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Art Together: Tai Sang Wai Diary

Written by LEE Boon Ying 

"Fishponds", "village houses", "the glassy ponds", "the sunset", "the waters and skies merge", "the stunning scenery of embers flying by"… One may presume Auntie Lan, the renowned figure of Tai Sang Wai, would make these remarks that are often mentioned by guided-tour docents.

Nine out of ten visitors probably agree with the above description of Tai Sang Wai. Some may even find this beautiful place in Hong Kong unbelievable. Nearly all the photos of Tai Sang Wai on the Internet taken a few years ago present the colourful huts along the fishponds.

Tai Sang Wai is located in the Deep Bay area in the Northwestern New Territories. In the middle of the Deep Bay, the sea of wetlands at the Mai Po Marsh area, which nurtures a wide range of wildlife, attracts numerous waterbirds and migratory birds to stop by and forage. For the above reasons, the marsh area, together with the Deep Bay area and the surrounding fishponds, are listed as Mai Po Inner Deep Bay Ramsar Site in 1995. The area within 500m from the Ramsar Site is listed as Wetland Buffer Area to protect the wetlands' ecological integrity.

Located in the southwest of Mai Po, Tai Sang Wai is also a part of Mai Po Inner Deep Bay Ramsar Site, in which there are mostly villages with fishponds and "Gei Wai" of different sizes. In the past, the villagers used to live off farming and fishing. However, this is no longer what it used to be with the development of society. Some villages are long-neglected, and the rest have lost their characteristics as fish farms. Tai Sang Wai is an exception. Many villagers still live here, and there are dozens of fishponds in operation. 

The popularity of Tai Sang Wai reached its peak a few years ago. Due to the dry weather that year, the drained fishponds' soil cracked under exposure to strong sunlight, forming irregular round pits of different sizes. News reports and online posts exclaimed about the extraordinary landscape for its similarity to the Moon and Mars.

The hexagonal patterns (also in square and pentagonal form) arising from the cracking are actually the result from soil moisture loss. Like soap bubbles and honeycombs in our daily lives, this physical phenomenon is nature's mechanism in filling up the most extensive area with the least resources, which is the most economical and practical arrangement of nature. The round pits scattered were formed when the crucian carp spawned at an earlier time. Such a landscape does not take shape at places lacking water (like the Moon).

Soon after the news reports, more than 200 people swarmed in one day, with their photographic equipment and tripods, creating disturbances. Some visitors, who are not friendly to the environment, were caught trampling over the ponds and dumping rubbish everywhere. These actions, of course, triggered a strong reaction from the villagers as they were not used to such a situation.

The result of the reaction can be observed indirectly on the Internet. Photos of those colourful houses seem to have decreased or even disappeared in recent years. (Only pictures of one or two huts at the outer ring can still be found. I suppose the purpose is to let people know that they can take marvellous photos without entering the village.) That day, I walked up to the village office's rooftop under Auntie Lan's guidance and saw that many village houses looked different from before, with faded or changed colour. Maybe the villagers were annoyed. On that day, I noticed that they would come over to see what happened whenever a slightly larger number of strangers showed up in the village, but their tones were soft nonetheless.

Auntie Lan, now an elder, is the third generation of Tai Sang Wai villagers. In the 1920s and 1930s, villagers began to plant rice. Then in the 1950s and 1960s, some people started to build "Gei Wai", a water gate designed to trap the fishes and shrimp fry coming in during high tide, in the inter-tidal zones, and the ideal workflow lasted for a while. However, due to population growth, insufficient rice yield, and the high cost of maintaining the "Gei Wai", her family couldn't make ends meet soon after. Auntie Lan had to work in a yarn factory in the urban area for her family's livelihood when she was a teenager. During her spare time, she followed the trend and learned English at a night school. She speaks a mix of Cantonese and English as ordinary Hong Kong people do.

