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  • Writer's pictureAnji Connell

Feast For The Senses: A Magical, Sleepy Island Comes To Life

Yim Tin Tsai, meaning "Little Salt Pan," is a tiny island off Sai Kung town that offers a rare peek into the past.

Affectionately nicknamed "Ghost Island" due to the abandoned village houses and community buildings left to decay after the Hakka villagers moved off the island to seek better education and opportunities.

The Chan clan migrated from Guandong, China three hundred years ago and settled on the empty island, building salt pans to earn a living. Due to competition from Vietnam and China, the salt pans closed down. Most of the villages turned to farming, fishing, and husbandry, however by the 1960s, few villagers remained. They left to access education in Kowloon and the UK. By the 1990s, the island was empty, and their homes left to deteriorate.

Thanks to Colin Chan, a one-time resident, who revisited the island after 40 years away, the island is flourishing once more. Chan was upset to see the island in decay and made it his mission to restore it to its former glory. He gathered 10 former villagers, who together raised money to revitalise the island.

Good fortune came in 2003 when the Catholic Church canonised Josef Freinademetz, the influential missionary who lived among the villagers in the 1800s and built St. Joseph church, in the Romanesque Revival style. Immediately, Catholics from all over the world earmarked the little island for pilgrimages. In 2004, a charitable foundation donated funds through the Catholic Church for its renovation. The church is simple and elegant with little ornamentation. A few rows of wooden pews face a red-and-gold altar lit by wonderful stained-glass windows. A round stained-glass window high in the front wall made in Beijing by Artist Cheung Kay-hoi, represents how Jesus can be friends with both believers and non-believers. In 2005, UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Culture Heritage Conservation honoured the chapel with a merit award. Villagers still return to Yim Tin Tsai every May to celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph.

Next came a regular ferry schedule, a visitor center, a heritage trail, and renovation of some of the Hakka ancestral homes. A museum was created in the former school to host an exhibition of paraphernalia from the past and a gift shop, an organic farm, a hilltop pavilion with panoramic ocean views, and working salt pans. In 2015, they earned a UNESCO distinction for the conservation. The salt pans are not large enough to be a commercial operation; however, they tell the village's history and show how they lived.

Walking through the village and the lush greenery of the island, with its traditional Hakka-style rooftops peeking through the overgrowth experiencing the quietness and tranquility, gives you a sense of the old community. The fact that some of the village houses are still run-down and covered in vines adds to its charms. Years of exposure to Hong Kong's hot, rainy weather have left them in disrepair. Hopefully, though, they too will be lovingly restored. New stained-glass windows have been added to the ruins, depicting old village scenes that artfully unite the past with the present. A beautiful stop gap until full restoration is made.

It's a place to reconnect with the past and with nature. The island is popular for kayaking, fishing, and hiking. You can hike through its lush green landscape and wander through the mangroves that cover the coastline, visit the salt pans on the small sandy shore. Or just chill in one of the many quiet spots around the island. The 1.2-kilometer "Path of Reconciliation" takes you to nine locations on the island, Water for Life, a bamboo grove, the village graveyard, the Pavilion, and the salt fields.

A footpath by the salt pans leads southwards past an inlet through mangroves, to Jade Bridge, a causeway across the water connecting Yim Tin Tsai to Kau Sai Chau, also known as Sharp Island because of its angular shape, its larger neighbour. Kau Sai Chau is best known for its popular public golf course. This is also an excellent place to spot white-bellied sea eagles, which sometimes breed nearby.

You can see the beautifully manicured fairways amid the scrubland and woodland from the Pavilion.

A popular cafe not far from the pier serves drinks and locally made fish balls, noodles, and frozen fruit on sticks. Nearby you'll find the wood fire Roasted Chicken Restaurant with a covered outdoor terrace overlooking the salt pans and organic farm. Look out for the sculpture of an Angel with a trumpet. And amazingly, an ex Robuchon Chef at The Pier Cafe de Yim Tin by the visitor center serves a simple lunch and a special set Omakase dinner in the evenings. They have seats inside and a lovely terrace overlooking the ocean and the mountains, booking is essential. The local dessert made with Chinese fever-vine herb from the village store is worth a try. Skunk vine or Chinese fever vine (paederia foetida) is a smelly herb, the leaves are boiled to make the delicious Hakka black kuih. It's rich in Vitamin C and carotene, luckily the foul smell goes once it boils.

In its heyday, the island had more than 2,000 villagers, all descendants of the Chans. So far, only two people have become new residents. Others arrive during weekends and public holidays to operate the small restaurants and volunteer as visitor guides.

Yim Tin Tsai has, without a doubt, taken on a second life. The sleepy island has been transformed into an open-air museum through the Yim Tin Tsai Arts Festival. Last November saw the inaugural event, the first in a three-year pilot scheme integrating arts, religion, culture, heritage, and nature throughout the island. Consecutive themes are Sky, Earth, and Man. Sadly, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 Art Festival is on hold. But that means we still have it to look forward to.

The passionate villagers worked with the artist's co-creating the artworks, the curatorial concept "Relishing Arts in Nature." The art installations are left scattered over the island. Artist Ricci Wong's Flowing Wave, Walking Cloud sits near the pier and was made from 3 trees blown down in Typhoon Manghut. It is a functional sculpture shaped in the form of clouds and mountains and part of the island.

Artist Homan Ho's Sanctuary of Salt is made from salt crystals. Alvin Kung's Wall of Sanctification was inspired by the ruin of the former St. Josephs Chapel. He wanted to make a bench for visitors to sit and appreciate the unique atmosphere there. The bench is made in reflective stainless steel.

Humphrey Wong's Refraction. Reflection represents the sky and all the elements in nature, plant, life, and colour; the second element is salt, the crystal of salt, and its geometric patterns. The third element is the people, the villagers, their memory, and the words left to say.

Surrounded by ocean and mountain views, with the humble, photogenic cream coloured Italian Romanesque-style chapel as its crown, the island offers a unique side of Hong Kong's history and culture that shouldn't be forgotten, its a delightful place to visit, that has been lovingly and lovingly restored.

To get to the island, take a Kaito ferry from Sai Kung pier; they only running on weekends and holidays. You can hire a boat from one of the boat hire companies lining Sai Kung waterfront during the week. It's a short 15-minute ride, and 50 dollars return trip.


This article first appeared online, on Home Journal's website, on September 18, 2020.

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