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Hong Kong Stilt Houses in Peril

A bridge that would link China and Macao could destroy the quaint area, or what's left of it after a fire three years ago.

May 18, 2003|Margaret Wong | Associated Press Writer

HONG KONG — Bruce Lo grew up in a stilt house, perched above a river in the rural fishing village of Tai O.

Lo recalls one time when the stilts weren't tall enough and an extremely high tide flooded the family home. Only 10 at the time, he cheerfully went swimming through the living room.

Now an outdoor sports trainer, Lo still keeps a childhood picture of himself and his sister in front of the stilt house in his wallet.

But after being partially leveled by fire, then coming under a looming threat from developers, Tai O soon may have nothing left but photos and memories of its days as the "Venice of Hong Kong."

"It's very irritating to hear that these people are going to sacrifice Hong Kong's history and uniqueness for their personal gains," Lo told a reporter who visited Tai O on Hong Kong's outlying Lantau Island.

Preservationists warn that if Tai O vanishes, it will be another valuable piece of Hong Kong history lost, after so many other old areas have been knocked down and bulldozed to make way for more concrete and nondescript high-rises.

"It will be really sad if we could learn about Tai O in the future only from recorded images," said Wong Wai-king, a housewife and author who runs a mini-museum on Tai O, which dates to China's Song Dynasty that ran from 960-1279.

Tai O's 2,600 villagers agree that would be a shame. But they find themselves perilously close to the likely path of a proposed bridge across the Pearl River Delta that would link Hong Kong with Zhuhai, China, and the formerly Portuguese gambling enclave of Macao.

Hong Kong developer Gordon Wu has put forward a plan for a $2-billion Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao bridge that would end just north of the village.

Wu's company, Hopewell Holdings Ltd., also envisions putting a container port in the area and replacing Tai O's traditional stilt houses with cobblestone riverside corridors in a leisure park.

Leo Leung, executive director of Hopewell Engineering & Construction Ltd., dismissed the stilt houses as "rural slums" that should be cleared away to make way for "bricks and mortar stones that could last for centuries."

Tai O villagers would call their existence traditional rather than slum-like, although quite a few lack modern amenities.

Many still burn wood and charcoal instead of natural gas, and the "toilets" of their stilt houses are typically just a hole in the floor, placed strategically above the river. Bicycles and boats are more common than cars, and the only land access is a meandering mountain road. It takes an hour to reach the nearest town by bus.

Tai O ran into major trouble three years ago. A fire, which villagers believe was caused by overheated electrical wiring, destroyed about 90 of its 300 stilt houses.

The villagers immediately sought to rebuild but found themselves caught in a bureaucratic maze they could not have envisioned. Officials argued that many of the traditional stilt-house features, such as open-air kitchens and hole-in-the-floor "toilets," were not permitted.

Some villagers defied the government and rebuilt their homes in the old style.

"My grandfather started living here in the Qing Dynasty," said fisherman Fan Shuk-shan, 68, the first to put up a replacement house. "I would have no place to live if I didn't rebuild my home."

The government finally gave permission for rebuilding, but Tai O's victory seemed short-lived as the rich and powerful in Hong Kong, southern China and Macao started pushing for the bridge.

It would be premature to talk about any impact on the village while officials still mull the various possibilities for the bridge, said Josephine Wong, a spokeswoman for Hong Kong's Environment, Transport and Works Bureau.

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