Sunday, July 18, 2010
Sunday, July 4, 2010
A laid-back island haven encounters growing pains
Strains of yuppification are showing in South Lantau town
Last month, two stray dogs were found dead on a Mui Wo beach. News of their fate spread quickly through the nearby villages.
"It was definitely a poisoning," said a beachside restaurant worker, explaining that hikers often felt intimidated by the dogs.
But who would do such a thing? "Those people coming from DB," she said with a scowl, referring to nearby Discovery Bay.
Lantau Island's Mui Wo has long been a shabby sprawl of rural villages, prized for its eccentric lifestyle and cheap housing.
But recent years have seen an influx of transplants looking for suburban luxury at prices far lower than those in Discovery Bay or Sai Kung.
As village houses are bought and renovated, property prices have more than doubled in the past five years, and the government now plans to spend HK$300 million on beautification and leisure facilities over the next few years.
But the changes have met with opposition from some long-time Mui Wo residents. "The yuppies are taking over the asylum" is how one blogger described it.
"Sometimes people come to live here and they don't seem to quite understand that they're coming to live in the country," said Jacqui Green, an animal welfare advocate who has lived in Mui Wo for more than 20 years. She said that she was certain the dogs found dead last month had been deliberately poisoned by someone who considered them a nuisance.
Many newcomers seem taken aback when they encounter Mui Wo's laissez-faire atmosphere, said Green. On one occasion, a woman who had just built a new house called her to complain that it had been overrun by village cats. Green agreed to neuter them, but only after she explained that the cats were part of village life. "To me, it was a typical situation where somebody gets a piece of land, builds a house however they want and moves in without realising what it is going to be like, without taking into account village customs and habits," she said.
For decades, Mui Wo's relative isolation made it a popular place to live for anyone who wanted to get away from the pressures of urban Hong Kong. It became home to one of the most diverse populations in Hong Kong, a mix of indigenous villagers, Chinese from other parts of Hong Kong, Filipinos, South Asians and Western expats.
Among the expats, there has always been a division between middle-class professionals and what one resident called "whisky tangos" - a euphemism for "white trash".
Some residents admit that the low prices were what first drew them to Mui Wo. "I came here because it was cheap," says cartoonist Larry Feign, who has lived in Mui Wo for 19 years.
"I couldn't afford to live anywhere else. A friend of mine brought me out here and I thought it was kind of ugly, garbage everywhere. I learned to love it." He now pays homage to his village, Wang Tong, through a blog called The Toilet Bar, which is named after a village shop next to a public toilet that morphed into a popular hangout.
About three years ago, he said, a wave of young families, most of them expats, began moving to Mui Wo, drawn partly by the opening of a new road to Tung Chung. "It sounds hypocritical for me to say it, but the place is being colonised by young gweilos," he said.
"They ride around in little tricycles rather than bicycles, with the kids in the back seats being chauffeured by the helpers. I liken them to suburban SUVs. It shows just a little bit of a different attitude."
Feign described his fondness for the casualness of village life. "The kids could go into a local village shop, take anything they want and I'd go by later and ask how much I need to pay, and they say 'Oh, just pay when you can,'" he said.
One recent morning, his wife almost missed her ferry because water buffaloes were blocking the entrance to their house. "You have to like that it's a bit sloppy and messy to really enjoy it here. That kind of thing makes it charming, and it used to be what put off those people from Discovery Bay. But I guess places like DB have become too expensive."
Prices for a village house in Mui Wo have increased sharply with the influx of newcomers. One resident who bought a village house three years ago for HK$3.1 million has seen its value rocket to HK$7 million.
"If you've been here for a while, you remember how low prices used to be," said Jennifer Bauch, a property broker who opened shop in Mui Wo in 2007. "Now they're up 60 per cent and it's a shock. But if you're coming from Sai Kung, the prices are still relatively low. It's good business here for brokers because of all the expats."
Mui Wo's population now stands at 6,100, according to an estimate by the Planning Department, and it is expected to increase to nearly 7,000 over the next several years. The growing population and changing demographics are straining Mui Wo's rural infrastructure.
Though the government plans to spent HK$300 million to build a new waterfront dining area and recreational facilities, it does not yet plan to address what residents say is most sorely needed: a new school and community gathering space.
