Ping Shan Heritage Trail, Yuen Long
On the same trip where we (the Gwulo gang – a bit like the Red Hand Gang only with less bum fluff and perhaps a more mature sense of dress) all headed off to Ho Hok Shan, and after eating lunch (at Tai Hing BBQ restaurant in the nearby Sun Yuen Long Plaza) where we spent most of the time picking bits of the wilderness out of out clothes, we nipped off to the nearby Ping Shan Heritage Trail.
This is one of two so-called ‘heritage’ trails in the New Territories, the other one being the Lung Yeuk Tau trail in Fanling. I must admit it’s taken me an absolute age to get to this place after many, many abortive attempts that have seen me waylayed for various reasons (too many to go into) – so it was nice to finally make it.
Despite this trail being much shorter than Fanling’s Lung Yeuk Tau trail (I think this one is only around 1km if not less) I feel Ping Shan has more to offer, is better organised, better signposted and both ends of the trail offer something quite unique – plus there is much less scope for getting lost, annoying the locals by wandering somewhere you shouldn’t or of course, that ubiquitous NT threat – being attacked by village dogs.
At one end of the trail is the Tsui Shing Lau pagoda – one of HK’s oldest man-made structures (if not the oldest) – and at the other is the excellently restored and maintained Ping Shan Police Station, now operating as a museum for the local area’s history and culture. More on the police station later because we started our visit at the pagoda end.
Actually, if you are arriving via West Rail the pagoda is hard to miss because it sits right outside the entrance to the station. In a way it’s a bit sad because photos taken not that long ago – before the west rail project was started – show it standing in an idyllic position surrounded by rice paddies and green fields. However, as with most places in HK, time has taken its toll and the pagoda is now surrounded by the marks of modern NT life (also known as the 4 C’s): concrete, carparks, corrugated iron and containers (actually, there is a 4th ‘C’ related to certain indigenous villagers, but I’ll leave that one off this list for now ).
Anyway, back to the pagoda. It’s astonishing to think this place is 600 years old (give or take a few years)! Most buildings in HK last less than 50 years (in the case of the Ritz Carlton in Central, it lasted less than 20) before either being knocked down (and replaced by something taller and with more rentable space) or collapsing (due to various illegal modifications to internal structural walls to increase the rentable space). Tsui Shing Lau (The Pagoda of Gathering Stars) was originally several stories higher but according to the local Tang clan – whose ancestors built it – various natural elements have conspired to reduce its size. It could have been either lightning strikes or typhoons (or perhaps someone removed the internal structural walls to increase the rentable space? hehe) depending on what you read.
Still, it’s an impressive sight to behold and a good start to the trail – you can’t go up it but the door does open (when the attendant isn’t having their lunch) and inside is a small display, some information about the pagoda as well as the official Govt literature about the trail.
Don’t walk through the village from here, you need to skirt around the outside of some sort of car park/concreted industrial space to make your way to the next stop which is a very large Earth God Shrine. On the way you’ll pass a large fish pond – quite nicely landscaped – and our next stop is just a short way down.
Earth Shrines are a common sight all over the NT and almost invariably have a rock in the middle of a usually small altar to allow the villagers to worship the earth god a.k.a To Dei Gung. The Earth God is responsible for protecting the area and villagers to which he belongs (I say ‘he’ because he is invariably depicted as a man in drawings – usually carry a staff and a gold bar shaped like a small boat). Actually there are shrines everywhere in HK, Earth God Shrines, Tree God Shrines (usually underneath a Banyan tree) Well God Shrines and I expect many people have heard of the so-called Kitchen God thanks to Amy Tan’s popular book.
The Ping Shan Earth God Shrine here protects nearby Sheung Cheung Wai – the nearby walled village – is actually fairly large and seems to be well tended. If you have ever visited Tsang Tai Uk in Tai Wai you may recognise the shape of the altar sides. Commonly known as Wok-Yee because they look like Wok handles they can be found in a few places in HK including Tsang Tai Uk where they form the roof baffles. Standing next to the altar is a furnace (for lighting incense and burning paper offerings) with a moulded dragon curled around the top. It looks quite intriguing and is not something I have seen before. I’m not sure if it has any greater meaning other than being a nice addition to an otherwise simple and commonly found structure.
