Hong Kong — Located just an hour away by ferry from Aberdeen Ferry Pier, Po Toi Island is the southernmost tip of Hong Kong with only about 10 permanent residents with limited access to electricity and water. Its scenic tracking trails, picturesque rock formations such as Coffin Rock and Buddha’s Hand, and fresh seafood are attracting hundreds of visitors on weekends. But unstable electricity and water supply along with sparse transportation options and lack of accommodation are likely to leave the island a tranquil fishing village.
Counterintuitively, that is not what the residents on Po Toi Island want. What some 10 residents of the island need more than tranquility is the necessities; 24/7 supply of water and electricity. The residents have been asking the government development on the island to improve the living condition on the island and attract more tourists.
In April, Our Hong Kong Foundation, the think tank led by the former Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, has published a proposal suggesting a large-scale reclamation plan involving the islands of Lamma, Cheung Chau and Po Toi.
The proposal served to provide consultation to the Hong Kong 2030 Plus plan, a guide on future land planning and infrastructure development in the city.
The report suggested that Po Toi Island could be used for the relocation of existing prisons and other government facilities, to ensure continuous and stable land supply, as well as to build up land reserves in the long run. It did not reveal which prison to be relocated and what government facilities would be built on the island.
Though it sounded like a plan to oppose for the general public, the villagers on the island were willing to keep open minds to the suggestion, hoping that the development of prisons and government infrastructure might connect them with 24-hour electricity and stable water supply.
The electricity supply on the island now runs from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., with a generator required manual petrol refuel. Residents depend mainly on a raw water supply system, with 127,000 litres of rainwater storage, but the capacity is different from season to season.
Dealing with heat in summers and water supply shortage in winters are part of their life on the island, the villagers said.
Po Toi Island was once home to more than two thousand fishermen in the 1950s, most of whom lived on the boat and made a living by fishing and selling seaweed. There were only two primary schools in Po Toi. Students did not go to school until they were 11. On an alienated island like this, where books and knowledge did not feed, families back then had more useful skills for their children to learn. Now, after half a century, one of the schools has collapsed, the other is standing but worn down by time; seaweed and salted fish still can be seen hanging in the front yards of the newly painted houses. But the number of residents has dwindled to around 10 as the younger generations have gradually moved out of the island for more opportunities and better living conditions.
“Young people are all gone. The only people staying are the old folks like me. I am almost the youngest among them,” said Kam Shu Law, 69, who spent his whole life on the island.
It was impossible for the government to make progress on the issues of electricity and water supply, Law said, as it was not worthwhile in their stance to do so for only 10 people.
The requests for 24-hour electricity and stable water supply have been raised for years by the villagers and finally made its appearance to the Legislative Council in 2015.
Former Legco member Tang Ka-piu raised the questions to the Department of Home Affairs but only got the response that “after taking into account of various factors the present method of using raw water was considered by the Development Bureau the most appropriate means of water supply.”
The department also said that it would keep an open mind on suggestions relating to the supply of electricity in remote areas. But it added that a series of assessments needed to be conducted before supplying electricity to the island. Not much progress has been made since then.
Put aside the electricity and water supply issues, the suggested reclamation plan did not bother Law because he believed he would not be around to witness the new changes, so as the other old folks on the island.
“It will eventually turn into a wasteland,” he mentioned it once again, turning his face aside and gazing into the sea.
Law Kam-shu (Shu Gor)
Law totally welcomes the government’s development plans. However, he is pessimistic towards seeing the change that the government plans to achieve on the island as it may take time.
“ I don’t have any problems with the government building a prison here, I don’t think that will have any influences on other residents, too. By the time it is built, I will be long dead already. Also, the prison is not going to be near to where we live, so really there is no effect on us.”
“Of course the government could have done so much more. It is really inconvenient when you have no electricity during lunchtime. We cannot even cool our coca cola.”
Law Kam Shu, 69, has lived on Po Toi Island almost all his life. When he was a kid, his family and he used to reside on a fishing boat. He has been working at Urban Council for more than 30 years in the city. Now that he is retired, he goes fishing every day. He would like to live and spend all his leisure time on Po Toi because he has been in love with the island since his childhood. Even though he also owns a place to live on Ap Lei Chau now, he chooses to stay.
People call Law “Shu gor” — which means “brother Shu” in Cantonese. The neighbours all share a very close relationship with him. When the reporter interviews other residents on the island, they always say Law should be the most suitable person to answer all the questions, as he knows Po Toi the best. Law is familiar with all the residents as well.
