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In Hong Kong, Farming Is a Political Statement

Increasingly, eating local isn’t just about health and taste—it’s about asserting Hong Kong’s autonomy in the face of mainland China.

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Jul 23 2017, 7:00pm

All photos by author

I went to a banana farm to learn about growing fruit in Hong Kong. Instead I learned about democracy.

It started with a visit to Hamilton Street in Hong Kong's densely-packed Yau Ma Tei district, where a friend introduced me to Tam Chi-kit, who was selling bananas from a folding table on the street. "He grows them himself," explained my friend.

These were not the ubiquitous Cavendish bananas you find with a Del Monte or Chiquita sticker on them. They were girthy, thick-skinned dai ziu—literally "big bananas"—native to this part of Asia. You can find them in markets all over Hong Kong, along with a few other native varieties. Like many local bananas, Tam's dai ziu don't lend themselves well to mass production, so they're grown on a family farm that has somehow managed to survive in one of the most densely-populated cities in the world.

Though the city is most famous for its thicket of skyscrapers—it has more high-rises than any other place in the world—most of its land area is undeveloped. Much of it is reserved for country parks, but large portions are former agricultural land that has been illegally converted into junkyards and storage facilities. More than 2,000 acres are owned by property developers biding their time until they can build. Farming isn't easy in Hong Kong.

Photo by Christopher DeWolf

"Can I come visit?" I asked Tam. "Okay," he replied. "We'll make lunch."

Tam meets me next to a concrete pagoda. The air hums with the sound of cicadas and a chorus of songbirds. As we walk to the farm, Tam points at wild banana trees growing by the road. "Look—bananas everywhere," he says.

The farm isn't quite what I expected. It's a muddy acre of land that spills down a hill to the Sheung Yue River. There are banana trees, but also papayas, soursop and an abundance of herbs. Walking down a concrete path, past two metal gates, we arrive at a cluster of tin-roofed structures. Three elderly people emerge to greet us. There's Uncle Chan, a gangly, bespectacled man with a toothy grin. Auntie Wong, dressed in a floral print shirt. And Uncle Wong, a stout, bald man with a pugnacious demeanour and a t-shirt commemorating the Umbrella Revolution, the student-led pro-democracy movement that occupied Hong Kong's streets for 79 days in 2014. It quickly becomes clear this is no ordinary banana farm.

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Tam fills me in on the details. Uncle Wong was born in China and raised in Indonesia, but as a young man he returned to his homeland and worked for the government. Eventually, he became disillusioned with the Communist regime and fled to Hong Kong. "By then, all of the good land was taken, so the only thing he could find was this place on a hillside," says Tam.

Back then, in the 1950s and 60s, hundreds of thousands of migrants were sneaking into Hong Kong from China, dodging People's Liberation Army troops on one side of the border and colonial British police officers on the other. Most made their way into the city, but some, like Wong, settled in the rural New Territories. He began farming the land, but he stopped maintaining it as he grew older.

Photo by Christopher DeWolf

"How old do you think he is?" asks Tam, nodding towards Wong.

"I'm not sure," I reply. "70s?"

He's 92. Wong looks amazing for his age.

Two years ago, during the Umbrella Revolution, Wong went to the occupied zone to support the student demonstrators. He ended up camping with them on the streets for months. That's where he met Uncle Chan, who had set up a carpentry workshop to build desks for students and makeshift stairs for people to climb concrete barriers on an occupied expressway. Tam, meanwhile, was helping maintain the Democracy Farm, a patch of communal fruits and vegetables growing in roadside planters.

When police cleared the demonstrations in December 2014, the three got together and decided to revive Wong's farm. Tam, who is in his 30s, moved in, while Chan pops by regularly to help out.

Photo by Christopher DeWolf

Tam slips on a pair of rubber boots and takes me on a tour of the property. "We grow three kinds of bananas here," he explains, pointing up at a tree. "Those are dai ziu"—the thick, stubby bananas he was selling on the street. They are tart and fibrous, like South American plantains. Another tree has ngau nai ziu—cow's milk bananas, which have a creamy texture. There are green-skinned bananas, too, which fall somewhere in between the other two.

