Hong Kong's Historic Boulder Trails

From Michael Kelly:

I am advised by Sai Kung resident Guy Shirra that a survey is currently being undertaken to identify historical boulder paths in Hong Kong, with a view to maintaining and preserving them for future generations.

I lived in Hong Kong for five years until 2010 and, with Guy’s encouragement, developed a great interest in Hong Kong’s boulder paths.

I am writing to you as I feel these pathways are a unique part of the city’s history that have been undervalued for too long and that this work is well overdue. Further, I feel the Hong Kong Government has failed to understand what a wonderful resource they literally have under their feet.

What other international city of Hong Kong’s standing has such a wonderful network of hiking trails and historical boulder paths on its doorstep?

TOURISM

I believe Hong Kong’s hiking trails are greatly under-promoted and have the potential to become a major tourist attraction for the city, making it a trail walking mecca with global appeal.

I regularly took visitors to Hong Kong on walks through the hills of Sai Kung and always received a very positive response. Visitors almost always only see and experience neon-lit, high-rise city, with its endless bars, restaurants and nightspots. However, they are usually amazed to discover a side to the city they never imagined and loved walking through hilly, jungle terrain through abandoned villages, and ancient paddy fields.

As mentioned, I feel the HK Government has failed to grasp the universal appeal of this side of the city and, most notably, the old boulder pathways.

I believe the historical, cultural and recreational potential of Hong Kong’s boulder pathways cannot by overestimated. They are a fantastic resource that could have broad  appeal to the local Chinese and expatriate communities, as well as mainland Chinese and international tourists.

You just have to go out hiking on weekends to see how many people thoroughly enjoy getting out of the city environment into the hills where they can enjoy Hong Kong’s bush, wilderness, natural wildlife and fantastic views.

In an era when people are paying greater attention to their physical fitness, health and well-being than ever before, Hong Kong’s unique network of trails and boulder paths are ideal for trail walking, running and organised endurance events such as those run by the Action Asia group.

 

I sincerely hope the Hong Kong Government can recognise the significance of these natural assets, and devote sufficient money and resources to maximise the potential benefits that can be gained by rehabilitating and maintaining the old boulder trails on HK Island and in outlying territories and islands.

IDENTIFICATION

I suggest that you get Guy Shirra to show you the old boulder pathway running down toward Sai Kung town from Wong Chuk Yeung Village. Hacking away with machetes, we reclaimed most of it from the jungle a couple of years ago. It perfectly illustrates the wonderful old pathways that still exist and are waiting to be uncovered so everyone can enjoy them.

Work still needs to be done to fully repatriate this particular pathway but it includes some fascinating sections over creek beds and up hills that would have required a great deal of work when first built.

Guy and I also uncovered an old paddy field access pathway behind Nam A Village that runs up to the MacLehose Trail, and Guy previously opened up a boulder pathway that runs from Wo Liu Village up to the Maclehose trail.

Other pathways around Sai Kung also warrant further investigation.

HISTORY

The local Chinese community, history buffs and tourists would be fascinated to learn the history and background of Hong Kong’s boulder pathways.

It would be great if the history of specific trails could be established so that people can place into context what they’re walking over. For example, the old boulder pathway from Sai Kung to Sha Tin is wonderfully preserved and we do know that trips were often hazardous with roaming tigers and bandits preying on Sai Kung fishermen wheeling their catch over the hills. They would offer prayers in the town’s temple in an effort to safeguard their journey.

This kind of historical background would be greatly enjoyed by locals and tourist groups walking in the steps of the ancients on the self-same trails.

I believe there is great potential for tourism operators to establish trail walking tours that would include any old boulder trails as part of an historical network.

ANNUAL EVENT

If maintained and operated well, I believe much of the city’s heritage trails and associated infrastructure could be financed by local and international tourism.

However, given the uniqueness of the city’s boulder pathways, there is also the potential to create a Trailwalker type of event to help finance their upkeep and even build a boulder trail visitors centre. It could include different runs/walks to suit elite athletes through to family groups.

The event could be run largely over historical boulder trails and/or linking trails where necessary.

Given the historical/cultural nature of such an event, I would suggest that it be based on a journey that local Chinese traditionally made taking produce to market, or perhaps even an event or religious festival run by locals in the past that involved trips along the old trails.

SUGGESTED INITIATIVES

Thus, I would suggest that the relevant departments of the HK Government –

 •         Dig out any old maps or documents that address the pathways, markers and any other relevant infrastructure throughout HK and the islands. I would imagine there are maps dating back to the surveys conducted by the English in the early 1800’s.

