Hong Kong: Where worlds collide
Retreat to the island
Kat O covers an area of just 2.3 sq km and was named Crooked Island by the British because of its twisting coastline. It once had a population of several hundred; now there are about 50 people living here. The young have gone to Hong Kong or to the cities of Britain. What remains is a small society of Hakka and Tanka fishing clans, eking a living along the coves and inlets, their villages dotted with abandoned houses into the recesses of which the jungle steadily creeps. The village stretches out along either side of a short pier. At the head of the pier is a shop cum restaurant belonging to Wing Gei and his wife Aida. A sign tells visitors that if the owners are away they can take a drink and leave the money.
Gei is drinking tea with a friend when Hung and I approach. He smiles, jumps to his feet and offers us seats. Cups of steaming tea appear. Gei has lived here for most of his life, apart from a brief period trying to do business in Hong Kong. "I am a quiet man," he explains. "I am not aggressive and I am trusting. It's very aggressive out there, you know." He waves a hand towards the coast. Gei tried a few different businesses but could not make them work, so he came home to the island. "I like it here because it is quiet. I don't even lock my door at night. I know everybody. Can you understand that living in a place becomes part of your nature?"
I nod. At that moment the village policeman appears. He smiles and goes off in the direction of some boats. "What does he do?" I ask. There is no crime on the island, Gei explains. I wonder if his presence is intended to deter the people-smugglers across the border in China. So called "snakehead" gangs have been responsible for smuggling thousands of illegal migrants out of China into Hong Kong every year. Mr Gei's friend chips in, "In the old days, lots of people used to try to get to Hong Kong from China by swimming across here. Not all of them made it of course: we used to see the bodies. But if they did make it across, the families here used to feed and help them."
Further along we meet an old couple who are roasting cashew nuts in an outdoor oven. The man's name is Woo Tan and he is 73 years old. He sells me a bag of nuts for a pittance and refuses to accept a tip. Woo has one of those marvellously austere Chinese faces, a countenance forged by hard work and pride. Do I know that the Hakka people have been on this island for more than 300 years, he asks. His people can trace their presence here back to the Qing dynasty. The Hakka are renowned for their resolute determination to preserve their traditions and their ability to survive in the least promising of environments. Migrating from the north to the coastal regions of South China, they established a thriving fishing and farming culture.
We say goodbye to the old man and climb to the top of the island where we watch black kites circling while a solitary fisherman steers his boat into the shallows. Across the water in China, a container port looms in the heat haze. An old woman with a huge and fierce-looking dog passes by. 'Don't worry,' she says, "the dogs here don't bite."