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Strolling down the streets of Tai Hang in the company of Fai Gor (Cantonese for Brother Fai) is a leisurely yet busy business. When I went to see him on a recent weekday afternoon, our walk and conversation paused many times as locals in the neighbourhood came up to greet the 65-year-old community leader one by one. In one street corner, Fai Gor stopped for more than a few moments to catch up with his friends. At the next, he introduced me to a set of interesting local characters, like a car repair shop owner who gave a long-time employee more than HK$100,000 to start a business because his was about to close down to make way for urban redevelopment. Before I realised, he'd taken me down some hidden (memory) lanes where he'd wax lyrical about stories of old Tai Hang.

Fai Gor remembers everyone, whether they are local residents, shop owners, or workers. In return, they respect him, and many turn to him when disputes arise between individuals. Even the police ask him to help mediate neighbourhood arguments that require official attention.

Chan Tak-fai is a Tai Hang native. The community leader earned the residents' respect through his service to the community, and the most important contribution he makes is as the Commander-in-Chief of the famous Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance at Mid-Autumn Festival, a role he's performed for nearly 40 years. The locals always receive me gladly when they find out I've come to them on Fai Gor's advice. If this intimate community relationship sounds unusual for a neighbourhood that is now best known for its mix of trendy cafes, popular Japanese restaurants and down-to-earth eateries serving authentic Hong Kong fare just behind Causeway Bay, it is because Tai Hang, formerly known as Tai Hang Village, has a long history.

Tai Hang was named after two big water channels that used to run through the village to Victoria Harbour in the old days. Bounded by Tung Lo Wan Road to the north and Tai Hang Road to the south, the village had lied on the seafront for generations until reclamation in the 1950s for the development of Victoria Park pushed it off the shore. A neglected community in the 19th century, there is hardly any written historical record on this multi-clan Hakka village, not even a genealogy record, according to Baptist University history professor Chung Po-yin.

Fai Gor said when he was a kid, the male villagers relied on quarry work to earn a living, while the female villagers did laundry work. It is why Tai Hang's main street is called Wun Sha (washing clothes) Street. But not even Fai Gor or his long-time friends who have similarly spent their entire lives in Tai Hang were able to tell when their ancestors first settled in the valley.

With the kind assistance of local historian Tim Ko, I managed to find a note in the 1970 Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Branch which sheds light on the origins of this Hakka village. According to James Hayes, the scholar and former colonial official who authored the note, Tai Hang Village was one of the oldest villages on Hong Kong Island. He believes the earliest settlers probably arrived in the area at around the same time as the British takeover of Hong Kong in 1841. The main families were Wong, Cheung, Lee, Chu and Ip. The villagers farmed, fished and kept some of Hong Kong's earliest dairy farms.

Fai Gor joined the Fire Dragon team when he was only six, as one of the boys hoisting the cloud lanterns to light up the sky for the dancing dragon. At the age of 12, he became a dragon dancer. "We are Tai Hang boys. Being a dragon dancer was the most natural thing for each and every one of us. It wasn't about glory. We didn't even think about terms like glory or vanity. It was face-losing if you're not participating."

He has no idea if Tai Hang's extraordinary football history had something to do with this natural progression into the ranks of the Fire Dragon Dance for the local boys. For unknown reasons, this Hakka village was once home to many of the country's football stars in the 1930s and 40s. Nine of the 11 footballers representing China at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, including the team's captain, were Tai Hang villagers. In other words, the Tai Hang football team was effectively the team for the whole nation.

Since he assumed the most important position in the annual Fire Dragon Dance in the 1970s, Fai Gor has relaxed some old rules and introduced new elements to keep the century-old tradition in line with the expectations of contemporary society. For instance, all elders of the community go to pray at Lin Fa Kung before the start of the Fire Dragon Dance and the ceremony was, for more than a century, a men-and-Hakka-language-only event. Fai Gor found these two rules impracticable so he abolished them to allow women in the ceremony, which now also benefits from Cantonese interpretation.

But the community leader has no plan to relax the rule that prohibits women from becoming dragon dancers, and he doesn't explain why he still wants to keep this outdated rule. The Fire Dragon procession started in the 1880s and is today a key part of the city's Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations. In 2011, it joined China's third national intangible cultural heritage list. However, the longevity of the annual ritual, which seeks blessings for the villagers' health, is regularly tested. Under Fai Gor's leadership, the tradition has sailed through several crises, such as when he lost key team members – and perhaps more critically, the yearly donations that are required to keep the luminous dragon alive.

