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Shing Mun River, Hong Kong

The underwater territories of Sam Mun Tsai

Text and photo by Alessandro Carboni

realised within Library – SoundPocket,  Hong Kong

with the support of the Italian Cultural Institute and the General Consulate of Italy in Hong Kong.

Published on

Hong Kong’s dramatic urban transformation, from the late 50s until now, has changed the city’s face and identity. The anthropic activity on the Sha Tin area, that began in the early 70′, after land reclamation and extension of land over the sea, has cancelled a many rural villages creating the biggest residential urban agglomerate in Hong Kong.

Alessandro Carboni, a visual artist in residence in Hong Kong, tells us about these transformations starting from his explorations around the Shing Mun River, the river that runs through Shat Tin area. The river becomes the place of contact between two points, the natural landscape, in particular the coastline, the river and the mountains, and the artificial landscape, that is the effects of production activity, social, cultural and environmental life in the various neighbourhoods starting from Tai Wai up to Tai Po. The river, according to the artist, is the central element of the transformation, a tangible landscape system, that is an element in balance where all natural and artificial elements can be variably connected. Interviews, audio and visual field recordings of the landscape will be presented in the form of audio-visual installations in an exhibition in Hong Kong and will be donated to the project Library, audio archive managed by the organisation Sound Pocket from Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is a city built in layers. Some of these are visible while others are erased after a short time. There are elements are rooted in the history that belong to the heritage of the city which are visible while others are volatile elements that belong to the bodies, the gestures, the relations between the inhabitants. The elements that constitute the urban fabric are not uniformly distributed, but are arranged in an irrational, unpredictable, disjointed way. Hong Kong is a city of contrasts. The different scales of measurement, fast changes, the clash between macro and micro, the use of urban space make the city unique.

It’s early in the morning. My exploration begins here, in the Bay of Sheun Wan Hoi, in the district of Tai Po. In this moment I’m standing in front of the sea, dark, grey like the low clouds that move fast over my head.

Some sun rays get through creating lines of light that are reflected over the water in the distance.

I observe the bay: moored boats, small ferries and, in the distance, the island of Yim Tin Tsai. This is connected with the mainland to Beverly Hills, not the Los Angeles district, but the recently built luxurious residential agglomeration. On the other side it is connected with the island of Ma Shi Chau by a tombolo, a narrow strip of sand that allow to reach the island only when the tide is low.

In the distance, on the island I can see Sam Mun Tsai New Village and Luen Yick Fishermen Village. The villages partly spread on the water where the inhabitants have built houseboats in which they live, fish, grow other fish and moor the boats.

Human presence in the island of Yim Tin Tsai dates back to the Neolithic Age, about 4000 years ago. While in other islands not far from here, around Tolo Harbour, for example Yuen Chau Tsai and Centre Island, human presence dates back to about 6000 years ago.

While standing here, still, every instant seems like a century. I think of the articles I’ve recently read that said that over the millennia, centuries and recent years different cultures, peoples and clans have settled in the island of Yim Tin Tsai. Among the latest, the Hakka Chan clan from Shenzen who in the 19th century settled permanently in the island. In reality the island of Yim Tin Tsai was particularly famous for its salt pans. Between the fishermen’s houseboats, between the clouds and mist, in the distance I can see the block, a huge array of buildings built on the shores of the Shing Mun. In reality, the village of Sam Mun Tsai, visible in front of me, is not the original one. It is the new village. In fact the village once stood on the other side of the bay, near Tai Kau and Luk Heung. They no longer exist, they have been embedded into the Plover Cove Reservoir huge dam, the biggest artificial reservoir in Hong Kong. The old village of Sam Mun Tsai, submerged after building the Plover Cove Reservoir, was re-built and about 36 families have been relocated in Sam Mun Tsai New Village which I now see in front of me.

On my left I observe the dam. A mammoth building that has irreversibly transformed the bay of Sheun Wan Hoi. The building, dating back to the early 70s, is a very long strip of land which closed the bay from side to side: on one side the dam, a fresh water reservoir; on the other the sea. With the construction of the dam, most of the natural system was modified, irreversibly destroying the natural eco-system of the bay. The villagers blame the construction of the dam for the decline of local agriculture in the Tai Po area.

My thoughts are interrupted by a gentle breeze. The sea ripples, creating a myriad of shades of grey. Now, sitting, I listen to the sound of the sea that slowly emerges from the surreal silence of the city.

The mist slowly fades away and the buildings behind the village are more visible. Not far away I can see a small pier where rowing boats are moored. They are many and of different colours. Opposite, a sign hanging in a small kiosk indicates the possibility to rent a boat. Me and my friend Dylan, who joins me in the meantime, decide to rent a boat and go towards the village of Sam Mun Tsai, precisely in the area of the houseboats.

As we get on board the noise of the city, always present until then, gradually disappears. We can only hear the soft sound of the waves slamming on the prow. We advance slowly towards the centre of the bay, stroke after stroke the city around us gets smaller and smaller.

I observe the water, the reflections, the dark colour. In my bag, as well as the camera, I have my audio recorder. This time I’ve also brought with me a couple of Hydrophones, underwater microphones that can record a wide range of frequencies deep underwater. Usually these microphones are used to record the calls of dolphins and whales. We stop at the centre of the bay. The sea is nearly flat and the small waves slowly move the boat. I turn on the recorder and let the microphones down to a depth of about 5 metres. The sound immediately overwhelms me. Amazing! Suddenly, I am in another world. I can hear the sound of the fishermen boats from the village over a kilometre away. I can hear the sound of the riptide, the sound of the moving sand below in the bottom. The body of water becomes the sound conductor of the underwater landscape. I keep listening while observing the external landscape around me. I see the delta of the Shing Mun River.

I think about Mr. Choi’s stories about pearls pickers in the bay of Sheun Wan Hoi. For several centuries, from the Han Dynasty to the Ming Dynasty, pearls trade was the main industry in the Tai Po area. After that long period of uncontrolled exploitation, the pearls in the bay of Sheun Wan Hoi went virtually extinct. The sound I am listening to now is probably the same sound that pearls pickers heard during their dives: a long deep breath and down in the depths, up to 20-30 metres, picking as many pearls as possible; the sound of the riptide, of the blades of the oars hitting the water and the voices of their mates inciting them to go deeper and deeper.

I keep recording the underwater landscape and slowly we near a small island in the middle of the bay, between the land the fishermen’s village. Another sound layer emerges, overlapping with the sound of the bottom of the sea. The gentle breeze that accompanied us until now increases near the island, violently slamming the waves on the rocks. The sound of the wind on the trees overlaps with that of the singing birds. The sonic landscape is reach and dense with details. I decide to record this moment using 4 microphones over four channels: two underwater microphones record the bottom of the sea while the other two record the environment outside. On the headphones I listen to a new world, created by the two overlapping sound landscapes. I listen to every micro variation, the sound details coming from the bottom of the sea: the boats’ engines, the sound of the waves crashing on the rocks, the sand; at the same time I can listen to the sound of the trees blown by the wind…

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