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(Photo taken in 2020)

Agricultural Stories on North-west Lantau

The northwestern part of Lantau Island primarily refers to the coastal area from Tung Chung to Tai O. More than 30 villages in the area belong to two Heung Yeuks in Tung Chung and Tai O respectively*. In the past, although most villagers living on northwestern Lantau were fishermen, many of them were farmers. Times have changed and agriculture in the area has declined, but there are still interesting farmyard stories to be told. Let’s share a few of them with you today.

*Tung Chung Heung Yeuk included Chek Lap Kok, Mok Ka, Sheung Ling Pei, Ha Ling Pei, Ngau Au, Tei Po, Lam Che, Nim Yuen, Pa Mei, Tei Tong Tsai, Ma Wan, Wong Nai Uk, Shek Lau Po, Wong Ka Wai, Lung Tseng Tau, Ma Wan Chung, Shek Mun Kap and other villages. Tai O Heung Yeuk included San Tau, Sha Lo Wan, Sham Shek, Tai O market block (i.e., Kat Hing Street, Kat Hing Back Street, Tai Ping Street and Wing On Street), Shek Tsai Po, Leung Uk, Nam Tong Sun Tsuen, Yi O, Tai Long Wan, Lower Keung Shan, Upper Keung Shan, Ngong Ping and other places.

Aquilaria sinensis
(Source: Greening, Landscape and Tree Management Section, Development Bureau)

“Famous Classic Specialties” of Lantau Island

Shrimp paste, fish maw and other fishery products of Lantau Island need no introduction, but how much do you know about Lantau’s famous classic specialties (local specialties)? And are you aware that there was an official record of high-mountain tea found on Lantau Island? According to the record in the Gazetteer of Xin’an County compiled in 1819 in Qing dynasty, on Lantau Peak, the second highest peak in Hong Kong, “there is a divine tea that can help people keep cool and improve digestion... The natives pick it on the mountains on Ching Ming and called it Lantau Tea”. Although we have no information on from what species of trees Lantau Tea was picked, there is still a special drink on Lantau Island that can cool summer heat—Begonia fimbristipula hance drink.

In addition, a nationally well-known agricultural product—agarwood—was also once produced on Lantau Island. In the Ming dynasty, Sha Lo Wan (a village between Tung Chung and Tai O) was famous for growing Aquilaria sinensis, the source of agarwood. Agarwood produced in Sha Lo Wan and Lek Yuen (Sha Tin) was regarded as the best in Hong Kong. At that time, farmers growing Aquilaria sinensis would ship these very precious incense products^ to Guangzhou, then further north to Jiangsu, Zhejiang, the capital Beijing, or to Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Arab countries for sale. It is recorded in Guangdong Xinyu written in the Qing dynasty that “when agarwood is prevailing, the annual sales can reach tens of thousands of taels of gold”. The Ming dynasty was the heyday of agarwood production in Hong Kong. At that time, the name “Hong Kong” (Fragrant Harbour) was already used in the Yue Da Ji: Guangdong Coastal Map (1596). It is said that Hong Kong got its name as it was a harbour for transporting agarwood.

^When Aquilaria sinensis is infected by fungi, it will secrete a resin with a strong fragrance as its defence, and it is also why Aquilaria sinensis is also known as the incense tree. Incense or agarwood from Aquilaria sinensis is the translucent amber-like condensate from the above-mentioned “incense generating” process. Since the incense made from Aquilaria sinensis grown in Dongguan is better than those grown in other places, the incense is called “Guan incense” in Chinese. There are about 21 kinds of trees that can generate incense in the world, collectively referred to as incense trees. And Aquilaria sinensis, the local incense tree in Hong Kong, is one of them.

Remnant of wolframite mines in Sha Lo Wan
(Photo taken in 2020)

Particularly worth mentioning is that Sha Lo Wan was rich in wolframite, which was a kind of short rhombohedral crystals black in colour. According to a report in 1952, wolframite mines in Sha Lo Wan were reputed the “best mining area” then in Hong Kong. Miners regarded the premium wolframite from the area as “black gold”. The outputs from the mines were exported faraway to Europe and America. In July 1952, there were about 5,000 miners working in the mines in the area, and the mining area extended to San Shek Wan. After the mining rush had cooled down, some mining companies continued to operate until 1979.#

It can be seen that Lantau Island had precious natural resources, and we should not forget these “famous classic specialties”.

#In 1950, the Korean War broke out. There was a keen demand for tungsten for manufacturing firearms from various countries, and the price of wolframite skyrocketed.