29 Oct 2017 17:20 IST

A fishy affair

Follow your nose to Hong Kong’s Tai O village

The smell of dried fish assails my nostrils even before I cross the bridge into the village. I’m about to investigate, when I get sidetracked by the view. The bridge crosses the Tai O river and, on both banks, scores of houses practically teeter over the water on tall wooden stilts. I’m in Tai O, one of the last remaining Chinese fishing villages in Hong Kong.

Port side

Given Hong Kong’s skyline today, it’s hard to imagine that when it first became a British colony in 1841, it was an assortment of coastal hamlets populated by Tanka fishermen. Most of them have surrendered to tall, shiny skyscrapers and the din of a thriving metropolis. Tai O, on the western side of Lantau Island, comes as a surprising side of Hong Kong, where traditional stilt houses and the pungent smells of drying fish and shrimp paste reign supreme.

The Tai O fish market is particularly popular and gets very busy on the weekends, when locals and tourists jostle for space. As I walk around the market, I’m gobsmacked by the variety of seafood on display — both fresh and dried. There’s fish of every imaginable size and shape, shellfish, abalone, sea cucumber, fish maw (dried swim bladders), and more.

The all-pervasive fishy smell chiefly comes from the shrimp sauce and shrimp paste that is a speciality of Tai O. The paste is made by grinding shrimp meat with salt and leaving it to ferment in plastic tubs. The paste is then spread onto bamboo trays and left to dry in the sun, after which it is bottled or sold in the form of cakes. It is used to flavour everything from stir-fried vegetables and meats, to fried rice and noodles.

I stop for lunch at Lin Heung Restaurant on the main street. It’s rather antiseptic-looking, with white tiles on the wall, Formica tables and bright tube lights switched on in the middle of the afternoon. But it’s packed, mostly with locals. At the next table, two elderly couples are ladling out fish soup from a large steaming bowl. Behind me, a raucous family is arguing over plates of fried clams and rice. An elderly waiter with an impressive moustache brings me bean curd with marinated Chinese cabbage and the local delicacy of shrimp with egg, both of which I devour, washed down with chilled Tsingtao beer.

Standing tall

After lunch, my guide Vivian Wong and I walk further along the riverfront and into a maze of streets. Wong points out to the different generations of stilt houses — the oldest are made of grey metal sheets and shaped like an upturned boat, while the newer boxy houses (some are even made of concrete) have colourful balconies overflowing with plants. The stilt house building style goes back to the 19th century; called pang uks, these were built on wooden stilts driven deep into the muddy tidal flats of the river to protect them against floods.

As we walk across a wooden bridge with faded salmon-pink metal beams, Wong spots a friend. Sexagenarian Diana Leung envelops me in a bear hug and insists we accompany her home. With her short bob and jeans-and-shirt combination, Leung appears much younger and is an exuberantly feisty lady. Her stilt house is immaculate with a sparse living-plus-dining room, a kitchenette, a fridge filled with fruits and soda (both of which she presses upon us), and a charming bedroom. I’m fascinated by the tiny bedroom with its low wooden roof, a short bed, white lace curtains, and family photos on the walls. There are no cupboards, just open shelves stacked with her belongings.

“I grew up in Tai O, raised by my grandmother,” says Leung, pointing to a black-and-white photograph of her younger self, standing in front of an old stilt house. Fishing was a family occupation, though after her grandfather’s death, Leung accompanied her mother to sell household wares on the streets of Kowloon. Her children now settled in the city, Leung continues to stay on in Tai O, running informal tours around the village and helping out at one of the nearby restaurants.

Tai O was once an important fishing and trading port of China, but the fishing industry is now in decline as the younger generation prefers to live in the cities. Even the number of shrimp paste factories has reduced. Tourism has become the main source of livelihood here.

Will Tai O lose its signature salty aroma? Only time will tell.

Getting there

Fly Jet Airways or Cathay Pacificdirect to Hong Kong. From Central Hong Kong, take the MTR (metro) to Tung Chung Station, and bus no. 11 to Tai O bus terminus. Alternatively, you can take the Ngong Ping Cable Car to Ngong Ping village and take bus no. 21.

Stay

Tai O Heritage Hotel is a colonialstyle hotel housed in what was a police station in the early 1900s. It has been restored into a boutique hotel with nine sea-facing rooms with king beds and marble bathrooms; taioheritagehotel.com

Tip

Stop by the Tai O market stalls for snacks such as fish balls and barbecued squid sticks. Have lunch at Lin Heung Restaurant, a local favourite that serves authentic dishes such as fried clams, squid cake with dumplings, scrambled egg with shrimp, and fried rice with shrimp paste.

Take a detour to the majestic Tian Tan Buddha (Big Buddha) statue in Lantau, which is the second largest outdoor sitting Buddha statue in the world. Opposite the statue, the serene Po Lin Monastery is a mustvisit for its Buddhist iconography. Both are easily accessible by the Ngong Ping Cable Car.

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)

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