Hong Kong: Beside the border

1 Mar 2019 by Michael Allen
Hong Kong New Territories

The area of Hong Kong’s New Territories closest to the border with mainland China is often overlooked by business travellers

“Standing here is safe; standing there is not safe,” the elderly man in the sawdust-covered puffer jacket warns me, before proceeding to set a rusty belt-driven buzz saw standing about three metres tall into motion. I watch anxiously as the machine, emblazoned with four sets of Chinese characters spelling out lucky slogans about thriving business and good health, slices off the whole side of a log with ease.

As the serrated blade whirs less than a metre away, I wonder aloud if my travel insurance covers sawmill visits, as well as hospital visits for severed fingers, hands or limbs. But before long the brutalised log comes to an undramatic rest, and the push of a button puts the machine back to sleep.

The average business traveller experiences Hong Kong, with its densely packed skyscrapers and frenetic street life, as a city of unparalleled density and verticality. Business travel demands seldom require leaving the compact and highly developed northern sections of Hong Kong Island and southern sections of Kowloon, with their luxury hotels, world-class skyscrapers and almost infinite fine-dining options.

But life is quite different here in the far northern New Territories, just a few kilometres from the border separating Hong Kong’s lush, mountainous countryside from the mainland Chinese boomtown of Shenzhen. And the curious business traveller who is willing to set aside a post-work trip weekend to explore this lesser travelled part of the Special Administrative Region will be rewarded with a unique experience.

However, a major housing development plan confirmed by the Hong Kong government in January risks changing the face of this area for good – so the time to go and see it is now.

In mid-January, the Hong Kong government confirmed it would push ahead with its plan to build two new towns in the northern New Territories, offering a total of 71,800 flats to accommodate some 188,100 residents by 2031, according to the South China Morning Post. The plan will displace 445 households in the area, and local farmers have spoken out against it, saying it will kill off family farms.

Although it feels far flung once you get here, reaching this part of the New Territories is actually relatively effortless compared with visiting the hinterland in other countries (think Australia’s vast outback or Japan’s sprawling countryside). The MTR commuter rail network is pleasingly efficient and comfortable compared with many other cities’ subway systems, and can connect you with ease to the New Territories via its West Rail Line and East Rail Line.

From Central, Hong Kong Island’s main business district, it takes just over 50 minutes to reach MTR stations close to the Chinese border. The East Rail Line even offers fairly affordable first class fares (HK$88/US$11 using an Octopus travel card for a journey from Central to Lok Ma Chau on the Shenzhen border), meaning you can avoid the crush of people with their cumbersome luggage shuttling between Hong Kong and the mainland.

A sawmill on borrowed time

My first foray into this region takes me to meet Wong Hung-kuen, the wearer of the sawdust-covered puffer jacket and boss of what is possibly Hong Kong’s last remaining operational sawmill. He’s been running Chi Kee Sawmill & Timber since his father passed away in the 1980s. The sawmill was first established on Java Road in North Point (on Hong Kong Island) in 1948, three years after Japan ended its wartime occupation of Hong Kong. In 1955, the sawmill relocated to Chai Wan, the easternmost urban area of Hong Kong Island. Within Chai Wan, the mill was forced to relocate another three times to make way for government construction projects: Chai Wan Park, the MTR Island Line and the Island Eastern Corridor expressway.

Hung-kuen still lives in Chai Wan, 43 kilometres from the sawmill, which is now situated a 15-minute drive from Sheung Shui MTR station, the penultimate station before the Shenzhen border. By public transport from Chai Wan, the journey to work would take nearly 2.5 hours by train and bus. Fortunately, a colleague drives him, which takes only 45 minutes, the journey expedited by the very Island Eastern Corridor that previously forced the relocation of the sawmill.

More and more people are visiting Chi Kee Sawmill & Timber to learn about wood or to buy materials there to make their own simple furniture, Hung-kuen says. There is a growing interest in wood and carpentry among young people in Hong Kong, and around 70 per cent of them are girls, he adds.