•         Document all existing trails

•         Try to locate all overgrown trails no longer in use

•         Clear and open up all trails still largely intact, and re-establish the trail networks as they were originally used

•         Maintain the trails

•         Develop maps in various languages that will allow locals and visitors to explore the trails

•         Dig up any and all documented and oral history on the trails for inclusion in maps and documentation, and as a public record

•         Include suggested walks of various degrees of length and difficulty using the boulder trails

•         Develop a budget to undertake all of the above

SHING MUN REDOUBT & THE GIN DRINKERS LINE

While discussing the city’s tourism appeal, I believe that the Shing Mun Redoubt is the most glaringly ignored tourist attraction in the city. In my view it is criminal that this incredible and very well preserved reminder of the Second World War and the Japanese invasion has been ignored by the city.

Tourists would be fascinated to visit this facility and participate in guided tours of the tunnels, learning of the events that allowed the Japanese to over-run it in a day.

Further, there are parts of the Gin Drinkers Line that are still very well preserved and would also be of interest. For example, when climbing the MacLehose Trail up toward Ma On Shan there are sections of the old trench that run parallel to the trail and should at least be sign posted as many people have no idea what it is.

I would suggest that efforts be made to maintain parts of the trench system for inclusion in the city’s tourism infrastructure.

The Shing Mun Redoubt should also be full restored to rightfully become one of the city’s main tourist attractions.

CONCLUSION

I cannot stress enough the potential commercial, cultural and recreational appeal of the city’s boulder trails and hope that current efforts will lead to them achieving their proper significance.
 

However, this won’t be possible without a great deal of planning, effort, money and determination. I urge you to initiate the program needed to establish Hong Kong as a trail walking and running mecca, with the city’s ancient boulder trails the jewel in the hiking crown.

 

Please feel free to contact me should you wish to discuss any aspect of the points I have raised.

 

Yours Sincerely

 

 

Michael Kelly

NSW 2101

Australia

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Martin Williams's picture

Article on trackways in yesterday's S China Morning Post - noting how officials have largely ignored efforts to highlight and protect them, till big spending on a consultancy study.

For the past five years, veteran hiker Guy Shirra researched the oldest trails in the New Territories, vainly urging government officials to protect these boulder-paved links with the city's earliest inhabitants.

His calls for some response from the Antiquities and Monuments Office fell on deaf ears.

But now it turns out that, in January last year, the office quietly hired a private consultancy to do Shirra's research all over again - at a cost of HK$870,000.

"I have spent the past few years utterly frustrated by their apparent unconcern and lack of interest, and now I find they went behind my back and kept me in the dark," said Shirra, who was informed about the move in July.

"I was working on this for five years and they suddenly said they had appointed a consultant, presumably at taxpayers' expense, to study the matter. I can do it for free," said Shirra, the operations officer of Friends of Sai Kung.

The 65-year-old said there was no point in starting from scratch. It was time for a roundtable involving several departments - and including knowledgeable volunteers like him - to work out a preservation plan to give the oldest Chinese-built heritage its long overdue recognition and protection.

Shirra said a friend, Dr Patrick Hase, a scholar on the New Territories, could also help dig out the history of the trails.

A spokeswoman for the antiquities office said the study, to be completed by early next year, was being carried out by the ERM consultancy. The study would assess the value and cultural significance of the old trails and identify issues related to their preservation, she said.

It would review archival material about the origin, function and historical development of the trails. A report, along with recommendations, will be presented to the Antiquities Advisory Board.

A police superintendent until his retirement, Shirra made frequent and extensive use of the old boulder tracks and village paths when he was in charge of a village patrol unit in the early 1970s. The patrols covered the large rural areas in the New Territories, including Sai Kung.

He later developed an interest in researching these trails, some of them dating back to the 18th century and documented in maps by the early colonial government or the British military.

He and his friends even opened up some boulder trails in Sai Kung that had been buried in dense vegetation - including some linking Sha Tin and Sai Kung - and found some stone bridges and ancient markings. But many have been lost to development, covered by cement.

Shirra wrote to the government many times, urging that the heritage trails be protected as monuments. But his calls were ignored until June 2010 when a member of the Antiquities Advisory Board raised the issue.

Shirra was promised a chance to present his research and findings of fieldwork to the board, but that never happened.

He said: "It seems that whenever a member of the public has the temerity to propose a course of action to government it is treated with disdain, or quietly taken over and adopted as a government idea."

Martin Williams's picture

Another media article, in China Daily, includes:

Guy Shirra was shocked and disappointed. After years of exploring Hong Kong’s ancient boulder trails, tirelessly petitioning government departments to preserve the footpaths, and personally excavating some forgotten tracks, Shirra received a bittersweet e-mail from the Antiquities and Monuments Office (AMO) in July.

