By Von Joanna Chiu
The Hong Kong village of Pok Fu Lam proudly fights off developers
In Hong Kong, villagers living in traditional buildings on narrow lanes and alleys in the heart of the city have ramped up efforts to protect their homes from redevelopment, buoyed after the World Monuments Fund named their village, along with Venice, as one of 67 cultural heritage sites under threat in 2014.
The villagers of Pok Fu Lam say they want to preserve a way of life that has been pushed to the margins of the fast-paced financial centre.
Theirs is one of the last remaining villages on Hong Kong island.
“I moved here 80 years ago and I never wanted to leave. Here, the air is good and the people will open the door to you to make conversation or ask you to join in a game of mahjong.
“If I lived in a high-rise, my neighbours wouldn’t even know my name,” says 103-year-old Yu Mui Ng, who lives on a small lane of houses built by several generations of her family members.
The World Monuments Fund, a non-profit organisation based in New York, says the village, dating back to at least 1868, is important not for its architectural merit but for its long legacy, where “the modest appearance of the village belies its importance to the history of Hong Kong”.
The Hong Kong government, on the other hand, classifies Pok Fu Lam as “squatter housing.”
The village has been under constant redevelopment pressure over the past decades, with the chief executive of the city proposing last year to lift development restrictions in the area.
Located in a valley on a hill overlooking a picturesque bay, the village is prime real estate in an overcrowded city where most live in dense apartment blocks.
At first glance, it seems as if the 2,800 inhabitants occupy decrepit dwellings, covered in scrap metal sheets. But upon closer inspection, many of the houses turn out to be built of sturdy concrete or brick with modern furnishings and the latest entertainment systems inside.
“Villagers would renovate their homes and then cover everything in metal sheets, because the squatter registration policy forces some residents to keep the houses looking as they were in the 1980s,” says Nigel Ko, 42, who helps run twice-monthly tours of the village.
Ko’s family has been living in the village for four generations and he was one of a group of villagers who applied for Pok Fu Lam's inclusion in the World Monuments Watch list.
“Every year since I was a kid, I’ve been hearing that the village may soon be torn down. Getting on the watch list means we have a better chance of becoming a protected Unesco world heritage site, but we have to get Hong Kong people to support us.
“That’s why we started up the tours and the websites and are pushing for the government to change its conservation policy,” Ko says.
In the past decade, the village has also become home to a growing population of ethnic minorities from South and Southeast Asia who cannot afford to live in more expensive areas of the city.
“Before I came here, I was living in a 5.5-square-metre windowless room in Wanchai,” says Ken Guatez, 27, from Baguio, Philippines.
“Now, I am sharing a three-storey house with my brother and sister-in-law and we are very happy and get along with the locals. This kind of lifestyle reminds us of home,” he adds.
On the Web: www.WMF.org/project/pokfulam-village.