The small island of Yim Tin Tsai is home to Hong Kong’s last salt pan. Decades ago, the island was abandoned, but now, its former villagers are returning to preserve their traditional way of life—and the traditional way of making salt.
Just 10 years ago, Yim Tin Tsai was one of many deserted islands in Hong Kong, abandoned by the villagers who once lived there, with houses left to rot and trees growing through walls and ceilings.
It was a sad sight, says Colin Chan, 57, who grew up in the quaint village outside Sai Kung, a small town in the northern reaches of Hong Kong. When he became the village head in 1999, he began an effort to revive Yim Tin Tsai and bring it back to life.
Today, the island is home to a working salt pan and museum dedicated to Hakka life. Yim Tin Tsai, like many islands in Hong Kong, was once inhabited by villagers with the same surname. The Chans were Hakka, which means they migrated to Hong Kong from other parts of China.
“The first Chan came down here 300 years ago and saw this was a good place,” Chan says, “so he settled here. I am part of the eighth generation.”
Hong Kong’s Hakka population relied on farming and raising livestock for their livelihood. To preserve food for the colder winter months, they salted meat and vegetables. Sausages, dried seafood, and pickled cabbage were part of the diet.
“About two or three generations later, one of my ancestors figured we had all this natural seawater, so why not let a little bit in to create salt?” Chan says. “So he built two openings: one to let seawater in and another to let it flow out.”
And thus was born the Yim Tin Tsai salt pan, which today is the island’s main tourism draw. On any given weekend, the village receives up to 600 visitors. It’s a vast improvement from a decade ago, when the island was devoid of life and resembled a ghost town.
Yim Tin Tsai’s peak was in the 1930s, when upwards of 200 people lived on the island, according to Chan. But as Hong Kong developed, the villagers moved away for opportunities in the big city. Chan himself left when he was 12 years old and went abroad to the U.K. for school. “By 1998, there were no villagers left,” he says.
Still, the villagers would return every year for an annual feast. The Chans are devout Catholics, a result of missionary work on the island in the 1880s. “Every year when I came back, I couldn’t even go into my own house because the entrance had trees growing all around it,” Chan says. “I couldn’t even go inside. It was very sad.”
Chan felt a pull whenever he returned, and when he was elected by the family to represent Yim Tin Tsai, he embarked on an effort to rebuild the village’s crumbling buildings. His dream is to turn the island into a “living museum” and encourage his brethren to return and rebuild as well.
Nowadays, Chan switches between living on the island and nearby Sai Kung. He has managed to rebuild his childhood home and lives there part-time.
“In our hearts, we villagers respect our ancestors,” he says. “We respect our elders. Even though I went abroad for school, whenever I come back, I feel a sense of family and belonging. This is the land of our roots. You can’t change that.”