"I see new people on the ferry almost every day and most of them have young children - they're going to need a good school," said John Schofield, a member of the Living Islands concern group, which sees itself as a watchdog for development on Hong Kong's outlying islands.
Mui Wo's only secondary school closed in 2007. Last year, plans to move a school for troubled youth, the Christian Zheng Sheng College, into the building were met with furious opposition.
Some Mui Wo residents hurled invective at the school's principal and students at public hearings. But those fighting to open a new school say that aren't opposed to Zheng Sheng, they are simply looking out for the interests of Mui Wo's families, whose children currently attend schools in Tung Chung, Kowloon and on Hong Kong Island.
One third of school-age children in Mui Wo are non-Chinese, said Rosa Ma Suet-fan, who is a member of the South Lantau Education Concern Group, so the group is working to convince the government to open a bilingual secondary school.
On a muggy evening earlier this week, Schofield and Ma chatted about Mui Wo with two other residents, Maria Currie and Louise Prescott, at the China Bear, a popular waterfront pub.
"The rising prices mean that people are forced to live further and further out," said Prescott, an Englishwoman who moved to Mui Wo five years ago from Jakarta. "There's a snowball effect. Once one house is renovated, others follow."
Ma recalled her first encounter with Mui Wo. She was living in Discovery Bay when she went for a hike and glimpsed Mui Wo from high up in the hills, she said.
It reminded her of the long-since-demolished Ngau Tau Kok village she grew up in. When she finally moved to Mui Wo, "the villagers would smile, say hello and offer their freshly picked vegetables or bananas straight from the trees," she said.
"Of course, when people of different cultural backgrounds live together, people have different perceptions of how things should be done."
One example of those differences in perception, she said, are the walls that some newcomers build around their houses. "The indigenous villagers never demarcated their property like that."
The disposal of debris from renovations and constructions is another tricky issue that can lead to resentment between neighbours.
Actually, a bit of yuppification won't hurt. One flat was looked at before buying ours had uncivilised neighbours who allowed their dogs to poo on the terrace (and left smelly stuff to rot in the sun). If yuppification can force people like that to move, it might be a good thing after all.
Saturday, July 3, 2010
Article from Time Out June 2009:
Although developers have been moving in fast on Lantau Island ever since the opening of Hong Kong International Airport in 1998, Mui Wo, on its eastern shore, is holding on tenaciously to its roots as a country village. Here, a piece of land also means peace of mind, with its laidback, serene way of life.
If you come to Mui Wo on a weekday, it strikes you that there is something not quite right about the place. You can’t put your finger on it; that is, until a dog’s distant bark shatters the silence. And then you realise – this place is unnervingly quiet for Hong Kong. Remarkably, village life has managed to prevail here for over 700 years, through its days as a silver mine (the area is still known as Silvermine Bay), to its present role as gateway to South Lantau. Today, Mui Wo’s residents still refer to it endearingly as the “countryside”. Indeed, it is this precise quality that has saved it from succumbing to the development befallen north Lantau, since Mui Wo is surrounded by country park.
By far the best part of settling in this area is the price tag. The psychological barrier people have against moving away from Hong Kong Island means despite commute time from Mui Wo to Central being the same as from Stanley or Repulse Bay, sea views, roof terraces, and gardens come at a fraction of the cost. The further you go from the ferry terminal, the cheaper it gets per square foot. Housing clustered around Mui Wo centre thus tends to be smaller, consisting mainly of generic six-storey apartment blocks for commuters wanting to maximise their lie-ins. Some bigger, plusher complexes line Ngan Kwong Wan Road, on the walk up to Silvermine Beach. The real village experience, however, begins after a ten-minute walk inland. Here, the few remaining cars fade away (access is by bicycle only) and the buildings turn into three-storey detached houses. Although some are rented as one unit, the floors are usually divided into three separate apartments, making village lifestyle more affordable. The only possible drawback is not being able to drive to your door (public car parks are free if you don’t mind leaving your car in town). If you want both the big villa and the car, you’ll need to go to Pui O, a seven-minute drive away (a very precise seven minutes since there is never any traffic).