But Hung-kuen is worried about getting closed down due to the government’s North East New Territories Development Plan. The sawmill lies within the plan’s Kwu Tung North Development Area, where the government intends to build new housing. In October 2018, staff at the Lands Department came for a second visit to measure the size of the sawmill. Hung-kuen believes that was a sign his beloved sawmill’s days are numbered.

“There’s nothing more I can do if the sawmill needs to be closed,” says Hung-kuen, who is 70 years old this year. The countryside surrounding Chi Kee Sawmill & Timber has hardly changed over the decades. The major industries in this area have been – and still are – agriculture, poultry and other rural industries like soy sauce production, wine brewing and machine repair.

“If this kind of traditional industry cannot be kept, it would be a great loss for the generations to come, and the development of Hong Kong will become homogenised and thus fragile,” Hung-kuen says.

Birds on the border

Nate Kwong is 24 years old, of a different generation to Hung-kuen, but just as concerned about how development is set to change the face of this part of the New Territories. Like Hung-kuen, he has a singular passion in life – but rather than wood, his is birds. A stark contrast to the hoards of smartphone-addicted youths who populate Hong Kong’s urban areas, Nate is a true nature lover: he studied applied biology at Hong Kong’s Baptist University and wrote his thesis on egrets and spoonbills. Clutching an illustrated guide to South China’s avian life, and carting around a US$3,775 Swarovski ATX 25-60×65 telescope, Nate is my guide for the afternoon during my visit to Mai Po Nature Reserve, a protected area tucked away in the New Territories’ northwestern corner, and managed by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Getting here involved a half-hour cab ride from Sheung Shui MTR station, the green New Territories taxi driven by a cheery local who, as we drove along country roads, sang along to Cantonese pop songs blasting out of the car stereo – presenting a stark contrast to the almost invariably surly drivers of the red-painted urban taxis (Hong Kong’s taxis are painted different colours depending on where they operate). The pace of life is a lot slower up here in the New Territories, and the stresses of life seem more distant.

As Nate and I turn to enter Mai Po, I spot a gate and fence topped with barbed wire. “Frontier Closed Area: No entry without a written permit”, an imposing sign reads. In 1951, the British colonial government, seeking to reduce illegal immigration and cross-border criminal activities, established a one-mile buffer zone between Hong Kong and mainland China called the Frontier Closed Area. Mai Po used to be within this restricted area, but was removed in 2012, though you still need a Mai Po Marshes Entry Permit from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department to get in. One residential area in the northeastern New Territories, Sha Tau Kok, is still actually inside the Frontier Closed Area, and residents and visitors need a permit to go in and out.

We are about as close to China as you can get without actually crossing the border. Nate recommends I switch my phone to aeroplane mode to avoid picking up Chinese mobile networks and inadvertently incurring roaming charges. With that, we set off down the narrow Tam Kon Chau Road, past several small fish farms.

I’m a bit sceptical of birdwatching at first, being hyper-aware of the nerdy “twitcher” stereotype prevalent in my native England. But once Nate has trained his powerful telescope on a black-faced spoonbill, of which there are only a few thousand left in the world, I feel a giddy thrill at spying on this magnificent and rarely spotted creature from afar. After the spoonbill, we encounter a white-throated kingfisher which, though being all but a speck in the distance to the naked eye, is rendered in high-definition close-up with the telescope. Nate then brings me into Mai Po’s bird hides, from which we can observe at our leisure several types of bird, all oblivious to our presence. The only noise besides the frequent birdcalls comes from the puttering motor of a skiff carrying two workers watering the surrounding vegetation. In the distance Shenzhen’s skyscrapers, in which mainlanders toil away at office jobs, loom over the men.

Nate Kwong refers to his bird identification book

Mai Po’s nature is not always beautiful and serene. Walking down a lane, we come to a copse of chinaberry trees with snow-white branches overlooking a small lake. “Hopefully today is not a windy day; if it’s a windy day you can smell it,” Nate says, after telling me the white colouring is actually stains from the combined defecation of hundreds of great cormorants perched in the branches. Birdwatchers speculate, according to Nate, that the most dominant birds sit at the treetops, where they enjoy the privilege of avoiding falling faeces.