The AMO had hired a private consultant to duplicate much of his own work. Adding insult to injury, Shirra didn’t learn of the government’s plan, until nearly two years after official procedures had excluded him from making an alternative proposal. An AMO representative said that Shirra just wasn’t qualified, based on “established government procedures.”
...

Old trails of unknown antiquity connect Sai Kung with an ancient network of boulder trackways, which once provided the sole thoroughfare between Hong Kong’s disconnected villages and market towns. Before British warships and engineers arrived, the footpaths seamlessly had connected the pre-colonial region with the rest of Guangdong Province. Some routes led directly to the central city Guangzhou.

Hong Kong’s ancient trails have, over time, been supplemented by newer hiking trails and paved roads. Motor vehicle roads are a relatively recent addition to Sai Kung and other parts of New Territories, and frequent pedestrian traffic from hikers and rural villagers has continued on the old paths.
...

Shirra began researching. He contacted a prominent New Territories scholar, Patrick Hase (author and longtime British expat), who suggested he review British survey maps from 1903 that noted prominent Chinese trackways throughout Hong Kong. The amateur historian followed Hase’s advice.

“I then discovered that the Hong Kong Archaeological Society had done this survey at the request of what was then called the Urban Council. They had come up with what were nine of the most important boulder trails — to which the AMO added to make a total of 14 (by 1986) — and (the Society) strongly recommended that a full survey be done and the best examples of these trails be given protection under the ordinance, but absolutely nothing was done about it,” he says. 

Shirra wrote a few trail guides to Sai Kung’s boulder pathways, and he uploaded the files with photos on a Google sites page titled, “Hong Kong Boulder Trackways”. He has also tried to convince the Sai Kung District Council to make one of the paths a pilot project for protecting similar paths around Hong Kong — to no avail.

Trekking ancient pathways

 

 

 

There is now an article in Chinese in Ming Pao Weekly magazine:

http://www2.mingpaoweekly.com/contents/?id=22455

第2292期Opinions

香港老番:珍惜古道

當你在香港郊區散步或跑步時,你會發現腳下的小徑是由一塊塊圓潤的石頭緊緊相連鋪砌而成,而完全毋須水泥或混凝土固定。其實這些是古時候馬路或行人通道的遺址,當時人們以這些通道及相連的石橋,將主要的市鎮、村落以及渡口緊扣起來。現時已很難追溯古道在什麼時候建成,但它們仍能留存到今天,全靠當時的建築都是真材實料。

古時的人們徒步走在這些通道上搬運貨物、動物及運載乘客。對於一些獨行者來說,他們真的要祈求神......

歡迎選用會員增值服務,訂購此期eMag,收看全文內容。

Martin Williams's picture

Email from Guy Shirra:

https://sites.google.com/site/hongkongbouldertrackways/

How You Can Help
When you are out running or walking in the countryside, please take note of any of Hong Kong’s ancient roads or boulder trackways and stone bridges and waymarkers you encounter. These are paths made hundreds of years ago for the movement of people and goods between towns and villages and are surely worth preserving as part of HK’s heritage. A HK wide survey is now being conducted to build a complete record of all that remain. We then hope to get them way-marked and included in The Countryside maps in a distinctive manner.

當你於郊外遠足或跑步時,請留意路上任何由大石砌成的古道。這些道路已有上百年的歷史,是昔日居民往返兩地鄉鎮及運送物資的主要通道,絕對值得保存。我們現正為這些古道進行一項全面的野外調查及紀錄,繼而將其標示於香港的郊區地圖上。請幫忙填寫這份表格,連同相關照片電郵至

Assistance has already been offered in the Sai Kung area by Outward Bound and the Friends of Sai Kung but Guy Shirra is looking for volunteers to assist him initially in locating boulder trackways in Sai Kung District, photographing them and building up a complete map of them.

He is also hoping to find volunteers in every rural district, including Hong Kong Island, who can do the same.

The eventual aim will be to submit the results of the survey to the Secretary for Development/Commissioner for Heritage and relevant government departments in order to:

1.      have them recognised as the oldest surviving examples of Chinese “built heritage” in Hong Kong and preserved and protected as such

2.       have the best examples declared Monuments, the ultimate form of protection

3.       have them, where necessary, sensitively restored and maintained (without the use of cement or concrete)

4.      have paths, and bridges in particular, which have been unnecessarily concreted over uncovered and restored

5.      have them marked in a distinctive manner on all future editions of the Countryside maps for the benefit of walkers, runners and tourists

6        have them distinctively way-marked on the ground

Further information and a Survey Form can be found under Project Documents.