December 11, 1999 - January 30, 2000
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Lamma Island is one of dozens, if not hundreds of islands, that make up the Hong Kong territory (or SAR, i.e. Special Administrative Region as it's called since its return to Chinese administration in July, 1997). Coming third in size after Lantau and HK islands, Lamma Island has half the area of HK Island and lies at its closest about 1.5 kilometers to the southwest of HK Island.
Of all the islands the most famous and the most populated is Hong Kong Island, the place the British originally took from the Chinese after the 1840-41 Opium War. It is the site of Central, the tram, Victoria Peak, and the home to several million people. For a year we lived on HK Island before moving across the bay to the Tsim Sha Tsui district of Kowloon.
The largest island is Lantau, about twice the area of HK Island, and about 10 km to the west of it at their closest approach. It was our favorite place for weekend hikes when we lived here in 1981-85. Its two highest peaks, Lantau and Sunset, are both over 950 m and we'd hoped to climb them both but didn't get around to it. In contrast to HK Island, Lantau's population is only 20-30,000 but that is now rapidly changing. Lantau is where the new airport is located, accessible by road and rail since its opening, and the probable future site of an Asian Disneyland.
Lamma, although in some sense "third" has neither size nor population. It is about 7 km from north to south and shaped a bit like a Britain (but much smaller, having about 1/3000 of the area). At the south it is wide, further north there is a narrow waist, and at the northernmost it is wide again, but only half as wide as in the south. For the most part Lamma is unpopulated; probably 95% is not built on. There are three major communities and then an assortment of scattered housing complexes, some large enoughto be called villages. The largest is Yung Shue Wan and far behind is Pak Kok Gau Tsuen, where we rented an appartment. Probably an equal or slightly smaller population is spread out abut Sok Kwu Wan, but it's hard to tell because it is so spread out.
There are no roads and no cars on Lamma — transport when needed is by small "golf carts". An exception is the power station road, which goes from the coal-burning power station outside of Yung She Wan across the middle of the back of the island, with the high-voltage power line that eventually goes to Aberdeen buried beneath it. That road can only be used by power workers and anyway, there are no other cars on the island. To get from Pak Kok Gau Tsuen to Yung She Wan you walk. And to go on to Sok Kwu Wan you walk some more. In all a fast walker could do it in about an hour.
Connection to the "mainland" (HK Island) is by ferry. There are very frequent ones between central and Yung Shue Wan and reasonably frequent ones between Central and/or Aberdeen and Pak Kok Gau Tsuen. There is also a ferry between Sok Kwu Wan and Aberdeen. (Aberdeen is on the south west side of HK Island and visible from Lamma. It is famous as the site of the Jumbo floating restaurant and the boat people. Both are now only memories from HK's past.) Any of these ferry trips take 20-30 minutes. So, if the schedules were right and you didn't want to spend an hour walking over hill and dale to from Pak Kok Gau Tsuen to Sok Kwu Wan you could do it by taking several ferries in the same amount of time.
Yung Shue Wan
If you know about Avalon Bay on Catalina, "26 miles across the sea" from Los Angeles, as the song goes, you have an idea what the village of Yung Shue Wan is like. Both have small residential communities and large weekend populations and both are reached by ferry. (There are probably a lot of good comparisons to be made with Greek vacation spots, but we don't know them. Maybe next year we will!)
On Yung Shue Wan, from the ferry pier you look up at a bowl with tiers and tiers of three story "village" houses climbing the hil, up to about 100 ml. As a guess there are less than 1000 residents. Just back from the water front there is a single "street", pedestrian of course, and wide enough for three or four people to walk abreast. As you leave the ferry the first building, on the left, is a small post office. Our first day on the island we walked from our new home to pick up mail that had been waiting for us a month. After the post office comes a half dozen restaurants, located on both sides of the walkway. Beyond that are a few dozen small shops, some selling food and many with tourist oriented trinkets. None of the food shops is anywhere near big enough to be called a supermarket, but at least they do sell milk and other perishables, such as fruit and vegetables. They are the closest places to Pak Kok Gau Tsuen that do.
