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Lamma Island: A Fragile Sliver of Paradise

by Courtney Miceli

posted on November 07, 2018

Photo Courtesy: iStock/Boogich

Touching down in Hong Kong, it’s difficult for one to feel anything but small. With a population of nearly 7.4 million residents cuddled between the borders of an approximately 1000-square-mile plot of land, the territory grows high into the sky, boasting a concrete jungle made up of more than 8000 skyscrapers. Walking beneath these towering high rises, amidst the commotion, the vibrancy, and the whirling sounds of the city streets, makes you feel as though you’ve entered a place where life refuses to stand still, even for a brief moment.

(Photo Courtesy: danielvfung)

(Photo Courtesy: Courtney Miceli)

Thankfully, for those of us who crave a breath of fresh ocean air, or a momentary pause from the metropolitan buzz, Hong Kong houses a tiny refuge in the South China Sea. Just beyond one of the world’s busiest shipping harbors, a mere 20-minute ferry ride from Central Hong Kong, is Lamma Island, also known as Pok Liu Chau, a spot with a contrastingly-shrunken skyline and an utterly laid-back soul.

(Photo Courtesy: Courtney Miceli)

Docking at Lamma’s harbour, in the main village of Yung Shue Wan, I felt as though I had been transported to a different country entirely. Small wooden fishing boats dotted the shoreline and a stretch of colorful buildings, tiered along the island’s hilly landscape, invited me ashore. Bicycles whizzed by as I walked through the village in search of my Airbnb, and it took me a minute to fully take in what I was experiencing: an island in Hong Kong virtually absent of motorbikes, trucks, buses, and cars. Apart from a handful of four-wheeler emergency and construction vehicles, the island’s soundtrack was composed of the faint whir of pedals and the hum of the ocean’s waves.

(Photo Courtesy: Azchael)

I spent my first night eating at an open-air seafood joint before hopping between the plentiful bars and cafes on the main strip. Word of the island’s charm must have gotten out long ago, because nearly every storefront drew inspiration from elsewhere — a Spanish tapas bar, an Indian kitchen, and a British pub were just a few examples — and patrons were just as diverse.

As I walked home, I passed a slew of local Hong Kongers and expats, all lined up on a Friday night to withdraw cash from Lamma’s only working ATM machine. I laughed to myself in amazement, pondering just how it could be possible that this island survived the population boom of Hong Kong with just 6000 residents to call it home. And, more importantly, I wondered if it would continue to flourish in this sleepy state.

Lamma Island’s first settlers are thought to have arrived as early as 4000 BC. Surrounded by water, the island communities were heavily dependent on the sea, and the island eventually housed the busiest fish farming village in all of Hong Kong. The traditional fisherfolk lifestyle can still be seen in the eastern Sok Kwu Wan village, where stilt homes and floating rafts decorate the quiet bay. Lamma’s nostalgic villages, along with its many hiking trails and swimmable beaches, draws crowds of tourists every summer, but just how long this picturesque location will remain is a hot topic of discussion.

(Photo Courtesy: Courtney Miceli)

According to Jo Wilson, a long-time resident of Lamma Island and the founder of an environmental group called Living Lamma, “like many places in Hong Kong's rural areas . . . it suffers from an approach to planning and provision of services that does not meet the needs of the community.” She continued to explain that there’s “little in the way of support, in terms of education, training [or] facilities to develop eco-tourism.”

Living Lamma campaigns for a greener, cleaner island. The group was one of many to oppose a 2012 housing- and resort-development in Sok Kwu Wan, which would expectedly double the number of Lamma’s residents and disrupt marine ecosystems in the southern part of the island. The plan was eventually shelved, but Wilson worries that it may resurface, as many other failed development plans have washed ashore since.

(Photo Courtesy: glonnlxxx)

For an island with no buildings that reach higher than three stories, the potential surge of high-rise living and lodging quarters would, according to some residents, completely alter Lamma’s humble character, and, more importantly, its ecology. Along with the lush greenery that blankets its rolling hills, Lamma is home to many animal species, and cradles the last remaining nesting site in Hong Kong for the endangered green sea turtle. Sham Wan bay was once regularly populated by these turtles, and was even banned to tourists during their annual nesting season, but, since 2012, there hasn’t been a single sea turtle sighting on the beach, likely due to the busy surrounding waters and drifting ocean waste.

(Photo Courtesy: Tuomas_Lehtinen)

In an attempt to court the turtles back, Lamma’s residents and environmental groups participate in regular clean-up efforts, battling yet another major threat to the island: pollution. Living Lamma has been organizing beach cleanup events once a month, on average, for the past 10 years. Unfortunately, these efforts have yet to result in a turtle sighting; according to Wilson, “Ten years is not [long] enough while people continue with the same habits. Though some beaches are better at certain times of the year, the waste is constant and not yet getting better. [On the upside], more and more people are realizing that it does not disappear by itself and are coming to help clean up.” After Typhoon Mangkhut hit in September, there has been an even greater need for community cleanups, especially in Sok Kwu Wan, which Wilson says should be deemed a disaster site in its current state.

For now, faithful island dwellers are doing what they can to sustain what’s left of a coexistence between nature and village life, but things won’t improve without a substantial investment in education, manpower, and equipment, according to Wilson. Lamma Island needs development, but that which is sustainable.

There is undoubtedly booming potential for a growth in tourism here. After all, what had initially drawn me to Lamma Island were its white sandy beaches, vast tropical canopies, and its cool, mellow demeanour that so starkly contrasted the rest of Hong Kong. But, by the time I left, I felt there was a deeper story to be heard — that of its ancient traditions, rare ecosystems and the inhabitants who work tirelessly to protect it all. So, if you ever find yourself on a ferry, heading to this wonderous pearl in the sea, just remember to tread lightly; embrace its beauty, but more importantly, understand what’s needed to sustain it.

(Photo Courtesy: Courtney Miceli)

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