Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Sampan Ladies Remind Hong Kong of Past

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Sampan Ladies Remind Hong Kong of Past

Article excerpt

CHOW Mai-lui was only 3 years old when her impoverished family sold her to pay for her mother's funeral. She was still a child when she learned to man a sampan.

Today, after a lifetime of hard labor, Chow is one of the last of Tai O's sampan ladies.

Every day, the weathered, 69-year-old widow and her narrow boat ply the island's shore, giving tourists a sense of what life was like before downtown Hong Kong was skyscrapered over. Two hours by ferry and bus from the city center, out of sight of the u rban skyline, Tai O lies off the southwest coast of Lantau, Hong Kong's largest island. Its 130 acres offer clean air, old streets and shrines honoring Chinese generals of centuries ago. Beyond the tiny village of stone-paved alleys and huts on stilts lie green hills and hiking trails. The 100-foot-wide channel that separates Tai O from Lantau Island is the waterway that led locals to refer to the area as Hong Kong's Venice. "Hello, 10 dollars . . . sampan, Hong Kong Venice," Chow beckons to foreigners in her broken English. That's 10 Hong Kong dollars, or about $1.30 for a 30-minute jaunt. With young people leaving for jobs in the city, the population of Tai O has dwindled over the years from 40,000 to about 6,000, and tourism has replaced fishing as its main industry. "You can no longer find this kind of pleasant environment, with the traditional village houses, in the urban area," says Timothy Leung, 35, a computer programmer lured from the city for some salted fish, Tai O's specialty. Schooled in the rigors of Chinese peasant life, Chow and her sampan represent the flip side of a society whose stereotypical citizen carries a cellular phone and juggles a stock portfolio. Chow knows the channel like the back of her gnarled hand. With her slippered feet planted firmly on the rowing platform and a cone-shaped wicker hat protecting her from the sun, she steers her sampan expertly past the tin and bamboo huts that line the shore. …

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