The end of the wild frontier
The once isolated Frontier Closed Area will be opening up over the next three years. Byron Tseng examines the delicate balance between development and preservation
Yau Wong-loi is picking bananas from his organic farm deep in the Frontier Closed Area (FCA). The last of his lineage in the village of Chuk Yuen, he lives in a small house about 40 metres from the border fence. A short walk through the forest nearby reveals a collection of derelict houses. "This is where I was born," he says proudly, pointing at a house which has capitulated to the vines of nature. "It is also where my grandfather was born."
Yau Wong-loi's ancenstral house
As he collects lettuce, Yau tells Time Out his heart is pained by the fact that he must surrender his home, farm and ancestral houses once the bulldozers move in. Chuk Yuen is the site chosen for a new border crossing to relieve the Lo Wu border control point.
"The government isn't evil, and we know that opening up and more roads are necessary," says Yau in his Hakka [with Fujian ancestry] accented Cantonese. "But if we had to face the government alone we wouldn't have known what to do, and certainly wouldn't have been getting the $600,000 [the highest amount for each village house] as compensation."
FCA's village house standing side by side with Shenzhen's high-rises.
Sandwiched between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, The FCA is a time capsule right here in our backyard. In terms of fauna, ancient buildings and preserved cultural traditions, the FCA has it all. People used to need a government permit to visit the FCA. Yet in February, 740 hectares of the 2,800-hectare FCA, set up in 1951 by the colonial government as a 'buffer zone' against Mainland illegal immigrants, smugglers and spies, were opened up to the public. By 2015 the FCA will be further reduced to just 400 hectares – comprising of the border fence, a maritime area and immigration checkpoints.
With the opening up of the FCA, Yau is saying farewell to a lifestyle his ancestry once abided by.
But Chui Kwok-sun, the village chief of the recently opened Tam Shui Hang village, welcomes the opening. "Before, when we had friends coming over, we had to get them and their cars a permit to enter, which would take days," says Chui. "Maybe one in 10 villagers will be against opening up, but that's just because they haven't been accustomed to it yet. Tourists have disrupted the peace here. But they come because they are curious to see what's up here. In a few months the number of tourists should slacken." North District Councillor Chan Shung-fai portrays the FCA as a thorn in the Mainland's grand scheme: "This area will be a bridge between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, one of the richest places in China. If you look at a map, the FCA is surrounded by some of the best universities and busiest airports in the Pearl River Delta."
Chung Ying street border crossing
The Planning Committee has proposed village and residential developments in areas like Kong Nga Po and Hung Lung Hang in order to relieve the stresses of population density in Hong Kong. Developments to promote heritage and ecotourism are also planned in areas like Ma Tso Lung. For areas adjacent to border crossings, trading and recreational developments are proposed.
Chan, who is also the chairman of Ta Kwu Ling District Rural Committee, believes these plans will ensure that Ta Kwu Ling will be developed into an eco-friendly town that can preserve traditional cultures and strike a balance between concrete and grass. "We want to build an example here and show other places like Sham Shui Po or Shau Kei Wan that they can rebuild," he says, describing how the developments in the far north can soon have consequences to the heart of Hong Kong.
Inevitably, there is concern that developers will conquer the FCA and step over the blueprints. However, North District Councillor Lee Koon-hung is unfazed by the possibility.
"They won't be interested," Lee says. "We will have a height restriction for houses here, and the tycoons aren't interested in small houses. My wish is that when visitors hike in the area, they can come here and enjoy the Hakka culture, the food and the heritage. Historic buildings like chi tong [village centre/temple] will never be sold to the tycoons."
According to Chan, the final blueprint is 90 percent complete.
Joshua Bolchover, an assistant professor of the architecture department of the University of Hong Kong, and Peter Hasdell, a guest professor of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University's design school, propose a 'mutual benefit zone' that includes libraries, universities and duty-free shopping zones across the border that can be visited by both Mainland and Hong Kong people without visas. They also envision a hospital, a nursing home and a nursing vocational school in Ta Kwu Ling's Pak Fu Shan.
A banyan tree looming over the village houses.
Yet, whether the heritage can be preserved remains a major question in the FCA. In the sleepy village of Heung Yuen Wai, a towering banyan tree looms over the village houses. Mr and Mrs Man, a couple who have returned from the UK to their ancestral home village, are concerned with the government's sincerity. "The government doesn't want to do anything else but dump $10,000 a month to the village head for maintaining and cleaning the historic buildings. What can a village head do?" asks Mrs Man.
Bolchover appears less concerned. "Many villagers are desperate for development," he says. "They look over the border and see the similar villages on the other side [Shenzhen] transformed into high rises. In a certain way, the villagers are pushing for development."
Yau Man-boon, a villager lives near Sha Tau Kok, admits that change is inevitable. "When times change, traditions and clothes change. But traditions won't change that quickly. For example, the elaborate wedding ceremonies of the Hoklo [with Fujian ancestry] fishermen will probably not change in the next couple of decades."
The FCA is also a shelter for rare species. "Sha Tau Kok is a wild place. I have seen huge boars fighting with wild dogs. I have seen chickens that fly!" laughs Thomas Chan, who lives in Sha Tau Kok.
Alan Leung Sze-lun, conservation manager of WWF, is also impressed with the thriving wildlife. He cites the Deep Bay Wetland as a habitat for rare raptors and spoonbills.
While the government promises to preserve these habitats, threats are already emerging. The Deep Bay Wetland contains a loop area which is under serious consideration for development. Leung says the loop is in the middle of a complete eco-system, and development would split the system. "The fragmentation of a surviving ecosystem will reduce its ecological value," says Leung. "It is very important to keep [the loop] here, unobstructed."
Interestingly, the wilderness in the FCA may find an unlikely ally in the Mainland real estate developers as Bolchover discovers. "The Chinese developers want their border-side apartments to keep the scenic view of the undeveloped FCA," he tells Time Out. "It remains to be seen whether a vested interest from Shenzhen residence or WWF lobbying will save the pristine environment in the FCA."