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The People Preserving a Pocket of Environmental and Historic Value in Hong Kong

A collaboration between Link TV and TAL, "Big Cities" showcases community-driven solutions for global urban challenges. Watch this and many other stories in our full episodes on "Big Cities,"  exclusively on Link TV.

Hong Kong has earned a reputation for urban grit, but there’s another side to the city-state that gets less attention. Residential land makes up only 7 percent of Hong Kong’s territories, with expansive “country park” preserves comprising an additional 40 percent. This is a wild, tropical, lush world of snaking vines, shady trees, and thickly carpeted forest floors. One of the world’s most densely populated cities has an underappreciated jungle neighbor.

Take Chi Fu  Valley, in Hong Kong island’s southern reaches. There, impossibly tall elephant grass grows over hikers’ heads, poking through the remains of old silos. Lightly trod paths meander under enormous banyan trees that shade crumbling farm buildings — the ruins of one of the world’s first industrial dairy farms. Trickling streams crisscross the ground, providing a home to endangered animals with names like the “short-legged horned toad.” At least 48 tree species grow on their banks.

“What I love most about this place is that a five minute walk up the hill will take you into the wild,” says Steve Sau. “It’s a completely different world.” Sau lives nearby in a dense residential area. The valley sits in a strip of the city’s so-called “green belt,” which provides a buffer zone between places like Sau’s neighborhood and the city’s country parks — and is, in times of real estate crunch, at risk of development.

Big Cities: Chi Fu Valley in Hong Kong
Still of Chi Fu Valley from "Fellowship of the Valley," a segment in our series "Big Cities." | RTHK

Almost 7.5 million people live in crowded concert in Hong Kong, which has become one of the most cutthroat real estate markets in the world. Since nearly all land belongs to the city-state’s government, authorities wield enormous power to control that market. Most land changes hands via auctions of 50-year leases, which recently have been dominated by powerful developers from mainland China largely interested in building luxury condos for Hong Kong’s elite. In 2016, those developers won two-thirds of all land sales, according to a video produced in April by the South China Morning Post, and in February two of them paid a record HK$22,000 (more than $2,800) per square foot for a purchase. That’s an awful lot of overhead to hand over to the average apartment renter or buyer.

These two worlds — the frenzy of Hong Kong’s real estate market and the quiet of its green spaces — are being pressed into conflict more and more as housing pressures increase, making the situation in Chi Fu and nearby Pokfulam Valleys increasingly typical. In 2014, the Hong Kong government announced that it was considering rebuilding the crumbling Wah Fu Estate, an essential public housing complex, in one of the valleys. Sau and other nearby residents found themselves caught in a growing gray area between the need for more affordable housing and the values that many Hong Kongers espouse: the importance of green space and preserving cultural heritage.

Chi Fu and Pokfulam Valleys didn’t always look the way they do now. From 1886 until 1985, they were part of Asia’s first dairy farm, one of the largest ever built. In fact, the banyan trees and elephant grass that provide so much atmosphere today were introduced to keep the cows cool and well-fed, according to Dr. Ritchie Bent, who worked for many years in dairy parent company Jardine Matheson and was known as its unofficial historian.

The dairy farm was founded by Dr. Patrick Manson — also known as the father of tropical medicine because he helped identify mosquitos as culprits in malaria’s spread. At its height, Bent said, the farm covered 300 acres and hosted some 2,500 head of cattle, an unprecedented size for a farm in the 19th century that continues to dwarf many industrial dairies even today. Faced with a high mortality rate and what the British government considered unacceptable hygiene standards, Manson’s goal was to improve public health in the expat community through better nutrition. But the massive success of his project meant it would do much more than that. 

Bent speaks glowingly of the unique set up designed by Manson and his compatriots. Islands of cow pasture in the jungle were terraced to keep the cows from slipping on the hilly terrain. The herds that lived in Chi Fu and Pokfulam Valleys were isolated from each other to protect from the spread of disease, and their excrement went into silos, where it fertilized more grass. In this way, Manson creating a self-contained world that pumped out enough milk to feed Hong Kong and then some — and that was the just the beginning. During the dairy’s early days before refrigeration it imported blocks of glacial or sea ice to keep its milk cool, later developing a local monopoly on that ice as demand grew. That, in turn, allowed the company to move into the beef industry, as well.

The dairy project seems to have been a success on more than just a financial level. As predicted, mortality rates in the city went down. And something else big happened: Hong Kongers discovered they liked milk. They began to drink it in their tea; the city developed an appetite for ice cream. It was a taste change that would lead eventually to dairy consumption throughout Asia, opening up an entire continent for market. Without meaning to, Manson created an enormous cultural shift.

Behind-the-scenes politics and the diversifying of the dairy market eventually led to the farm’s closing in 1985 after a century in business, Bent says. In fact, the jockeying was so intense that the dairy did not just close, it was abandoned — thus the crumbling ruins in Chi Fu and Pokfulam Valleys — and the new parent company returned the land rights to the Hong Kong government. 