Considering Mui Wo’s small population size, food options are surprisingly abundant. This is largely in thanks to the tourists that filter through the town on weekends. For a quality Italian roast and a breakfast that’s greasy in all the right ways, there’s Caffe Paradiso (Shop 8 Mui Wo Centre, 3 Ngan Wan Rd, 2984 0498), more affectionately known by locals as Tom’s Café. The Pizzeria (Grandview Mansion, 11C Mui Wo Ferry Pier Rd, 2984 8933) and the dinner buffet at Silvermine Hotel (Silvermine Beach, 2984 8295) also serve up Western fare in the evenings. However, a seaside town is not really complete without a spattering of seafood restaurants. Snag a waterfront seat at one of the many eateries in Mui Wo Cooked Food Market by the ferry pier, open from 6am till midnight, and order up a storm.
You can always trust that in any enclave in the world that boasts more than three Brits, a decent watering hole is sure to exist. The most popular joint for tourists and locals alike is the China Bear (Mui Wo Centre, 3 Ngan Wan Rd, 2984 972), which has a quiz night on the last Thursday of every month. Further down the beach lies the China Beach Club (18 Tung Wan Rd, Silvermine Beach, 2983 8931), while a little further away, in Pui O, is JK Club (20D Lo Wai Village, 2984 8366), which is more a pub than a club, despite its leading name. For a slightly different ambiance of the Mediterranean variety, enjoy a drink at Bahce (Shop 19, Mui Wo Centre, 3 Ngan Wan Rd, 2984 0222) a Turkish restaurant that becomes a bar at night.
Less than a Frisbee throw away from the ferry terminal lies Silvermine Beach. Together with Pui O Beach (located at Pui O Kau Tsuen), it ensures the locals have year-round access to the sandy shores. Further afield, and about a 45-minute walk away from the town centre, is the picturesque Silvermine Waterfall (follow the signs from Mui Wo town), which is best visited after a spell of heavy rain. Avid hikers can relish in the fact that Mui Wo is also the beginning of the 70km long Lantau Trail that snakes around the south of the island. Of course, if you’re really stuck for something to do – there’s always Disneyland (www.hongkongdisneyland.com), accessible by bus via Tung Chung.
Apart from the obligatory Wellcome and Park’n’Shop, there are just a handful of stores in Mui Wo, but that’s a good thing. With shops come people, and that would most likely negate the reason you moved here in the first place. As everyone cycles in these parts, the first stop for any new resident has to be the town’s leading bike store, the aptly named Bicycle Shop (Shop B, Silver Centre, 2984 2002). People also tend to be fairly home proud, so there is no shortage of furniture stores. Add a touch of the orient to your décor at Red Hall Chinese Antiques (Silver Pearl Mansion, 2988 1368). For some beach lit or to start a home library with all that new space, The Bookshop (Shop E, Silver Centre, 2984 9371) sells vintage and second hand books as well as new releases.
Mui Wo is a difficult area to get to by car (you’ll require a special permit to drive on Lantau regardless), but easily accessible by ferry from Central Pier 6. With the journey only 30 minutes long, the lack of alternative methods of transportation don’t seem so troublesome; at least, not before the last ferry departs Central at 11:30pm every night. Most residents commute this way, although there is an alternative path to the city via Tung Chung on the 3M or 13S buses of the New Lantao Bus Company, which both cost $12. A taxi from Tung Chung to Mui Wo will be roughly $260.
Mui Wo is where the reluctant Hongkonger resides. In the last two decades, it has become home to retirees and expats burnt out from city life. Residents tend to belong in the vein that “city life wasn’t really for them”. It seems this is where the metropolis’ self-professed misfits have gathered; and they look more tanned and less tense for it. Judging by the sea of pedal power next to the ferry terminal, most residents still commute to work in Central, but home is where the heart is. Many of the businesses in Mui Wo are expat owned, and the nearby international kindergarten and primary school reflects the diverse demographic of the area.
We have been looking at affordable places to buy in Hong Kong ever since we came to the SAR in 2007. I was happy with Lamma or Mui Wo. Buffalo Wilbur (ie hubby) was worried that cheap may not necessarily translate to charming. "There is a reason they are so cheap," he quite reasonably pointed out.
Then we spotted the above article in Time Out. Aha!
Ever since then, we have been noticing many articles talking about how Mui Wo is the next up and coming place. Today's SCMP has something on the yuppification of the town and how prices have more than doubled in the past five years. I feel vindicated.