Picture 1: Auntie Lan with her fruit tree (Photo taken by Art Together)

Later, Auntie Lan married a villager and returned to Tai Sang Wai. Since then, she has worked and lived here.

The current Tai Sang Wai is not the original Tai Sang Wai but a corner of it. The villagers called it "Bo Lei Wai" (a glass enclosure). In the 1970s, a developer massively purchased the fishponds and farmland for the development of Fairview Park – an estate with more than 5,000 mansions. The original villagers were evicted and relocated to the stone houses in "Bo Lei Wai" built by the developer.

Now, I have to confess. May it be my naivety, fantasy, or adventure spirit, I had once lived in Fairview Park for a few years. However, I knew nothing about the background of the place until I read into some documents for work. I learned that the region is a low-lying area. The large-scale construction would result in the rainwater discharge to the neighbouring site and the subsequent flooding. The government then improved the flood control facilities in the affected areas and dug a river from the fishponds, separating Tai Sang Wai and Nam Sang Wai on both sides.

At that moment, I was like those uninvited guests who "break-in" to the fishponds to take pictures, and it would be inevitable for me to be accused of being one of the destructors.

Fate comes and goes in a circle. When we talk about "break-in", we think of the countryside taking over the urban area as people moving from the rural to the urban areas are universal. But the villagers in Tai Sang Wai are facing an opposite situation as urban dwellers are overwhelming the countryside. The urban people and the top-down social structure treat the crowd on the ground like ants. No matter how hard the former tries to draw up urban development strategies, the grassroots and villagers can only look up from the bottom up. That is why the latter keeps going their own ways and opening up unique paths which suit their needs. It has nothing to do with survival, but as everyone feels the suppression in a modern city, thus subconsciously looks for tactics to open up physical and psychological spaces for self-expression or self-evidence.[1] So when facing tourists and photography lovers from the urban area, the villagers respond by reducing the exposure, keeping a low profile, and expressing their concerns about strange visitors.

From mudflats, rice fields to "Gei Wai" and fishponds, Tai Sang Wai has a history of over a hundred years. (Throughout the time, some villagers ran amusement parks, factories, car yards, container yards, etc.) There will be many challenges. In the long run, many people are worried about this fishing village's future.

In the 1970s, the villagers were evicted to a corner of the original village. There were over 100 households at that time, but there are merely around 70 remains now. Only one of Auntie Lan's five children lives in the village. Earlier, Auntie Lan was ill, her relatives had to drive all the way from the city to pick her up to the hospital. Uncle Kan, another villager in his nineties, is very hospitable. He owns several fishponds. Except for an assistant who takes care of the rough work of fish and shrimps farming during the day, he lives and eats alone for the rest of time. His children and grandchildren do not live in the village. Every time I ask about them, Uncle Kan gives an unenthusiastic response. Several eye-catching white banners with scarlet letters about his fish farm business are hung up outside his house, making people feel that his property is under threat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picture 2: White banners hanging outside Uncle Kan's house (Photo taken by Art Together)

Another challenge is the low sales volume of fish catch. Limited by financial resources, the output of fish catch from the village is not competitive. Although his fishponds are certified by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, and His catches are also certified by the "Accredited Fish Farm Scheme", he still has to compete with the farms with bad quality in terms of prices. Due to the low sales volume, some distribution points even sell his products together with imported goods, resulting in a helpless condition to the villagers—all these leave Tai Sang Wai's sustainability in question. The villagers face loads of practical problems, and each step must be thoughtful because it involves trade-offs.

Apart from tourists, photographers, and urban dwellers like me, waterbirds and migratory birds are also the uninvited guests. Although the fishponds have always been the place for foraging, these birds feast on the fishes and fry in the ponds are the villages' unwelcome guests. How do the villages resolve this contradiction and conflict?

