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Still Standing
As high rises and shopping malls swallow up much of Hong Kong’s precious land, one final squatter village has managed to stay standing. June Ng meets the people of Cha Kwo Ling and discovers the secret of their survival. Photos by Cyrus Wong.

By June Ng | May 13, 2010

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Cha Kwo Ling should be a prime location for real estate development. It’s located in Eastern Kowloon, has MTR access, is well connected by public transport, has great views overlooking Victoria Harbour and, from a feng shui perspective, is blessed with a hill behind and the sea in front. Therefore, it is very surprising to discover there’s a ramshackle old village perched on top of a developer’s goldmine. Known as a squatter village, its run-down, almost shantytown-like appearance is due to an influx of mainland refugees into the area during the Civil War in China. They arrived penniless and built cheap, makeshift shacks around the original mining village, causing it to expand into a maze of rickety buildings and dark allies.

Just next door to this uniquely old-fashioned community of around 3,000 people is a huge residential complex called Laguna City in Lam Tin, which was built by one of Hong Kong’s biggest developers. It’s not that big business isn’t interested in the village. Many developers have set their greedy sights on this lucrative land but have fallen at the first hurdle. The secret to the village’s survival: complicated historic ownership rights. In a similar situation to the walled villages in the New Territories, the village is split into dozens of plots of land all owned by different people. The community has therefore managed to preserve its unique and fascinating culture by making its land too complex for anyone to buy.

But as shopping malls sprawl out and apartment blocks tower overhead, no one knows how much longer Cha Kwo Ling village will survive. So what better time to explore the twisted allies and meet Hong Kong’s hidden community? Follow us as we discover traditional food, fascinating cultural rituals and a former mansion that used to house exotic animals.

Mr. Siu

The former animal tamer talks about his father’s crazy dream to build a zoo in Hong Kong.

Mr. Siu grew up in Shanghai where his father worked as a war journalist for the United States Information Service. His grandfather owned a drug manufacturing factory in Canada and when he died, he left them $3 million. Shortly after, in the mid-50s, the family moved to Hong Kong and bought a plot of land in Cha Kwo Ling. Mr. Siu remembers: “$3 million was a lot in that era, you could purchase the whole of Nathan Road with that amount of money. But my dad always dreamt of building a zoo in Hong Kong so we chose to settle in Cha Kwo Ling, so we could have a big place to start importing animals from overseas.” His dad applied to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department for a license to keep wild and endangered animals, then started importing animals from Japan, including brown bears, leopards, tigers, and even penguins. “We used to have an arctic pool for the penguins. Everyday we ordered a giant ice cube from the old Dairy Farm Depot.” His dad also owned two elephants which he kept in a spacious courtyard in Tai Po. His dad also insisted that Mr. Siu and his brother should learn animal-taming skills from a circus owner. After weeks of training, he was able to play with a leopard as though it was a cat.

His father spent two decades, and a lot of money, trying to open the zoo but the government refused to issue him a license. By the end, the family had lost a fortune on the failed project and had to wave goodbye to their four cars and private jet. Luckily Mr. Siu’s father was a friend of Deacon Chiu, the owner of the Lai Chi Kok Amusement Park, so the animals were rehomed, included Tino, a famous elephant who will be well known to those Hong Kongers who grew up in the 60s and 70s. “My dad was still resentful of the government up until his last breath,” he says. “But actually I’m a little bit mad with my dad too. All he ever taught me was how to tame animals and nothing else, which isn’t a very useful skill for modern life, and doesn’t help you find a job easily.”

The Siu family’s former mansion is now a complex of small houses used by about 20 family members including his six children, their kids, and his brothers. “I don’t really want to sell my land. I don’t need money urgently, and it’s always good to live on my own land.”

Mr. Ng

The noodle store owner talks about monk’s fruit, vintage bowls and why he’ll never shut up his shop.

Mr. Ng inherited his noodle shop from his father, who ran it for nearly 50 years. Called Mau Fat Noodle Shop, it’s famous for its wonton and beef brisket, which is made using a family recipe. “Some people make wonton with a special utensil but my dad just used a single chopstick. Why? You can start your business anywhere as long as you have the food and a chopstick,” he explains. Even though each bowl of noodles only costs $13, Mr. Ng still insists on hand-chopping the meat on a special chopping board. He says it gives the noodles better texture and juiciness. As for the beef brisket, he insists on using beef from Brazil because it is of higher quality than beef from the mainland. He also uses the Chinese herb monk’s fruit in the stew to balance the “hot” nature of the red meat, in keeping with the beliefs of traditional Chinese medicine. He is a massive fan of the Chinese herb and has an impressive stack of monk’s fruit recipes. He also serves monk’s fruit herbal tea to everyone he meets (including us).

