The MTR train moved at a steady pace leaving the ever-bustling Tsim Sha Tsui district in Kowloon. On the ground above the train station dozens of skyscrapers scrambled for space in this constantly developing part of Hong Kong, just across the harbor where one of the world’s financial centers pulsated relentlessly. We were moving away from hordes of tourists and shoppers, coming to Kowloon in steady influx, as well as from local businesses which helped make Hong Kong a thriving place for fortune-making.
From the window of the train the view of dense tall buildings were soon replaced by rows of residential houses as we moved further away from the city. Moments later from the northwest corner of the territory where we were heading, tall skyscrapers loomed from the horizon. One might have the thought that the train was returning back to downtown Hong Kong. But it was not.
“That’s Shenzhen,” James told me. The Chinese border city has been benefiting from its proximity with the former British colony, ensuring a steady economic growth in the once small village.
Besieged by rapid developments from both the north and the south, Tin Shui Wai in Hong Kong’s New Territories is a rare case where heritage is celebrated and preserved, instead of being razed down to the ground to make way for ‘modernity’ as is the norm in Hong Kong.
After a 40-minute journey James and I alighted at Tim Shui Wai’s modern train station, crossed a small street, then arrived at one of Hong Kong’s historical and less-celebrated treasures: Ping Shan Heritage Trail.
Nine centuries ago five family clans settled and flourished in what is now the New Territories, with The Tang later emerged as the most dominant among the five. Claiming royal lineage to the Southern Song Dynasty, The Tangs produced scholars and officials for the empire long before the British took possession of the territory.
Marking the start of the trail was Tsui Tsing Lau Pagoda, the oldest of such structure in Hong Kong. The 14th century pagoda was said to have seven stories until a fierce storm reduced it to only three. Walking past the hexagonal-shaped pagoda, we reached the remaining protective walls of Sheung Cheung Wai, a 200-year-old village also built by The Tangs. The narrow gate provided us a glimpse of the houses inside the sole walled village along the heritage trail, so quiet and peaceful that afternoon.
Walking down snaking path amid small houses brought us to the Tang Ancestral Hall, arguably the most opulent structure on the heritage trail. Upon entering the gate to the courtyard, an ornately decorated roof studded with statues of mystical beasts came into sight, supported by even elaborately-carved rafters. Each wooden beam was scrupulously sculpted with figurines and floral motifs, exuberant and fitting for the house of a royal descent. It was built to impress, and it still does centuries after its completion.
Next to the impressive compound lied another, and newer, ancestral hall: the Yu Kiu Ancestral Hall, built three centuries after its neighbor.
But the true jewels of Ping Shan rested within a short walking distance from the two ancestral halls. Kun Ting Study Hall was erected only a few decades before the Chinese government ceded the New Territories to the British. Embellished with beautiful carvings on wood and stone, as well as colorful folding doors and glazed green ceramics, the study hall was constructed for those who were preparing for the imperial civil service examination.
The neighboring Ching Shu Hin was built four years later as a guesthouse for visiting scholars and dignitaries. It was one of the clan’s latest additions to Ping Shan before the land changed possession to a new European ruler whose colony in southern China was once limited only to a small hilly island and a narrow peninsula just across the harbor.
The sun was starting to set in the west, only a handful of local Hong Kongers were still strolling the quiet alleys along Ping Shan Heritage Trail, a tranquil corner of the territory so rich in history yet many seemed unaware of.