Hong Kong’s ‘Indigenous’ Villages Mirror Tensions Of An Increasingly Divided City

In Hong Kong these days, conflicting views of the ongoing anti-government protests are painfully felt in Yuen Long, a town far to the northwest of the glittering skyscrapers on Hong Kong island. It’s famed for its cuisine and ancestral temples — and for its pro-Beijing sympathies. On the night of July 21, dozens of men wearing white shirts stormed the Yuen Long metro station twice, assaulting protesters and bystanders trapped inside. At least 45 were injured.

Pro-democracy activists suspected that Beijing-funded triads were behind the attacks. Yuen Long, closer to the border with mainland China than it is to Hong Kong island, has historically been a stronghold of triad activity. But residents of Yuen Long insist the attacks were in self-defense, initiated by clan networks, fearful that protesters would destroy their villages.

“What are you going to do when someone wants to come to your house and wants to burn down your property and rape your women? Are you going to sit there and wait for it to happen?” says Paul, a 68-year-old resident of Nam Pin Wai, a so-called “indigenous” village — where residents’ ancestors predated British colonial rule — just steps away from the Yuen Long metro station. Nam Pin Wai is where the white-shirted assailants retreated after beating protesters on July 21. According to local media, the village is also the territory of a well-known triad group, Wo Shing Wo.

Paul declined to give his full name for fear of reprisals by protesters. But he was unapologetic about his fellow villagers beating the protesters. “We are not going to be sitting ducks. We are not chicken****,” he declared, using an expletive.

Caught between an encroaching, urbanizing Hong Kong and a rising China, the indigenous villages have chosen to ally with the latter. That has pitted them against the thousands of protesters who have taken to Hong Kong’s streets for more than four months, demanding democratic reforms and the end to a now-terminated extradition bill with mainland China.

“We are part of China. We were handed back [to China] in 1997,” says Wong, resident of Nam Pin Wai in his late 60s, who also declined to give his full name because pro-Beijing people have been beaten up by protesters and because he distrusts foreign media. “We should not expect the United States or the United Kingdom to help us. We can only rely on China.”

“I hope they value what we are”

Yuen Long lies squarely within Hong Kong’s New Territories, a tract of land temporarily leased from the Qing empire in 1898 by British colonial rulers to expand their cramped holdings on Hong Kong island and Kowloon. The expiration of that lease prompted negotiations for Hong Kong’s eventual handover to China in 1997. Residents of centuries-old indigenous villages that dot the New Territories have maintained stronger cultural ties to the mainland than the rest of Hong Kong.

Lawmaker Junius Ho, who represents the western swath of the New Territories encompassing Yuen Long, has become a prominent pro-China advocate, even scoring an invitation to Beijing for high-profile celebrations of the Communist Party’s 70th year in power this month. Video from the night of July 21 shows Ho shaking hands with some of the white-shirted assailants who attacked protesters. Ho did not respond to NPR’s requests for an interview.

Among the protesters, Ho is so reviled that they have affixed posters of his face to sidewalks for irreverent pedestrians to step on.

Politically, indigenous inhabitants in Yuen Long say they support the Chinese Communist Party not so much out of a love for China’s governance system, but from a fear of it.

“The Chinese Communist Party could squash us in an instant. We are a piece of cake,” says Wong, warning that increasingly violent protests risk the ire of Beijing and could pull the city into complete chaos.

Fearing Hong Kong protesters would smash or deface houses with graffiti, Nam Pin Wai villagers have created volunteer patrols to scare off stray protesters who come near the village on weekends. Some residents say when they heard protesters were descending on Yuen Long in July, they evacuated women and children.

“We enjoy special privileges,” says Paul, referring to Hong Kong’s rule of law and access to international financial systems. Protesters, he fears, will invite only further violence, destroying those institutions: “I hope they value what we are. Don’t screw it up. Don’t spoil it.”

He fully supports Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s controversial decision to use emergency powers beginning Oct. 4 and hopes emergency powers will give Hong Kong’s government the means to halt protests completely — and thus head off any intervention from Beijing.

Colonial-era emergency powers allow Lam to bypass Hong Kong’s legislative council to enact any security measure she deems necessary during times of public danger. Tens of thousands of protesters marched peacefully on Oct. 6 against a ban on face masks invoked under emergency powers, fearing that more draconian curtailing of civil liberties may lie ahead.

Ip Kwok-him, a Hong Kong official who sits on mainland China’s legislative body, told a local radio station soon after the Oct. 6 march that Internet controls are not off the table under the emergency regulation. Ip declined to be interviewed for this story.

New residents, new tensions

Ironically, Hong Kong’s indigenous villages exist today because of revolution. Linked by clan networks once accustomed to fending off pirate attacks, the villages also mounted some of Hong Kong’s most aggressive resistance to British colonial rule.

Those tensions culminated in the bloody Six-Day War of 1899, an armed rebellion the British quickly wiped out. But the conflict secured the indigenous inhabitants more expansive land rights that continue to allow them to build their own residences on land passed down through the male line. Those privileges have cushioned them from Hong Kong’s onerous property prices and allowed some to amass fortunes through the sale or leasing of such land.

That has stoked periodic resentment from other Hong Kong residents, who must pay a substantial fee to build on land they own.

Yet in the last few decades, indigenous villages have absorbed waves of new residents, seeking a respite from Hong Kong’s high rents and dense urban neighborhoods, and bringing with them with different political beliefs.

“People hear Yuen Long now and think that everyone here is violent and against the protests, but that is a misconception,” says a 19-year old student surnamed Kong, born and raised in Nam Pin Wai and having lunch with his family at a local restaurant. He said he supports the protests, but declined to provide his full name because of how divisive the topic has become in the small village.

Sitting only a few tables away from the Kong family, other lunch-goers loudly proclaim that American and British forces are paying anti-China protesters to take to the streets. The theory is heavily propagated by Chinese state-linked disinformation campaigns on Twitter and by Communist Party-backed news outlets on the mainland.

Ideally, say many villagers, they would be left alone — by both Hong Kong and China.

“We need to stand alone,” says a Yuen Long resident who provided only her surname as Tsang, citing sensitivity over her viewpoint among protesters. “You should not blindly follow one side or the other.”

Karen Kwok contributed reporting from Hong Kong.

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