones pulling shopping carts stop just outside for a talk punctuated by outlandish laughter and flamboyant gesturing.  Songbirds for sale sing away the afternoon, their cheery din drowned out for long moments by rounds of shrieks and cackles from the boisterous Ma jong table.

After a leisurely meal of fresh seafood, we catch a direct ferry back to Central. The two of us perch on freshly painted white capstans on deck to admire the shimmering sun path, a golden end to the day reflected in our wake.  Crossing our turbulent trail is the evening boat to Macao.
As we power past an unnamed bit of land, my son says it’s one of nearly 300 harbor isles and reefs.   From a smooth cliff face, caves open to a narrow sandy beach as untouched as a remote Pacific paradise.

What a welcome respite for city dwellers these islands are, a sample of the past and a taste of wilderness for those who live their busy lives in one of the world’s most sophisticated and densely populated cities.


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