I just mentioned the nearby walled village Sheung Cheung Wai and the trail does take you past the entrance. Now, despite the fact that there was a large notice in red on the outside of the villages gatehouse which basically said that it didn’t really want tourists (local and otherwise) tramping through there, the place was still filled with people taking snaps, so I’ll leave it to your discretion. You can see the sign just above the guys head in the snap below. It is in Chinese so if you don’t read Chinese then I guess you can plead ignorance
Next stop we move to the old well. Wells were common place in the territory – obviously the main source of water before any sort of infrastructure was created for the fresh water supply. In fact in some parts of the NT wells were used up until very recently and many can still be found in various states of decay or disrepair all over. Most of the walled villages still have them (though not sure if the water is still used?) and, in fact, even Tai Po has an old communal well (replete with it’s very own Well God Shrine).
Just up on small slope behind the well is our first temple. It’s called the Yeung Hau Temple and it’s main deity is Hau Wong with two side deities: Kam Fa (patron saint of pregnant women) and To Dei (same dude who occupies the Earth God shrine – I wonder if the altar down the road is more of a pied-a-terre?).
On the left we have the Tang Si Chung hall and on the right is the Yu Kiu Clan hall. The Tang Si Chung is supposedly 700 years old and built by a Tang Fung Shun, whereas the Yu Kiu hall was built much later (sometime in the 16th century). Both halls are very similar but I get the feeling that the older hall is slightly larger and a bit more grand inside.
My cultural knowledge is sadly lacking when it comes to the NT (despite living here for the past 5 years) and so I can’t really do these places much justice in terms of explaining what they are all about other than they are a place where the clan’s ancestors are worshiped and also where much of the official clan business and festivities take place.
In China’s recent Imperial past, one of the aspects that affected such a remote area was the participation of village members in the Imperial Examination system. Just passing even the lowest level examination bestowed an enormous amount of influence on the clan member and of course the also radiated outwards to immediate family and the clan as a whole. In fact, so sought after was the honour of the examination awards that various levels could be bought by someone with enough money – and it seems that in terms of the influence they bestowed there doesn’t seem to have been much difference between those earned via scholarly means and those simply paid for. Both these halls contain plaques commemorating the achievements of various village scholars in the Imperial examinations. My Chinese Imperial Examination knowledge is a bit scratchy but I believe the following two plaques indicate that someone in the clan had passed the Examinations at the highest level. The first two of the central line of vertical characters (翰林) say Han Lin (in Canto it would be Hon Lam) which was the name given to someone who was successful in passing the Chao Kao imperial exam. I believe it was the highest level attainable (but I would also like to hear from anyone who can correct or concur with me).
Why the plaques are different I don’t know but you may be able to see, if you have an eye for written Chinese, that they actually say exactly the same things, it’s just that one is brown and one has been embellished with some nice stylised clouds (at least that’s what they look like to me).
Each hall has its ancestral tablets on display in the main altar at the back. As seen in the picture below. The two characters either side of the altar below are standard characters for two important Confucian principles. On the left we have 弟 (dai) which represents fraternal love and on the right we have 孝 (haau) which means filial piety – two principles that still show a strong influence even in modern HK society (as well as elsewhere).
Aside from the internally displayed plaques, scholastic achievements are also commemorated outside of each hall with the addition of so-called scholar stones: upright slabs of stone that were erected in front of the hall and built to hold flag poles. Any lowly passerby (such as one of the clans land tenants) was expected to show respect by bowing to the banners flapping above the stones.
Anyhow, coming out of the halls you may see a few stalls set up in the village square and these are worth checking out because there is an old lady here who sells a local concoction whose name I forget. But anyway, according to Thomas the ingredients include these two things (links supplied by him): 竹蔗 Saccharum sinense Roxb and茅根 Imperata koenigii
I will say that they make for a very refreshing drink and much needed on a hot sweaty day. It’s cheap, tasty and is a great way to give some contribution to the villagers whose land you are romping through (after all, the trail is free) in your big hobnail boots.
