By LUXE City Guides; images by Nicolas Petit
Tradition & Transformation
Over the mountains there’s another Hong Kong: one where cacophonous streets are replaced by the quiet whir of bicycles, where concrete gives way to lush greenery. Welcome to Sha Tin, which lies on the other side of Lion Rock from the congested urban areas of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.
Sha Tin was once a rural backwater of fishing and farming settlements, but it was transformed into a suburban New Town in the 1970s. Today, it is Hong Kong’s most populous district, home to 641,000 people, but it still retains the flavour of the countryside, with historic walled villages, lush hills and a string of green spaces along the Shing Mun River.
Though it isn’t typically regarded as a top tourist attraction, Sha Tin offers some unexpected rewards. The Hong Kong Heritage Museum has crowd-pleasing exhibitions on everything from ancient ceramics to kung fu pop culture. Not far away, Sha Tin Town Hall plays host to public art and regular theatrical performances, while New Town Plaza is one of Hong Kong’s largest shopping malls — just in case you need a break from nature and culture.
Sha Tin is served by two MTR lines, the East Rail Line and the Ma On Shan Line, and you don’t need to go far from either of them for adventure. In Fo Tan, old factory blocks have been colonised by artists, while Che Kung Temple is one of the city’s largest places of worship. In the hills above MTR Sha Tin Station, you’ll find the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery and the idyllic pathways of Pai Tau Village, lined by lychee trees and bougainvillea.
It may have been conceived as Hong Kong’s first bedroom community, but Sha Tin is anything but sleepy.
Explore the eclectic art and history exhibitions at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum.
Learn about Chinese ceramics at The Story House of Ancient Chinese Culinary Ware.
Go for a bicycle ride along the Shing Mun River.
Discover the rich collection of Chinese art at the CUHK Art Museum.
Have a sunset beach barbecue at To Tau Wan Village.
One of Hong Kong’s best-preserved walled villages is just a short walk from MTR Che Kung Temple Station. Built in 1847 by stonemason Tsang Koon-man, the compound was home to the Tsang clan, a Hakka family that had migrated to Hong Kong in the 17th century. You can still see the original granite, bricks and timber used to build the village. Guard towers were built on each of the four corners to protect against pirates, who ran rampant in Hong Kong until the early 20th century. This is still a living village, but visitors are allowed to explore the courtyard and the ancestral hall.
Sha Kok Street, Sha Tin, New Territories (View on Map)
Yip Ki-hok has been keeping bees since he was a young boy in rural Guangdong province. He now runs this small apiary tucked in the hills beneath the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery. Wing Wo’s bees travel around the surrounding hills to collect nectar from lychee, longan and other native flowers; the honey is raw, unpasteurised and utterly delicious, with a complex flavour that varies depending on the season. Wing Wo also sells royal jelly, bee pollen and beeswax.
Families have been stopping by this roadside Indonesian restaurant for more than 50 years. Located in the hills above Tai Wai, this nostalgic diner has a sprawling terrace where you can enjoy satay grilled right at your table. Inside, there’s no air conditioning, just whirring ceiling fans. A variety of Indonesian classics round out the menu: Patong beef, spicy coconut chicken and gado gado.
7 1/2 Mile, Tai Po Road, Tai Wai, Sha Tin, New Territories (View on Map)
+852 2691 1425
Hong Kong changes so quickly that even some relatively recent parts of its history feel like they are from the distant past. In the 1950s, more than 10,000 people lived in Ma On Shan Village, where they dug up iron ore from a nearby mine. The mine closed in 1976 and the village soon withered. In recent years, though, some of its landmarks have been restored, including a distinctive white Lutheran church built in 1952. Today, you can reach the village by taxi, where you can use it as a jumping-off point to explore the nature trails of the surrounding Ma On Shan Country Park.
