Page C2.2 . 01 November 2006                     
ArchitectureWeek - Culture Department
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    Hong Kong Villages


    In 1953, Hong Kong was subject to an assertive new-town policy introduced by the British administration to ease pressure on the urban fabric created by, among other things, immigration/ population growth, an insufficient supply of decent housing, and deteriorating health conditions.

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    The new-town program had a clear purpose: to reduce overcrowding, better manage social problems like crime and disease, avoid the haphazard urban sprawl problems experienced by some western societies, and improve community facilities.

    New Towns, Not Suburbs

    These objectives were to be achieved, beginning in the 1960s, by enlarging existing small, semi-rural towns and by ensuring that any urban growth would be in accord with the planning principles of self-containment and balanced community development. This meant producing districts for people of diverse skills and socioeconomic status.

    Since then, once-outlying towns like Sha Tin, Tai Po, Tseun Wan, and Tuen Mun have witnessed spectacular urban growth, shifting away from their functions as market towns and becoming major residential, shopping, and industrial hubs surrounded by green belts. They are connected to the urban districts of Kowloon and Central Hong Kong by modern mass transit for easy commuting even though the new-town planning concept was aimed at reducing the need to commute.

    Hong Kong's new towns experienced a population increase of almost 2.4 million people between 1976 and 2001, about 1.9 million of them residing in public housing. The development program has thus been pivotal in improving the lot of the its citizens, both environmentally and socially.

    One of these settlements, Sha Tin, in the New Territories East, was until the mid-1970s a rural township of about 35,000 people. Today, over 620,000 people live within several compact, serviced neighborhoods of various sizes within the larger urban community. The natural environment of the mountains, Shing Mun River, and Tolo Harbour have been used to provide parks, promenades, bicycle paths, and recreational facilities.

    One of these subcommunities, Ma On Shan, was built on reclaimed land from the Shing Mun River Estuary and a former quarry site. The population now stands at about 160,000. It grew rapidly throughout the 1980s and 90s despite being the farthest Sha Tin district from the urban centers of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.

    Unlike garden cities in Britain or suburbs in North America, Ma On Shan's residential buildings are primarily highrise, most of them 35 stories or higher. Like other new developments in Hong Kong, it has been planned as a self-contained environment and balanced community with a mixture of public and private housing, dependable utility services, a well-organized transportation system, open space for recreation, and a broad range of community facilities for health, education, and social welfare.

    Villages on the Fringe

    But Hong Kong's built history has not disappeared. At the edges of Ma On Shan are numerous villages, boasting few amenities but great character. In contrast to the extensive urban development nearby, settlements such as To Tau Village remain as testament to the old traditions of Hong Kong community living.

    Surrounded by Starfish Bay and agricultural fields, To Tau Village presents an idyllic picture and urban history the world barely knows. Nearby archaeological excavations have dated activity in the area to the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1279) and the Qing Dynasty (A.D. 1644-1911) thereby demonstrating Tau To's longevity and emphasizing its resistance to the influence of colonialism and British town planning models.

    But given highrise housing's proximity and Hong Kong's unending need to develop land, what future do these villages have? Are the threats of urbanization being taken seriously by society at large? Are the villages fated to become mere tourist attractions?

    These villages now stand as the last mainstays of premodern ways of life. With their feng shui-influenced layouts and cultural simplicity, most villages provide opportunities for social interaction that are lacking in the new housing developments. These villages take on still greater value because their inhabitants exhibit emotional attachments to a sense of place, which seems out of reach by inhabitants of modern, vertical, anonymous housing.

    Interestingly, in light of decades of cultural upheavals in the People's Republic of China, the New Territories' villages have a cultural importance that reaches beyond Hong Kong's borders. These villages have been widely acknowledged as possessing social practices that are more traditional than those on the mainland; hence they are said to be "more Chinese" than the villages of China.

    Providing a tangible link between the cultural past and the present day, the small semirural communities of the New Territories can be perceived as a metaphor for Hong Kong's past and its present day preoccupations.

    While architects enthuse about the energy and modernity at the center of Hong Kong, they should also consider the social mores present in outlying communities examples of humanity so lacking in the architecture, environment, and behavior of urbanized people throughout the world.

    It would be a cultural catastrophe if Hong Kong ever urbanized to such a degree that it established itself as a village-less city, a fate experienced nearby in Shenzhen at the Mainland China /Hong Kong border.

    Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

    Dr. Ian Morley is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of History at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and is author of numerous papers on urbanism and civic design.



    ArchWeek Image

    Hong Kong Island as seen from Kowloon.
    Photo: Ian Morley

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    The walled village of Tsang Tai Uk in Sha Tin dates from the 1840s but is now becoming surrounding by highrise urban developments.
    Photo: Ian Morley

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    The planning of areas like Sha Tin, just outside the main urban center of Hong Kong, has called for wide traffic arteries, greened spaces, highrise buildings, and green belts of mountains.
    Photo: Ian Morley

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    Recreational areas, schools, and housing in Ma On Shan.
    Photo: Ian Morley

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    The beach in front of To Tau Village with housing in Ma On Shan in the background.
    Photo: Ian Morley

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    A house in Ta Tau Village.
    Photo: Ian Morley

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    Detailing on the upper wall of a building in Tsang Tai Uk.
    Photo: Ian Morley

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    Hong Kong was once known for the high quality of rice grown in these fast disappearing agricultural lands.
    Photo: Ian Morley


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