Hong Kong is known as one of the most urbanized places on Earth. The Chinese territory, a former British colony, is defined by its shoulder-to-shoulder skyscrapers, crowded streets and neon signs.

However, its two most densely populated areas, Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, only cover a small part of the territory. The skyscraper-filled island and famous peninsula represent the economic and cultural heart of Hong Kong, but they are surrounded by nature and small villages.

Hong Kong's 'other side'

An abandoned village in the New Territories of Hong KongAn abandoned village in the New Territories of Hong Kong. A farmers fled for higher-paying jobs in the city, many of the surrounding villages began to collapse. (Photo: tommy@chau/flickr)

Anyone who has visited Hong Kong in recent years has glimpsed the territory's rural side. Hong Kong International Airport, which replaced Kowloon's urban Kai Tak Airport in the late 1990s, is located on Lantau Island, which is the largest island in the territory by a wide margin. The original British colonial settlement was established on Hong Kong Island because it was more accessible by sea. Commercial development grew around this outpost, leaving Lantau and other outlying islands almost untouched.

Lantau has a rural past, but this is changing. In addition to the airport, Hong Kong's Disneyland is on the island, and tourists come to catch the mountain-to-sea scenery on the Ngong Ping Cable Car ride. While new development is taking place on Lantau, the island still has plenty of ramshackle buildings that give it an "outskirts" feel.

Hong Kong’s outlying islands and the small, historic villages of the New Territories (the mainland part of Hong Kong that is right on the border with China) are favorite destinations for locals. Each weekend, Hong Kongers come to these places to eat fresh seafood or taste other local specialties as well as hike.

Historic but abandoned

Despite a few places finding a second life as tourist destinations, many villages in Hong Kong have been abandoned. Some of these places have histories that date back 400 years. As the territory's economic profile grew over the course of the 20th century, the farming villages of the New Territories were partially or completely abandoned. Agriculture has always been good business in food-happy Hong Kong, but small farmers could make more money migrating to urban areas to work. Some also took advantage of a law enacted in the 1940s that allowed Hong Kong residents to apply for British citizenship.

Many New Territories villages were established by Hakka people, a Chinese group that is culturally and linguistically different from Hong Kong's majority Cantonese population. Hakka villages are known for their walled compounds. One such compound, in the village of Lai Chi Wo, was abandoned about three decades ago.

At its peak, this particular village was home to 1,000 people. Younger residents moved away during the 20th century, going to the New Territory's urban centers, Tai Po and Fan Ling, or moving overseas after obtaining a British passport.

A new story for an old place

Lai Chi Wo's story is a common one. After leaving, former residents and their families returned from time to time for traditional celebrations, but for almost three decades, no one lived in the ramshackle houses.

But now, some former residents of Lai Chi Wo have returned to try and create an eco-tourism and heritage destination. These people have moved into the village again, and they have been farming the fields for the past several years. The village has had three successful rice crops already. Since the aged buildings are still largely intact, Lai Chi Wo will have a kind of "living history" feel if it ever becomes the tourist attraction it aims to be.

Similar projects have been successful in Taiwan. Tourists come to see and take part in traditional life and to explore the surrounding countryside. Lai Chi Wo already has a nearby nature trail, and there is a small forest behind the village that is said to have perfect feng shui properties.

Why is the Lai Chi Wo project meeting with resistance?

The village's current residents have tried to get permits to establish guesthouses and set up ferry service. They have, thus far, been turned down by authorities. The village is in the middle of Plover Cove Country Park, a protected marine sanctuary, that sits offshore from Hong Kong Island. Forest and mangroves are located in the park, which is also home to rare species like the Chinese pangolin. The government has said that it's concerned with the conservation of the nature and wildlife in the area and will not change its opposition until these concerns have been addressed by the villagers.

Since more than two-thirds of Hong Kong is rural, and there are many villages similar to Lai Chi Wo, whatever happens will set an important precedent for tourism in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s deserted villages spring to life
Villages like Lai Chi Wo have tried to rebuild as eco-tourist destinations, but progress has been slowed by the Chinese government.