Old market finds

Updated: 2014-03-23 08:09

By Rebecca Lo (China Daily)

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 Old market finds

Yuen Kwan Yi Tai Temple is a Grade 1 historical building dating back to 1714 and the neighborhood's ancestral hall. Rebecca Lo / For China Daily

Despite its moniker as a new town, Yuen Long boasts some of HongKong's oldest buildings. Rebecca Lo strolls down memory lane.

Dwarfed by such high-rises as Yoho Midtown and Sun Yuen Long Centre, Yuen Long Old Market is a mere blip in the sprawl of the rapidly developing New Territories town. Yet it is along this neighborhood of gray brick two- and three-story buildings that Hong Kong's past glory can be gleaned.

The best examples of 18th- and 19-th century and Chinese architecture can be found along Cheung Shing Street, an artery that separated Nam Pin Wai and Sai Pin Wai. Both of the two villages were established by the Tang clan, indigenous residents of nearby Kam Tin who eventually spread their territory into Yuen Long.

Our tour of the area was led by Paul Chan, one of the founders of Walk in historic and cultural walking tours. Chan admits that he finds the neighborhood fascinating because it contains some of Hong Kong's oldest buildings, including the oldest pawn shop in Yuen Long and the oldest hotel in the city.

"Yuen Long Old Market was originally near the sea - well, it was more like a swamp," Chan says. "The area was mostly inhabited by the Tangs. Here, you can find Hong Kong's highest concentration of historical buildings."

Chinese villages radiate outward from two components of daily life: the temple and the market. In this sense, they are not much different than villages found all over the world. The temporary market, now long gone, was first set up in 1770 and every third day was a designated market day drawing shoppers as far as from villages along the coast of Guangdong province.

Cheung Shing Street is somewhat bookended by two temples. Tai Wong Temple, a Grade 1 historical building according to Hong Kong's Antiquities and Monuments Office, dates to 1662. The gods Hung Shing and Yeung Hau are still worshipped there, and the temple also acted as a place where village disputes were settled.

"The temple is usually the heart of the village," says Chan.

He points to the inscription on an ancient cast iron bell inside the temple that dates back to the 17th century, as well as the fine detail depicting a goddess on a door panel.

"If you see a pawn shop, it meant that the village was wealthy enough to support a bank," Chan notes, as we continue the walk. "Chun Yuen Ngat opened for business in 1899 and is the oldest pawn shop in Yuen Long, though it has been closed for years now."

As he was speaking, a resident of the area passing by our group weighed in. "I've been inside the pawn shop - it's closed, but the interiors are the same. I even took some pictures." She proceeded to show us the dark wood interiors of the pawn shop on her smart-phone, and we thanked her for her insider information.

"Banks were originally only used by the British in Hong Kong," Chan continues. "Chinese people didn't trust them at first. Many pawn shops were built to be three or four stories high, to stack the blankets that people left as collateral."

He pointed to an iron sign suspended from a horizontal post on the top right of the main door. "It's an inverted bat. In Cantonese, bat sounds like the word fook, or fortune. That'show anyone can tell that this is a pawn shop, even if you can't read the characters."

We then proceed to another gray brick building with tiny windows on the upper level.

Old market finds

"Tung Yick Store was a small inn where traders used to spend the night. The small barred windows are for security." Although the inn cannot be dated exactly, it most likely existed at around the same time as the pawn shop, easily making it the oldest hotel in the city.

After passing many more locked-up relics from the past, including a building that formerly stored rice and numerous abandoned and dilapidated residences, we conclude our tour at Yuen Kwan Yi Tai Temple, another Grade 1 historical building dating back to 1714 and the neighborhood's ancestral hall.

"Notice the vertical plaque above the entry," says Chan. "It means that this temple was blessed by the emperor about 200 years ago."

Against the Chung Sing School in the background, the temple appears tiny and vulnerable. It is reassuring to know that the Tang clan, still a vital force in Yuen Long through the indigenous villagers association Heung Yee Kuk, will ensure that temples like Yi Shing stick around for future generations to worship within them.

Contact the writer at sundayed@chinadaily.com.cn.

(China Daily 03/23/2014 page9)