The "street" continues and begins to branch here and there, with most branches becoming steeply sloped paths or even stairways leading up into residential areas. One of two major branches climbs through an area that is still half agricultural to reach a "suburb" on top of the hill. The other main branch continues south, passes the power station at a respectful distance, and after about a kilometer comes to one of the island's two beaches. Another 30 minutes walk takes one to the second beach and another fifteen minutes after that one gets into Sok Kwu Wan.
Beside having its resident population, who are a mixture of Chinese and European commuters, Yung She Wan is a very popular places for weekend visits. Among the shops are half dozen agencies for week end rentals. Late Fridays and early Saturdays every ferry disgorges groups of two or three, or more, off to their escape haven. Many have a look on their face that says "hey, I'm lost; will I find it?" They all do.
Sok Kwu Wan
Years ago we would come with a crowd from the Poly or RCP to Sok Kwu Wan, hike all afternoon, and then dine on the waterfront on freshly caught fish and shellfish. Since those days the number of restaurants has probably doubled, but if you were not familiar with the past you would hardly suspect it, so compact is the community.
Sok Kwu Wan sits on the left of a small bay that is devoted to fish and shrimp farming. The end is nearly circular; it might be a half kilometer from side to side. The ferries come in, pass the shrimp cages, and dock on the piers at the left. From there to the right are about a dozen restaurants. The dinning tables are all set out on the right, along the water front, under tarps. The kitchens and administrative areas of the restaurants are all in real, but small, buildings on the left. This year we ate our wedding anniversary dinner at the last one on the right, coming from the pier.
Just past the restaurants one finds a few two and three story houses and then agricultural area,but now mostly fallow. The rest of the Sok Kwu Wan population lives on around the bay on the isthmus of Lamma Island. Across the isthmus is the second beach mentioned above. In 1984 we tried to go this beach from Yung She Wan but got lost. That day, after about an hour's walk from Yung Shue Wan we got to Sok Kwu Wan. This year we set out diliberately to find Sok Kwu Wan and did so without getting lost. Coming as we did from Yung Shue Wan, we come in on the west side, high above the bay, descended, passed the sign to the beach that we must have previously missed, and then walked around to the east side
Pak Kok Gau Tsuen
The third mentioned village is Pak Kok Gau Tsuen, which lies on the northern most point of Lamma. In fact, "Pak Kok" means "north point" in Cantonese. It's about a 20-minute, 1.5 km, up-down walk to the north east of Yung Shue Wan. A more direct way to get there is to take the ferry from Central or Aberdeen (or even from Yung Shue Wan). From the pier one has a good view of HK Island and large parts of Kowloon. A five minute walk and a fair number of puff takes you to where we lived.
Housing sits on two sides of a small bowl about 700 m across and defined by two hills or ridges about 100 m high. Almost all the dwellings are three-storey cubes about 10 meters high and 8-10 meters on a side; each floor is usually one apartment. These are called "village houses." A story has it that islanders have the right to build this size house and smaller without official permission. So of course, all houses are built to the max.
Pak Kok Gau Tsuen sits on the western side; there are about 30 "cubes" populating the hill side in about five levels. On the eastern side is Pak Kok Tsui Tsuen, which has a few more buildings than the west side, but they are less dense. There are two little shops there, each less than a quarter of a small American convenience store; they don't carry milk or newspapers; just non-perishables. Up the middle of the bowl there are more houses, but even more scattered. Beyond there there is a second, less travelled path to Yung Shue Wan.
The center of the bowl is more vacant than not; or at least vacant of housing since crops grow here and there. By all appearances and reports just ten years ago it was an actively farmed.
The spelling of "Pak Kok Gau Tsuen" is interesting. This is the official spelling, but it sometimes appears as "Pak Gok Kau Tsuen". The variation comes from the fact that Chinese has various dialects and none of them have exactly an English "k" or "g". The sound in Chinese is somewhere in between and thus some spell with a "k" and some with a "g"..