- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2003

HONG KONG Bruce Lo grew up in a stilt house, perched above a river in the rural fishing village of Tai O.

Mr. Lo recalls one time when the stilts weren't tall enough and an extremely high tide flooded the family home. He was only 10 years old and went cheerfully swimming through the living room.

Now an outdoor sports trainer, Mr. Lo still keeps a childhood picture of himself and his sister in front of the stilt house in his wallet.

But after being partially leveled by fire, then coming under a looming threat from developers, Tai O soon may exist only in the photos and memories of its days as the "Venice of Hong Kong."

"It's very irritating to hear that these people are going to sacrifice Hong Kong's history and uniqueness for their personal gains," Mr. Lo told a reporter who recently visited Tai O on Hong Kong's outlying Lantau Island.

Preservationists warn that if Tai O vanishes, it will be another valuable piece of Hong Kong history lost, after so many other old areas have been knocked down and bulldozed to make way for more concrete, nondescript high-rises.

"It will be really sad if we could learn about Tai O in the future only from recorded images," said housewife and author Wong Wai-king, who runs a small museum on Tai O, which dates to China's Song Dynasty, 960-1279.

Tai O's 2,600 villagers agree that would be a shame, but they find themselves perilously close to the likely path of a proposed bridge across the Pearl River Delta that would link Hong Kong with Zhuhai, China, and the formerly Portuguese gambling enclave of Macau.

"It's not up to us to decide," said Ho Sam-tin, 66, a fisherwoman who learned about the bridge plans from local gossip. "Who will listen to us?"

Hong Kong developer Gordon Wu may hold no such sentiments about Tai O, after putting forward a plan for a $2 billion Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge that would end up just north of the village.

Mr. Wu's company, Hopewell Holdings Ltd., also envisions putting a container port in the area and replacing Tai O's traditional stilt houses with cobblestoned riverside corridors in a leisure park.

The executive director of Hopewell Engineering & Construction Ltd., Leo Leung, dismissed the stilt houses as "rural slums" that should be cleared away to make way for "bricks and mortar stones that could last for centuries."

Tai O villagers would call their existence traditional rather than slumlike, though quite a few lack modern amenities.

Many still burn wood and charcoal instead of natural gas, and the "toilets" of their stilt houses are typically just a hole in the floor, placed strategically above the river. Bicycles and boats are more common than cars and the only land access is a meandering mountain road. It takes an hour to reach the nearest town by bus.

"It's very different from elsewhere in Hong Kong," said Wong Yin-fun, 33, a housewife. "Here, the air is fresh and my two sons can learn about nature right from the balcony."

Tai O ran into major trouble three years ago. A fire, which villagers believe was caused by overheated electrical wiring, destroyed about 90 of its 300 stilt houses.

The villagers immediately sought to rebuild, but found themselves caught in a bureaucratic maze they could not have envisioned. Officials argued many of the traditional stilt-house features, such as open-air kitchens and hole-in-the-floor "toilets," were not permitted.

Some villagers defied the government and just rebuilt their homes in the old style.

"My grandfather started living here in the Qing Dynasty," said fisherman Fan Shuk-shan, 68, the first to put up a replacement house. "I would have no place to live if I didn't rebuild my home."

The government finally gave permission for rebuilding, but Tai O's victory seemed short-lived as the rich and powerful in Hong Kong, southern China and Macau started pushing for the bridge.

Officials studying the bridge project refused comment on preservationist concerns although government planners acknowledged recently that the stilt houses are "an important part of the history and fishing village character of Tai O."

It would be premature to talk about any impact on the village while officials still mull the various possibilities for the bridge, said Josephine Wong, a spokeswoman for Hong Kong's Environment, Transport and Works Bureau.

By early this year, 12 of the burned stilt houses had been rebuilt. But many people have delayed rebuilding, following numerous newspaper reports indicating the bridge project will go ahead and an ominous visit to the site by Mr. Wu, the developer, in October.

"I know he won't bring us anything good," said Cat Ho, 35, a building-maintenance technician whose family has been living in Tai O for six generations.

Mr. Leung, the Hopewell executive, accompanied Mr. Wu to Tai O and said their purpose was to hear views from the villagers. But it did little to ease Tai O's anxiety.

"Who knows if officials would pull down the houses a year after reconstruction?" asked computer engineer Stanley Chan, who leads a group supporting Tai O residents' rights.

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