The Ping Shan Heritage Trail, Hong Kong
The Ping Shan Heritage Trail offers a fascinating glimpse into the life of ancient Hong Kong despite the surrounding urban sprawl
Exit C of Tin Shui Wai MTR station leads down to the light rail platforms. If you pass through that way you will also see a sign for the Tsui Sing Lau pagoda. The pagoda was built sometime in the late fourteenth century. In those days it stood near the mouth of a small river that emptied into Deep Bay. It was surrounded by rice paddies and fish ponds. Farmers tended fields of fruits and vegetables and raised their livestock. The land was verdant and its people prosperous.
Most of that has gone now. To the north of the pagoda the seemingly endless concrete towers of the Tin Shui Wai housing estate, the elevated tracks of the West Rail MTR line and the platforms of the light rail station. To the east an unsightly expanse of car park.
Its name means pagoda of gathering stars and it was built to enhance the feng shui of the Ping Shan area by warding off evil spirits from the north and protecting it from flooding. It is a three-storey, hexagonal structure thirteen metres high. It stands on a slightly raised platform surrounded by a parapet wall of the same blue-grey brick work. According to records it was originally seven-storeys high but the upper storeys were lost to typhoons. A statue of the earth god resides on the ground floor. Fui Shing, the deity believed to be in control of success in examinations is on the third floor but that is not accesible to visitors. It is the only surviving ancient pagoda in Hong Kong.
Ping Shan was originally settled by the Tangs, one of the territory’s largest and wealthiest clans. The clan already had a long history stretching back many generations. They had moved south from Jiangxi province to Guangdong during the early Song Dynasty (960-1127). Then, attracted by the fertile lowlands of the New Territories, expanded the lineage again to Kam Tin. The Ping Shan line was established in the twelfth century by Tang Yuen-ching and his son, Tang Chung-kwong. They became the first generation Ping Shan ancestors.
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The area grew to comprise a total of six villages (tseun), and three walled villages (wai). They were built between three hills which, according to the feng shui expert of the time, represented a crab with a large hill to the west and the villages nestled between two smaller hills to the north and south which represented the claws. A reservoir was dug to help drain the land. This collected silt from the river which, when spread over the fields, provided excellent soil for farming.
Only one of the walled villages remains now and the other villages have mostly been rebuilt with electricity and modern plumbing but there still a few lovely old buildings to be seen and there are numerous old temples, ancestral halls and study halls. Together they make up the Ping Shan Heritage Trail.
It doesn’t really matter wich end of the trail you start but the MTR West Rail line is easiest for those less familiar with public transport routes. Leave through exit C and go down to the light rail platform. The Pagoda is down a small flight of steps opposite the exit.
Tat Tak Communal Hall
Turn left from the light rail exit and take the right hand lane. This leads downhill to the Tat Tak Communal Hall. Tat Tak was an alliance of 39 villages in the Yuen Long and Tuen Mun area. It was formed in the late eighteenth century to secure the economic resources of the region. The hall was built in 1857, the structure originally comprised two halls of grey brick with a granite lower course. Calligraphy, murals and carvings featuring auspicious motifs decorate the entrances and eaves.
A further two side chambers, the Hall of Lonesome Consolation on the left and the Hall of Bravery, right, were added in 1866 to honour to the martyrs who died in the armed conflicts between Tat Tak Alliance and neighbouring villages. After a meeting held at the hall on March 28, 1899 a public notice was issued to villagers calling for armed resistance to the British takeover of the New Territories.
Because of its location near the waterway merchants brought produce from the surrounding areas to trade at the Ping Shan market which grew up on an open area in front of the hall. The market was managed by the Tat Tak Alliance and the hall also served as its administrative office.
From the Hall head back up the hill and along Tsui Sing Road. The steps down to the pagoda are on the left opposite the Light Rail exit. Continue in this direction keeping the Kwok Yat Wai College on the right. Before long you will arrive at another car park. Take the path to the right. Along here you will find the shrine of the earth god. It is a small grey brick alter dedicated to To Tei Kung with gabled walls that are said to represent the handles of a cooking pot. Such shrines are common in traditional villages.
Taking a left turn here leads to Sheung Cheung Wai, the only remaining walled village in Ping Shan. Only parts of the wall are still standing, the moat that once surrounded it has been filled in and the gatehouse has been rebuilt. Walled villages were built defend against pirates and bandits. It may seem difficult to believe, in modern Hong Kong, but these areas were once remote and vulnerable to attack.
The village is around two-hundred years old. Over the years many of the houses within have been rebuilt though one or two old structures remain. Many of the houses appear to be vacant but the village still boasts about a hundred residents. They don’t really encourage visitors but if you are quiet and respectful no one seems to mind.
Following the village is a rather unappealing corridor of corrugated iron but this soon opens out. On the left is an old well which was built by the residents of Hang Tau Tsuen, the village we are just arriving at. It is said to be more than two hundred years old though no one knows its exact date. It was once the main source of drinking water for the village and for Sheung Cheung Wai. These days it is filled with ornamental carp.
Beyond the well over a patch of waste ground the Yeung Hau temple can be seen. There has been a temple on this site for at least two hundred years, probably longer. Inscriptions inside the temple state only that it was renovated in 1963 and 1991. It is an odd structure which fails to comply with classic temple design. This has some scholars to suspect that it is actually the remains of something more elaborate.
It is one of many temples in Hong Kong dedicated to Yeung Hau though there are several legends about just who Yeung Hau was. One of the most popular is of Yeung Leung-jit, a general from the Southern Song Dynasty who gave his life to protect its last two emperors from Kublai Khan’s armies. He was deified as Yeung Hau Wong and is worshipped for his loyalty and bravery.
