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Pokfulam Village: On the run from the developers

Southern District village makes World Monuments Fund 2014 watch list

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Pokfulam Village, Hong Kong Island

200 years of history

After the news emerged last week that Pokfulam Village (薄扶林村) has been included on the 2014 World Monuments Fund list of cultural heritage sites in need of preservation, I took a trip to Hong Kong Island’s Southern District to see what all the fuss was about.

With a history stretching back at least two hundred years, Pokfulam Village is one of 67 sites of global cultural heritage that have been cited in the bi-annual list as “at risk” from natural forces, as well as from “social, political, and economic change”. It is also the first Hong Kong site to make the list since its inception in 1996.

According to the WMF, the “modest appearance” of Pokfulam Village “belies its importance to the history of Hong Kong.” It notes the narrow lanes and twisting alleys typical of the village, and the traditional one-storey buildings in which its two thousand residents live. The village is home to buildings dating back to 1886 and the establishment of the original Dairy Farm company that, along with other surviving colonial era structures, “provide a rich historical setting for Pokfulam Village.”

The WMF also notes one of the village’s most important traditions – the annual Pokfulam Village Fire Dragon Dance – which like its more popular Tai Hang cousin, takes place every Mid-Autumn Festival with the aim of driving away evil spirits from the village and as a means of keeping the traditions of the village alive.

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With a history of at least 200 years, the village is a rich source of Hong Kong cultural heritage

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The village was the site of the original Dairy Farm, established in 1886

Pressure from developments

It is precisely these traditions and the cultural history of the village that the World Monuments Fund has brought attention to with the inclusion of Pokfulam Village on its latest list. Pressure from urban development projects has been a constant threat to the village over the years, with the twenty tower blocks that comprise the Chi Fu Fa Yuen apartment complex looming over the village acting as an ever-present reminder of the many threats to its continued existence.

There are plans, for instance, to convert the unoccupied Dairy Farm workers’ dormitories into high-density housing. While according to the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung has proposed a lifting of development restrictions in Pok Fu Lam, a move which further threatens the village’s survival. Moreover, village residents are bound by tough control policies that class their residences as “squatter housing”, meaning many of the buildings cannot be adequately repaired or upgraded and leading the village into a slow slide towards disrepair.

If, for example, a resident wants to repair his home, only materials that were registered during the last squatter occupancy survey in 1984 are permitted for use. A prohibition on the use of materials such as brick or concrete has thus led to the village’s current run-down appearance. The lack of any action on the part of the government to assist villagers with the preservation of the village only contributes to the impression from outside, of the village as an eyesore and a safety problem, a view which only plays into the developers hands.

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An abandoned house in Pokfulam Village, Hong Kong

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The pagoda was built in 1916 to honour the local god Li Ling

Heritage at risk

Despite its current state, however, as the WMF notes, a visit to Pokfulam Village certainly reveals the history that makes it unique. The village has existed in some form since the 17th century, with many of the current historical structures dating back to around the late 1800s. The original Dairy Farm buildings, for instance, are still very much in evidence.

Once one of the largest enterprises in Hong Kong, Dairy Farm started out with a herd of 80 cattle grazing on the hills above the village and grew to around 1550 before moving to a larger site. There is an octagonal cowshed and the old Dairy Farm office building, both with Hong Kong’s heritage grade-two status, as well as the grade-one listed staff house and a single surviving stone-brick silo. The dairy workers’ co-operative, first opened in 1949, still opens for a few hours each morning in the heart of the village, acting as a focal point for villagers to gather at and socialise.

The village is also home to several religious structures of note. Li Ling Pagoda (also referred to as the Li Ling Fairy Tower), for example, was built in 1916 in honour of the local god Li Ling who was believed to prevent evil spirits entering the village from the surrounding hills.

The five-metre tall, red-brick pagoda is guarded by two stone lions and has become a focal point of village celebrations. Li Ling herself is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the fourth lunar month, while during the annual Fire Dragon Dance (itself with a history of over 100 years), the pagoda will be visited by the dragon as a way of paying homage to the god and to ask for the continued blessing of the village.

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“Gonggong acts with fairness. Popo stands for kindness.” Bogong shrine, Pokfulam Village

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A typical residence at Pokfulam Village. But whether the latest developments have saved the village from the bulldozers is yet to be seen.

Sustainable management

Finally, there is the Bogong shrine, a traditional village shrine of the type often found at the entrances of rural villages. The Bogong shrine at Pokfulam Village, is located on Wai Chai Street and features a couplet which says: “Gonggong acts with fairness. Popo stands for kindness.”

Pokfulam Village isn’t the only “at risk” site in Hong Kong. There are neighbourhoods and buildings of note throughout the territory under threat from the developers dollars. Even the country parks seem to have had their sacred status somewhat revoked of late. But such has been the way for much of the last century in this space-limited city. In a city constantly looking forward, there is little room for the past, particularly when it takes up valuable real-estate space and there is money to be made.

As the World Monuments Fund says: “Sustainable management of Pokfulam Village, allowing for the upgrading of building stock, will best serve this intimate community and will contribute to the preservation of the diversity of Hong Kong’s urban space.” The addition of the village to the fund’s watch list at least gives some much needed breathing space. Whether this latest development is no more than a reprieve from the developers’ bulldozers, however, remains to be seen.

Read More: For more about redevelopment in Hong Kong, see my post Kwun Tong: Changing for the better? to read how one of Hong Kong’s oldest residential districts is confronting the arrival of the Urban Renewal Authority.

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Wall shrine at Pokfulam Village, Hong Kong

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