By LUXE City Guides; images by Calvin Sit
Step Back in Time
In Hong Kong’s North District you’ll find Chinese walled villages hundreds of years old only minutes from high-rise post-war public housing estates. Here along the border with mainland China, the landscape shifts from urban to small town, then to rural. The frenetic pace of Hong Kong city life slows. Minibus routes weave along back roads where farmers harvest strawberries, lettuce, watercress and taro. Steep green mountains enclose lush valleys that at one time produced much of Hong Kong’s food.
While most of the district is accessible via MTR and Hong Kong’s superb public bus network, this is an area that is especially rewarding to explore on foot. There are roads and paths for all kinds and levels of walking, whether you prefer to meander from village to village, or embark upon a challenging hike along rugged hilltops in a country park.
During Hong Kong’s British colonial days, the North District was an important posting for police and civil servants, since it was so close to the border. While most visitors to Hong Kong look for colonial buildings in Central, there are just as many remnants of the city’s British heritage to be discovered in the sprawl of the district’s two main towns, Fanling and Sheung Shui: magistracies, police stations, civil servants’ quarters and military camps dating back to the turn of the last century.
This is a district undergoing rapid change, and all you have to do is look up at those rolling mountaintops to see why. The skyscrapers of Shenzhen, and its 23 million people are just a stone's throw away. Construction cranes are sprouting everywhere, and new highway projects well underway. Nevertheless, North District remains a place where you often have to pinch yourself to be reminded that you are still in Hong Kong.
Explore centuries-old Chinese Hakka walled villages on the Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trail
Hike Hong Kong’s most dramatic mountain ridge, the Pat Sin Leng trail
See traces of colonial architecture on a walking tour of Fanling
Visit the fascinating 400-year-old Lai Chi Wo village
Sample delicious local and Hakka food on a day trip to North District
For local Hong Kongers this is a famous foodie destination. Kwan Kee is a 40-year-old, family-run shop that serves up some of the freshest, most tender beef ball noodles in the city, handmade daily. The delicious bowl of soup comes with your choice of rice noodles or Hong Kong-style wheat noodles. Make sure to try some of their homemade roasted chilli pepper sauce on top. Cheap and cheerful, there’s usually a line at Kwan Kee, but it moves fast.
G/F 5, Luen Cheong Street, Luen Wo Hui, Fanling, New Territories (View on Map)
+852 2675 6382
Although there is a free shuttle bus running from the nearby MTR Fanling Station, the best way to arrive at this hidden Buddhist temple is on foot, climbing a hill that leads from the Lung Yeuk Tau Trail. Once there, you can enjoy the solitude and quiet of the temple and its grounds, which includes a pond with an old water wheel. Join the temple staff and other visitors for a simple vegetarian lunch upstairs in the canteen. Lunch is a HK$100 donation.
Kwan Tei, Fanling, New Territories (View on Map)
+852 2674 2661
Yes, it is difficult, but Pat Sin Leng, which is part of the Wilson Trail, is one of the most rewarding and scenic hikes you can take in Hong Kong. The name refers to the Eight Immortals of Chinese folklore, and this trail threads up and down across the top of the eight peaks. With the highest summit at 600 metres, you are guaranteed spectacular views of the surrounding country park, and a sense of accomplishment. Start your walk from the mini bus stop at Hok Tau Wai village.
With so many Hakka villages in North District, it is not surprising that one of Hong Kong’s most famous Hakka restaurants is up here in Fanling. Sun Hon Kee serves up exceptional versions of hearty dishes like mui choi kau yuk (slow-braised melt-in-the-mouth pork with pickled vegetables) and delicious oyster pancakes with local oysters from nearby Starling Inlet. This informal and popular restaurant draws a crowd that ranges from locals to well-known politicians and celebrities. Reservations are recommended for dinner.
5 Luen Wo Road, Fanling, New Territories (View on Map)
+852 2683 0000
Bee cultivation is a common activity among the farmers of North District, and Po San Yuen is Hong Kong’s first commercial bee farm, over 90 years old. They produce made-in-Hong Kong artisanal products like honey from local longnan fruit flowers, comb honey, and bee pollen. While you can purchase their wares in Hong Kong supermarkets, it’s a treat (especially for children) to visit and tour the farm in person, to learn more about this traditional Hong Kong practice. Advance booking is needed to arrange the tours, and the farm is closed on Sundays.
During the months of December through to April, the North District is awash in fresh strawberries. Locals in the know head to this valley farm to self-pick these luscious beauties. At Rainbow, you’ll be handed a basket and a pair of scissors, and you’re off — then pay by the weight when you are done. Out of season, you can also pick peanuts, cherry tomatoes and corn on Sundays. A great day trip for families, a visit to Rainbow also makes a pleasant finish to a day of hiking.
For history, culture, architecture, family
Hong Kong was founded in 1841, but that is not the beginning of its story. North District’s remarkable Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trail, in Fanling offers visitors a glimpse into pre-colonial Hong Kong, when agriculture ruled daily rhythms, and villagers built stone walls and watchtowers to protect themselves from roving bands of brigands.
In the heat of the mid-afternoon, elder women of Tung Kok Wai often gather to sip tea inside the cool watchtower of their 500-year-old village, which they have fitted out with benches and a few stools. “This is the only one of the wai (five walled villages) that still has the old gate,” says one of the women proudly, pointing out the sliding wooden bars that fit precisely into round holes cut in the granite stone of the doorframe. The village gate, she explains, would be locked at sunset to protect the residents from danger.
Hong Kong’s Antiquities Advisory Board created the Lung Yeuk Tau Trail in 1999 to protect the living history of these villages in an unusual collaboration with local residents. Although the surrounding area is under rapid development, the architectural treasures in the vicinity of the trail remain largely intact, and the villages are occupied (signs along the way alert visitors to avoid areas that would disturb their privacy).