According to Law, more and more people are leaving the island. “The young villagers all want to get education outside of Po Toi, as they probably won’t want to become a fisherman/woman; and the older ones like to live outside with their children, too.” The present situation marks as a stark contrast with that in the past. As Law recalls, the island was once a lively place. When he was a child, there were more than 1,000 residents on Po Toi and almost everyone depended on fishing for a living.
Lau wants the government to build a smooth concrete road leading all the way from the pier to the village. Since for now, they have to walk through a section of rocky trail to get to the village. It was so hard for the elderly villagers to walk on the trail that they had no choice but left the island. If the “no-obstacle passage is built, the elderly can always come back to visit even on the wheelchairs.
She jokes about how “by the time this plea gets approved, I may be old enough to use the passage already.”
Apart from that, she supports the government to build a prison on Po Toi.
“Prison? I don’t mind at all. I feel like it is actually a good idea. The prisoners can’t really escape from the island. To the prisoners, the environment will be really nice to live in. To us, we don’t even have that many people living on the island, so there is not much of an effect. If the government really builds a prison here, I feel like it will bring some advantages to Po Toi Island.”
Lau now lives in Shau Kei Wan on Hong Kong Island.
The reason why she left Po Toi Island was because she had to make a living. She didn’t follow their footsteps and felt like she had to move out. All her close neighbours have also moved out of the island, except for “Su Gor”, he still lives there.
Lau desperately wants the government to develop the island. She, along with other Po Toi representatives, has been petitioning for many years. The three big water buckets by the beach were built upon their request. So when there is no rain, at least they can rely on those buckets of water. Electricity is only available at night on the island. According to Lau, there is only one to two homes that have air-conditioning at night during summer.
Similar to a lot of the villagers, Lau only comes back to the island on weekends to do some small businesses with the tourists. She is also aware that people are gradually moving out of the village.
“There is no kid anymore in this village!” she says. And when asked about whether or not she may take her own kids to visit the island, she smirks, “I’m very lucky that I don’t have any children.”
Leung is not very hopeful about any changes of electricity and water supply on the island anytime soon. Without interests from magnate developers, he believes the island will stay barren and the construction of a prison will take at least 30 years.
“Although the government plans to build a prison here, Po Toi is only the fifth on the list. When there is no electricity and water here, what can this island be? Ask the government.”
With a chirpy manner, Leung introduced his guesthouse, with a rare air-con, and a restaurant that cater to over 300 tourists at weekends. Charging HK$300 for a person for a night here, he and his wife also provide signature dishes on the island – rabbitfish porridge and seaweed.
The gregarious 71-year-old used to live on a boat near the island until some 30 years ago, he moved to the city with his offspring, but after retirement, he came back here. The grandfather is the fourth generation on the island, where the people lived on fishing. Now he stays at the city during weekdays and focuses on his business on the island at weekends.
“We [he and his wife] are old and it’s difficult for us to find a job. Why don’t we stay here when we have a place on the island? Our guesthouse only operates on Saturdays and Sundays,” he said.
He is also part of Lamma Island’s Sok Kwu Wan community and has four meetings a year with the district councillor Chow Yu-tong for reflecting on the shortage of electricity and water and looking for solutions.
The water supply on the island baffles Han, who finds the water unclean. She is neutral to the government’s development plan of the island but expressed concerns with the ecological system.
“People used to come here to watch birds but a lot less these days since the environment is worsening.”
Han came back to her root on the island and enjoys the retired lifestyle at the tranquil spot. Without a family, she goes fishing on weekdays with other residents for extra food and fun. At weekends, she makes trips to the city to purchase food and necessities.
“We sleep really early here – usually at 9pm and we don’t watch much TV,” said Han, beaming with pleasure.
At the paradise of digital detox, Han is fond of the spaciousness that is rarely seen in the densely populated city. She has little complaints about the lack of what Hong Kongers can’t live without – an air-con.
“We got used to summers without AC and the air is not as polluted as in the city so I find it good here. I have fewer colds here.”
From a prosperous little fishing village to the verge of turning into a wasteland, Po Toi is lagging behind due to the lack of basic infrastructure development. After years of petition, some residents still hold onto the hope that government development would make a difference. For that, they could even embrace the idea of having a prison built next to their homes. Yet some people, like one of the old folks Law, believed Po Toi would eventually come to its end.