600 year old village set for demolition
Update: 29th January 2016. It’s been over two years since I wrote this post, and after years of holding out, it looks the village has finally met its end.
One of the last of its kind
Surrounded by high-rise apartment blocks in southern Wong Tai Sin District, Nga Tsin Wai Tsuen (衙前圍村), otherwise known as Nga Tsin Walled Village, looks like the last place you’d expect to find anything of historical interest.
From the outside at least, the place looks more like a scrap yard than the centre of controversy it has become. Corrugated metal sheets press against a wire fence in front of which local residents, seated on stools, have set blankets on the pavement from where their assorted junk elicits little enthusiasm from the passersby. Then you turn the corner and see the red-lettered banners, the notices giving warning of eviction and the posters protesting.
In the ongoing battle over Hong Kong’s dwindling heritage, it seems Nga Tsin Wai Tsuen is the latest in a long line of casualties. After the recent interest in Pokfulam Village and the furore over the redevelopment of Kwun Tong, barely a week goes by without some story involving protesting villagers and the alleged dastardliness of the Urban Renewal Authority making the papers. It has reached the point where the fate of Hong Kong’s remaining villages has become a predictably one-way fight, with the Urban Renewal Authority cast, in the eyes of most, as the bullying villain with only one motive in mind.
This latest act in the continuing drama is not actually a new story at all. Plans to redevelop Nga Tsin Wai Tsuen were first announced back in 1998, with the project officially commencing in 2007. Since then, most of the hundred or so houses that were still standing have been demolished, while the few that remain are in such a state of disrepair that you could be forgiven for doubting Nga Tsin Wai Tsuen was ever a thriving village at all.
Over 600 years of history
With a history of over 600 years, Nga Tsin Wai Tsuen is one of the oldest, and certainly the last walled village remaining in urban Hong Kong. It is said to have been founded in the early part of the 14th century, possibly by members of the Ng clan. The Ng Family Ancestral Hall, still in existence nearby, gives a clue to the village’s origins; while an inscription in the village temple dates its establishment as 1352.
Although it is hard to image now, Nga Tsin Wai Tsuen once stood on the southern Kowloon shore. The temple, built in honour of the goddess of the sea Tin Hau, points to a seafaring tradition, with the village walls having been built in 1724 in order to protect its inhabitants from the attention of pirates operating in the harbour. Though the walls may not have survived the vast change that has occurred around it, the history of the village certainly has. It is exactly this history, and that of the few historic structures that remain, that has been at the heart of the battle over Nga Tsin Wai Tsuen for the past ten years.
According to the URA website, the Nga Tsin Wai Tsuen project will “adopt an innovative concept of ‘conservation by design'” which aims to preserve the three main structures of the village, namely the village gatehouse, the embedded stone tablet within it, and the Tin Hau Temple. These will then be incorporated into a conservation park, including the main village street and around ten existing houses, that will “manifest the ambiance of the 600 years-old village” whilst allowing the construction of the two planned residential towers to “proceed in parallel.”
Anger at Urban Renewal Authority tactics
Though there are still one or two residents living in the village, most have accepted this proposal and the government’s compensation package and moved out willingly. The few houses that remain, however, could barely pass for a village at all – leaking rooves overgrown with weeds; rusting girders and bare concrete floors where houses once stood. You would be forgiven for thinking the URA is doing the place a favour in offering to relocate its residents. But while some are glad of the chance to get out, there are others whose refuse to bow to the pressure.
Many residents admitted they were glad of the chance to move into more comfortable accommodation. But there is still anger that a village with 600 years of history has been allowed to slide into such a state of disrepair that many of the buildings are now too dilapidated to save. The conservation plans have been criticised as half-hearted by some – a token gesture in place of the government’s failure to preserve the village in its entirety. While the compensation package offered to the Nga Tsin Wai Tsuen residents has not, on the whole, been greeted with enthusiasm.
In a familiar echo of URA evictions elsewhere, many are worried that the compensation on offer will not nearly be enough to meet the much higher rents residents will encounter should they decide to move out. Indeed, many of the banners attached to the fences around the village complain about just that. But with demolition already underway and the final deadline having now passed, it seems the remaining residents of Nga Tsin Wai Tsuen have little option but to pack up, move out and make way for the coming of ‘progress’. Historic it may be, but in a city where land is money and money is everything, nothing stays sacred for ever.
Related Post: Read more about the battle to save Hong Kong’s heritage at category: heritage