So this post was originally going to be, well, a footnote more or less. During an excursion to Lantau Island 大嶼山, the largest in the Hong Kong 香港 archipelago, shortly after Lunar New Year in early 2017, I came across this boxy husk of a building looming out out of the encroaching forest and ventured inside to take a peek. This was (as far as I can recall), the first time I’d stepped foot in an abandoned building and there wasn’t much to this one. A few rooms with moulding bunks and single beds, rusting appliances and the concrete being slowly ensnared by persistent vines. Despite it’s small size, it had decayed rather gracefully and I remember trying to decide on what it had once been. The obvious answer to me at the time was a youth hostel given the generous amount of space given to the rather basic and decidedly un-luxurious sleeping arrangements. There was one vastly more intact and open-for-business just a stones throw away, so I reasoned that this ruined accommodation had changed to a more favourable location or gone out of business and been replaced, but despite this I couldn’t find any more information about it. The only mention I found of it online was a blogger, who had taken a distant snapshot, and glossed over it briefly in an ‘oh-and-here’s-an-abandoned-building-I-spotted-on-the-trail’ sort of way, but I could find no definitive answers and it bothered me.
Fast forward to February 2018 and, now I’ve got a little more experience with this sort of thing, I decided to have another go at digging up some info. This time, the results proved more fruitful, and in fact there’s a neat little story to go along with this place which rather makes me wish I’d thought to trawl through the area more thoroughly and take more photos. Unfortunately, hindsight makes fools of us all (well, mostly me seemingly) and I’ll have a more in-depth nosey, when I return. The picture-to-text ratio in this one is going to be catastrophic, so only people with attention spans on the longer end of the scale should proceed. Although if you’ve got this far, you’re already an outlier so it’s probably a little late for that.
It all starts with a man named Brook Bernacchi 貝納褀, a British lawyer and son of Antarctic explorer Louis Bernacchi, who relocated to Hong Kong in 1945, after having arrived as part of the British liberation forces that were sent in the wake of the occupying Japanese’s surrender. Rather than head back home when the handover was complete, he elected to stay and fashion a life for himself, adequately equipped with his background in law, he quickly established himself in this field, joining the Bar and becoming a member of the Queen’s Councel in 1948.
In 1947 Bernacchi bought a large 42 hectare piece of land on the Ngong Ping Plateau on Lantau, after deciding that it’s mountainous geography and wet, humid climate would be the perfect place to develop a tea plantation – an idea he’d supposedly harboured after witnessing the huge tea estates of Burma while stationed there during the war. As well as producing the only Hong Kong grown tea available, the plantation appears to have been an opportunity for Bernacchi to engage in philanthropic works, providing a rare opportunity of employment for recently released prisoners and drug addicts.
Over 100,000 tea trees were planted on the Ngong Ping mountaintop, comprising 4 different strains, which, after being processed and packed, were marketed as ‘Lotus Brand 蓮花嘜’. Over 40 staff were employed at the plantation at the height of the company’s success in the 1960s, which it appears was rather short lived, as competition from the mainland, with it’s much lower cost of labour, drove down prices to a level that the Lotus brand couldn’t compete with, and the business was vastly scaled down, yet continued over the new few decades in a smaller capacity – possibly kept afloat by Bernacchi’s earnings from his work in law.
After being diagnosed with brain cancer in 1994, Bernacchi headed back to the UK for treatment, but not before handing over the reigns of the business to his employee and friend, Chan Woon Chi 陳煥池, a local cement maker who took on the struggling enterprise and attempted to diversify, incorporating a tea garden and vegetarian restaurant into the mix most likely in the hope of capturing foot traffic from tourists hiking the mountain trails and visiting the nearby Po Lin Monastery 寶蓮禪寺.
Bernacchi died in 1996 to the dismay of many local residents. As well as making many friends and providing job opportunities on Lantau, he’d played a vital part in improving the infrastructure of the island, using his influence to promote the construction of roads, water supplies; as well as arranging English lessons for the residents. His ashes were scattered outside his house near the plantation at his request and ownership fell to his wife Patricia. She died in 2003 and the Lands Department then seized control of the estate in order to construct the ‘Wisdom Path 心經簡林’, which resulted in an ongoing legal dispute initiated by Bernacchi’s stepson, who successfully took the government to court in order to finally receive compensation for this in 2010.
Today, traces of the plantation are slowly fading, with it’s various buildings standing derelict and disused and even the ‘Bernacchi Trail 貝納祺徑’ that runs through it, was renamed by the Government to the vastly improved ‘Ngong Ping Fun Walk 昂坪奇趣徑’. The Tea Garden and restaurant appears to have survived until around 2014 in some tiny capacity, and then promptly abandoned. As for the building I explored, I’m not entirely certain, but I’m taking an educated guess that it was originally constructed during the ‘boom’ years to serve as accommodation for both the increasing number of workers, and the horses that were hired out. I read that during the downturn, some of these outbuildings were later repurposed as cheap places to stay for hikers and tourists (hence the fairly recently forgotten beds I found within), so my hostel hunch wasn’t a million miles off!
As for what will happen to the place now, there were plans to build a large hotel in it’s place in the early 2000s. These were thankfully rejected, as the Po Lin Monastery was very much opposed to this from the perspective of the noise and increased tourist presence (and I can vouch that it’s crowded enough as is!). Much of the land is zoned as green belt and conservation as well, so this would probably have placed tricky constraints on such a development. More recently the government appears to be amenable to the construction of smaller, more low-key accommodation. In my mind this would be much more preferable over a huge concrete resort annihilating yet another of Hong Kong’s precious few Green spaces – I do wonder though if that happens, whether anything will then remain of the tea estate. If I’d known at the time of my visit, the story behind the place, I’d have had a much more in-depth explore – I’d love to see if I can find traces of Bernacchi’s house, the stables, and the Nunnery that he apparently purchased in the 1950s, to piece together a more thorough photographic documentation of this place.