Hong Kong’s skyrocketing home prices, crushing haste and notorious work-life imbalance have long shattered the hopes of many locals for a comfortable and serene retirement life in this city.
Taiwan and some other tranquil, exotic destinations have appeared on the radar for people who mull options for emigrating overseas. But, what if you don’t want to actually leave Hong Kong?
Liu Wai-fung has been savoring his idyllic life and chef-at-large career on an islet off Sai Kung pier for six years now. He and his wife, Carrie, are now the only two residents on the 0.24 square kilometer Yim Tin Tsai, where weeds used to run riot during the past twenty uninhabited years, after the last few Hakka indigenous people of the Chan clan moved out in the 1990s.
The couple spent years repairing cottages and farming from overgrown wasteland, and as a pastime, running a small restaurant that only caters to a small number of diners.
Yim Tin Tsai in Cantonese means hometown and salt pans, a name that harks back to the beginning of islet’s first settlement by villagers from the neighboring peninsula in the 18th century. It became a hive of fishing and salt production during its mid-19th century heyday when population swelled to over 1,200, which also led to the establishment of schools and churches.
This Hakka enclave used to be a key foothold for Roman Catholic missionaries that descended upon the territory at the time when the Hong Kong Island was just ceded to Britain. Soon all Yim Tin Tsai villagers were baptized and in 1879, a chapel was set up by Austrian priest Joseph Freinademetz.
Hong Kong’s sweeping urbanization and the demise of fishing and salt-making industries saw the slow death of the Yim Tin Tsai village, and the islet was left forgotten until Liu moved in.
Rejuvenating Yim Tin Tsai
Liu fell in love with Yim Tin Tsai the first time he set foot on it, while in a guided trip to the islet with a group of volunteers.
A spontaneous person unfettered by the norms of a materialistic society, Liu over the years experimented how far he could endure the stereotyped life as he changed his job from chef, mini bus driver to lifeguard. Still bored with the mediocrity, Liu started seeking a breakaway, a search on his motorcycle for an ideal place to start everything anew.
As Lamma Island and Cheung Chau have become too touristy and the rents unaffordable, and with the villages in Yuen Long and Sheung Shui lacking sea view, Liu and his wife finally landed on Yim Tin Tsai.
“I told myself, why not give it a whirl? There are hills and flatlands here, enough for us to lead a simple life.”
It took Liu some time to rent the teetering cottages there from the offspring of the Hakka islanders. Luckily, the relatives of the former village head were generous enough to let out the vacant bungalows, on a ten-year lease.
The next challenge was to repair these dilapidated houses. Liu sold his urban flat and spent a year and some HK$300,000 in making a home safe to live in, during which he became a self-taught carpenter and plasterer.
Financial constraint was just one reason Liu had to do everything on his own.
“No contractor would come over to this remote islet to repair all these houses, and even if there’s any, it would cost as much as some HK$900,000 for the work… So I had to do it myself, including ferrying all the tiles, planks and other materials from Sai Kung to the place,” said Liu, who redesigned the layout and added a staircase and another kitchen to the house.
Taste of the natural
So, how is his life on this outland of virtually nothing, on the verge of a metropolis known for all the modern day trappings?
“I’m kind of busy on Yim Tin Tsai, I go fishing and swimming and when the weather is fine I till the soil, I grow all sorts of vegetables… When you live in the city you can’t take a break from your job, mortgage and all the social ritual, but living here is way cheaper and relaxing. The biggest expense is actually the diesel for my boat.”
Liu’s wife Carrie, a pet lover, now looks after three dogs, two cats and a pair of parrots, in her 1,000-square-foot house plus a spacious, grass canopied garden, twice the size of their urban shoebox condo they used to live.
The couple jokes they’ve developed “demophobia”, having lived their pastoral life on Yim Tin Tsai for six years.
Liu is now running a restaurant that caters to hikers and photographers that flock to the islet amid the city’s staycation bandwagon, but each time the seasoned chef only receives six diners at most. “I don’t want too many customers, I don’t want to get busy.”
For those lucky outsiders who get a chance to relish Liu’s private dishes, the menu could include teppanyaki seafood of fish freshly caught in the nearby waters; and organic tomatoes, mushrooms, lettuce and many other field greens that Liu grows on his little farm not too far away from the table.
Yim Tin Tsai and its delights, as well as Liu’s dishes, are just a five-minute ferry ride from the Sai Kung public pier.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on August 4
Translation by Frank Chen with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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