After about 90 minutes hiking, we reached Lai Chi Wo. The sign greeted us on our arrival. As the name suggests, this area was once known for its lychee trees. But in the 1960s and 1970s villagers found it more profitable to plant Mandarins, which could fetch good prices towards Chinese New Year (as they are seen as auspicious), and lychee trees became scarce.
We climbed up a few steps to a viewing point and we overlooked the small village and its surrounding area.
The 400-year-old village of Lai Chi Wo was once one of the most affluent hamlets in the northeastern New Territories with over 1,000 inhabitants in its best times.
More than a hundred years ago, Lai Chi Wo was a poor village. On the advice of a geomancy expert, a fung shui wall was built around three sides of the village to retain wealth and ward off bad luck. Soon the village’s luck changed. Lai Chi Wo produced a number of famous scholars and residents were better off financially. Since then the villagers of Lai Chi Wo became faithful believers of fung shui and used every effort to protect their fung shui wood, including marking boundaries and banning the destruction of local forests.
There are nine horizontal lanes and three vertical lanes of houses, all very narrow lanes and most of them in need of repair. There are a total of 211 houses inside the village, including 3 ancestral halls (the Tsang’s ancestral Hall, the Wong’s ancestral Hall and the Wong’s Weixing ancestral Hall). But it looks like no more than 100 houses, given all the crumbling walls surrounding me.
Throughout the village most houses are abandoned, old and left in ruins. There are only a few houses that are well-kept, and which were nicely decorated – that’s because very few (old) residents still live there. Some abandoned houses were nicely decorated, because of visiting relatives coming to pray for their ancestors.
We arrived a few days after Chinese New Year, so that’s why we could still see fire cracker papers on the floor and red paper next to the entrances and doors of some houses.
Apparently the most prosperous period of Lai Chi Wo was during the 1950s. Now there are only a handful of elderly residents left.
Lai Chi Wo villagers there earned their livings mainly by paddy rice cultivation and some of them engaged in fishing and selling bamboo products. In 1960s, many villagers have left for other cities and countries, mainly Britain.
The money to pay for the village’s upkeep comes from former inhabitants, almost all of whom moved away decades ago.
Outside the village walls is the Hip Tin Temple, which was built during the Qing Dynasty. It’s the God of War – but I don’t know why the temple to worship him was built exactly in this location.
Now it seems the only life in this village comes through groups of hikers visiting this remote area on a weekend, exploring the walled village, its temple and paying respect to the people that have built and lived in the village. When we visited, there was only one elderly couple actually visiting the village and paying respect to their ancestors, everyone else (about 150 people during the time we were there) were just hikers.
Back to the Hip Tin Temple. This picture shows an oven in the temple – it’s more professionally looking than the one in the small restaurant where we had lunch!
Actually, we did not have lunch in a proper restaurant. It was lunch prepared in the old Siu Ying Primary School, which closed in 1980. As there was no school in the other six villages, children of those seven villages went to this school to study, but when the village people moved away, the school closed. More about our fantastic Poon Choi lunch in the next post.