Photo by Christopher DeWolf

Banana trees aren't actually trees—they are more like tightly-wrapped stalks. They produce fruit only once in their lifetime, when a pod-like, magenta-colored flower descends from the tree and bananas sprout around it. The whole thing looks vaguely alien. After that first crop of bananas, the tree is cut down and new trees emerge from its base.

Walking down the slope to another part of the farm, we pass by an area surrounded by a chain-link fence. "Some rich people came one day and said they own this land, so they built this fence and we can't use it anymore," says Tam. Like many farmers in the New Territories, Wong is technically a squatter, having never paid for the land he occupies. But the situation is not clear cut. When Hong Kong became a British crown colony in 1842, all land was claimed by the government. (To this day, you still can't own land in Hong Kong—you can only lease it for a set period of time).

Photo by Christopher DeWolf

In theory, a legal mechanism known as adverse possession allows a squatter to claim ownership of land he has occupied for more than 12 years. That would seem to apply in Wong's case, but when he went to court to fight for his land, his lawyer's argument was shot down by the magistrate.

Pinched between fast-growing Shenzhen—a mega-city that sprung up after China's economic liberalization in the 1980s—on one side, and housing-scarce Hong Kong on the other, land in the New Territories is under pressure like never before.

We assemble inside Wong's house for lunch. Uncle Chan has cooked up a feast. Auntie Wong serves everyone a bowl of fish soup with black beans, dried longan and fresh papaya from the farm. Then we move on to the rest of the meal: braised duck, Napa cabbage blanched with ginger and dried shrimp, steamed young catfish and tender taro root plucked from behind the house.
Photo by Christopher DeWolf

Tam tells me about his childhood village on the northeastern side of Hong Kong. "My parents weren't farmers, but the neighbors were," he says. Fish, pork, chicken, vegetables, fruit—the village produced everything a healthy community needs. At one point, though, much of the farmland was resumed by the government. "It was the most beautiful area, with good water for farming, and the government turned it into a landfill."

The decline of local agriculture has made a difference in the kitchen. In the early 1990s, more than 30 percent of produce eaten in Hong Kong was grown locally. Today, that number has fallen to just two percent. But hundreds of small farms still exist, taking advantage of Hong Kong's rich soil and year-round growing season. Recently, they have been buoyed by a resurgence of interest in local, organic food, especially after reports of tainted food from mainland China, which supplies the vast majority of Hong Kong's meat, dairy, fruits and vegetables.

Increasingly, however, eating local isn't just about health and taste—it's about asserting Hong Kong's autonomy in the face of mainland China. It's no coincidence that Wong, Chan and Tam are all political activists. In Hong Kong, farming and democracy have become intertwined. Pro-democracy agricultural collectives have emerged in the New Territories, including Choi Yuen Village, founded by a mix of activists and villagers displaced by a high-speed rail line, and the Mapopo Community Farm, which is currently fighting an eviction attempt by a large property developer. For activists, growing your own food is a way to fight against the unholy alliance between Hong Kong's all-powerful property developers, an opaque local government, and the increasingly authoritarian regime in Beijing.

READ MORE: A Clash Between Hong Kong Police and Fishball Vendors Ended in Bloodshed

Last year, Tam banded together with a handful of other activists to open a market stall in Yau Ma Tei—the stall where I saw him selling his bananas. He goes there every afternoon for a few hours. "The neighbors like it because they know where the bananas come from," he says. Most of the stall's goods are second-hand knick-knacks, but they plan to convert it into something more like a café, with stools where people can sit and chat.

Photo by Christopher DeWolf

Outside, the sun has given way to clouds. A light pitter-patter on the tin roof turns into a deafening roar as the clouds open up. As we wait out the storm, Auntie and Uncle Wong disappear into their room and reemerge in dapper city clothes: a floral blouse for her, a Cuban shirt, slacks and Trilby for him. Tam changes into a fresh shirt and baggy harem pants. "How is he ever going to find a girl if he wears pants like that?" mutters Uncle Chan.

By now, the rain has cleared and the sun has returned, but a new storm threatens on the horizon. Tam grabs a few bunches of bananas and we leave the farm, thunder rumbling in the distance.

Photo by Christopher DeWolf