Ma On Shan Country Park, New Territories (View on Map)
This imposing temple is dedicated to Che Kung, a Southern Song Dynasty military commander who was particularly skilled in putting down uprisings in the 13th century. He escorted the last Song emperors to Hong Kong as they fled Mongolian invaders. People in Sha Tin dedicated a temple to him about 300 years ago in order to stop the spread of a local epidemic; local lore has it that the disease vanished the day the temple was completed. Visitors today will encounter a giant statue of Che Kung and a wheel of fortune that is said to bring good luck when spun three times.
Family-run Hitachino Nest was one of Japan’s pioneering microbreweries when it opened in 1996. It recently expanded to Hong Kong, where it built an unusual brewery spread across multiple floors in the industrial district of Fo Tan. Every Saturday, visitors are welcome to tour the brewery and sample the locally brewed beers, which include some Hong Kong variations on the orangey Dai Dai Ale and the coffee-flavoured Espresso Stout.
For art, culture
Deep in the heart of an industrial building, Vicky Chung and her friends are deciding where to go. They aren’t lost — just indecisive. “We come here every year because there are so many art studios to see,” says the second-year university student.
Sha Tin isn’t a district that most people would normally associate with Hong Kong’s creative side. But there is plenty to explore just beyond the surface of its concrete industrial blocks and multi-storey housing estates.
Every January, dozens of artists open the doors to their studios in Fo Tan, a neighbourhood in Sha Tin district whose factories have become home to hundreds of artists who paint, sculpt and create thought-provoking installations. Some of the city’s most renowned artists work here, including illustrator Wilson Shieh and painter Chow Chun-fai, along with many young graduates of the nearby Chinese University of Hong Kong art school.
But you don’t need to visit Sha Tin in the winter to take advantage of its cultural offerings. Whatever the season, you’ll find unexpected exhibitions, workshops and galleries hidden in the back streets and scenic hills of this laid-back suburban district.
For more than 10 years, sculptor and oil painter Winnie Siu Davies has run the Joy Art Club in her Fo Tan studio. “It's relaxing. We're enjoying art and having the chance to make it,” she says. Every Saturday, there is a workshop for anyone who wants to try their hand at oil painting, followed by a live nude drawing session.
Fo Tan was developed as an industrial area in the 1970s, but many of its businesses relocated to Mainland China in the 1990s. By the early 2000s, there were enough vacant spaces that rents had become quite affordable, which drew a pioneering group of artists who had studied at Chinese University. Within 10 years, they had been joined by nearly 200 artists.
The appeal wasn’t limited to artists. Leung Kwok-hung began collecting Chinese ceramics in the 1970s. He now runs The Story House of Ancient Chinese Culinary Ware, a Fo Tan studio where visitors can learn about the history of Chinese tea cups and dishware.
Leung is particularly fond of chicken bowls, a quintessential product of the Chaozhou region painted with a cockerel, a banana tree and a peony — all symbols of prosperity and good fortune. "The body is handmade, the pattern is hand-painted with mineral colours and fired in the dragon kiln by burning wood,” he explains. A century’s worth of chicken bowls are on display in the studio.
A short journey away from Fo Tan will take you to some of Sha Tin’s other cultural highlights. One train stop to the north is the Art Museum, CUHK, which focuses on historical art and antiquities from around Asia. If you're interested in jade carvings, calligraphy and historic bronze objects, the museum's four galleries are worth a stop.
There’s another reason to visit the museum, too. Every year, it plays host to works by students from the university’s Department of Fine Arts, whose alumni include Pak Sheung-chuen, known for his focus on the ephemera of daily life, and Lee Kit, whose domestic-themed installations and hand-painted fabrics have won him international acclaim.
One stop south of Fo Tan is Sha Tin’s City Art Square, one of Hong Kong’s largest collections of public art. Some of the highlights include Engagement, a pair of giant wedding rings by American sculptor Dennis Oppenheimer, Night Watch, which fills the bed of a reflecting pool with illuminated animal eyes, and a contemplative ceramic installation by Hong Kong artist Sarah Tse called 'Collecting Flowers — Dress no. 240-252'.