One consequence of Tai Hang's redevelopment is that it's now much harder to maintain local contributions to the Fire Dragon cause. As a traditional festival, the Fire Dragon Dance used to run year after year thanks to donations from residents and merchants in the Tai Hang community. Redevelopment means that many of the old six-storey walk-up buildings have given way to gated residential blocks. "In the past, we went straight to people's homes, knocked on their doors and told them that it's time to donate to the Fire Dragon. Now many of the new buildings don't give us access, though some are kind enough to let us leave a donation box in their lobby,"Fai Gor said. In recent years, the Fire Dragon Dance was able to continue only with the help of donations from the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

The area's redevelopment has also brought up the question of who now qualifies as a dragon dancer. The background of dragon dancers has changed over the years. When Fai Gor was young and Tai Hang was still a sleepy village, only native villagers were allowed to ‘dance' the Fire Dragon. Gradually, the rule was relaxed to include all Tai Hang residents as outsiders moved in. This change came in the 1960s when traditional one-storey village houses were pulled down and replaced with six-storey tenement buildings. (Developers would combine the land previously occupied by three village houses for every one of these new blocks.) This was how Fai Gor left his parents' village house and moved into an apartment.

In recent years, the once-quiet grid of streets enclosed by Tong Lo Wan Road and Lai Tak Estate (the former Tai Hang village included the area where Lai Tak Estate stands today) has undergone another round of urban redevelopment. Dragon dancers now live in different parts of Hong Kong, from Tin Shui Wai to Tsueng Kwan O, and from North Point to Shatin.

Most of them are former Tai Hang residents who have moved to other parts of Hong Kong because their old homes had to make way for redevelopment. Even Fai Gor's younger brothers are no longer living in Tai Hang. Lee Hok, an elderly man I met at last year's festival, said, "Fire Dragon is our annual reunion. Most of us have moved out, we come back once a year to catch up with former neighbours and old friends." Of all the dancers I spoke to at the festival, Fai Gor is the only person who still lives in Tai Hang.

This commander-in-chief has no idea how long he can stay in Tai Hang. "How could I know? I don't know when my home will be redeveloped. When they come, there is nothing I can do. This government is very annoying, you know, it lowered by threshold on compulsory sale, leaving us without protection. When it comes, I hope I can find an apartment in Tai Hang. I am so used to living here, with my friends and old neighbors around, everyday is full of fun. If I move to elsewhere, I don't know how I am going to spend my time. By the way, other places are not like here, we know everyone in Tai Hang, and it is very safe living here."

The lower threshold on compulsory sale that Fai Gor refers to is a 2010 law amendment by the Development Bureau to facilitate private redevelopment. The highly controversial amendment allows anyone who owns 80 percent of the property rights of any building aged 50 years or above to put the entire block to auction.

As a trusted community leader who most Tai Hang residents and merchants turn to when local disputes arise, Fai Gor knows the compensation each family receives from real estate developers who have bought out their homes. He knows very well the average compensation is not going to buy him another apartment in Tai Hang. "This apartment," Fai Gor pointed his finger at the window of a second-floor unit as he spoke, "received four million but that building," he continued, jabbing his finger in the direction of a construction site, "costs more than HK$20,000 for one square feet."

It is likely the Fire Dragon will lose its magic if there is no fire. The trick to a bright and lasting fire lies in the quality of the incenses and the grass used to ‘dance' the dragon. "The grass needs to be very strong so it won't break up easily as we are dancing. The grass also has to be fire-proof, or it will be very dangerous," Fai Gor said. The kind of grass the Fire Dragon has been using since 1880 is called pearl grass. In the old days, the grass used to grow everywhere in Tai Hang and it could also be found in the New Territories. As the century wore on, Tai Hang urbanized, and new towns were built in the New Territories, so it's perhaps no surprise that Fai Gor and his team mates have actually been sourcing pearl grass from Dongguang from as early as the 1980s. Now that Dongguang is the world's factory, they have to go to more remote parts of the Pearl River Delta to find pearl grass.

The 65-year-old has been dutifully holding the Fire Dragon's baton for more than 40 years, and naturally, he has been thinking about who can assume his mantle. "The person has to be young, knows Fire Dragon inside-out, he needs to command the respect of the community, he has to be a Hakka and speaks the Hakka language, it will be great if he lives in Tai Hang."


