This small island has much to offer by way of historical monuments, rest, and relaxation

Ancient rock carving
Tung Lung Chau pier (arriving)
The long descent to the rock carving
Tung Lung Fort stone wall
One of many coves
Rocky beaches with overnight campers
Tung Lung Chau pier (departing)
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Tung Lung Chau

With much of its strength historically tied to oceanic trade and marine defence, it makes sense that Hong Kong’s waters are dotted with islands. Beyond the densely populated likes of Lantau, Lamma and Cheung Chau, many visitors spend their weekends exploring abandoned islands. One such small gem is Tung Lung Chau. Located east of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, its relatively uninhabited grounds are only reachable by boat. Fitted with former defensive landmarks and ancient carvings, I was eager to explore the island at the tip of the Clearwater Bay Peninsula.

Situated below Joss House Bay, few reside on Tung Lung Chau. Local ferries (known as kaitos) to and from the island only operate on weekends and public holidays. As such, visits should be carefully planned, lest you find yourself stranded until the following Saturday. The finality of it is stunning. Too often, I see people racing for the subway trains, grumbling if the doors close without them inside (never mind that another train will arrive in five minutes). Sometimes things are easier to appreciate when you know they will only last so long.

If visitors opt to travel to Tung Lung Chau via Hong Kong side, the quick boat ride begins at Sai Wan Ho and ends at the island’s main pier, Nam Tong. Those who journey in from Kowloon are deposited at Fat Tong pier. The latter drop-off point, located closer to the camping sites, is a better option for overnight visitors. Being casual day-trippers, we opted for the former. 

Two restaurants were nestled between the piers, only a fifteen-minute walk apart. Selling simple, hearty fare such as noodles, sandwiches, and fried rice, we made a mental note to circle back for a late lunch. But first, we had some sights to see. Quickly, we passed through a residential area. Occupied housing made up the left side of the path. To the right were the skeletons of abandoned building projects.

Tung Lung Rock Carving

My friend and I followed the path heading westward, urged on by the occasional sign declaring our proximity to the “Tung Lung Rock Carving”. Clocking in at forty-five minutes, our journey to the mysterious ancient etchings was replete with fauna. Rubber plants hovered high above us. Pink bougainvillaea thrived in large, dense bushes. The leaves of giant alocasia reminded me of the hats Studio Ghibli’s Totoro and his little friends wore. Chinese fan palms spread their fingers wide and helped shield the lower foliage (not to mention the human hikers) from the harsh sunlight. Yucca shrubs made my friend “ooh” and “ahh” at their long, pointy leaves and skinny bodies. Allamanda climbed over rocks, fences and railings, their yellow trumpet flowers heralding the arrival of warmer weather. And red garden crotons, a personal favourite of mine, popped up now and then.

These natural joys did not prepare us for the trial we were about to face. To our horror, when we reached the entry point to the viewing area, we were greeted with a staircase promising a long way down. Narrow concrete steps descend to sea level, its end only within sight well past the halfway mark. We took our time heading down and tried not to think about the inevitable trek back up. Above us, an eagle performed elegant swoops and dives. I envied the bird the entire walk down.

The mythical creature of the Tung Lung rock carving

Like the Easter Island heads, the origins of the Tung Lung rock carving are lost to history. The earliest records date back to 1819 in the Xin’an Gazetteer, noted as Hong Kong’s most giant ancient rock carving (nine in total have been found). Measuring 180 by 240 centimetres, sleek, complex lines come together to form a dragon. The mythical creature is surrounded by geometric patterns and swirls that symbolise clouds, thunder and other forces of nature. The designs are strikingly reminiscent of stamped pottery and bronze vessels found in the territory and date back to the Bronze Age (3300-1200 BC). In January 1979, the Tung Lung carving was declared a historical monument. Like the other eight carvings scattered across Hong Kong, it is protected under the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance.

On the gruesome walk back up to the main path, I focused on the next step. My friend trailed behind, opting to take more and longer breaks. When I conquered the final step, a huge breeze blew past. The eagle that I had envied on the way down soared majestically above. When my friend finally rejoined me, he announced that he had counted all the steps on the way up. How many were there? By his count, four hundred and ninety-six. A passing hiker jokingly yelled, “Do you want to check again?” My friend laughed, and I responded with a smile and a resounding “No”.

Returning to the restaurants, we took a relaxing two-hour food and drink break before continuing to the campground. Situated just underneath the island’s northern tip, the site is surrounded by Babylonian pine trees. The ground below shifts between dirt, grass patches and smooth pebbles. Besides tents, overnight visitors had set up awnings to protect themselves from the worst of the sun’s effects.

Tung Lung Fort

Past the campsite, a rectangular one-storey structure was set to the right side of a paved stone pathway. Built to resemble a traditional Chinese village house, the brick structure had a whitewashed exterior and a red tiled roof. Inside, rocky walls displayed informational panels detailing the history of the abandoned Tung Lung Fort.

Known initially as Fo Tang Men Fort, the former military structure is located in the island’s southeast corner. The site overlooks the narrow Fo Tang Men passage, which commands the Fat Tong Mun Channel, the original route junk boats took to sail into Hong Kong en route to Canton. Like the island’s rock carving, the fort’s origins are unknown. However, it is believed to have served as part of a maritime defence system to protect trade and fend off pirates. Rumoured attackers include the famous Chinese pirates Cheng Lien Chang, Cheng I and Po Tsai.

Taiping Navy

In its days of active duty, Tung Lung Fort was manned by approximately twenty-five men of the Taiping navy and contained fifteen guardhouses armed with eight cannons in all. Built sometime between 1662 and 1722, the rectangular structure is framed by ten-foot-high rubble stone walls and situated thirty-five metres above sea level. Cliffs cover three of its four sides. It may have also served as a signal station for message-passing to military headquarters in Kowloon. However, given Tung Lung Fort’s remote location, it became difficult to maintain and was abandoned in 1810. Its personnel then moved to another coast fort at the top of the Kowloon peninsula (the future location of the infamous Kowloon Walled City).

Qing Dynasty Relics

Now, dried yellow moss dots the stony exterior. The main entrance, emphasised by a short wooden staircase, can be found at the northern wall. Visitors will pass through what used to be an arch-shaped brick gate. During excavations, Qing dynasty relics such as porcelain and bronzeware were found. As a result, the site was declared a historical monument in July 1980. Eight years later, it joined the rock carving as a protected site under the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance.

Nam Tong Peak

Totalling an area of approximately two and a half square kilometres, Tung Lung Chau forms the eastern boundary of the Tathong Channel, which leads into Victoria Harbour and Lei Yue Mun. Though it has long since stopped functioning as a strategic military position, the island has much to offer by way of rest and relaxation. For the incredibly energetic, an eight-kilometre circular trail wending the island’s perimeter and Nam Tong Peak (the island’s highest point) is the best way to take in as many sights and sounds as possible. If you take a trip to Tung Lung Chau, bring plenty of sunscreen and water, and keep your eyes wide open to enjoy the little things.

Text & photos Victoria Mae Martyn