Hundreds of people are searching for treasure hidden across the Outlying Islands district of Hong Kong this month, but it’s not pieces-of-eight or buried chests of precious stones they are seeking.
“Hong Kong’s islands have so many treasures – different architecture, festivals, crafts and traditions,” says Simon Go Man-ching, founder of Hulu Culture, a local NGO that is running a project called Treasure Islands, which encourages locals and visitors to explore the rich cultural heritage of Hong Kong’s islands.
Go is talking from the temporary headquarters of the project, formed by a dozen blue shipping containers located near the Hong Kong Maritime Museum on the busy waterfront of the Central business district. Each container houses a small exhibition inspired by island life, and the entrance is marked by a 15-metre-high ornate structure constructed by bamboo master Hui Ka-hung, from Lamma Island.
“Our islands are not just about beautiful landscapes and seafood,” says Go.
The islands district consists of more than 20 islands of various sizes that are home to more than 141,000 people. Regular ferry service allows residents to commute to the city centre and offer visitors one of the best value boat trips in Asia.
While the main attraction of Hong Kong’s outlying islands might be cheaper rent or a day trip to enjoy seafood restaurants, Go and his small team of volunteers have identified some 100 cultural treasures as part of their attempt to engage locals and tourists in the islands’ unique heritage.
Hulu commissioned local artists and illustrators Angryangry and Don Mak to create a map and posters to guide treasure hunters to historic temples, festivals, temples, pirate and ghost sites, and traditional artisans and businesses. Participants register their finds on their phones, via a QR code, using a special Treasure Islands app and exchange their digital finds for real treasure – prizes – at the project HQ at Central’s Pier 9.
“We want to communicate the traditional cultural traditions of Hong Kong with the younger generation,” says Go, who has gone to great lengths to involve younger people in the project. Students from the Hong Kong Design Institute, for example, have designed a new fashion collection inspired by the fishing industry in Cheung Chau and local sea scouts act as guides.
While Hong Kong’s history tends to be dominated by colonial governors, compradors, military types and taipans, who all made their mark after the British arrived in 1841, the outer islands can trace their roots back thousands of years and the culture has been less influenced by the West.
In 1898, when the New Territories (including the outlying islands) were leased by China to Britain, Cheung Chau was already a thriving Chinese trading and fishing port supporting a town of some 5,000 people established in the Qianlong era of the Qing dynasty (1735-96).
Lantau Island was long of strategic significance, being situated close to the entrance to the Pearl River estuary, and had been a key part of the lucrative Chinese salt industry for centuries.
Lamma Island was first recorded in local records in 1484 but, with less water and farmland than Cheung Chau or Lantau, it only supported a population of 460 residents when it became British in 1898.
“In general, young people know that Hong Kong is a mixed culture, but they don’t know what the history was before the British era. They have no specific idea of where the origins of our culture stem from,” Go says.
For a flavour of these rich cultural origins, one of the 105 cultural treasures marked on the islands treasure map is Cheung Chau’s Tai Ping Qing Jiao festival, which offers a surfeit of Hong Kong’s most colourful intangible cultural heritage.
This includes Taoist priests, floating colour parades (piu sik), the feeding of water gods, burning of paper gifts, lion dances, Cantonese opera and three giant paper effigies of the ghost kings. There is a documentary explaining the history of what is better known as the “bun festival” in the Hulu Culture exhibition area.
Held between the 4th and 8th day of the fourth lunar month (May 9 and 13 this year), the Tai Ping Qing Jiao festival gives thanks to the most important island deity, Pak Tai, who legendarily suppressed a terrible plague on the island during the Qing dynasty, and consoled the lonely spirits of the deceased, both on land and at sea.
Not surprisingly, the sea plays a central part in island culture. The dragon boat water parade in the stilted fishing village of Tai O, on Lantau, is unique in Hong Kong and extremely rare in mainland China. It does not include the more popular dragon boat racing, but it is a more solemn procession of dragon boats to the village’s four temples to collect statues of deities.
On the fifth day of the fifth lunar month (June 7 this year) the statues are put on sacred sampans and towed by the dragon boats in a parade through the waters of Tai O, to pacify wandering water ghosts.
Many older residents of the stilted houses still burn paper offerings as the dragon boats pass by. Tin Hau temples honouring the traditional Fujian goddess of the sea, believed to protect mariners from danger, are dotted all over the islands district. The traditional Tin Hau parade in Peng Chau is still the most popular and well-supported festival on that island.
“Seafaring, often including fishing, piracy and smuggling, was essential to local island culture and it is at the root of much of the outer island’s cultural heritage,” says Richard Wesley, director of the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.
The museum, which has partnered with Hulu Culture to support the project, recently undertook a major historical study of High Island in Sai Kung, sponsored by the Lord Wilson Heritage Trust, to try and document much of the island’s intangible and verbal histories.
“Much of the history and culture of all Hong Kong’s islands is not officially recorded and is in danger of disappearing,” Wesley says.
To connect people with the marine traditions of the islands, Hulu has organised boat trips to some of the key sites. “The interest levels are going up – people are eager to know, more because they feel confused about their identity,” Go says.
Today, historian and lecturer Anthony Chan Tin-kuen is conducting a local history talk on board the traditional timber junk, Aqualuna, as it sails around Victoria Harbour. Families listen intently to his talk of festivals, dragon boats, architecture, fishing and the early days of Hong Kong while enjoying an hour’s tour of Victoria Harbour.
“Families like to bring their kids to learn and the kids love the stories,” says Go, as Chan answers questions from his audience and one little boy asks him if there are still pirates in Hong Kong waters. Go’s personal favourite cultural treasure is, in fact, a pirate, and not a festival, temple, traditional craft or parade.
“The pirate Cheung Po Tsai is by far my favourite story from the islands. It’s got culture, history and legend all merged together,” he says.
The great pirate enjoyed too colourful a lifestyle for his name to be adopted by the mainstream Hong Kong establishment as a symbol of the territory, or to have his name attached to airports or conference centres. But he is a huge and indelible figure in island culture.
Cheung was thought to be bisexual, married his adoptive mother and killed thousands of his enemies as the ruthless head of the most powerful pirate fleet in the South China Sea during the Qing dynasty. Legend has it he also gave alms to the poor, concealed his treasure in a cave on Cheung Chau and paid to have the nearby Tin Hau temple built there.
“No one knows what is fact and what is legend about Cheung Po Tsai, as the story has been passed down from generation to generation,” Go says.
The Tin Hau temple in Sai Wan, in Cheung Chau harbour, allegedly built by Cheung, is the only one in Hong Kong to hold its annual Tin Hau festival a few days earlier than the official date of the 23rd day of the third lunar month (April 27 this year).
The official explanation is that because the temple was located in the remote south of the island, village leaders arranged to have the festival held during the full moon, so attendees could make their way home safely in the moonlight. Some locals prefer to believe the date was changed to confuse the authorities, so Cheung could attend without fear of capture.
Cheung will be the lead character in a live shadow puppet performance held at 2.30pm on May 1 delivered by local puppet master, Wong Fi. It is a modern reworking of a very traditional cultural treasure augmented by new props and modern animation techniques, developed by students at the Hong Kong Design Institute and will mark the end of the treasure islands project.