Text and Images by Terence Repelente
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I have to be honest. Almost all of my knowledge about Hong Kong used to be based entirely on cinema and literature. I was obsessed with Chungking Mansions, even with its bad reputation, after watching Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express. Without even going there, I had a connection with Central District, thanks to Baby Ruth Villarama’s award-winning documentary film Sunday Beauty Queen. And I once felt a really strong need to visit and even live in Kowloon after reading Nick Joaquin’s The Woman Who Had Two Navels, in which I learned that Post-1896 Philippine Revolution nationalists sought exile there.
Recently, I was given a chance to finally visit Hong Kong, and it was everything I imagined it to be. Neon-lit claws that graze your eyes, the busy night markets, the damp corridors, the sky-scraping knife-like architecture, the intricate but efficient train system, the cashless transactions, the gigantic shopping malls, the multicultural communities—the melting pot of the world, so to speak—a place perfect for romanticizing globalization, a cinematic paradise.
But, during the trip, I discovered something significant about Hong Kong, which I’ve never encountered in any book or film before, something aloof from the usual pop culture depiction of the city—its green tourism.
A huge chunk of Hong Kong’s territory, one of the highest proportions in the world, is protected by country parks: tranquil beaches, well-maintained hiking trails, lush green mountains, and ancient villages, just minutes away from the city. The green side of Hong Kong, now strongly promoted by its tourism board, projects to be the future of the city’s strong tourism industry.
HIGH ISLAND RESERVOIR
Opened in 1978, Hong Kong’s High Island Reservoir (Sai Kung) was specifically built to help alleviate water shortage problems in the country. Created by meticulously constructing two main dams, the reservoir remains one of the most popular eco-architectural works in the world. The first (West Dam) was built west of High Island connecting it with the Sai Kung Peninsula and the other (East Dam) was built in the southeast.
What’s mesmerizing about this gem is the geological history, which birthed the wonders that surround it. The layers and columns, which are somewhat hexagonal, that are formed in the East Dam are products of nature at work for over 140 million years through earthquakes and volcanic activities. Following the Geo Trail, marvelous S-shaped hexagonal columns are seen.
At the end of the trail is a boardwalk that will lead you to a sea cave. There, the photogenic entirety of the reservoir is shown, its timeless beauty, a work of perfection by both man and nature.
FISHING VILLAGES AND VOLCANIC ISLANDS
If you feel tired of the city’s overall ambiance, the place for you is the fishing community of Sai King—where everything is 100 percent the opposite: Quaint villages, slow-paced vibe, and small houses. Located in the New Territories, Sai Kung is a different kind of neighborhood, a different kind of experience. It is here where you can truly experience the local and traditional Hong Kong life.
Its picturesque sceneries—both the village and the islands—are food for the soul. You can just stroll around the seaside area, look around the seafood street and marvel at the gigantic fish tanks displayed right outside of every store (try having dinner at Sing Kee!), or just talk with the fishermen about their catches.
Sai Kung’s volcanic islands are also not to be missed, but don’t worry, these titans just can’t elude your attention even if they tried. The same hexagonal volcanic rock columns and coastal erosion landforms are scattered, as if carefully placed and sculpted. The natural sea arches, caves, and igneous rocks, which resemble the famous pineapple bun, are a sight to see.
FLORA, FAUNA, AND FOLKLORE
I’m no hiking enthusiast, but personally, the Lai Chi Wo nature trail is Hong Kong’s best, at least from what I’ve seen. Not only does it encapsulate Hong Kong’s culture of preserving its lush nature, it rewards you with a valuable history lesson about the first inhabitants—the Hakka people. The Hakka, a name that literally means “visitors” in Chinese, are one of China and Hong Kong’s most visibly distinct communities. They have their own festivals, belief system, food, and history. The Hakka are nomads by culture, and have traveled to and migrated in different parts of Hong Kong, some even left the practice entirely to participate in the economic development in the city. Now, Hakka villages, although usually abandoned, are greatly preserved in Hong Kong. The Lau Chi Wo nature trail is the best one to take if you’re eager to learn about the Hakka. Included in the trail are a number of centuries-old Hakka villages, some now just rubble and ruins and some perfectly maintained by the modern the Hakka people. Part of the Plover Cove Country Park, the nature trail, again, probably the richest and smoothest of them all, is almost surreal with all its natural and historical elements—waterfalls, bamboo groves, and folk legends.
At the end of the trail is its major highlight—the 400-year-old Hakka village, a designated Site of Special Science Interest (SSSI), a mesmerizing sight. And thought provoking, too! This is what Hong Kong was, not even Hong Kong yet, before colonization, before globalization, and it’s comforting to know that its tourism board continues to promote this side of the country. Beyond the hustle and bustle in Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, beyond the shopping malls and towering buildings, and beyond all the pop culture references, there’s this greener, unadulterated side of Hong Kong.
Days after the trip, organized by the Hong Kong Tourism Board, I still dream of hiking in Hong Kong, I still hear the ambiance of its countryside: the screeching of the summer cicadas, waves gushing over volcanic rocks, the thudding engine of teal motorboats, and the awing silence of the ancient Hakka villages—a melody to remember.