Like nowhere else, Tai O is a fascinating village on Lantau Island in Hong Kong. Once a fishing village belonging to the Tanka people, the village is almost entirely on stilts. Traditionally the Tanka people built their villages on the water as either boats tied together or as stilt houses. The houses interconnect, making it difficult to determine where one ends and the next begins or even where public spaces end and private spaces begin. This is worth remembering if you wander through the village, as you might find yourself inadvertently ending up in someone’s kitchen!
Due to its location, the village was a place from which smuggling and, more specifically opium smuggling, occurred. The police also took on a sort of magistrate role, settling family disputes in the villages. As a result of this, as well as the fact that the village location facing toward the mainland and Macau, in 1902 the British built a police headquarters on the headland at the mouth of the harbour. Part way up a hill, the building has spectacular views of both the sea and the village. According to the Hong Kong Tourist Board, initially about 8 police were stationed at Tai O, but by the mid-1980’s the force had expended to nearly 180. The station was downgraded to a post in the mid-1990’s and eventually closed in 2002.
In 2009, new owners formed a social enterprise (The Hong Kong Heritage Conservation Foundation), secured funding from the Hong Kong government to renew and preserve the building. Now a nine room boutique hotel, the Tai O Heritage hotel opened for business late in 2012. In addition to the rooms, the hotel has a restaurant, which serves breakfast, tea, and dinner, and is open to non-residents as a museum from the late morning until early evening. As a non-profit, social enterprise, the hotel employs local villagers (according to a press release over half are from Lantau Island) and also offers free gallery space to local, Tai O artists in the restaurant. The very modern glass house that forms the restaurant is itself another effort at conservation as the furniture and tiles come from the now no longer China Tee Club, which was located in the Pedder Building in Central before Abercrombie took the space over and painted it all a rather unsympathetic black. The atmosphere in the restaurant space, while just a bit uncomfortable due to the wooden benches, is a that of the colonial east, which is now so hard to find in Hong Kong (though you can also still find it in The Helena May Club). The conservation is sympathetic and the new additions to the building, namely the restaurant space, work really well with the old building. It is clear from the results that the 4 members of the board of directors for the project have backgrounds in arts and architecture.
We stayed in the hotel in February 2013. We were disappointed. The rooms are rather expensive, and unless you have a room on the second floor, the spectacular views are blocked during the day when the grounds are open to the public by a large screen. We purchased a package, which was to include fishing, but this was not provided or even offered upon our arrival (friends of ours who stayed at the hotel later also reported this lack). The promised gift turned out to be travel sized Molton Brown toiletries, which seemed extremely odd–why advertise as a gift what one gets from a hotel anyway. Lastly, there is one English language newspaper available each day for the whole hotel. If you do not get it first, when going to breakfast, you will not get it at all. What is more, it is on one of those very large sticks, which means reading it across the table is a bit of a challenge. Given this is a luxury hotel, with luxury prices, one expects a bit better. It would seem so simple to not promise the gift (or offer something different) and ask people upon arrival what newspaper they would like delivered to their room in the morning. Perhaps this failure reflects the limited board experience of hospitality compared to arts (though one board member is reported to have a background in hospitality management).
Having said this, once the day trippers are gone, and the blinds are lifted, the views are lovely. The food in the large restaurant is very good–I had lamb and my husband had fish. While full at tea time, the restaurant is quite empty in the evening, which assures that the service is prompt and attentive. One suspects that the limited number of customers at the diner service is not down to the food, but is instead because the prices are probably beyond the means of the local villagers and because Tai O is not easy to get to as car access is limited on Lantau Island. There are also wonderful walks along the coast that can be taken, and the village itself is fascinating as well as being a photographers dream.
My conclusion? As a hotel, the Tai O Heritage Hotel is just OK. I wouldn’t rush to return, but I am glad we went. I am also not convinced by the social enterprise aspects of the hotel. There are items for sale but nothing that appears to be produced by the villagers. The hotel does come into its own as a conservation exercise. If you are travelling to Hong Kong for more that a couple of days, it is well worth the visit to Tai O village where you can see stilt houses and take a boat ride to view pink dolphins. It would also be worth the walk out to the hotel to have a look at the conservation. Unfortunately, because the hotel and social enterprise aspects are not strong, one worries that the long term success of the effort is not assured.
If you are interested in the Tanka or Tan people, this blog provides some interesting facts and a bit of a surprise concerning rocks.
There are more photos of the stilt houses in the photo-gallery (sight lines) called dwelling places on this blog. You can find them here. I have also talked a bit more about housing in a post called “What is the price of housing in Hong Kong?”, which you can find here.
The book by Austin Cotes, titled My Life, A Mandarin, provides an interesting and insightful account of the role of the Colonial Magistrate in the New Territories region of Hong Kong. It is very much worth a read as it also provides a lot of insight into the social spaces that separate the British and British culture from that of the Chinese. I would even say it is a must read for anyone intending to move to Hong Kong, as it provides a good description of how “Face” works in this context, even today.