From there, it’s a short walk along the Shing Mun River to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, which is known for its eclectic programming. The permanent exhibitions cover ancient Chinese art, Cantonese opera objects and a lively exploration of the martial arts world created by legendary author Louis Cha, also known as Jin Yong.
Outside, on a weekend evening as the sun dips beneath the nearby mountains, you might come across a group of local residents ballroom dancing or singing karaoke on the riverfront promenade. It’s typical Sha Tin: culture hidden in plain sight.
For outdoors, nature, physical activity
One of the most famous paintings in China is Along the River During Qingming Festival, a five-metre-long, thousand-year-old scroll that details a bustling scene around an elegantly curved stone bridge. It sometimes seems like Hong Kong has its very own, real-life version of the painting.
Walk along the Shing Mun River and you’ll come across cyclists, joggers, musicians, fishermen, elderly people practicing tai chi and rowers passing by in the tranquil waters. There’s even a picturesque arched bridge, the Lek Yuen Bridge, where neighbours bump into each other and couples stroll hand in hand.
This is the watery spine of Sha Tin District, running seven kilometres from Tai Wai to Ma On Shan, beyond which is the azure expanse of Tolo Harbour. And while there are shopping malls, hotels, restaurants and nine different MTR stations just a short walk from the river’s promenades, spending time along the river feels like escaping the city without leaving it.
Interior designer Keith Chan has spent nearly his entire life near the river. “I learned how to ride a bike near the river when I was five,” he says. “When I started to date girls, we cycled along the river. And when I was getting fat after 30 years old, I cycled after work.”
Cycling is one way to see the river — there are bicycle rental shops all along its length, as well as share bikes. The Hong Kong China Rowing Association has run the Sha Tin Rowing Centre since 1978. Every day, you can see teams of competitive rowers heaving their paddles back and forth along the waterway, including athletes who eventually make their way to the Olympics and the Asian Games.
There are options for those with a more casual interest, too. The association’s Galaxy Course offers three levels of courses that teach you how to row, starting with three 12-hour introductory sessions.
It wasn’t always possible to row on the Shing Mun River. Until the 1970s, it was just a shallow stream that flowed from Needle Hill to a shallow bay known as Tide Cove in English and Sha Tin Hoi in Cantonese. Faced with a growing population, the Hong Kong government decided to fill in Tide Cove in order to create the Sha Tin New Town. Depending on your perspective, the cove was either reduced to a long, straight channel, or the Shing Mun River was extended even further out to sea.
There weren’t many controls on pollution in those days, so as Sha Tin developed, the river became notorious for its vile odour and murky water. Rowers were afraid of falling ill from water splashing up into the boats. Luckily, sewerage works over the course of the 1990s dealt with the problem.
You can now spend a pleasant afternoon hopping between all the green spaces along the river. In Sha Tin Central Park, you’ll find a waterfall, gardens, an amphitheatre often used for community performances and a riverside plaza popular with street musicians. Yuen Chau Kok Park is built around a hill that offers a modest hike for those pressed for time or intimidated by the mountains. Penfold Park features a huge lawn in the middle of the Jockey Club’s Sha Tin Racecourse, which hosted equestrian events during the 2008 Olympics.
One of the more unusual destinations is the Sha Tin Community Green Station, a recycling depot near the river designed to be a neighbourhood gathering space. Built with bamboo and recycled shipping containers, the station’s serene atmosphere has won it several international architecture awards. “We tried to create a green oasis in the industrial area,” says architect Thomas Wan. “They hold workshops like how to use dried flowers for printing. They even hold tai chi classes there in the morning.”
If you keep heading along the river to where it spills into Tolo Harbour, a broad promenade on the eastern shore will take you all the way to To Tau Wan Village, a low-key destination where you can barbecue on the beach and watch the sun set over the Shing Mun River in the distance.
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