Hong Kong is one of the world’s most densely populated cities. Despite this more of 70 percent of the rural territory is uninhabited. This is the direct consequence of the growth of the industrial centre that is now Hong Kong, which, in history, has seen an exodus of people leave the countryside in search of riches and improved living conditions in the city. With the abandonment of the rural areas, many villages have become ghost towns, leaving an entire architectural historical heritage in decline. Hong Kong’s forgotten villages are one of its secret treasure; the other side of the medal unknown to the majority of its citizen and tourists.
Many of these villages are located in the countryside areas. They are a record of a bygone era, formed as a result of historic migrations from China by different clans and populations. The demographic variations impacted on the architectural styles and gave way to a series of different village formations. Today, this heritage is mainly hidden away in the mountains of the new territories, places which are often isolated and thus difficult to reach. These factors were, in turn, the main cause of the abandonment of these realities in the first place, as villagers were lured by the social and economic benefit of moving to a more vibrant and interesting city: Hong Kong.
Isolation, therefore, can be seen as a negative factor against the livability of these areas, but this has also enabled many of these villages to remain intact in their original formation with minimal change despite their state of disrepair today.
Generally, we the life cycle of these villages can divided into four main phases of existence:
1_Their origins at the time of migration setting the roots for the villages to grown
2_Expansion and growth with population numbers rising
3_Abandonment of the rural in favour of a more urban context
4_The state of things today: minimal recovery in the new millennium
More factors come into play when we examining these villages and their life-cycle specifics in comparison to their state today. There is the key issue of location, for example. Though many of these villages are found in isolated mountainous areas, there are also some that have been reached by the urban expansion of Hong Kong due to their original proximity to the growing city. They have been gradually incorporated into the urban itself and are, in fact, still inhabited today despite their often precariouse condition. Some of these urbanised-villages have been subject to different layers of development over the years that have resulted in change (in some cases minimum, but in other huge) of the appearance and original formation. On the other hand, the villages which are located beyond the reach of Hong Kong’s sprawl have suffered an entirely different fate. They are frozen in time, given their isolation, and are perfectly preserved and unchanged.
So, we see how, generally speaking, the villages can be classified based on their geographical locations, which in turn is a key factor which determined their future mutations (or lack of). We can then divide the positions of villages across three areas: densely inhabited, expansion belt, and rural. As one move further away from the city, the more uninhabited some areas will become. In turn, the abandonment is greater, but likewise the stylistic conservation of the villages is also higher. On the contrary, the closer you get to the inhabited areas (urban), the lower the abandonment rate is and the preservation of the original shape of the villages is less visible.
The common denominator for this typology is a sad truth which unites the villages urban or rural alike. It is the fact that either way, these historical artefacts are not being preserved and cared for as they should be. In isolation, they are left to a lonely decay. In the urban setting, they are lost in a state of disrepair, demolished or engulfed in dense new-builds.
Luckily, times are slowly shifting with a new wave of thought rising which might prove to be a lifeline for these historical artefacts.
Today, the conservation and restoration of these villages are becoming one of the most pressing issues in Hong Kong. The city is slowly realising that people cannot leave a historical and architectural heritage in disrepair.
The first to breathe new life into these abandoned villages are the new inhabitants themselves. In recent years some people – tired of city life – have begun to move back into most rural settings. We are see a process of de-urbanisation taking place, where the isolation of these remarkable villages is being appreciated once again.
The government too is getting involved implementing policies to improve the viability of these places. Tourism and outdoor activities seem to be an answer to this as we see an increase in hiking trails and advertising for these areas.
Many non-profit organisations are also working to redevelop these villages. However, there is a severe lack of much needed architectural initiatives in this field. In fact, despite the emergence of small NGO, they are not yet seen as a possible potential for the social-economic growth of Hong Kong’s decaying traditional villages.
Hopefully, this situation will change soon as a new generation of architects with a heightened sense of responsibility to the historic importance of these villages are emerging in China. The hope is that the architects will take more attention to the historical sites because, as UNESCO wisely says; “the conservation of cultural identities is the only way to make possible the future development of humanity”.