Lung Yeuk Tau means leaping dragon, and it also refers to the mountain that rises steeply behind the settlements. The 2.6 km route weaves alongside waterways and through working farmlands and forest, linking the Six Villages and Five Walled Villages (Ng Wai Luk Tsuen) originally built by a clan named Tang.
The Tang trace their lineage to the Song Dynasty (the 1100s); ancestor Tang Wai-kap was married to a Song imperial princess. The soul tablets, or reliquaries, of that long-ago princess and her husband have pride of place in the massive Tang Chung Ling Ancestral Hall, the trail’s magnificent centrepiece.
A few minutes further along is the first walled survivor: Ma Wat Wai, built by the Tang Clan in the 1700s. The inscription in old Chinese seal script on the lintel over the gate reads Wat Chung or “Green Onion”, which was once the area’s most abundant bounty. Inside, the village maintains the traditional layout structure: houses old and recent huddle cheek-by-jowl, in narrow grid-like rows.
Recently renovated heritage site Lo Wai walled village has the most beautiful and intact walls; while it is not open to the public, you can step inside its entry tower and see the high portals where watchmen and cannon carried out village defense.
Passing Lo Wai, Hong Kong’s modern era begins to intrude on the ancient idyll. Clusters of new three-storey houses built by local villagers have sprouted outside the old stone walls. As you exit to Sha Tau Kok Road, in the distance you can see not only mountains, but high-rise luxury residential towers.
Villages in other parts of North District are also worth exploring. Sheung Shui, the last stop before the Mainland China border, is like most border towns — bustling, and at times a bit chaotic. But a short walk from the station takes you to Tsung Pak Long, a lovely village that seems frozen in time. Five different families joined to found the village and as you enter it, you see their five small adjoining ancestral temples on the left, and perhaps meet a few elders, who may be outside. To the right is an old pre-war school, and around the corner is one of the few Hakka villages in Hong Kong with its walls completely intact.
Truly off the beaten path, Lai Chi Wo (lychee tree) is probably the most untouched traditional Hakka village in Hong Kong. Its remoteness has played a role in preserving the more than 300-year-old community with its three ancestral halls and 210 houses. Getting here involves either a two-hour hike or hopping on a ferry that operates only on Sundays and public holidays, but it is worth the effort. Lai Chi Wo is a magical place of living history, nestled in the circle of a specially planted feng shui protective forest, surrounded by fragrant lychee and mandarin trees.
For history, culture, architecture, family
The North District is a terrific place to explore Hong Kong’s 20th-century British colonial history. This part of the northern New Territories was the defence lynchpin for the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong in the 1960s and 70s. It was a very different city indeed: the Cold War was on, the end of the lease of the New Territories was looming, and Hong Kong faced major security issues, including riots, spies and terrorism. Skirmishes erupted every now and then along the China border, and a posting to this remote area, for either a civil servant or police officer, was not an exile but rather an important part of their professional development in Hong Kong.
Administrative and residential buildings large and small, and even military camps, are scattered about the district, tangible reminders of this other Hong Kong. Some have been rehabilitated for alternate uses, some are crumbling and forgotten, all are accessible to history buffs by Hong Kong’s superb network of MTR, bus, minibus, and on foot.
The best place to begin a tour of British colonial buildings is in Fanling, once the big city of North District. The faded 1950s art deco former market Luen Wo Hui (not to be confused with the current one on Wo Mun Street) attracted vendors from farms throughout the area, and is typical of the public amenities constructed by the British during this period. The Former Fanling Magistracy has been revitalised and is now The HKFYG Leadership Institute; book a guided tour or follow a mobile app for a self-guided tour to learn about the history of the Magistracy.
Fanling can be reached by MTR from Central in about 40 minutes, but in the 1960s, getting from a North District outpost to downtown was an all-day affair. “It could take two hours just to get to Sha Tin,” recalls the wife of a British police officer who lived in the district in the 1960s. “There was a little railway you could catch that ran where the Sha Tau Kok Road is now.” Civil servants and police families lived in British-designed houses that were engineered according to rank, with the best and largest facilities going to the highest levels.
A railway station from the long-gone Sha Tin line can still be spotted along the side of that highway, a few hundred metres north of one of the district’s remaining military outposts, the old Gallipoli Lines. Now the San Wai Barracks of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), this camp held troops of British officers in the 1960s, including a regiment of Gurkhas. While the barracks is no longer open to the public, you can climb up the stairs of the road crossing and get a good view of the original buildings. The green wall of Gallipoli Lines, faded and laced with banyan roots, stands a short distance away.
Two of Hong Kong’s most imposing, and best preserved British colonial-era residences are tucked away in North District. Fanling Lodge, an impressive two-storey mansion, cost HK$140,000 when it was built in 1934. Combining Arts and Crafts and Spanish Mission styles, the lodge looks more like the residence of a Hollywood mogul than what it actually was: the summer retreat of the British Governor of Hong Kong. Fanling Lodge has a place in Hong Kong’s hidden history; it served as the site of secret diplomatic talks between the British and Chinese during the negotiations for the 1997 handover. While the house, a heritage building, is not open to the public, you can get a good look at it while strolling through the golf course at the Hong Kong Golf Club.
On the walk there from MTR Sheung Shui Station another sprawling residence from the period can be spotted: the Oi Yuen Villa, originally built for the use of the executives of Jardine Matheson. Surrounded by construction sites that will soon be contemporary luxury housing for another generation of Hong Kongers, the mansion stands as a reminder of another era that is rapidly fading away.
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