On the way to visit Uncle Kan that day, I saw villagers pumping water from the fishponds with machines. It turns out that Hong Kong Bird Watching Society has launched the "Hong Kong Fishpond Conservation Scheme" in the northwestern New Territories to work with local fish farmers in managing over 600 hectares of fishponds. Participating fish farmers need to lower their fishponds’ water level for at least seven days a year. The shallow waters allow birds to forage in the ponds, while the fish farmers cannot install any devices that hurt them. After completing the agreement, fish farmers receive a fixed amount of management fee.

It is a win-win arrangement with thoughtful consideration. Fish farmers receive subsidies and coexist with birds, while conservation can thus be achieved. Lowering the water level of the fishpond has been a common practice. After the fish are harvested every year, the fish farmers will drain, dig, and sun-dry the ponds to clear up the fish faeces and bacteria at the pond's bottom with ultraviolet rays as a preparation for the next breeding.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picture 3: An installation made by the villagers with dead trees for placing objects (Photo taken by Art Together)

I did not find any colourful huts when I was admiring the scenery of the fishponds that day. Instead, I saw three inconspicuous "art" installations scattered on the footpaths between fields. These little installations have their attractiveness. People passing by would stop and wonder what they were, and how and why they were made. It turned out that some were made by the villagers, while others were artworks by artists from outside the village. Those made by the latter with local materials would soon decay after photo shooting and documentation and returned to nature in the end. Either practical, metaphorical about social reality, or merely playful, these works are all in all attractive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picture 4: A hand-made coconut shell bowl with fine engraving by Auntie Lan's father(Photo taken by Art Together)

One fascinating thing over the extensive landscape of the fishponds is an isolated hut in the distance. The landscape painting on its wall painted by an artist echoes with the fishponds' scenery in the foreground. Neither sensational nor overwhelming, the subtle colour of the painting induces imagination. I couldn't help but wonder, isn't this the miniature of this fishing village in recent years?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picture 5: The Hut of Art (Photo taken by the author)

Since 2018, Hong Kong Bird Watching Society has cooperated with Art Together to educate the public about the importance of local fisheries and fishpond ecology through a combination of art and ecological conservation. Apart from creating the above mentioned artworks, they also host activities like artists' residencies, outdoor art exhibitions, ecological guided tours, workshops, an annual fishpond art festival with villagers' participation, etc. Some works and documentation are brought back to the urban area for exhibitions to spread the message that art and ecological conservation can integrate perfectly.

Fishponds and colourful huts are touted by the upper-level people and media intentionally or unintentionally. The impression on these historic villages has been alienated into a spectacle by media, propaganda, and popular culture and consumerism, fostering a master/servant, controlling/controlled relationship. [2] In recent years, what the villagers do, including the introduction of conservation and art, is nothing more than a response to the spectacle mentioned earlier.

For those who first come to the village, the villagers may seem a little cautious, but building a friendship takes time, not to mention doing so with ordinary tourists, photographers, or acquaintance (like me). Over the past few years, Hong Kong Bird Watching Society and art practitioners have learnt more about the villagers' thoughts and built up a mutual understanding to a certain extent. Whenever they see familiar faces, the villagers will stop for them. Some villagers even prepare meals for fear that the hardworking artists will starve themselves. You will also hear the staff being dubious about what souvenirs to bring whenever they visit the villages because it is hard to repay the villagers' hospitality. Although the team often visits the villages in a hurry for only half a day, they will still squeeze in some time to spend time with the villagers. Everyone cherishes this friendship that rarely exists in today's society.

The village is very different from the city. Even though the urban area is densely populated, you rarely have a word with people passing by. By contrast, there are scarcely any people in the village, but everyone will greet and even have a long chat with you. You may be alone in the village, but you will never be forgotten nor feel lonely.

I sincerely pray that they can eliminate unnecessary disturbance in the future and hold on overtime.

Reference:

[1] M d Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Chapter VII - Walking in the City), University of California Press, 2011.

[2] G Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, Zone Books, 1995.