Surrounded by modern high-rises, Ngau Chi Wan is one of the last shantytowns left in urban Hong Kong. But it could soon be demolished as the government plans to redevelop the area in the next decade.
For the past 50 years, Chou Chiu-soon has been following the same routine.
Every day, the 73-year-old wakes up at 4 am and heads to Ngau Chi Wan, one of the last villages in the middle of urbanized Hong Kong, to open up Po Fook Cafe.
“We’ve been coming here for about 10 years,” says one man sitting with his son. Why? He laughs. “It’s cheap!”
It’s a point of pride for Chou, whose family opened the restaurant in the front room of their house in 1964. “We own the house, so we keep prices low,” he says. A lunch set costs just $4.
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Po Fook Cafe hasn’t changed much since the 1960s. The dining room still has its original wooden booths and patterned tile floors. The menus are still handwritten on the walls, framed neatly by green trim. There’s even a vintage 1960s clock hanging from the wall.
“It’s been working since day one,” Chou says. He then points up at the ceiling, with wooden beams propped up by iron bars. “That’s the original roof,” he says. “This house is more than 100 years old.”
A village in the big city
Surrounded by hulking apartment buildings, Ngau Chi Wan stands out in the modern cityscape of Hong Kong.
The neighborhood began life more than 200 years ago as “just another village,” as Chou puts it.
In the 1950s, a flood of refugees from mainland China turned the area into a sprawl of pitched-roof houses, shops, factories, and shanties.
In 1958, the government decided to redevelop the area and started building apartment blocks for low-income families.
Those blocks became the Choi Hung Estate, the first low-cost housing complex conceived as a permanent home for its residents. It was considered a hallmark of the government’s efforts to improve Hong Kong’s standard of living.
Over the years, Choi Hung was joined by other housing projects, but Ngau Chi Wan remained untouched.
In the 1970s, when the government decided to build a subway station in the area, plans called for half of the village to be razed. More than 1,000 residents were ordered to leave, but around 30 refused to budge.
They eventually reached a compromise. Most of the displaced villagers were given homes in the Choi Hung Estate, and those who refused to move were compensated with 84 two-story town houses built directly on top of the new subway station.
Today, the ground floors of those houses have been converted into restaurants and shops. They form a bustling street that leads to the much quieter, older half of the village, which was left intact.
An uncertain future
Peter Bok remembers the village as a lively place. He was born in Ngau Chi Wan in 1952 and grew up in house No. 60, a large traditional courtyard dwelling that was home to more than a dozen families.
“No. 60 was very famous because the village chief also lived there,” he says.
The house faced a playground where itinerant entertainers would stage acrobatic and kung fu performances to the delight of village children. Every so often, village leaders fixed a white sheet onto the wall of an adjacent house and screened black-and-white films.
“It will be a pity to see everything gone forever.”
“All the village folks and children had to bring their stools and chairs to the playground and watch the films,” he says.
When they weren’t being entertained by traveling acrobats, Ngau Chi Wan children flocked to the village grocery stores, where they paid 10 cents to watch television from 7 to 11 pm. They also ran around nearby farm fields.
“We played hide and seek, and we flew kites as well,” says Bok.
Nowadays, Ngau Chi Wan is a patchwork of old shops and houses segmented into tiny apartments. Many of the residents are low-income, and include cleaners, construction workers, and retirees.
Years of neglect and lack of proper management have left Ngau Chi Wan in a sorry state, with rats and cockroaches seen running among the village houses, and an odor rising in some of its alleys.
The government has announced plans to tear down the neighborhood and replace the old houses with apartment buildings in the next decade.
When that happens, Chou says he might retire. After decades of seeing people come and go, he is practical about the change coming to the village.
“It will be a pity to see everything gone forever,” he says, “but I have learned to stay calm. After all, you cannot stop the government.”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.