Back in Hang Tau Tsuen there are still a few attractive old buildings within the village’s narrow lanes. With a little imagination, one can get an idea of how it must have looked in years gone by.
Also, hidden within its lanes is the Yan Tun Kong Study Hall. No one knows when this was built but villagers say it was commissioned to commemorate the clan’s 14th to 16th generation ancestors Tang Wai-tak and Tang Ji-fong. Its purpose was to prepare clan youngsters for Imperial Civil Service Examinations.
It was originally a two-hall structure with an open courtyard between the halls. The interior boasts some beautiful features such as a finely carved ancestral altar … . The roof and facade are decorated with plaster mouldings of auspicious motifs. Side rooms served as accommodation for scholars.
When the examinations were abolished the study hall was converted into a venue for modern education for the village children. The building also serves as an ancestral hall for clan members in Hang Tau Tsuen and are worshipped at the altar in the main hall. Descendants still gather for traditional festivals and ancestor worship at spring and autumn equinoxes.
An inscription on a wooden plaque hanging in the main hall suggests that the study hall underwent major renovations in 1870.
Tang and Yu Kiu Ancestral Halls
At the centre of the Ping Shan area between Hang Tau Tsuen and Hang Mei Tsuen are the Tang and the Yu Kiu Ancestral Halls. The two halls sit side by side with the former on the left. This is the main ancestral hall of the Tang clan in the Ping Shan area. It was built by fifth generation clansman Tang Fung-shun sometime in the fourteenth century. It is an impressive three-hall structure with two internal courtyards.
The front of the building boasts two drum platforms bordered by columns of granite and red sandstone. The roof ridges are decorated with ceramic Shiwan dragon-fish and lion figures. Potted plants break up the stern brickwork of the interior courtyard while elegant circular doorways in the side rooms provoke intriguing contrasts between light and shade.
A pathway of red sandstone in the front courtyard suggests that one of the Tang clansmen was a high-ranking official. The ancestral tablets are placed on the altar in the rear hall. The building is still used regularly for worship, ceremonies, celebrating of traditional festivals and clan meetings.
Yu Kiu Ancestral Hall was built early in the early sixteenth century. Also a three-hall structure the layout is similar to its neighbour. In addition to its function as an ancestral hall it also served as a school for children in the Ping Shan area and from 1931 to 1961 it was housed the Tat Tak School. Characters engraved on the stone tablet above the entrance indicate that the building underwent a major renovation sometime between 1875-1908.
The Kun Ting Study Hall and Ching Shu Hin
The Kun Ting Study Hall is a little way beyond the two ancestral halls in Hang Mei Tsuen. It is perhaps the prettiest of all the halls on the trail. Built in 1870 by Tang Heung-chuen in commemoration of his father Tang Kun-ting the hall was used for both education and ancestral worship.
The two hall building with a single courtyard is made of grey brick with granite columns. A beautifully carved ancestral alter is flanked on either side by rooms with richly decorated screen doors. Other side rooms boast blue ceramic window fittings and coloured glass on the doors.
When the British occupied the New Territories in 1899 the hall was repurposed temporarily as a police station. After the rebellions had been suppressed the new government sent two teachers, one English the other Chinese effectively making the Kun Ting Study Hall Hong Kong’s first public school. The hall continued to provide education for the children of Hang Mei until shortly after World War Two.
Attached to the Kun Ting Study Hall is a guesthouse for visiting and scholars and dignitaries known as Ching Shu Hin (main picture). It is a two-story building richly decorated with murals, intricate carved panels and decorative lintels on doors and windows. Aside from sleeping chambers the building also includes bathrooms and kitchen area.
Across the Ping Ha Road at the end of the lane is Tong Fong Tsuen, another of the Ping Shan area villages. On the corner of the alley directly opposite you will see another small shrine. A little further along down a side alley on the left is the entrance of Shut Hing Study Hall. It was built in 1874 and was used for preparing clansmen for examinations to government positions.
The building was originally a two Hall structure but had fallen into a poor state of repair. The rear hall had to be demolished in 1977 leaving only the entrance which boasts some beautiful carvings on its eaves. Flights of steps on either side invite you to get a closer look but the area beyond is private.
Back on Ping Ha Road, across a small sitting out area is the Hung Shing Temple. The two hall structure is thought to have been built in 1767. In many temples around Hong Kong the open courtyards have been roofed over but here the original design has been well preserved.
According to legend Hung Shing was a government official who promoted the study of astronomy, geography and mathematics. He established an observatory to study the weather, contributing fishermen and sea traders under his governance. It is said it that Hung Shing continued to protect people from natural disasters even after his death.
From the temple continue along Ping Ha Road. There is a flight of steps on the left which offer a short cut up to the road that leads The Ping Shan Tang Clan Gallery and Heritage Trail Visitors Centre at the top of the hill.
The gallery tells the history of the Tang’s and features exhibits of daily life over the centuries including farming equipment, a brides wedding outfit and palanquin and other costumes as well as old photographs of the area.
The building it is housed in was formerly a police station. It had been built in 1900 after a truce had been agreed between the locals and the new colonial government. Although the villagers were pleased that there were to be no reprisals for the uprising and that the British had agreed to build a school, the construction of the police station was roundly loathed. The colonial government had violated Ping Shan’s feng shui by building it on the back of the crab and then made matters even worse by painting the roof tiles red symbolically cooking it in the process.
The villagers blamed it for their decline in prosperity. Harmony wasn’t restored until 2007 when it was converted into the clan’s gallery and visitor centre. The roof tiles were repainted green and it is now thought of as child riding on its grandfathers back.