Tai O, a tiny village located at the western side of Lantau Island in Hong Kong, originating from the 19th Century, bears both the stigma left by its occupation by the Portuguese and the British, and the name of a “large entrance”. Such “entrance” is rumoured to have been related with the fact that the village and its waterways have been inlet for smuggling of guns, drugs, tobacco and piracy operations. The human-faced leftover of such a rumour though, may be seen into the fact that the few residents deny to close their doors despite the constant glances of the tourists, both because they have no belongings to protect and because as Mr. Wong told me: “their only enemy is ‘her’, the sea, and she has always treated them kindly.”
Returning to the historical highlights, during the Chinese Civil War, Tai O became an entry point for asylum seekers who were escaping from mainland China. Yet, its waterways -the Tai O Creek and the Tai O River- brought fishermen in place since the Ming Dynasty, whose fishing communities are maintained active and alive, despite their gradual downturn. These waterways facilitated even the creation of an industry of salt production, which contributed positively to the village’s economy. Although Tai O has been recently hit twice, both by a typhoon and a major fire and its fishing production grows poorer, the stilt houses which rickety hung above the water as well as the smell of fish which dominates over even the smell of the seawater, serves as a great reminded of the village’s identity, when walking along the narrow-dirty streets. Yet, despite the progressive fading of both the village’s resistance to the decay of time and the residents’ resistibility to the cruelty of poverty, the colourful fruits in their tiny pots, the dazzling glory of the local catch and the promise of the delicately pink dolphins that are surrounding the village’s coast, are preserving Tai O’s discreetly powerful and mysterious allure.
Mr Wong’s short statement, made me think of Hemingway’s “old man” and the female face the sea is given into his narratives. “He always thought of the sea as 'la mar' which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as 'el mar' which is masculine.They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.”
The appreciation of the sea as being double-faced, both as the supporter of the local economy and as the constant threat which whispers through the cracks of the wooden floors, might is a micrography of what Tai O is for Hong Kong. An ironical contrast to the contemporary sparkling skyscrapers and the exhausting urban rhythms but an honest, heart-breaking and original attribute of the Chinese cultural identity.