Small island off Hong Kong offers locals escape

A woman lies near the seashore on Peng Chau island in Hong Kong, on Aug. 19.

HONG KONG (Reuters) — Something clicked instantly for Zero Chan when she first set foot on the island of Peng Chau, a short ferry ride from Hong Kong’s central business district, at a time when she was feeling burnt out and recovering from illness.

“When I take the ferry back, it’s like a cleansing ritual,” the former film producer told Reuters. “I can fall asleep, read or do my own thing on the ferry. I already feel recharged.”

The island offers valuable middle ground for some like Chan, who seek to leave behind the stress accumulated from events such as pro-democracy protests in 2019, a national security crackdown that followed, and more recently, strict curbs against COVID-19.

A general view of Peng Chau island in Hong Kong on Sept. 14

These changes have reshaped life in the global financial hub, driving hundreds of thousands to leave for Britain, Canada and Taiwan, but Chan has stayed on.

“At a time when many say Hong Kong is no longer the same as before, the more I feel a need to stay, to see what I can do,” said Chan, who runs a yoga and meditation studio in her home on the island, following that first visit in 2020.

Her customers are a sprinkling of housewives, office workers and retired people. Each morning, she eats breakfast and drinks tea at a white cast-iron table facing the sea, collecting her thoughts for the day.

“People need space, but there’s so much noise in the city,” added the 36-year-old devotee of Buddhism and Zen. “I’m very happy now.”

Some experts say a growing trend of alternative communities can be linked to protest episodes in 2014 and 2019 that railed against China’s tightening grip on the former British colony.

“These social events are important catalysts,” said Ng Mee-kam, a professor of urban studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“In the face of all these changes, all these tensions and all these conflicts, I think it’s inevitable that people of all generations have to reflect on what’s going on, and what life means.”

Newcomers drawn by an idyllic lifestyle and low rents in one of the world’s priciest property markets are rejuvenating Peng Chau, reversing an exodus in the 1970s as fortunes waned in the area, once home to Hong Kong’s biggest matchstick factory.

Many dilapidated village homes have been renovated, and deserted concrete husks such as the Fook Yuen leather factory have been converted into a “secret garden” art space featuring graffiti and installation works.

Cafes, boutiques and an independent bookshop have sprouted beside traditional Chinese temples, family-run shops and diners.

“My woodwork teacher recently came to visit me,” said Jesse Yu, who moved to the island to pursue the dream of being a carpenter.

“He was quite amazed and asked me whether we young people can really survive on dreams,” added Yu, whose workshop, tucked behind a bed in his studio flat, is about 9.3 square meters, or just big enough for two people to stand in.

“My dream is just a wall away from me,” added Yu, who works freelance in corporate communications and sometimes goes kayaking with Chan, a good friend.

“I enjoy doing woodwork because of the freedom.”

Yet, despite a growing trend of seeking out quieter lifestyles on islands as well as villages in the rural New Territories, such spaces are threatened by big new development projects, said Ng, the academic.

“The frontiers for the younger generation to have the space to explore these alternative lifestyles is diminishing, so I think we, as a society, need to be very careful,” he added.

Taki Chan, a college lecturer who moved to the island this year, prizes its close-knit sense of community.

She rapidly became friends with a group of women she met during a walk, after the experience cheered her up sufficiently to join them in a swim, despite feeling unwell.

“After moving to Peng Chau, I realized I don’t need to emigrate anymore,” Chan said.

“There are many resources here to help rejuvenate you, its people, its natural and quiet environment.”