Hong Kong’s Quiet Corners
Most people think of Hong Kong as noisy and crowded, which for the most part it is. A bustling city of 7 million people jammed into a 425 square mile area, Hong Kong’s best-known images are dominated by skyscrapers, a harbor criss-crossed by all manner of shipping, and sidewalks jammed with pedestrians en route to shopping, work, or dim sum.
Less well known is the 40% of Hong Kong’s land area which is occupied by country parks, protected from real estate development, and the 250-plus islands which dot its coastal area, most of them uninhabited.
In my recent post on Feng Shui (Feng Shui is Alive and Well), I wrote about my experience living on one of Hong Kong’s outlying islands, Cheung Chau.
In those days, Cheung Chau had several nice beaches, although on summer weekends they get a bit crowded. To escape to quieter swimming spots, friends and I would sometimes charter a sampan for a day and head to Tai Long Wan on Lantau Island, or Little Soko Island to the South of Lantau. Both spots are visible from the Macau ferries which ply between Hong Kong and Macau.
长洲码头，从这里可以租到去大浪屿或是索罟群岛的舢板。 / The pier on Cheung Chau from which we’d catch sampans bound for Tai Long Wan or the Soko Islands.
The Soko Islands were a favorite destination. Although a longer trip by sampan, it was a remote corner unlike anywhere else in Hong Kong. The two main islands, Big Soko and Little Soko, were inhabited. Big Soko sits right at the demarcation line between Hong Kong and Chinese waters.
Big Soko Island had a village with about 100 residents in those days. Little Soko, on the other hand, had a much nicer beach. Its population was exactly two people — an older couple who had lived there for many years without electricity or telephone, netting fish to be salt-cured as “ham yu” for sale in Cheung Chau, growing pineapples and a few other crops, tending a few head of cattle, and living a life of simplicity far, far removed from the hustle-bustle of Hong Kong’s urban jungle.
To this lovely old couple, Cheung Chau was the big city, a 45-minute ride away in their uncovered wooden sampan. They would make the trip, weather permitting, once every few weeks to sell some salted fish and buy provisions. On the return journey, they would bring back a big block of ice bought from one of the ice boats moored in Cheung Chau harbor, which supplied the local fishing junks. In summer months they would also stock up on cans and bottles of soft drinks, beer and water which they would sell to the occasional weekend visitors like us. They kept the ice and drinks in a big covered wooden barrel.
They had several dogs, one of which was black. He had an air of rural self-reliance about him, very different from a typical house pet. The old man once told me that he was very good at catching and killing cobras, which are common on Hong Kong’s outlying islands.
(I used to see cobras quite often on Cheung Chau and one morning even found one in my kitchen, so I could relate to the usefulness of a snake-catching dog.)
The island was shaped like a dumbbell, with a low, narrow isthmus leading to two hilly points at the North and South ends. We’d sometimes hike up the hills, dodging the huge webs spun by big black and yellow wolf spiders in clearings in the low forest. The spiders were as big across as a child’s hand, and despite not being poisonous, they looked large enough to inflict a painful bite.
Mainly we were there for the beach and the swimming. The water quality was good, and we usually had the beach to ourselves.
Eventually, the old couple became too old to maintain their solo lifestyle, and they retired to the “big city” of Cheung Chau.
The villagers on Big Soko sold their land to a Hong Kong property developer who planned a high-end luxury development, but that never came to fruition.
Instead, as Hong Kong’s population of Vietnamese refugees swelled in the early 1980s, the Sokos were turned into a Vietnamese refugee camp. Years later, after most of the refugees were resettled, the Sokos became empty.
There is talk now of building a natural gas storage facility there, the pros and cons of which are being hotly debated by business and environmental interest groups. I wonder what the old couple would have to say about this, if they were still around.