Cantonese History

Dancing lion heads on display
A Chinese opera gown
A festive lantern to welcome the birth of a son
An intense interior display of a festival setup
Caiman-shaped wooden plate
Gigantic latern in the middle hall
Mural beside the museum’s entrance
The lifecycle of wooden statues
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Hong Kong’s intangible heritage

History is not a passive exercise confined to textbooks or documentaries. Delving into highlights of Hong Kong’s many cultural touchstones, our recent visit to the Sam Tung Uk Museum gave us a newfound appreciation for the diversity of Hong Kong’s tangible and intangible cultural heritage.

It’s impossible to miss. The only one-storey complex in the neighbourhood, Sam Tung Uk Museum, is dwarfed by residential complexes and multilevel parking lots. Its outer wall is painted pristine white, except for the colourful mural decorating the wall beside the entry point. Chinese banyan trees provide much-needed shade. At their feet, broad-leafed monstera and Indian laurels crowd and compete for soil space.

The original structures, which stand to this day and make up the interior buildings, were built under the supervision of clan patriarch Chan Yam-shing.

Qing dynasty

Built in 1786 during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), this over 200-year-old Hakka walled village owes its existence to the eldest branch of the Chan clan. The clan was originally based in China’s Fujian province. The family then migrated to Guangdong before settling in Tsuen Wan in the mid-eighteenth century. Their choice of settlement location was not arbitrary, but strategic. Located along the coast, the district’s original name, Tsin Wan, directly translates to shallow bay. In the Hakka dialect, the district was also formerly referred to as Tsak Wan, meaning pirate bay. The Chan clan reclaimed land along the coast to make the most of their farming efforts, a fact the modern visitor would easily miss. Land reclamation is a tried-and-true land development strategy in Hong Kong, with coastal lines being pushed farther and farther every year. Sam Tung Uk Museum now covers an area of 2,000 square metres, making it all too easy to get lost. However, much like a chessboard, the layout of the grounds is perfectly symmetrical in design.

Chan Clan

As the dwellings of the oldest branch of the family, the four individual dwellings set in the centre were the first to be constructed. Moving through the central axis, visitors pass through the Entrance, Assembly and Ancestral halls. Due to their configuration along the central axis, these three sections were named Sam Tung Uk, a building with three ridge purlins.

Hakka Village

Before stepping into the Hakka village, I encourage visitors to lift their heads and look up. At the very top of the entryway, a rectangular wooden fascia board is intricately painted with chrysanthemums (white with pink hues) and golden butterflies – both auspicious symbols of longevity. Directly below, a caiman-shaped wooden plate imitates a large festive lantern and continues the theme of chrysanthemums and butterflies. The background colours (red, turquoise and sea foam green) make the details stand out to the viewer. A human-sized vertical wooden plank – painted red, flecked in gold and decorated with Chinese calligraphy – frames either side of the open entrance.

Chan Kin-sheung

The Assembly Hall, the plainest of the three, was where the family gathered. A heavy pair of screen doors painted maroon-red shields the ancestral altar from direct sunlight. On top of the screen doors sits a replica of the original plaque given to Chan Kin-sheung by the Qing court to honour his character and contributions to the locality. The inscription appropriately translates to greatly respected patriarch.

As sequence is significant in traditional Chinese architecture, there is meaning behind the dwellings that surround the Ancestral Hall. Upon entering, eyes are immediately drawn to the substantial paper lantern hanging in the middle. This brings to mind traditional lantern-lighting rituals. At Sam Tung Uk, the community celebrates a ritual each first lunar month to welcome newborn sons into their clan.

After admiring the gigantic lantern, marvel at the altar. Fitted at the very back of the village’s central axis, auspicious motifs appear in droves, with phoenixes, a rising sun, gourds, bats and longevity roundels enshrining all of the Chan clan’s ancestors.

Open courtyards are a common sight. Serving the double purpose of ventilation and daylight access, rainwater runs across and over Hakka-style tiles; during rainy days, the water gathers into the sunken square in the centre. This allows people to navigate the courtyard during rainstorms without getting drenched.

Intangible Cultural Heritage Centre

Sam Tung Uk Museum is a place that, if explored properly, will translate into several trips of excitement and wonder. With its interactive exhibitions set up by the Intangible Cultural Heritage Centre, the hardworking people behind the museum understand that it isn’t enough to be told about history. Most people are visual learners by nature and appreciate tactile elements. By encouraging visitors to make their own history and witness the step-by-step procedures behind the festivals, foods and decorations that make up Cantonese culture, they open themselves up to more fully appreciate the generations of work behind favourite parts of Hong Kong tradition.

Text and Photos by Victoria Mae Martyn