Nga Tsin Wai: Is Kowloon's last walled village worth fighting for?

Nga Tsin Wai: Is Kowloon's last walled village worth fighting for?

After 650 years Nga Tsin Wai village will be torn down, and while some criticize the plan, it "makes sense" according to at least one long-term resident
nga tsin waiNga Tsin Wai village is dwarfed by the surrounding residential buildings.

Hong Kong is about to lose a 650-year-old piece of history. Kowloon’s last remaining walled village, Nga Tsin Wai, is slated for redevelopment by the Urban Renewal Authority, which plans to demolish most of it for two apartment towers and a heritage-themed park. 

Nga Tsin Wai was established by the Ng, Chan and Lee families in the mid-14th century. At the time, the village was located near the harbor, so in 1352 the families built a temple in honor of the sea goddess Tin Hau. In 1724, walls were built to protect the village from pirates.

Since then, the seaside has vanished, replaced by the Kai Tak Airport, and so have the defensive walls. But the village layout remains more or less the same as it was hundreds of years ago, with three narrow streets and six laneways lined by small tile-roofed houses.

When we first visited Nga Tsin Wai more than two and a half years ago, we were greeted with a warning: “This whole place is going to be gone soon,” one resident told us.

Returning last month, though, we found things more or less the same as they had been. URA spokesman Jimmy Sha tells us that 65 percent of the village’s properties have already been acquired, but progress has been slow, and it could still be more than a year until redevelopment gets underway.

When that happens, the URA promises to preserve historic relics like the village gatehouse, temple and ancestral hall, along with a handful of old village houses. They will be incorporated into a “conservation park” that highlights the village’s history and could include community and art space.

But few are impressed by the initial proposal. The Conservancy Association has issued a statement criticizing its vague approach to conservation. Choi Yan-chi, one of the founders of the nearby Cattle Depot Artists’ Village and a longtime Kowloon City resident, says it’s just the latest in a line of historic Kowloon villages that have been torn down, from Diamond Hill Village to the old Kowloon Walled City. “This is the oldest one left and we want it to stay,” she says. 

For now, village life goes on, even as houses are torn down and the number of villagers dwindles. From afar, the village appears lively, ringed by grocery stores, outdoor barbers and hawkers. But the atmosphere changes when you pass through the village gate. Rubble and construction hoardings have taken the place of many houses. Grass grows from the old tile roofs of the remaining buildings, a reminder of the long-vanished countryside.

When we visit, we emerge from the gatehouse’s haze of incense and are greeted by a chatty old woman who calls herself Wong Poh-Poh -- grandma Wong. She instructs us to head straight for the temple. “Before you do anything else, go pay your respects to Tin Hau,” she says.

Click to the next page to continue reading.

nga tsin waiGates to the village.


So we do exactly that. Being one of the oldest surviving temples in Hong Kong, the Nga Tsin Wai Tin Hau temple is guarded around the clock, though the security guard spends most of his time chatting with worshipers and swatting away mosquitoes.

Grandma Wong joins us as we bow to Tin Hau. “She looks after me even though I don’t offer her money or incense,” she says. “If your heart is there, she’ll take care of you.”

Inside the temple, engraved stone plaques document donations by the faithful; a more modern donation board sits outside the village entrance.

Wong has lived in the village for most of her life, though she wouldn’t say exactly how long. “Many, many years,” she says. She doesn’t know how much longer she can stay. “It makes sense for the village to be torn down,” she says. “I’m not happy about it, but that’s progress.”

Before we leave, Wong tells us to come back on the 23rd day of the third month of the lunar year, when villagers and their descendants return en masse and hold a festival in honor of Tin Hau. We ask if the village will still be around next year. “The temple will be, at least,” she says. 

nga tsin waiGrandma Wong (left) points us towards the temple for the goddess Tin Hau.nga tsin waiNarrow alleys are typical of Nga Tsin Wai.nga tsin waiThe temple's donation board lists names of the generous and faithful.nga tsin waiThe temple will be the only thing remaining after redevelopment.nga tsin waiInside the temple for the godess Tin Hau.nga tsin waiRooftops hundreds of years old fall under disrepair.


nga tsin waiThe elderly hawk goods to make ends meet.



nga tsin waiResidents of Nga Tsin Wai are ancient.
Christopher DeWolf is a writer, photographer and self-styled flâneur.
Read more about Christopher DeWolf