Later, crossing a boardwalk over the marshes, Nate points out some repulsive-looking clusters of what seem to be pink and white ballbearings stuck to the boardwalk’s legs. They could be something from a science-fiction movie, but are actually apple snail eggs, an invasive species in Mai Po. This humble snail was first introduced from Florida and Latin America to Taiwan in the early 1980s in an ill-considered bid to start an escargot industry.

“Consumers did not react as enthusiastically as snail farmers did, however, and though they were initially expensive, the market value of the snail soon plummeted,” according to a report from the US Department of State. The snails, which can carry the rat lungworm parasite, then spread to Hong Kong and other Asian countries, where they remain a pest.

We also come across an innocent-looking tree called the “suicide tree” because its toxic fruit has been used as a tool in both suicides and murders. Smaller doses can cause serious diarrhoea, while larger doses can stop the heart. In 2015, a 15-year-old Indian athlete died after consuming the fruit in a suicide pact, according to a BBC report. Needless to say, I refrain from going anywhere near the tree.

Once the tour comes to an end, Nate accompanies me on the 20-minute walk to the nearest minibus stop. Along the way, we hear a great commotion: a pack of dogs attacking a flock of birds, and succeeding in killing one. I half expect bird-lover Nate to rush to intervene and save his winged friend, but he barely reacts, saying that animals killing other animals is the normal way of nature.

Nate explains that he wants to ensure that these pristine natural areas of the New Territories are allowed to remain as they have been for centuries, even while Hong Kong’s population growth and integration with the mainland drives the need for more housing, infrastructure and land.

“I believe Mai Po will remain as a protected area in the future, but my personal concern is the developments near Mai Po. The fish ponds and farms provide food and prey to birds. Once these are developed, the number of birds might decline, yet we still need more scientific evidence to know the true impact,” he says, adding that he wants to connect citizens and nature back together and call on Hong Kong people to take action to protect the environment.

A haven of local produce

About 25 minutes’ drive east of Mai Po, an immigrant from the Chinese mainland is also doing her bit to change Hong Kongers’ perceptions about the potential of
their hinterland.

Chongqing native Yan Fuqin doesn’t understand why locals are so obsessed with spending a fortune on expensive imported fruits and vegetables from countries like Japan and Thailand, while dismissing local produce as being of low quality.

Hong Kong’s often absurd prices for imported fruit and vegetables hit international headlines in February 2017, when a HK$168 (US$21) strawberry went up for sale at high-end grocer Citysuper. A packet of six Japanese strawberries was also selling for a staggering HK$888 (US$113), and a Japanese densuke watermelon for HK$1,488 (US$189).

Fuqin’s 70-hectare Fu Kum Dragonfruit Farm, about 1.5km from the Chinese border as the crow flies, plays host to as many as 1,200 dragon fruit plants during peak season, as well as many kinds of fruit and vegetables – choi sum, Chinese cabbage, corn, kale, red cabbage, broccoli, zucchini, carrots, cherry tomatoes, watermelons and strawberries.

The farm is also home to a fishpond over one hectare in size, as well as four cows, more than 30 goats, three rabbits and one pig, though none of these will be slaughtered for eating; they are there for guests to feed and interact with.

“In Hong Kong, many people live in the concrete jungle and seldom get close encounters with nature, so here we provide a place for them to experience farm life and learn something about nature,” Fuqin says. She hosts workshops, usually on weekends, teaching visitors how to make dumplings, jams and sauces with vegetables they have picked fresh from the farm.

But like Hung-kuen’s sawmill, about half of Fuqin’s farm is within the Kwu Tung North New Development Area, meaning the government could seek to build on part of her land.

Preserving a legacy

Hung-kuen is stoic about the future of his sawmill, well aware of the very real possibility of its forced closure, but at the same time hoping it can be preserved for future generations as a place to improve people’s awareness of environmental protection.

“Just think of the Great Wall. It’s not used for military purposes anymore,” he says. “But instead of demolishing it, we conserve it and let the world appreciate its grandeur.”

Additional reporting by Jackie Chen

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