Another hidden gem in his shop is his “hen” bowl—a traditional Chinese rice bowl that is very popular among lovers of vintage kitchenware. He also has some antique bowls. He explains: “A collector came to visit and kept looking at my bowls which had both paintings and signatures. He told me these could be valuable.”

In the evening Mr. Ng is a taxi driver because the noodle shop doesn’t generate enough revenue for him to survive. So why doesn’t he close the shop and become a full-time driver? “My dad opened the shop and I want to continue his legacy. It’s also fun to just chill and talk to customers.” Mr. Ng’s noodle shop is open from 10am to 8pm.

Mr. Law

The vice captain of the fire prevention squad remembers devastating blazes and terrible floods.

Mr. Law is 58 years old and has been living in the village his entire life. He is actively involved in all village affairs and on the day we met him, he was getting ready for a Qilin dance to celebrate the Tin Hau festival. He’s also the vice captain of the Cha Kwo Ling Village fire prevention squad. The team was set up back in the 60s, after a fire destroyed many households in the neighborhood. Now there are 12 members who run drills and check equipment every three months. Mr. Law joined the team when he was in his 30s because he felt it was time to give back to the community. “We all live here and it’s up to everyone to contribute what they can to make our village better. Unification is power.” To illustrate how strong their community spirit is, he proudly tells us that back in 1993, there was a serious flooding problem in the village. Everyone gathered for a meeting and decided to take collective action, so they booked a van and went to Legco to protest—something a lot less common 10 years ago. They stood up for their rights and successfully won themselves a better drainage system.

It may just look like a ramshackle old village from the outside, but it’s where Mr. Law truly calls home—he even refused an offer to be rehoused to a brand new public housing estate in Tseung Kwan O. “I have so many duties to perform here. I also teach kung fu and Qilin dance in the village. If I leave, who’s going to teach the next generation?”

Mr. Wong

The gardener

Mr. Wong has lived in Cha Kwo Ling village since 1963 and is well known for his garden which houses his collection of bric-a-brac, with lots of plastic animals lined-up along the path. His home is made up of three huts, which are occupied by his brothers. The huts are built around a tree, and the brothers have fond childhood memories of climbing up it and
swinging from the branches.

Uncle and Auntie Gan

The owners of Wing Wah Café

Walking into Wing Wah Café is like stepping back to the 60s. The décor is charmingly outdated and the era’s famous “No spitting or you will spread TB” notice is still hanging high.

Uncle and Auntie Gan run this family business, which is famous for its milk tea and French toast. Apparently villagers who have moved away from the area regularly come back for a cup of their legendary tea. Auntie Gan says the most heart-warming thing about running the café is watching the village children grow up, get married and have their own kids. The café is open from 7am until 5pm.

Chai Gor and Miss Poon

The tour guides

Raymond Wong is better known as “Chai Gor” to the local villagers and he has teamed up with Ms. Poon, a community worker at The Neighborhood Advice-Action Council, to offer guided tours of the village. Chai Gor grew up in the village and is a hugely knowledgeable and passionate tour guide. Ms. Poon works behind the scenes and helps book the tours.

Zhen Jie

The “Cha Kwo” lady

Everyone in the village knows Zhen Jie because she’s the only person that makes the famous “cha kwo”—a kind of Hakka dumpling made from glutinous rice with carrot or sesame and peanut stuffing. Some people believe that Cha Kwo Ling got its name because the hill where this village is located looks like a cha kwo. On the day we met her, she had to wake up at 4am to make cha gwo non-stop for hours in order to prepare a big banquet for the Tin Hau Festival that night. Sadly Zhen Jie’s shop is basically her home, so it’s hard for outsiders to get hold of her delicious dumplings.

Mr. Ma

The grocery store owner

Mr. Ma has run his grocery store for 26 years. It used to be located on the other side of the village but he moved to the current location after a fire burned the old place down. Even though he no longer lives in the village, he still wants to run the store because he is so attached to the neighborhood. “It wouldn’t be the same running a shop anywhere else,” he says. “I know everybody here. I’m not just running a business, I’m socializing with my friends as well.”

Learn more about the history of Cha Kwo Ling here.

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