The island of Ma Wan 馬灣 (Ma’s Bay), which the British first recorded as either Cowhee or Toong-Shing-Ow-A in 1794 (without providing us with characters to give us a clue as to where the names came from), has had human settlement since c.4500 BP. Archaeological digs have recovered remains from the mid-Neolithic through to the early Bronze Age. Occupation in historic times has records from the Han through Tang Dynasties, but clear records from the period between the Tang and the Qing are less numerous. Certainly in 1794, when Alexander Dalrymple and Lt Henry William Parish, RN did a sketch survey of the island in the 10 gun brig, HMS Jackall, the smallest ship in the Macartney Embassy, the population was scant and the settlements (today’s Ma Wan and Tin Liu villages) extremely small.
Memories today put the present settlements’ ages at around 250 years, dating them from the mid-18th century. It is likely that any settlements at the end of the Ming would have been completely cleared in the early Qing Dynasty’s Great Clearance 遷界令, c.1661-c.1669. For this the coast was cleared of people back to 50 li (c.32 km) from the sea, resulting in some 16,000 people from Xin’an County (the HK and Shenzhen regions) leaving their homes. In 1669 only some 1,650 folks returned, so repopulation of neither very fertile nor very extensive (c.2.6 sq. km.) Ma Wan was probably slow.
The name Ma Wan is probably ancient and reflects the odd usage of the character 馬. The phoneme it represents – ma – is common in toponyms along the southern Chinese coast and appears in written form as one of three traditional characters representing that sound, the most common being 馬. One theory is that this represents a written Chinese form of a self-descriptor by southern China’s pre-Han indigenous coastal peoples. So where one sees it or its variants used, it supposedly means ‘Ma people found here’. It is possibly etymologically connected to the most common name for southern Chinese coastal peoples’ goddess, Mazu 媽祖, aka Tin Hau 天后, an alternative that may well be a post-Song Dynasty legitimation myth to harmonise sea goddess belief systems along China’s fairly recently completely assimilated coast.
The island commands the choke points on the main route between Hong Kong and the Pearl River estuary leading to Guangzhou (Throat Gates Kap Shui Man 汲水門 and Kai Tap Mun 雞踏門 or Kai Tsap Mun 雞閘門, Chicken Leg Pass or Chicken Sluice Pass) – today the Ma Wan Channel 馬灣海峽. So when efforts were made to control opium smuggling into China from Hong Kong’s free port in the 1860s, the result was the creation of a Provincial likin 釐金 (also lijin) station in 1868 (or 1871 – the sources clash), that swiftly became a Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs station (CIMCS). Along with the establishment of similar stations in Kowloon City and Junk Island (Fat Tong Chau, 佛堂洲) this became part of what the Hong Kong government saw as the ‘blockade of Hong Kong’ – a state of affairs that grumbled on until Chefoo Convention of 1880.
The customs station stayed in place until the granting of the lease on the New Territories in the Second Convention of Peking (Convention between the United Kingdom and China, Respecting an Extension of Hong Kong Territory) in June 1898. It closed down in October that year on the island’s cession to the British. Both the event of the CIMCS’ arrival and its departure are commemorated on steles close to the waterfront by the old village committee offices.
Other sights in the village include the old Tin Hau Temple with its many commemorative plaques and ‘black’ Tin Hau effigy. The dragon boats on their trestles, waiting for June. The curious Mui Wai (梅尉) marker stone, being absorbed by a banyan tree’s roots, and purportedly representing some sort of relationship with Lantau’s Mui Wo (梅窩), since Mui Wai is an earlier version of the name. The ruins of the old CIMCS building and some remaining walls of old buildings, constructed from the Pearl River Delta’s famous blue-grey brick. The overgrown CIMCS contraband goods compound. The overlooked 1904 Kap Shui Man Pass lighthouse – a bit of a scramble – the 4th lighthouse built in HK waters, or 6th if one includes Waglan and Gap Rock.
Ma Wan village was cleared of inhabitants in 2011 following the 2006 completion of the new Park Island development by Sun Hung Kai Properties. A soulless replacement ‘village’ had been built inland, completely blocked from breezes by the new luxury development, to which the villagers – not all of them happily or willingly – were moved. Since then the village has stood empty, quietly rotting away behind wire fence closures and ‘Keep Out. Government Land’ signs, with some villagers frequently returning to visit their old homes and to serve their old Tin Hau Temple
Stephen Davies, a Briton with family connections to Hong Kong that go back to the early 1930s, served in the Royal Navy and Royal Marines (1963-67), briefly designed atlases, and taught sailing and mountaineering before falling of a cliff and having to be screwed back together (1967-68). After university in Wales and London (1968-74) he taught political theory at the University of Hong Kong (1974-89). From 1990-2003 he and his partner sailed 50,000 miles visiting 27 countries in their 38’ sailing sloop; useful background for a maritime historian. He was appointed the first Museum Director of the Hong Kong Maritime Museum in 2005. From 2005-2011 he built the collection and library, found the museum a new location, got government and donor funding for the expansion and relocation, and created the design and storylines for the new premises. He resigned in 2011 and was rehired as the museum’s first CSSC Maritime Heritage Research Fellow. From 2011-2013 he wrote the new gallery panel texts, chose objects for displays, wrote the captions, and scripted and co-produced the audiovisual displays. A published maritime historian, focused on Asian Seas and the interactions between the western and traditional Asian maritime worlds, he is now back at HKU as teacher on a course on the sustainable use of heritage buildings in the Department of Real Estate and Construction, of which he is an Honorary Professor. He is also an Honorary Fellow of the University’s Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences and the Hon. Editor of the “Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong”. His most recent books are “Coasting Past: The last of South China coastal trading junks photographed by William Heering” (Hong Kong Maritime Museum 2013) and “East sails west: the voyage of the Keying, 1846-1855” (Hong Kong University Press 2014). He has just completed “Strong to Save: Maritime mission in Hong Kong from Whampoa Reach to the Mariners’ Club” to be published by Hong Kong City University Press in 2017 and is working on “Transport to another world: the life and times of HMS Tamar 1863-2015”. He continues as an active yachtsman and occasional TV presenter and journalist, and works with museums and heritage interests in China, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong.