Under the scotching sun in the summer morning of Dragon Boat Festival (端午節), former villagers and outside visitors gather along the the narrow waterways and mangrove channels of Tai O to take part in the annual Dragon Boat Water Parade and Race. The sleepy and somewhat touristy fishing village once again fills with laughter and rhythmic drum beats, reminding elder villagers how vibrant Tai O fishing village used to be decades ago. Now a popular sporting and recreational event that held in many cities around the world, dragon boat is actually originated right here, from the fishing communities in the Pearl River Delta where Hong Kong is located.
In the old days, young men in fishing communities in the region, like Tai O, would volunteer to join the Dragon Boat Festival. While most would enter the boat race, a small group would participate in the religious parade, in which small statues of local deities are brought out from temples and paraded around the village in decorated dragon boats. The dragon ritual is meant to cast away evil spirits in the village with heavy drum beats, synchronized paddling, and incense smoke. Unlike modern dragon boats made of lightweight materials such as fiberglass or carbon fiber, traditional dragon boats are constructed using teak wood. Each 65-ft boat takes 32 paddlers, 2 drummers, 1 gong striker, and 1 steerer. During the Dragon Boat Festival, modern dragon boat races are held in rivers, beaches and the harbour allover Hong Kong. Yet to get a taste of century-old dragon boat tradition, there is no better place than Tai O, where old rituals are still performed every year.
After an hour of ferry and 40 minutes of bus, we finally arrived at Tai O where the Dragon Boat Water Parade was about to begin at 10am. Organizers were busy putting on the last bits of decorations onto the traditional dragon boats.
Flanked both sides by old stilt houses, the main waterways of Tai O provide the best setting for the dragon boat parade.
Decorated deity boat was always led by a long traditional dragon boat.
The Tai Chung Bridge opened up only in the Dragon Boat Festival for the passing deity boats.
The busy Tai Chung Bridge often serves as the visual focus of the entire fishing village of Tai O.
Despite the annual parade, fishermen were still selling fresh seafood right by the waterfront.
Statues of deity from three different temples were brought out for the parade.
Behind the designated dragon boat, the colourful deity boat was led around the waterway network.
Many paddlers of the traditional dragon boats came from the older generation of the local Tai O villagers.
The river mouth served as the main venue for dragon boat races.
Larger fishing boats served as the base of different racing teams.
It was fun to watch the dragon boat race from the spectator jetty at the waterfront.
All paddlers gave their best effort during the dragon boat race.
One of the most important aspect of dragon boat paddling is the quality of their synchronized movements.
The exciting shouts of loyal supporters offers outside visitors a glimpse of the community spirit of Tai O.
At the end, an award ceremony was held at the spectator area.
While the dragon boat race captivated the hearts of spectators at the river mouth, the deity boats and traditional dragon boats continued to parade around Tai O’s waterways.
At around noontime, the dragon boat parade was coming to an end.
Wooden dragon boats were once again put into storage along the waterways.
Until next year’s Dragon Boat Festival, visitors coming to Tai O can visit the small community museum to learn more about the traditions of dragon boat.
The trail from Fan Lau to Yi O was less well maintained than the path we walked in the morning. It took us about 40 minutes to walk from Fan Lau Sai Wan (分流西灣) to the farming village of Yi O (二澳). This was our second visit of Yi O. A little over two years ago, we came to Yi O and found a beautiful valley where a few farmers trying hard to reintroduce rice farming back to Lantau Island. Yi O, a farming village with over two hundred years of history and over a thousand villagers in its heyday, became an abandoned village in the 1970s when the last of its inhabitants moved out to the city. In 2013, a farming cooperative secured a 30-year lease after negotiations with the original four clans of villagers to re-cultivate the land of Yi-O for organic rice paddies. Since then more lands were cultivated and more helpers were hired each year. Over 10% of Yi-O’s land had been worked on to develop the farm-to-table business. In the past, growing rice in a constantly lightly flooded plot in front of village homes was a self-sustainable way of living for Yi-O inhabitants. Nowadays, the cooperative tried to revive this method, but were still experimenting with more efficient ways to yield more crops. Under the late afternoon sun, the golden rice paddies revealed a lovely rural dream. In the era of enormous concerns regarding food safety, the farming experiment of Yi-O might prove crucial for Hong Kong to reduce some degree of reliance on food imports.