In the meantime, though, Pokfulam village near the valley of the same name had grown enormously. Originally settled by ethnic Hakka clans around 1740, the village had expanded to house not just the refugees who flooded into Hong Kong during the Cultural Revolution but also many of the dairy’s workers. After the government announced its Wah Fu development proposal in 2014, current residents of Pokfulam village began communal resistance efforts, in part with help from the Catholic charity Caritas. 

In recent years, residents had thought of their village as an “urban slum,” said Benjamin Sin, who has been working with Caritas in Pokfulam for many years. “The younger generation would love to leave the village and go live in some high rise building.” In this way, the threat to Pokfulam Valley has been a kind of blessing for the village’s residents, roughly 20 percent of whom are descendants of farm workers. The threat to the valley, and perhaps their village, has pushed them to think more carefully about their heritage and what they stand to lose. “They’ve started to reflect and think about what assets they have,” Sin says, including a collective memory of Hong Kong that is nearly lost. “They are eyewitnesses of farm life. In my generation — I’m 38 now — almost nobody has any idea that Hong Kong had a dairy farm. To them, that sounds ridiculous.”

Big Cities: Chi Fu Valley in Hong Kong
Steve Sau | RTHK

The threat to Chi Fu has also been a kind of unexpected blessing for Sau. With the proposed Wah Fu redevelopment announcement, he and his neighbors created a concerned citizens group that began exploring Chi Fu. “Living here we could see its a verdant valley, but we never dared venture inside,” he says. “Because of the government proposal we decided to explore it. We’re blown away by what a hidden treasure it is.” For Sau, the valley’s historic and environmental value, endemic endangered species, and role in the local watershed — as well as the less tangible benefits of having a green space nearby in an ultra-developed city — far outweigh what it could offer in terms of real estate. He and his group held community meetings and campaigned for a supportive local politician, Edward Yiu, in 2016, hoping he might help their cause. They invited press to cover their initiative to save their valley and filed petitions with authorities.

Although Yiu lost his election in 2016, he recently won a more powerful seat in the city’s Legislative Council. Through Yiu, Sau and the Chi Fu community were able to get the attention of local zoning bodies. “In private, at a face-to-face meeting between our association and the housing authority, they told us the government abandoned the idea to develop Chi Fu for Wah Fu [Estate],” Sau says. Now, he and his group are seeking to change the zoning of the valley for good so that it can never be developed.

Next door, government response has been equally heartening. With support from Caritas and other organizations, Pokfulam village residents hope to turn the ruins in Pokfulam Valley (and potentially in Chi Fu as well) into an eco-historical learning center — a way to preserve the village’s way of life, as well as its green space and cultural heritage, while also helping potentially thousands of Hong Kong students and other young people understand their city better. The learning center would teach visitors about how dairy farming works through interactive exhibits; there’s even talk of reintroducing a small herd of cattle to the site. The initiative is in its early stages, with one-third of the old dairy buildings already assessed, or “graded,” and marked for preservation by the proper authorities. The rest of the grading is expected to be completed within a few months, with a possible opening for the museum planned for 2019. According to the South China Morning Post, the government has pledged HK$120 million for the restoration of three historic buildings and HK$9 million for the museum's first two years of operation.

Old Dairy Farm in Hong Kong
One of two Dairy Farm Co. octagonal cowsheds located on the hillside of Pokfulam. |  Canadian Pacific/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

That means that, for now, the snaking vines, rhythmic croak of frogs in Chi Fu and bustling village life in Pokfulam will remain as an escape from and contrast to the city’s unending crowd and commotion. For Bent, the Hong Kong government’s willingness to listen to its citizens’ priorities when it comes to balancing housing, green space,

“It’s one way Hong Kong differentiates itself from Shenzhen and Guangzhou. There’s a very strong quantity of people who want to keep Hong Kong green.”

and cultural heritage is key. “It’s one way Hong Kong differentiates itself from Shenzhen and Guangzhou,” he says. “There’s a very strong quantity of people who want to keep Hong Kong green.” He points, for example, to initiatives in the territory’s northern reaches that would develop what the city calls “brownfields” or disused farming and industrial land. But Sau remains unconvinced and worries that other green belt space is under threat from the incoming administration, just as Chi Fu Valley was until recently.

Sin lands in the middle, cautiously hopeful. He sees the government’s willingness to consider the dairy heritage park as an indication that “they are trying something new.” Perhaps the fact that 67 heritage elements in Pokfulam Valley are eligible for preservation — including small ones like cow sheds or wall remnants — reflects changing institutional values. “That’s a good step,” he says.

“If you level this place, you destroy a story about Hong Kong.”

All three men agree that’s especially true because the valleys’ crumbling facades, hanging vines, and muddy foot paths all make up a small but essential ecosystem in one neighborhood in one part of this roiling city. They have something to say, just as the toads and trees do, about both its past and its future. “If you level this place,” Sau says, “you destroy a story about Hong Kong.”

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