Under the principle of “one country, two systems”, Hong Kong is defined as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China. It borders the neighbouring city of Shenzhen immediately to the north (where I lived for two years previously) which is physically divided from Hong Kong along the Sham Chun and Sha Tau Kok rivers. I recently visited the border town of Sha Tau Kok (沙頭角) on the Hong Kong side.
For the majority of people who live and work in the commercial hub of Hong Kong, towards the south of the Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island itself, visiting the New Territories is somewhat of a rarity – most people only ever pass through on their way to Shenzhen unless they have relatives living there.
Some areas along the border are “Closed Frontier Areas” designed to restrict illegal activities, of which Sha Tau Kok was one, although restrictions were eased in February this year making our trip possible. We decided to visit purely out of curiosity to see what was there!
Most of the Shau Tau Kok’s residents are from Hakka farming or Hoklo fishing backgrounds but due to the decline of these industries in the area over the last few decades, younger better educated generations have long moved to live and work in more urban areas of Hong Kong. Some of the remaining older generations live on in the villages, with families returning at festivals and holidays to spend time with them but the area is clearly in serious decline.
Many of the traditional houses are empty and abandoned with nature being left to take its course. Above a rotten doorway gives way to an empty house filled with debris and hanging vines.
Although some of the houses have been cleared out you can still see the remains of items left behind by their previous residents.
Entering these premises is probably not recommended since many of their ceilings and floors have collapsed.
We came across this old black and white tv on a table open to the elements – an eery reminder that people were living here not that long ago.
Foliage is slowly regaining a foothold in every nook and cranny – concrete walls and floors are no match for mother nature.
Onc house was particularly creepy with various trinkets and photos of ancestors still lining the peeling walls. It looked as if someone might almost be living there still, although maybe not of the walking and breathing kind!
A crumbling outhouse sits beneath a tree with broken pots lying scattered around – perhaps this was a latrine or part of a kitchen.
Further up the hill, a school lies empty, having closed in 1998 (so a local told us). It doesn’t look like anyone plays basketball much here anymore.
The same theme continues everywhere with buildings at various stages of disrepair and ruin. While this might not be grade A listed heritage, it’s a shame to see it disappear.
One of the few residents we came across didn’t seem to mind me taking her photo – I wondered what she thought about what was happening to her village.
In another outhouse, large dusty wicker baskets lay unused for who knows how long.
Some areas are still off-limits and due to the lack of human activity have become a thriving natural habitats for animals and plants. It reminded me of the DMZ between North and South Korea.
On the other side of the border fence, in contrast to the rotting buildings, you can see some of Shenzhen’s towering apartment blocks – a sharp reminder of China’s rapid rise.
You can reach Sha Tau Kok by public light bus no. 55k about 30 mins from outside Sheung Shui MTR Station.
28 Comments Add New Comment
Love the pictures David, I am curious if this is the other side of the area I kept looking at on my walks in Shenzhen? The black and white is also a really nice touch!
Thanks David – to be honest it was a pretty overcast day so I converted all the photos to B&W otherwise they would look pretty dull!
Interesting to see this side of HK, in people’s mind HK is full of Skyscrapers.impressive post:)
Thanks R – it’s certainly a very different side of HK which most people never see. I only spent a couple of hours there so will hopefully make a return visit at some point!
Great stuff! I’m actually going to try to get to Ching Ying street (or Zhong ying street on Shenzhen side) to see if I can cross the border there and if it is any different from the HK side.
I’m not sure if you still need a special permit to do that but hope you’ll blog about it! There’s a lot more around there I want to explore 🙂
[…] 1)Sha Tau Kok Border Town – I’ve heard about this place since arriving in Shenzhen four years ago. Now that restrictions are somewhat lifted I’m interesting in visiting this sometime. Will try to cross the border into SZ (I’ve got the HK resident entry/exit permit) […]
Nice series. I love the nostalgia of HK’s abandoned villages.
[…] by David’s post, I took a little trip to Sha Tau Kok. I wanted to not only explore the newly opened parts, but […]
Great pictures and write up – my brother found your link by accident and forwarded it to rest of the family.
