A ghost island comes back to life

The cramped city of Hong Kong isn’t the first place you’d expect to find an abandoned island. But in a quiet corner of Sai Kung district, about 25km northeast of Central, a tiny island offers a rare peek into the past. Affectionately nicknamed “Ghost Island”, Yim Tin Tsai is lush and green – and peppered with decomposing homes.

The island was once home to a thriving Hakka community, a clan that migrated from northern China centuries ago. They settled on the empty island and built salt pans to earn a living. In fact, Yim Tin Tsai means “Little Salt Pan” in Cantonese. When the salt pans shut down more than 100 years ago due to rising competition from Vietnam and China, most residents turned to farming, fishing and husbandry.

At its peak in the 1940s, it’s thought that there were anywhere between 500 and 1,200 people living on the island. But in the 1960s, more and more families left to access education beyond the village’s primary school, moving to Kowloon or further afield to the UK.

The last of the villagers on Yim Tin Tsai emigrated by the 1990s, and, in the years following, Yim Tin Tsai lay empty, with entire homes left to deteriorate.

But, for a handful of villagers, the island represented something special – a unique side of Hong Kong’s history and culture that shouldn’t be forgotten.

New beginnings
If travellers visited Yim Tin Tsai a decade ago, they’d have found nothing but overgrown weeds, crumbling houses and dusty brown fields. That’s exactly what village representative Colin Chan saw when he returned to the island after 40 years.

“I came back here searching to recover something that felt lost,” Colin said. “I found the island was in decay, and I was very upset. This is the place I grew up. This is my father’s home, and his father’s home.”

Chan’s forefathers settled the island more than 300 years ago. An eighth-generation villager, he lived in Yim Tin Tsai until he was seven, relocating to Sai Kung and later to the UK to further his education.

“As a child, I remember running all over the mountains,” he said. “I miss that village feeling. I can’t find that in other places in Hong Kong ­– but it still exists here.”

In 1999, Colin was elected as village representative and began what would become a lifelong mission: to resurrect the island. For the first few years, he focused on building a network of villagers from around the world, hoping to create a like-minded community of descendants and volunteers who would help to rebuild Yim Tin Tsai in a sustainable way.

Real momentum began in 2003 when the Catholic Church canonised Josef Freinademetz, an influential missionary who lived among the villagers for a stint in the 1800s. After the news broke, Catholics from all over the world earmarked the little island for pilgrimages, and Colin wanted to ensure they arrived with a warm welcome.

A living museum
Together with a committee of about 10 former villagers, Colin raised money to build a visitor centre for travellers. In 2004, a charitable foundation donated funds through the Catholic Church to renovate the island’s historical chapel. Originally built in 1890 by Catholic missionaries, it’s one of the oldest of its kind in Hong Kong.

Simple and elegant, the egg-white chapel features radiant stained-glass windows and an intimate prayer hall. A few rows of wooden pews face a minimalist altar, dressed up in red and gold accents. In 2005, Unesco Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Culture Heritage Conservation honoured the chapel with an award of merit.

Motivated by the recognition, the villagers organised a regular ferry schedule to enable travellers to reach the island, and set out to showcase the village’s unique history. They built a heritage trail, renovated Hakka ancestral homes, created a homewares and ceramics museum, and even started an organic farm that sits at the foot of the church.

“I want to make the island like a living museum,” Colin said. “Ten years ago, people weren’t really thinking about heritage and preservation. They wanted to make money and build high rises. But now people are taking notice.”

Salt of the Earth
After a string of successful renovations, the committee turned their focus to the island’s old salt pans. What was just a dusty dirt field a decade ago is now a fully functioning salt pan, complete with an educational visitor centre that explains each step of the salt production process.

In 2015, the resurrected salt fields earned a Unesco distinction for conserving this industrial Hong Kong heritage, estimated to date back more than 2,000 years.

Today the salt pans sparkle in the sunlight, surrounded by graceful mangrove trees. They don’t produce enough salt to be commercially viable, but as the only functioning salt pans in Hong Kong, they act as a nostalgic link to the past.

“Recreating the salt fields makes me really happy because it brings me closer to my ancestors,” said Rosa Chan, an island tour guide and eighth-generation villager. “It’s very fulfilling to be able to do the same thing that our families did centuries ago.”

Rosa lived on the island until she was 13, and then moved to Kowloon City to continue her studies. Later she moved to the UK with her family until she retired.

“When I came back to Hong Kong, I felt like it was my responsibility to help out,” she said. “When I first returned, everything was broken. And the plants were overgrown. The grass scratched my legs.”

Her family moved away when she was young in search of a better life, but for Rosa, that life is right here on the island. “I feel at home in nature,” she said. “I love to catch crabs, go fishing – the nature brings me here. I can’t do these things in Kowloon.”

These days, she visits the island twice a week from her home in Kowloon to tend to the gardens and give tours. There are plenty of guests to welcome: the less than 1sqkm island saw nearly 34,000 visitors in 2016, most of whom came to learn about the salt pans, explore the heritage trail, hike around the island or simply find a quiet place to meditate.

Walking through the village, visitors get a sense of the community that once was, thanks to the rows of beautifully crumbling homes with traditional Hakka-style slate roofs and tiled facades. And even though many of the village houses are still run-down and desolate, Rosa doesn’t skip past the broken windows.

“When people come here, I am more than happy to show the ruined houses,” she said. “Because it tells all the history. It’s part of our story.”

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