Posted by: admin 2月 17th, 2015


Gave a Ted X talk at Lingnan University on my Hakka heritage, history, present eco-lifestyle in my ancestral village: -

This is a story about human migration - in particular how ethnic group has migrated all around the globe, and to come full circle back to the starting point. Its also a personal story of how I managed to come full circle and return to the place of my ancestors.

If you stood here around 1279, some 800 years ago, from the top of the hill you will see groups of refugees fleeing the Mongol invasion - the last of the Sung Dynasty Emperors, accompanied by his noblemen and generals. One of the groups fleeing south were the Hakkas. The name means Guest people. They settled in remote places like hills and valleys to avoid conflict with the local populations. Eventually some of them reached this little valley below...they built homes and started making a living from the land - growing rice, planting fruit trees, fishing and keeping animals...

So, what kind of people lived in these communities? In China, there are many minorities and dialects ...the Hakkas are one of seven ethnic minority groups with its own distinct dialect and traditions.

Hakka society was originally Matriarchal - women were generally head of the household, with equal say in all the daily and long term running of the home and the community. They were famous for being tough and physically equal to any task - they used to find work outside in construction and farming. The ladies once wore the wide-brimmed hats - and wearing black clothing. Now almost all gone. The last remaining Hakka ladies are in old folks home. Many are in their 80’s and 90‘s. Their daughters stopped wearing traditional clothing and blended in with city fashions. The men would leave to find work outside the village. Later, they would be the first to leave and emigrate abroad. Working until they established a home or base, then bring the wife and children overseas.

This way of life stayed much the same until the 20th Century...even with revolutions, free from the Manchus, then the Japanese occupation, Civil war. Communist China, Cultural revolution...

Around the 1960’s - the British allowed emigration to Britain. The rest we know - many Chinese left their villages in the NT and emigrated to Britain to find work and start businesses.

Kuk Po - that was, until the Seventies, part of a thriving network of villages in the Shataukok area. Fish ponds and fishing as well as rice growing and fruit orchards helped make the villages self-sufficient. Extra produce was sold at the markets in Shataukok and Shenzhen.

In the New Territories of Hong Kong, Hakkas were the largest in numbers, up to 70% of the population were Hakka. Most lived in clan villages.

Then came the 20th Century, wars, revolutions, famines and then in the Sixties came Industrialization and urbanization. In a few short decades HK was transformed. Britain relaxed its immigration laws and the Hakkas left in droves. It’s funny, but Scotland now has larger populations of Hakkas than the original villages where they came from.

In 2005, I came back Hong Kong and visited Kuk Po - saw the abandoned and dilapidated state of the village and my ancestral house - which was built in its current form in 1948 -

It’s been mostly forgotten, but there was an earlier wave of mass migration in the 1880 till 1930’s when millions of Chinese men left Southern China to the Americas. Some of them, like my grandfather, worked on steamship until they reached New York, jumped ship and stayed in Chinatown. He worked as a chef for most of the time.   

He somehow managed to save enough money and remitted it back to the village. Not easy if you look at how chaotic the world was during the 1930s and 40s - The house I live in was built in 1948. Still livable when I first returned in 1985. Luckily, the structure held up until my next return in 2006.

Prodigal son
My part in this history began in the 60’s - my parents emigrated to Britain first, eventually ended up in Glasgow. I joined them in1967 - I can still recall the departure and long flight - it took two days - a long and circuitous route through SE Asia, India, Middle East, Europe, then finally London. Arriving in December - it was change in environment - a Scottish winter - no sun, cold, and a city in the depths of post-industrial decline - imagine all the buildings sprayed painted black - that is the result of more than a hundred years of coal burning - smoggy atmosphere, especially in the winter. So the contrast between Glasgow and HK couldn’t be greater. Guess which I prefer?
So when I grew old enough to travel alone, I made good my escape by hitch-hiking to Europe every summer. In particular was on summer in the Greek islands - Ios, Santorini, etc.

All this was preparation for the greatest return back to my ancestral home/village/valley.
Another formative event was taking up scuba during my student days - going up to Oban in the middle of December - pulling on a wet suit in the open air - with cold winds blowing down on a beach covered with snow and ice. after that, everything else was luxury in comparison and make one thankful for every breath you take.

My subjects at University included biology, zoology and botany. I was already quite an environmentalist- when Greenpeace first started campaigning to save the whales, I organized fundraising parties for their branch in Glasgow. Years later, I met one of the guys who campaigned on those rubber zodiacs and tried to stop Japanese whalers.

I was introduced to Permaculture in Hong Kong around 1988 -  which led to my producing a series of videos for public television in Hawaii when I moved there in 1990. I worked for an environmental group called Earthtrust - they helped to stop Driftnet fishing and save Asian wildlife like tigers and bears.

Later I returned to Britain and worked on a project for Scottish Television, produced a series on ethnic minorities in Scotland.

Then in 2005 I came back to HK for a visit, saw the state of the village, and saw that all the old folks have either passed away or moved to the safety of the city. Many of the houses had been broken into, windows smashed and crowbarred. My house was also in need of repairs. Roof was leaking and walls had holes. Fortunately I made it back in time to stop the rot, literally. Couple of roof beams needed replacing. Walls patched up, and insulation added to make the place more comfortable. I also applied the knowhow in DIY repairs.

A great resource is Youtube - for DIY projects - eg. Rocket stoves - heat up water in the winter for washing.

About Permaculture - to put it simply - it’s sustainable farming - combining traditional and modern organic farming techniques - and based on common sense and science.  eg. your home or living environment is categorized as Zones - where your house is zone 0 - or where you most often need to visit on a daily basis (eg, grow herbs).  Zone 1-2 are for planting vegetables, Zone 3 for fruit trees etc. Depending on your priorities. I have bananas growing in front of the house, and next to it for security reasons. Unfortunately, no ducks or chickens. Recent success with selling organic bananas led me to add the title of ‘Banana man’ - well, in advertising, branding is all the rage. So who am I to go against market forces?

Just over a year ago, a large hill fire swept burnt all the vegetation on the hills - luckily there is a small stand of Castanopsis Fyssa nearby that produced large seeds - they are native to South China, and perfectly suited for replanting those burnt hills. One day there will be a forest again.


It seems a logical thing to do, since I worked as a photographer and a Tlelvision producer, to start making short films with HK and my village as a background. The settings are perfect for the stories I want to tell.

No Hollywood ending

Unfortunately, there is no Hollywood ending - no miraculous turn where the village and the community comes back to life and order is restored...instead, this guy came back from Canada, bought a chainsaw, and started cutting down all the trees that had grown up around the houses. It’s a terrible sight if you love trees.