How did/do communities develop in Hong Kong?

What impact do local communities have on Hong Kong society at large?

How are traditions processed, preserved, and perpetuated in Hong Kong’s communities?

These questions largely stem from the personal curiosities I posited regarding heritage and tradition with respect to the Cheung Chau Bun Festival – which, if you’ll recall, was an age ago… – but this time, the focus is on place more so than event.  More specifically, I would like to look at two very different, but nonetheless highly significant and influential ‘communities’ that have done much (and continue) to shape Hong Kong’s history and traditions.  These two examples also provide some insight (or at least a peek) into the complexities associated with defining any such terms as applied to Hong Kong itself.

I. Ping Shan (屏山)

The village of Ping Shan (屏山) looks, at first glance, like any other rural village in the New Territories (新界): a mildly dense collection of traditional stone houses and modern two-to-three story buildings, set amidst rolling green hills and forests as well as the inescapable (and still emerging) high-rises and condominiums of nearby towns.  Located between the larger districts of Tin Shui Wai (天水圍) and Yuen Long (元朗), it is both secluded and accessible (within walking distance of Tin Shui Wai Station on the West Rail Line (西鐵綫)), seemingly little more than an aged tract of former farmland and current residences.

But walk past the station beyond the outdoor car parks (parking lots) and the bus terminals, and one finds something more than a small secluded community in the middle of nowhere, far beyond the immediate reaches of Kowloon (九龍) and the rest of the territory.  Traces of a past that somehow persists in the present, not just in the realm of abstract impressions but also in the concrete details – the ancestral halls, the decaying roofs, and the elderly residents.  And somewhere along the line, it’s hard not to wonder:

How did a place like this – in “the middle of nowhere” – even come to exist?

This is what the Ping Shan Heritage Trail (屏山文物徑) aims, at least in part, to answer.  Established in 1993 as the first of such heritage trails, it winds through the village of Ping Shan and provides a glimpse of several monuments (in particular a series of study halls (書室), designed for students who were preparing to take civil service examinations) and a walled village, Sheung Cheung Wai (上璋圍), which still houses a number of residents today.  The trail ‘ends’ (or ‘begins,’ depending on where you start walking) at the superfluously-named Ping Shan Tang Clan Gallery cum Heritage Trail Visitors Centre, which features a small handful of exhibits that recount the founding and preservation of the village.

Ping Shan was first settled by a number of wealthy Tang (鄧) clan families who escaped from political turmoil in (present-day) Guangdong Province (廣東省) in the latter years of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127).  These families brought their possessions and wealth, but just as significantly they brought their social traditions and beliefs as well; interestingly enough, the location was believed to possess good feng shui (風水, a spiritual philosophy rooted in naturalistic principles), as it is situated at the base of a mountain overlooking fertile plains. Thus the families quickly built villages modeled after the communities their predecessors had established in China.  Over time the small villages ‘combined’ to form the larger community of Ping Shan itself.

Given the isolated nature of the village, Ping Shan continued to maintain close ties with its ancestors’ roots and traditions.  The fifth-generation Tang member Tang Fung-shun (鄧馮遜) built the eponymous Tang ancestral hall in the early 14th century; six generations later, the brothers Tang Sai-yin (鄧世賢; alias Yu-sing, 愈聖) and Tang Sai-chiu (鄧世昭; alias Kiu-lum, 喬林) established a second hall – named Yu Kiu (愈喬) after the names they took for themselves – which also served as one of several study halls and schools for clan members.  Traditional social and economic (land-based) practices persisted well into the colonial period (and even the mid-20th century) as well.  Land, for instance, was divided based on ‘public’ (sellable) and ‘personal’ (clan-based) use, with a council of members governing how much land was to be allocated for residents and families.  Children and young men (it is unclear but also unlikely that women would have received equal education) attended school and prepared for imperial examinations in the study halls; by the 20th-century, some even took the opportunity to pursue their studies in other Asian (and even Western) institutions and universities.  Large social events – particularly marriages and annual festivals – followed customs that the villages’ residents adhered to even as late as the 1960s (the gallery features wedding documents, clothes, and sedan chairs (which the men would carry the bride in during the official procession)).

But as with so many other Hong Kong communities, Ping Shan has changed with time, and several social and economic traditions (the land and marriage policies/practices being the most obvious examples) have been replaced by more modern, ‘familiar’ versions.  Modernization and urbanization did much to catalyze this transformation, as younger village residents (who may no longer have been of direct Tang descent) resettled in areas closer to business districts in Kowloon, the Island, and even the developing New Territories.  None of this was unexpected, of course, and the same could be said of other villages throughout Hong Kong and elsewhere around the world.

What is perhaps less noticeable, however, is how these homogenizing changes have, in their own way, helped homogenize Hong Kong itself; that is, one could say that the move – both physical and figurative – away from a unified ancestral community (like Ping Shan) – encouraged later generations to forge one for themselves.  Historians often cite the mass post-WWII migration from the mainland to Hong Kong as a driving force for the territory’s increasingly heterogeneous ‘Chinese’ population, but it is also significant that internal migrations (which became easier with the rapid development of public transportation) stirred the pot in a different direction.  This could explain why much of Hong Kong’s current historical and cultural preservation (and tourism) has been carried out through a genealogical lens: the process is as much about protecting the territory’s collective heritage as it is about identifying the individual elements (in this case, families) that constitute such a broad community.  In that respect, Ping Shan’s influence on how Hong Kong views its past (and its present self) could very much define its future.