Directly in front of the halls is the village square and beyond that a…carpark. Yes, one of the great C’s rears it’s head here. What used to be a picturesque series of Fung Shui ponds have been turned into a concreted stretch of ground for lorry drivers to park their trucks. I guess fung shui has practical limits for some people and the fear of upsetting the fine spiritual balance of the area was far outweighed by the chance to earn some extra dosh by charging an hourly parking fee. Such is life.
Next on the agenda is the Kun Ting Study Hall. Both this place and the neighbouring Ching Shu Hin Guest House were, until recently, victims of a dispute between the Tang clan elders and the Govt over a landfill site and the clan graves that had to be re-sited as a result. The clan closed these two buildings to visitors for a long time, but thing seem to have been smoothed over and we can now have a quick look inside.
Not much to say on this place, other than that Study Halls can be found all over the NT and usually have two purposes: the first being to help clan members prepare for the imperial examinations (as mentioned earlier) and the second of course was to impart status on the clan. Any clan that could afford to build one (as opposed to using the ancestral hall for the same purpose) for its members was obviously one that was rich and powerful. Thankfully, there are still a few around and in fairly good condition given that t5hey will date at least back to when the exams were still in vogue i.e. 100+ years.
The guest house immediately adjoins the study hall, but there is a nice gap between the buildings which would probably have been a thoroughfare before development sealed off the end? Check out the circular quernstones on the floor. These were used for grinding rice into flour.
There’s a nice informative bi-lingual display inside the guest house to complement its interesting architecture and it’s well worth spending some time here reading all the information as well as the aerial pics which track the development of the whole area.
The guest house really marks the end of the village sites, but the trail isn’t over yet because you still need to walk round the corner and head up the nearby hill towards the Ping Shan Police Station museum.
While we were on the way we stopped by the look at an odd stone sticking out of the ground in front of one of the more modern village houses. No one had a clue what it was, and sadly I didn’t think it was important enough to take a photo. Low and behold once inside the police station museum – which also stores a great display on the local Tang clan heritage – was another of these stones. It turns out they were used for weightlifting. It was a great oblong block with a hole through the top for inserting a pole. The male villager had to lift it up to prove he was strong enough to serve on the clan militia. The one we saw back in the village had been subsequently cemented into the ground so I think you would need to be pretty damn strong to lift that sucker these days!
Anyway, onto the police station. One of the finest looking buildings in the area and it has been well restored and turned into the local museum.
All I intend to say about the latter part is that it is well worth a visit and one of the most interesting exhibitions I’ve been to, inside one of the best examples of heritage restoration I’ve seen. The display covers all sorts of things about the local area and the Tang clan and the building itself is great to look at and provides a great view around the whole area – not surprising when you consider it was a functioning police station and was built there to provide just that – a command of the local area, much to the chagrin of the locals.
Anyway, the official trail is over here and just to end on a historical note, Thomas showed us just down the road where he found this old building embedded in the embankment of the pavement.
Any idea what it is? It looks like one of the old ammunition stores used by the Brits and is very similar to the one I went to explore with David Bellis (Gwulo gang leader) at Kei Lun Shan a couple of years ago. Same shape, same reinforced concrete walls, same reinforced iron door, same everything. I have no idea what it’s doing all the way out here but I guess the location is no more bizarre than half way up a hill near Lok Ma Chau.
I should mention that there are several books that feature the Ping Shan Heritage trail, most notably Patrica Lim’s Discovering Hong Kong’s Cultural Heritage: The New Territories (which misses out the police station but does include an additional earth god shrine and pai-lau on the south side of Ping Ha Road) and of course the ever reliable The Leisurely Hikers Guide to Hong Kong by Pete Spurrier, who includes it within a walk around the nearby Wetland Park as well (probably because the trail is so short and doesn’t take very long by itself) – or at least my older edition included it.
Anyway, I would recommend that if you only have time for one heritage trail in the NT on your trip over, then this should be the one you do.