Fai Gor's Q&A

Q: What do you like the most about Hong Kong?
A: Our annual Fire Dragon. We are more excited celebrating the Fire Dragon than Lunar New Year. We are happy that we can preserve our tradition.

Q: What do you dislike the most about Hong Kong?
A: The new culture of outsourcing public services. This is very bad for people's welfare. Outsourcing cuts salaries and affects the services we receive. A few years after the handover, the government rolled out voluntary redundancies in the civil service and began outsourcing the provision of public services. It also shut down schools. They asked doctors to leave voluntarily by paying them a year's salary, and they say we don't have enough doctors and we have to hire from overseas. We're promised our way of life would remain the same for 50 years. But everything changed five years after the handover.

Q: What does Hong Kong have to do to be sustainable?
A: Build more hospitals and schools for the people, and improve welfare for the elderly.

No one can miss Natural Chu. Young, slim and tanned, she's the lone female drummer in a powerful spectacle dominated by men. As soon as the confident 28-year-old picked up the sticks to rhythmically strike the oversized drums in front of her, the crowd instantaneously turned their heads. This was also how she caught my attention.

Natural works in the movie business. She used to be a stuntwoman and is now involved in film productions. She recently took part in Keanu Reeves' directorial debut, Tai Chi Man. Away from the big screen, Natural is one of the 10 leaders of the large music team that provides the thunderous drum beats for the famous Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance at Mid-Autumn Festival. She is the first woman to rise to a music team leadership position in the 133-year history of the Fire Dragon Dance. She is also the highest-ranking female member of the entire squad given the fact that only men can dance the dragon.

"Fai Gor promoted me to the role," Natural said. The promotion came in 2007, after she had already spent more than 10 years with the squad. Having grown up together in Tai Hang, she and her fellow male dragon dancers form a close-knit band. They know each other's names despite the huge size of the squad, while in the wider Tai Hang community, Natural is simply known as the ‘Woman Drummer'.

But it turns out that Natural is not just a female drummer: she thinks that possibly, she is also the first woman to have ever danced the Fire Dragon. She made this revelation as I asked her to share her experiences on this century-old ritual, a much-loved tradition that still maintains its discriminatory practices.

"Fai Gor knows (that she's quietly danced the dragon), and quite a number of people know it too. I respect the rule (the rule against women dancing the dragon); I have no intention to challenge it. But I am also a member, I want to be involved more deeply. However, being a woman means I'm not supposed to do so. Therefore I only did it in the alleys, when most people wouldn't notice. I don't want Fai Gor to shout my name into the microphone and order me to leave the dragon. As long as I'm not doing this in front of him, he'll continue to pretend he's not aware of it. I only danced the dragon heart (body) because I was very confident that I had sufficient strength to carry it through. I haven't tried the tail and the head. I will only do it when I am very confident with my ability. I don't want to cause trouble (to the dragon)," she said.

No one has ever formally told Natural that women cannot be dragon dancers; it is something she became aware of gradually after spending a number of years with the squad. "I have no idea how I found out this rule. I know it, somehow. No one has to say it explicitly. All they have to do is to suggest you join what they say is the right team for you. Think about it, Fai Gor wouldn't suggest a team that I'm not supposed to join," she said.

Today, the female drummer lives in Prince Edward. However, her film production commitments regularly take her to other Asian cities. She once lived in the Philippines for nearly two years because of work. But no matter which part of the world she lives and works, she returns to Tai Hang every year for the Fire Dragon Dance. She says there is a magnet inside the dragon that pulls her back year after year. "As a Tai Hang boy, I think it is in our blood," Natural said. She also contributes her devotion to the intimate inter-personal relationships that that she finds in Tai Hang.

She recounted that she was carrying a bad flu during one of the many Fire Dragon Dances she's performed in. Luckily, the owner of one of the food stalls along the parade route offered to make her a hot Coca Cola drink with lemon and ginger after he saw her poorly state. She said there was never a moment of loneliness in Tai Hang. "Even when I had to eat my dinner alone, I wouldn't be lonely because somehow, someone in the cha chaan teng would come to chit chat with me," she said.

Natural explained that she's simply got used to calling herself a "Tai Hang boy". "I think whether it is Tai Hang boy, or Tai Hang girl, the meaning is the same. It is about being a member of the Tai Hang community."

Although Natural no longer lives in Tai Hang, she still identifies with this quiet area round the back of Causeway Bay. "I am from Tai Hang, or a Tai Hang boy, this has been my self-introduction for a long time. I think we tend to identity with the place and culture that we grew up with, not the place where we are currently living. It is why there are many people in Hong Kong who like to identify themselves with the public housing estate where they used to live. I think it is why when it comes to self-introductions, we say we are from Hong Kong, or we are Hong Kong Chinese. We don't tell others we are from China," she said.

