16 August 2009

The Pig Sty of History

Many people walk past this abandoned pig sty without realizing the pivotal role it played in Hong Kong history. It's tucked away at the bottom of the hill in the southeast corner of Wang Tong Village, visible only if you take the narrow pathway to the back row of houses.

In the old days Mui Wo was full of pig farms, largely supplying a flourishing local trade in preparing whole roasted pigs for banquets and other ceremonies throughout Hong Kong. Farm hygiene was achieved by draining the animal waste into the nearest stream or gully, which carried it the short distance to Silvermine Bay.

Silvermine Bay was for years possibly the most polluted body of water on Planet Earth. But the numerous weekend holiday makers wouldn't have known that, since the government routinely rated the water quality at around 4-minus-minus, which meant "just barely acceptable". Who knows what diseases people caught after simply dipping their toes in the water? Worse, children played in the mouth of the Wang Tong Stream, where it empties into the bay. One wonders how it affected their DNA.

Maybe some government official's kid came down with diphtheria or hepatitis after a day at Silvermine Beach, because in 1987 the Hong Kong Government closed the beach and declared the water off-limits. People stopped coming on weekends and local businesses complained loudly. Instead of blaming their neighbors (or, more likely, their own relatives) for letting the pig farms ruin it for everybody, they demanded that the government revise its water quality standards downwards!

A new water quality law was passed, and Silvermine Bay was the test case. In 1988 Mui Wo became the first place in Hong Kong where pig farming was banned. It was a significant turning point in the way Hong Kong viewed itself and its future. Pig and poultry farming were declared incompatible with urban development and recreation. It was as if, after three decades of breathless post-war development and urbanization in most of the territory, the powers-that-be took a look around and pronounced that Hong Kong was a great city now, breaking once and for all with its past as a sleepy enclave of fishers and farmers. Those two trades could continue, but from now on only under controlled circumstances and limited to a few places. It signaled a new mindset for Hong Kong, one which looks only to the future and disdains the past.

You would think that the new law would stir up huge opposition from the local farmers. If you think that, then you don't know a thing about Hong Kong people. Each pig farmer was paid off anywhere between 100,000 and one million Hong Kong dollars (US$12,800 - $128,000) to shut down their farm, which back then in remote Lantau was an emperor's ransom. Every penny was plowed into real estate, and every one of those ex-pig farmers is now a property millionaire.

By the way, the beach remained closed until 1989, when the last pig farms shut down. The beach water today is merely dirty rather than venomous. Local kids, including mine, build up antibodies and have never gotten sick.

Not many of the old pig sties remain around this part of the island. The few that haven't been redeveloped into houses have mainly crumbled beyond recognition. The pig sty in Wang Tong, being the closest of them all to the beach, was probably at the vanguard of the pollution problem, and despite its slowly being reclaimed by the forest, is still in fairly sturdy condition. For those reasons it ought to declared a shrine, where urban developers and property speculators bring offerings in gratitude. For here in Wang Tong began a small revolution, where Urban Man once and for all cut off his roots.

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