Above: Sheung Yiu Folk Museum. Photo by Tullia Fraser
The metropolis that is Hong Kong contains a multitude of museums, each with its unique signature: the sleek, recently refurbished Museum of Art; the Science Museum with its 26-year-old display of "cutting-edge technology"; the Museum of History's famous diorama of old Hong Kong… All lovely places, but my favourite museum is nestled in the lush greenery of rural Hong Kong, away from the shadows of the steel-and-glass skyscrapers we are so known for.
Sheung Yiu Folk Museum (上窰民俗文物館) is located in Pak Tam Chung of Sai Kung District (西貢北潭涌), known also as the "Garden of Hong Kong". Facing away from the mountains, it sits on the eastern bank of Pak Tam River which flows into the sea. It was originally a traditional Hakka walled village, constructed by the Wong clan from Guangdong Province when they migrated to Hong Kong in the late 19th century. Built on a 2.5m high raised platform, the complex consists of eight houses, some of which were cow pens and pigpens. There was even a watchtower to guard the village against pirates on the water and bandits in the hills. Animal lovers might enjoy knowing that a small hole was created next to the vast gates, so that cats and dogs can go where they pleased. Within walking distance is a limekiln: the bread and butter of the Wong clan.
The complex itself, of course, commands an immeasurable amount of historical value. Sheung Yiu Village in its heyday was the epicenter of a bustling, industrial Pak Tam Chung. It was the head of six nearby villages, and employed over 100 people to work at their lime and brick kilns. On the drying terrace within Sheung Yiu Village's walls, the various villages regularly met in celebration and mourning. In fact, the deceased would "stay" briefly in Sheung Yiu Village before they were laid to rest up in the hills. Architecturally, it is an extremely well-preserved example of Qing rural architecture, nearly unaltered since its construction two centuries ago. It was built along the only thoroughfare in the area, and received weary merchants in the hundreds. The pier that the Wong clan built nearby operated a ferry service, which was the only way for villagers and travellers alike to access the rest of Hong Kong. It even unwillingly housed Japanese forces during the 1941 invasion. Within the complex today, modest but effective displays of everyday items acquired from nearby villages lovingly pay homage to rural and Hakka life in Hong Kong.
Sheung Yiu is a lovely museum, but the experience it offers - and the reason why it is my favourite - lies beyond its walls. It begins, actually, fifteen minutes before you even see the museum.
You walk the Sheung Yiu Country Trail to get to the museum, which begins by crossing Pak Tam Bridge - a narrow concrete crossing constructed by local villagers. It takes you on a smooth stroll following Pak Tam River downstream, during which you find sleek white outlines of modern village houses featuring alongside traditional bungalows. You also pass a small farm guarded zealously by two large dogs. The owners leave fresh produce hanging outside the fence for passing hikers: bananas, papayas and mandarins. You remain under the cover of trees, above several denes. Nature is doing her best, but you can still spot signs of old Hong Kong along the way - forgotten rubble and abandoned mudbrick platforms rest in the leafy shadows. The walk is pleasant and serene, with a constant view of the river to your right. Only after fifteen minutes does the landscape open up, and you are faced with the Wong clan's kiln. Built into the side of the riverbank, you can only see the top of the kiln, but there are tell-tale signs of what used to be a booming industry. Using tongs attached to long bamboo branches, workers would have picked up coral and shells from the river and the sea, and burnt them in this kiln for days to produce lime. The lime, in turn, was used as mortar in construction, and to fertilise farmland across all of Hong Kong. Huge amounts of coral and shells remain around the kiln today - some are even scattered on the trail, picked up on visitors' shoes. Only after all this, are you finally rewarded with Sheung Yiu Folk Museum. As you turn the corner, the village looms before you, its whitewashed houses gleaming against the grey, mossy platform. If that wasn't enough, the treeline on your right dissipates into mangroves, which then succumb to the river: you are treated to a stunning, peaceful view of Pak Tam River opening up to the sea.
I must contradict myself and admit that I hated Sheung Yiu when I first met it on a school trip, aged seven - precisely because of this walk. Indeed I had no memory of the village itself. The experience was completely overshadowed by how much I disliked the journey, in the humid summer heat, with mosquitoes whining in my ears and tall grass licking at my ankles. That changed over the years, as Sheung Yiu featured in my childhood time and again: the huge family Labrador dragging my ten-year-old self down that same trail, eager to get to the pier the Wong clan built, or running straight into a herd of wild buffalo (yes, we have those) during a solo jog along the trail…
Almost two decades since my first visit, I now live near the museum, and visit it almost every weekend. I also work in a museum, with collections that are deeply entwined with the old Hong Kong that Sheung Yiu Village was a crucial part of. Sometimes I think that Sheung Yiu unwittingly played a part in shaping my life.
I struggle to articulate why I love Sheung Yiu so much, but the word "context" might begin to cover it. The landscape surrounding Sheung Yiu is as intrinsic to your visit as the museum itself. I would argue that you cannot completely understand what Sheung Yiu Folk Museum represents, without having embarked on that fifteen-minute journey beforehand. In a short quarter-hour, you are transported back to a totally different Hong Kong, a rural Sai Kung District that made bricks, reared pigs, and was totally disconnected from the urban core. You walk past shrines, hand-carved waymarkers, even entire abandoned villages. In the silence of the countryside, you are immersed in an explosive loudness of rich village culture and a mosaic of intangible cultural heritage these villages are still known for. Sheung Yiu Folk Museum is a credit in itself, made all the more better by the environment it is situated in. Writing this in 2021, when walks outdoors are valued more than ever, I have managed to find even more love for the museum. Despite being closed for the last three months, I continue to learn something new every time I walk past it. I hope I have done Sheung Yiu justice through my words, and that you find somewhere special like this, wherever you are in the world.
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Tullia Fraser is a Project Associate at the University Museum and Art Gallery, the University of Hong Kong. Born and raised in the city, she researches the provenance of Chinese objects in museum collections, and the development of archaeology in Hong Kong. When not pottering about Sheung Yiu with her two Labrador Retrievers, she can be spotted on Twitter: @tulliafraser