there is a quiet, bucolic side to hong kong and it’s found in the 300-year-old fishing village of tai o.
the small roads are built for pedestrians and the occasional bicycle; you won’t hear the honk or motor of any other vehicle. most buildings only reach as high as three storeys while pink dolphins are known to swim in the waters. if you’re very lucky, you might catch a glimpse of them on a boat cruise.
these are not images that one typically associates with hong kong, one of the most vibrant and busiest cities in asia that pulsates with skyscrapers, crowded streets and a nightlife that barely pauses for a breather. yet tai o is very much a part of hong kong, albeit stripped bare of all that makes the city what it is. instead, this last remaining and most intact of its traditional fishing villages is the quiet to central’s buzz and the languid to kowloon’s bustle.
from the airport, a 40-minute taxi ride will deposit you at the main entryway and that’s as far as any motorised vehicles can go. tai o is a car-free village with just a few small, narrow roads running through its centre where restaurants, bing sutt (traditional coffee shops) and shops are concentrated.
the latter mainly sell seafood produce that’s a local specialty and make for popular souvenirs. wrapped in plastic or tied by the clusters and hung up like prized catches, stacked in bright red baskets or bottled in glass jars, there’s everything from salted whole fish to dried mantis prawns and pungent shrimp paste. yik cheong, one of the biggest of such stores here, also runs a small restaurant serving dishes cooked using their own produce. their shrimp paste is a bestseller, a versatile ingredient that can be used in a variety of ways: fried with rice or as a sauce for boiled squid, for example, both of which can be sampled at the restaurant.
walk around the village and it quickly becomes clear that it’s not just tourists who enjoy the dried seafood. laid out on rattan baskets and placed on top of stools by the side of the road, strung up one by one onto a wooden pole or even pegged to clothes hangers – locals not only regularly make their own salted fish but have devised various ways and individualistic styles of doing so.
it’s not surprising, given that this is a fishing village that dates back 300 years ago and the sea has always determined their lifestyles and livelihood. as you would expect of such a community, houses are built along the waterfront with boats docked at home. constructed mostly from wood and tin facades but bearing no specific style, these stilt houses – called pang uk in cantonese – were once de rigueur across hong kong. most have given way to modern housing projects or shiny commercial structures as fishing villages slowly disappeared.
tai o, on the other hand, has managed to preserve this built heritage on such a large scale that they are now its most iconic features. grab a table on the outdoor deck at solo cafe to enjoy views of the waterway and stilt houses, or stroll through the warren of lanes that connect these homes to catch glimpses of the simple, slow-paced life. with most of the young seeking a living in the city, it’s the elderly who make up the bulk of tai o’s population today. you may meet a cheerful grandmother during your walk, happy to tell you stories of tai o then and now, or even invite you into her home for a look. but not everyone is hospitable to tourists; some houses display signs warning against photography, others may be less than friendly as they view tourism as an intrusion into their peaceful lives.
indeed, tai o is usually a cowboy town with many shops closed on weekdays. at night, you’d be hard pressed to find anything open past 8pm, except for a few restaurants where local men relax over beer and seafood. stay over for more than one night and villagers will know you by sight, curious as to what keeps you here when the weekend has not begun.
come friday evening, the village comes alive as city folks find their way here for a quick escapade, turning the usually laidback tai o into a noisy bazaar. street food stalls materialise to do roaring business of grilled seafood snacks while near the market, follow your nose to a famous kai tan zai (egg waffle) stall where the snack is made the old-school way: in a handheld pan flipped over a charcoal fire until the batter achieves golden crispness.
near the stall, an uphill road that passes under an old tree leads to the rest of the village. across from the post office, sit down for a bowl of silky, wobbly homemade tau foo far (soya pudding). ginger sugar, coloured a bright orange, is an option but a recommended one for adding a spicy kick to the dessert.
further up, look out for a low wooden house with a stack of large bamboo steamers out front. this is a tai o institution famed for steamed glutinous rice balls and dumplings handmade by a pair of brothers, who are both in their 70s and make everything from scratch and by hand. starting as early as 4am, they roll out these traditional delicacies until about 6pm, selling as many as 1,000 of them each day.
another authentic delight not to be missed is the sa yung, or hong kong-style doughnut, fried puffs rolled in sugar with crispy shells and pillow-soft insides. tai o bakery makes one of the best versions and they sell out very quickly, especially on weekends. be there around noon and you stand a good chance of getting a bite.
opposite the bakery is the village’s only b&b; most weekenders rent sparsely-furnished apartments located above the shops while on the other end of the spectrum is the luxurious tai o heritage hotel, a colonial-style building converted from the old police station. espace elastique is the mid-range option, a charming set-up owned by tai o native veronica chan, who retired a career in set design to return to her roots. she hopes to encourage more appreciation for tai o through artistic showcases at espace as well as the red-roofed building facing it that once housed her late grandfather’s fabric store and where the family lived.
such is the allure of tai o: comfortably entrenched in its heritage and moving at its own pace, it’s a living reminder of hong kong as it used to be, much like breakfast at dim sum and seafood restaurant fook moon lam. this is where locals start their day as they have for years, where everyone knows everyone and the food finds its way to you in carts loaded with little steamed plates, baskets of meat-filled buns and fried favourites. it’s a ritual that’s repeated day in and day out but far from being monotonous, the familiarity is comforting and one that urban citizens seek out from time to time.