Community & Education HKFP Reports Hong Kong Interviews

Tales of Shui Hau: The race to preserve Hong Kong’s disappearing rural ‘mountain songs’

Over a century ago, before the arrival of the British, rural Hong Kong was linguistically diverse. Some inhabitants spoke Hakka, fishermen living on boats communicated using their own Tanka dialects, while Yuen Long, Sha Tin and Tai Po spoke different variations of Waitau Wa – village Cantonese.

But when conservationist Chloe Lai set out for South Lantau to film a documentary about elderly Waitau Wa speakers in Shui Hau village, she became captivated by their “mountain songs,” which – if not preserved – may vanish within a generation.

South Lantau

Shui Hau village. Photo: Rhymes of Shui Hau trailer screenshot.

Among the villages dotted along South Lantau Road, Shui Hau village is relatively small, with a population of only several hundred. Its picturesque beach is popular with clam-diggers across Hong Kong.

Lai – better known as an urban researcher – told HKFP that she was introduced to Shui Hau after her friends from the University of Hong Kong conducted a biodiversity project in the area, and decided to extend her conservation efforts to the rural village. Along with documentary director Freddie Chan, she interviewed three elderly village women speaking Waitau Wa.

The oldest of the women is over 90, and is not an indigenous Shui Hau villager. She was married into the community from neighbouring Shek Pik village, her birthplace two kilometres to the west.

Shui Hau village Lantau

Photo: Google Maps.

“Shek Pik village no longer exists – it’s buried underneath the Shek Pik reservoir,” added Lai. Shui Hau villagers took part in building what was Hong Kong’s largest reservoir back in 1961, and their neighbours were relocated to an urban estate in Tsuen Wan.

Anthropological clues

Through assistance from the children and grandchildren of the women, Lai and her team began transcribing their “mountain songs” – popular Waitau Wa rhymes that they learnt to sing in their youth. These rhymes appear to have had both a cultural and practical significance: “Some of them are call-and-response songs between men and women – probably used as a way of flirting,” said Lai.

There have been attempts to preserve mountain songs in other parts of Hong Kong, including the release of a CD collection of rhymes from Lung Yeuk Tau village in Fanling. However, Lai observed several clues suggesting that the mountain songs sung by the three elderly women were locally-specific, and probably originated from Shui Hau – not anywhere else in the territory.

Shui Hau South Lantau

Two of the interviewees. Photo: Urban Diary via Facebook.

Lai said that some songs included descriptions of birds that only appeared in Shui Hau village in certain months of the year given their migration patterns: “This is something very geographically-specific.”

“Also, the Shui Hau women didn’t understand the mountain songs sung by the Shek Pik woman,” she added.

When screening her completed documentary for the first time, Lai also met a villager from North Lantau’s Tung Chung, who cited his local elders as saying that their own mountain songs were adapted from those of Shui Hau.

“I was very surprised to hear this, and I wanted to know how we could find out more in the future.”

South Lantau

The beach at Shui Hau. Photo: Urban Diary via Facebook.

Lai told HKFP that the mountain songs reflected the traditions and daily tribulations of an agricultural society. “What you can hear is a lot of family topics and inequality between males and females,” she said. “For example, a man will sing that he wants to have eight wives.”

“In our documentary trailer we featured a song about birds, but we also heard songs about agriculture – such as a bad guy stealing your crops, or a wild animal eating some of them.”

At present, Lai has only organised screenings of her documentary for visitors to Shui Hau village itself. While she intends to show the film to a wider audience in urban Hong Kong, she says she did not produce the work for profit, and thus will only be able to do so when she finds a suitable space and equipment in the future.

《水口婆婆的山歌》預告片

【嶼南風貌、同話水口】

《水口婆婆的山歌》將於七、八月喺「同話水口」活動中首映,想知道更多,請密切留意城市日記Facebook專頁!

《水口婆婆的山歌》
導演 : 陳浩倫
2017 / 香港 / 彩色 / 30 分鐘 / 廣東話對白,中英文字幕

發展是硬道理,城市亦必須擴張。任何未能符合以上目標的風物皆被視為過時、落伍,即使不主動摒棄,亦放任其消亡。我們已經忘記,究竟有多少前人累積的智慧,在目標為本的現實下消失。大嶼山鳳凰山腳,嶼南道上的水口村屹立三百載,屬本地人的聚落。《水口婆婆的山歌》以鏡頭記錄三位水口村婆婆的故事。婆婆的母語是圍頭話,但譜出陪伴她們成長的山歌的世界已經消失。她們的母語會走上同樣的結局嗎?假如這天來臨,所有包含在這古老語言裡的故事與智慧會否灰飛煙滅?我們沒有答案,但希望以此紀錄片為起點,一起思考。

Publié par 城市日記 Urban Diary sur mercredi 12 juillet 2017

Tales of Shui Hau

  • Date: August 5, 1pm and August 6, 12:30pm.
  • Address: Shui Hau Village Hall, South Lantau.
  • Free entry.

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Tales of Shui Hau: The race to preserve Hong Kong's disappearing rural 'mountain songs'