One of the derilect houses belonged to my Grand parents. There are fewer and fewer people living there now as you can see. The older generation (including my Father) have so many wonderful memories but at the same time have bad memories of the Japanese invasion.
It is such ashame the way most of these buildings have been left abandoned. You are right, we only go back on festive seasons.
I see this as a sign to go back to visit our ancestoral home.
Thanks for your comment Pam – I’m very pleased your family found my post!
Are you and your family allowed into the restricted area still? I really hope some of these old houses are restored since like you say it such a shame to see them abandoned.
Good luck for your return trip 🙂
The last time we visited was almost 10years ago. One only needs a permit should you wish to visit Ching Ying Street.
A very interesting place indeed where time stands still.
Love the photographs. Reminds me of Weerasethakul and Jia Zhang Ke’s films.. the last remaining vestiges of history juxtaposed against modernity.
Thanks Charulata – I’ll have to look up some of their films – nice blog btw.
All the houses in the old villages look the same, however, I noticed the familiar living space a portrait of my grandfather in one of your pictures! The creepy house is our family home – most of the older generation of my family were born in that house, the area holds a very special place in my heart. Thank you so much for posting this!
Thanks Kaz – I’m still amazed that you and Pam (see comment above) managed to find my post! Hope you don’t mind me describing it as ‘creepy’ 🙂
Not at all, I’d admit it is strange seeing the original house with the old relics & portrait, there used to be another portrait of my granny.
Just out of interest, how did you find out about Sha Tau Kok? Did you know Hakka people have our own dialect? It’s mainly spoken by the older generation) & we have our own style of food.
I haven’t been for 3 years, did someone let you in? I hope you didn’t go upstairs because the structure is extremely unsafe.
A lot of Hong Kong locals & visitors aren’t interested in the old Hong Kong, I’m just so pleased you took an interest & wrote about it.
A friend of mine, who is a Hong Kong local, heard that some of the access restrictions to the border area had been lifted this year so it seemed like a good time to visit. It was really fascinating to see the Hakka culture so I hope I will return again soon before it’s all gone.
The photos I took of your ancestors house were just taken from the doorway which was open – we didn’t go inside but it looked like maybe someone was keeping animals in there (stray cats perhaps) because there were food bowls on the floor.
how do you get to this area? I’ve been trying to research it since I live so close. Some sources say that the main street is closed and you need a permit while others don’t really say much. Also, I live in Shenzhen across the border, maybe 20 minutes away.
Hi Josh – I mentioned the bus I took from the HK side at the bottom of the article. I’m not sure about the status of the main street still but certainly a number of areas have opened up in the past year so it would be worth exploring if you can find your way from SZ!
Hi there could I check how do you get access to sha too kok? I tried but was told it is only for official business and no sightseeing allowed.
My father is from Sha Tau KoK and his surname is Yau and I was wondering if Pam Yau is a relative of my father.
I have just seen your post. I am sure we are related in some way. Lovely to meet you!
I would love to know a little bit more about your family history.
Are you on any social media platform? I am Instagram as pam.yau
Looking forward to hearing from you,
I am Karen Yau, (Pam Yau’s sister who you mentioned in the above post).
We only noticed your reply when a relative recently resent this.
We actually lost our father in 2016 and so it’s nice to hear about possible Yau family members who originated from Sha Tau Kok.
Hi David , love your blog , and this is the post that brought me here, Photos are great too . but my question is a bit off topic , its regarding your twitter stream at the front page, its very nice specially the images showing and filling up the whole widget space , I wonder if its coded or its a plugin. I wish I could find it on WordPress plugin. Thanks.
Hi Justo, I’m using the “Twitter Timeline” widget which comes with the Jetpack plugin: http://jetpack.me/
Amazing photos, my parents lived there and I was born in the village, we left for the UK until 1968 when my father who had already relocated to the UK where he had been since 1959. Working in the UK and sending money back to my mum. He saved up enough money to bring us all over and settle. I was 5 years old when I came to the UK. It’s been a while since I last went back. I need to see if I can find some old photos from HK.