Living in Tung Chung has its ups and downs. Lots of people simply can’t believe that I’d choose to live so far away from the city, and are dumbstruck by the duration of my commute (40 minutes each way).
The commute is easily laughed off. Nothing can be worse than the two hours it used to take me to get from Mortimer to my old office in SW1. I’d have to drive to Reading station, battling my way through the school-run traffic; there would be 13 pounds per day in parking costs. I’d have to wait for a train to London, which would cost about 7 pounds for a single journey (a weekly season ticket would be about 70 quid). The train would be packed when it arrived, so the trip to London would always be standing-room only. Then the tube journey (no extra charge; I’d always get a Zone 1 travelcard), which would be unreliable, crowded and smelly. Finally, the walk from the tube station. The whole journey would be expensive, hectic and draining, and then I’d have to do it all over again in the evenings. Here I jump on the E11 bus. There is always a seat, and the seats are comfortable. I can read, or work, or snooze until I arrive at the office. And it costs a bit less than two pounds each way.
Well then, say the cynics, isn’t it amazingly inconvenient to have to get back to Tung Chung if you want to stay out late in Central or Wan Chai? Not really. In the first instance, we have restaurants and bars here too. But even if I’m carousing until the silly hours in Central, the N11 night bus runs every 40 minutes and will whisk me back home. If it’s really necessary, a taxi will only cost $400 or so. Not cheap, but not much more expensive than a black cab from Leicester Square to Paddington.
But even if the travel is a minor inconvenience that can be tolerated, why should it be tolerated? What is so great about Tung Chung?
Three very obvious things spring to mind. The first is the cheap price of property here. If I wanted a flat like mine on HK Island, I would have to pay three to five times the rent – depending on the area it’s in. The second is the proximity of the airport. It is a luxury to know that – when I step off a long, tiring flight – I have only a five minute bus journey before I get home.
But the main reason is that this is the closest you can get to “rural life” in HK while still being connected. Sure, you could live on Lamma or Peng Chau, or relocate to a shack in the jungle, but the commutes from such places are not half as straightforward… and getting home at 2am when you’re legless is definitely not an option.
You don’t have to wander far from Tung Chung’s town centre before things start to get very rural indeed. I wasn’t up for a full-on hike today; I was pretty tired and my acid reflux was playing up. But it was a beautiful day, so I took a short stroll around the neighbourhood.
Some distance to the west of my apartment block there is a public housing estate called Yat Tung – it’s the largest estate in Tung Chung, much larger than the Fu Tung public housing estate, which I can see from my window. There is a large area of untamed land between here and Yat Tung – a hill that is still overgrown with forest, incongruously dividing Tung Chung into two parts. I went to see it, and now I think I understand why nobody has attempted to develop that area. It is covered in gravesites. The second of the year’s grave-clearing festivals has just taken place, so many of the graves are freshly tended and easy to see; but even in the undergrowth, glazed “ancestor pots” full of bones are clustered together. Many graves are festooned with faded “hell money“.
Descending from the hill, I found a large, fairly modern but derelict building painted in faded green and white. It was clearly from pre-handover days and looked like it had been closed up for some time. The sign on the wall proclaimed that it was the “Traffic division, Islands office Lantau”. I peered through a window, but I couldn’t see very much apart from a 2003 calendar still hanging on the wall.
Just a little further down the road is the Tung Chung Battery – it’s ancient, built at the beginning of the 19th century, and nobody even knew its ruins were still there until they were found by accident in 1980. It’s kept in good order, but nobody goes there. It’s less than ten minutes walk from my apartment, but it is silent and you can see nothing of the developed areas from there, except across to Chek Lap Kok island and the airport buildings.
I sat idly there for half an hour, watching the planes landing across the Lantau strait. The isolation made me feel better; good enough to enjoy the irony of going to a Battery to recharge.