Natural hopes she can be a team leader of the dragon head section. She is confident that she can lift up the creature's head. "I am a team member, I want to contribute as much as I can. Though I'm confident that I can dance the dragon, since I am a girl, I don't have the opportunity to do so. Sometimes I think about what role I can play in the dragon squad when I am no longer able to play the drum. Or maybe I will lead the lantern team, since I don't believe the rule that bans woman from dancing the dragon will be relaxed in my generation," she said.


Natural's Q&A

Q: What do you like the most about Hong Kong?
A: Food diversity. We can have any food we want to eat. I also like our excellent public transport network, it allows us to get to every single part of the city very easily.

Q: What do you dislike the most about Hong Kong?
A: Too many mainland tourists. This is not discrimination. I don't dislike every one of them. But we have to face the fact that quite a number of them are rude and lack discipline in public spaces. Our culture is so different. Many of them also come here to shop groceries to resell back across the border, that's why Hong Kong is running out of Yakult and baby milk powder. Hong Kong is very small while there are 1.3 billion people on the mainland, even 10 per cent of them can sink this city.

Q: What does Hong Kong have to do to be sustainable?
A: Hong Kong has to maintain its unique character. We are a free city. Though we are not as polite and clean as the Japanese and Singaporeans, Hong Kong people, in general, are polite and clean. We are tolerant, and we pick up new ideas quickly. Local people are helpful because there is trust in our society, so we wouldn't get a tragedy like what happened in Foshan with the little girl who got run over twice yet not a single passer-by stopped to help her. We have to keep all these good qualities. We can't become a mainland city. They should learn and respect our culture. I am not sure how feasible it is that they learn our culture, or that we have the right to issue travel visas to mainland visitors.

I am certain quiet a number of you will have heard of the story about Tammy and her family even if you've never met them. Their story made newspaper headlines several months ago. Tammy's family faced intimidation after they ignored pressure to sell their home for redevelopment. The intimidation came in the form of a six by five feet, black-and-white banner of a ghostly-looking male face. Draped over the external wall of the tenement building that stands next to Tammy's family home, the frightening image stared into the window of the living room that has been the centrepoint of Tammy's family life for generations. Her family lived under the shadow of the ghastly threat for a week before the public learnt about what happened.

Tammy Yeung Wing-man is a Tai Hang resident. She's also a long-standing member of the Fire Dragon lantern team. Some of her relatives are in the Fire Dragon Dance squad as well. For instance, her cousin is a member of the prestigious dragon head team. Tammy and I met at last year's Fire Dragon spectacle. She happened to be standing next to me as I was talking to the Urban Diary photographer, Pak Chai, about where we could capture the best images of the dragon dance. Tammy didn't hesitate to give us some very useful tips, and the friendship that ensues between us has given me an insight into the fast-changing face of Tai Hang.

Like all the Tai Hang residents we've met, Tammy, a marketing executive, is exceedingly proud of the long tradition of the Fire Dragon dance – it dates back to 1880 – and she's always ready to explain the finer details of the ritual to anyone. Like many of her neighbours, she became a member of the Fire Dragon Dance squad when she was only a kid. Later on, she went to Canada for high school and university, but she'd travel back to Hong Kong every year. However, the Fire Dragon Dance of today isn't the same as how she remembers it to be when she's small.

"I like the old days more," Tammy said, "there weren't any police officers getting into the way of the crowd, there were no volunteers helping the police control the crowd, no barriers separating the crowd from the dragon. It was a lot more carefree in the old days. No barriers, no police taking excessive safety precautions, no killjoys. Shouldn't that be how we celebrate a festival?"

And when I told her I'd earlier spoken to Natural about the gender bias that comes with the 19th century tradition, she said the crowd control measures of recent years were also to blame for depriving female members of the Fire Dragon Dance squad the chance to dance the dragon.

"I've danced the dragon, that was many years ago. I didn't have the strength to hold the dragon and I needed help from my cousins and friends. But they used to be more relaxed about female members dancing the dragon. In the past, there weren't police and volunteers getting into the way of the parade, so moving around was a lot easier," she said.

The three properties that have come up against the less savoury side of urban redevelopment belong to Tammy's family, her maternal grandmother and her maternal aunt's family, or 16 people in all. They occupy the entire top floor of a six-storey tenement building. Tammy moved to nearby Tin Hau recently but she regularly goes back to her family home to see everyone.