II.  Tung Wah Group of Hospitals (東華三院)

About 35 km (~22 miles) southeast of Ping Shan, meanwhile, stands the massive Kwong Wah Hospital (廣華醫院) in Mong Kok (旺角).  It is, as anyone would expect, a hospital, and an impressive one at that: the complex serves not only the standard array of patients but also medical students and researchers from two of Hong Kong’s most traditionally renowned universities, the University of Hong Kong (HKU, 香港大學) and the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK, 香港中文大學), via its medical research centers.  Kwong Wah is situated along Waterloo Road (窩打老道), next to a number of Christian churches and a local branch of the YMCA – all of which suggests that it certainly has a significant presence in the local community.

That suggestion becomes stronger, however, when one enters the complex and visits the Tung Wah Museum (東華三院文物館), named after the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals (東華三院) and situated in what appears to have been a temple in the past.  There are exhibits featuring old medical devices, student notebooks, nursing and healthcare pamphlets (including instructions for administering and preparing Chinese medicine), and black-and-white photos of the hospitals’ various directors.

So what does the hospital have anything to do with the Hong Kong community at large?

As it turns out, there’s quite a lot of meaning behind the answer.  Kwong Wah Hospital is one of three hospitals comprising the larger Tung Wah Group of Hospitals (in fact, the Chinese name for the group – 東華三院 – literally translates to “Tung Wah three hospitals”).  It was originally established in 1911 – the second of the three, after Tung Wah (1870) in Sheung Wan (上環) and prior to Tung Wah Eastern (東華東, 1929) – but the current complex was built in 1958 and completed five years later.  (The museum itself is the only building that survived the reconstruction.)  Kwong Wah’s location meant that it was intended to serve members of the Kowloon community; the other two hospitals are both on the Island (Tung Wah to the west, Tung Wah Eastern to the east) and thus served their respective areas.

But the origin of the group itself can be traced back even earlier to 1851, when the Kwong Fook I-Tsz (廣福義祠) Temple was built as a memorial for the ancestors of residents in Sheung Wan.  Gradually, however, the temple became used as a shelter for the poor and the ill, and unsurprisingly its conditions deteriorated into a breeding ground for disease.  With considerable effort, local activists and community leaders urged the Hong Kong government to build a hospital for the Chinese community.  This hospital became known as “Tung Wah” and was formally opened in 1872.

Income from its first years of service – as well as from a new cemetery and burial ground intended to house remains that had been discovered on the construction site – drove Tung Wah Hospital to engage in broader community outreach.  In 1880, the hospital established the Man Mo Temple Free School (文武廟義學), Hong Kong’s first free-of-charge school designed to provide a free education for destitute children and students.  In 1903, the government granted land for the construction of the Tung Wah Plague Hospital (東華醫院西環分局) in neighboring Kennedy Town (堅尼地城); seven years later it founded an anti-smallpox hospital.  After the construction of Kwong Wah and Tung Wah Eastern, the original Tung Wah Hospital united with its other two branches in 1931 to form the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals, which was to be governed by a single board of directors.

Since then, the Tung Wah Group (frequently abbreviated as TWGHs) has served not only as an important local health-care provider, but also as a powerful social force and charitable organization in Hong Kong society.  (This is not unlike the Hong Kong Jockey Club (香港賽馬會), the territory’s largest non-profit charity organization.) The group has founded, and continues to operate, fifty-two schools (all but two of which are funded directly by the government) and over 130 community service centers geared toward the needs of all members of the broader Hong Kong community.  Unsurprisingly, its influence has often translated into political power, particularly during the colonial era: since its initial establishment Tung Wah operated as a cultural intermediary – indeed for some time it was perhaps the only (recognized) intermediary – between the British administration and the Chinese community.

To go into detail regarding all of the group’s available services would be futile and unnecessary; the bottom line is that Tung Wah’s impact on Hong Kong society is incalculable, even if the force of such influence may not be as powerful or resonant today as it was in its earliest days.  And parallel to the development of Ping Shan, its history offers – one could even say ‘defines’ – an outline, however rough, of what it means for Hong Kong to have an identity, to have a unified sense of self.

There are, of course, implications and realities that are inevitably left out in such simplified retellings of both histories, perhaps even to the extent that they threaten to deconstruct this identity more than they manage to forge it.  But this is how Hong Kong operates, how any community operates.  As much as I like to think of tradition as a body of ideas and practices that are ‘preserved’ from one era to the next, I’ve come to realize that this body doesn’t (and cannot) have a fully-defined, clear-cut shape.  Any attempt at preservation ends up changing even the smallest of details, and every reworking of a former practice becomes something ‘new’ altogether.  Likewise, the creation of a community on the basis of outreach goes some way toward eliminating difference, be it social or historical or cultural: it blurs boundaries and provides access for individuals to services they may not have received beforehand.

Maybe that’s what matters the most to Hong Kong: the idea of a community as unifying disparate elements, of merging past and present, in order to create a productive future.

I hope it works.