Yi O lies in the embrace of lush-green mountains from both sides.
The golden rice paddies looked promising. Perhaps it was almost harvest time for these fields. Because of its small output, it isn’t easy to buy a bag of rice from Yi O. The farming cooperative has a small shop in Tai O to promote their products.
We found our way to the main path in the middle of Yi O, and continued to walk north towards Yi O Bay.
Winding through the village of Yi O, we could still encounter a number of abandoned homes and construction equipment.
The sun was low and so as the tide when we reached Yi O Bay. The tidal flat is the ideal place for mangrove trees to thrive.
As we left Yi O Bay and headed towards Tai O, a few dogs came the opposite direction towards Yi O. One by one the dogs walked across the mudflat and disappear into the village of Yi O.
The mudflat of Yi O Bay faces north towards Pearl River Estuary.
Reflection of the western sun and distant mountains and the incoming tidal water on the mudflat of Yi O Bay was quite picturesque.
The sun was fading fast behind the silhouette of mountains adjacent to Yi O.
The flag of Yi O flew high at a nearby concrete pier.
Despite the hazy weather, the sunset over Pearl River Estuary was quite spectacular.
About an hour after we left Yi O, we arrived at the small village of Fan Kwai Tong (番鬼塘), across the bay from Tai O.
We walked across the Tai O Promenade from Fan Kwai Tong (番鬼塘) to Tai O (大澳). The tide was coming in as the last twilight faded.
In early evening, the popular Tai O wasn’t as busy as we thought. Without the tourist groups, it was our first time to experience the charm of Tai O as a tranquil fishing village but not a busy tourist trap with vendors trying to sell you all kinds of souvenirs and snacks.
Without the tourists, we could leisurely admire the beauty of the fishing community. After a long day of hike, we decided to have dinner in Tai O before returning to the city centre.
As we entered Tai O, vendors selling dried seafood to tourists were about to close their stalls.
We soon reached the iconic suspended bridge of Tai O. The festive lights from the Chinese New Year were still up.
We crossed the suspended bridge to enter the main part of the fishing village.
Without the noise from tourists, Tai O was quite peaceful. Many inhabitants were preparing dinner in their stilt houses.
We passed by an interesting shrine dedicated to the deity of the local land.
Tai O Community Centre is the main venue for cultural activities at the fishing village.
We passed by a number of shrimp paste shops and manufacturers, an industry that Tai O has been famous for many generations. Many of the shops were already closed for the day.
After wandering through Tai O, we ended up at Tai O Heritage Hotel. The hotel was established in 2009, after extensive renovations were carried out for the historical police station built in 1902. We dined at the glass roofed restaurant Tai O Lookout in the hotel. The food was nothing spectacular but the historical setting of the complex and the airy atmosphere of the glassy building offered us a pleasant experience to finish the day.
After dinner, we strolled through the village once again heading for the bus station at the village entrance.
The tide was much higher than an hour or two ago, and so as the moon.
All the stores near the bus station were closed. We waited for about ten minutes before boarding a Lantau bus for Tung Chung at North Lantau, where we would switch to the MTR, Hong Kong’s super efficient metro system, to return home.
Remotely situated at the west side of Lautau Island, Tai O is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Hong Kong. Despite touristy, Tai O’s iconic stilt houses, shrimp paste factories, pristine wetlands, and its sense of rural community remind us of what Hong Kong used to look like a few centuries ago where the territory’s coastline was dotted with numerous fishing villages. Located at a coastal wetland where shrimps, mudskippers and mangrove forests once ruled, Tai O reveals a delicate balance among humans, coastal wildlife and the mangrove forests. Unfortunately, due to urban development, much of Hong Kong’s precious wetlands are either in danger or completely gone.
> Link to Tai O, Hong Kong Part 2