"Although some tenants in our building have sold their properties, the shop owner on the ground floor and our family have no plans to sell. We own three properties, and as long as we hold out, no redevelopment can take place," Tammy said.

The redevelopment of old buildings has become easier after the amended Land (Compulsory Sale for Redevelopment) Ordinance came into effect in April 2010. Under the ordinance, anyone who's acquired an 80% ownership of any building aged 50 years or above can apply to the Lands Tribunal to have it compulsorily sold for redevelopment.

"It happened one afternoon, grandma saw this ghastly banner hanging outside, so she called to tell us what happened. It was disturbing, we had to look away every time we passed the window. Grandma is old-fashioned, she wants the living room to be fully sun-lit, so there are no curtains over the windows," she said.

Tammy believes the incident is related attempts to buy out her building for redevelopment. "The rooftop from where they hung that banner used to belong to a family whom we've known for years. The two families were living side by side for decades, we know each other. We used to chat to each other from our own rooftops. They've sold their property and moved out already. If it wasn't related to the redevelopment attempt, does it mean the family whom we've known for years came back with the right key to unlock the gate to the rooftop that no longer belongs to them, and unfurled that horror to scare us?"

Although several police officers visited their home to investigate the incident, to date, no arrest has been made and no one has given Tammy's family any update on the investigation. The silence on the case makes no sense to Tammy. "I am rather certain the police should have no difficulties finding the culprit. It was a huge banner and an easily recognisable image. I am sure the person who did it had to go to some special shop to print the banner," she said.

The family used to receive phone calls from a developer that specializes in buying out old buildings for redevelopment, at least once a week, asking them to sell their properties. It has stopped contacting them since the incident. "The phone calls were very short. They asked us to let them know under what conditions we would sell. Even though we ignored them, the phone calls made us constantly aware that someone's out there wanting to buy our home for redevelopment, and that forces us to think about what to do. You know, I still have no idea how they got our number," she said.

Tammy's father has several properties near Tai Hang because her family wants to ensure wherever it moves, everyone will still be close to grandma. For Tammy's family, keeping the Tai Hang home is to ensure grandma can continue to live in the apartment and the neighbourhood that she's most familiar with. It's also a way to keep everyone in the extended family close: every Saturday, they meet in their Tai Hang home for a family feast.

Although Tammy's family isn't prepared to sell their properties, Tammy believes they will give in eventually. This is because as one family moves out after another, the tenement building has lost the communal vitality of old. She misses the good old days when the building was full of people that she could hear people chatter and laugh as she walked up the staircases to reach her top-floor home.

She also has fond memories of adults watching television in the rooftop dining room every evening, and of kids playing table tennis and football in the living room. They lost the rooftop dining room several years ago because it was an illegal structure and the family was ordered to have it demolished.

Tammy's grandfather used scrap wood to build a table tennis table for the kids. Although the demolition of the illegal structure meant that the family has lost a significant chunk of space, their home is still big enough to hold the table tennis table. They want to keep the table and pass it on to the next generation. But if they can't keep their home, Tammy sees little chance of keeping the table.


Tammy's Q&A

Q: What do you like the most about Hong Kong?
A: Food, we have excellent food in Hong Kong, especially lobster basked with cheese. I studied in Canada, where there's always an abundant supply of fresh lobster. But no matter how the lobster is served, cold in the Western style, or baked with cheese as the Chinese restaurants would do it, it's just not as tasty as what I can get in Hong Kong.

Q: What do you dislike the most about Hong Kong?
A: Air pollution. I developed skin allergy because of air pollution.

Q: What does Hong Kong need to do for it to be a sustainable city?
A: I am uncertain whether redevelopment is giving us genuine benefits. The government said Hong Kong needs land to build more houses, maybe redevelopment is a way to achieve this goal. But it's certainly very bad for the elderly – that's my first person experience. I am telling you from my grandmas' experiences. My paternal grandma's health deteriorated rapidly after she moved out of her old home after it's sold for redevelopment. She used to live in a tenement building and she had to climb all those staircases but that actually kept her in good shape. Now she has to walk with a stick. My maternal grandma is older but since she has to walk up and down flights of stairs everyday, her health is very good. She walks fast, climbs the stairs without any difficulty and she has no problems with her heart and blood pressure. I think we have to keep the well-being of our elderly in mind if a city is to be sustainable.