Ma On Shan Mine – Part One, The Open Cut Years
The mine workings on the south-west slopes of Ma On Shan mountain are now no more than mere scars in the hillside, but in the middle of the last century, the mine provided employment for up to 6,000 people and supplied high grade iron ore and other minerals to the Japanese steel industry. This article describes the early years of the mine’s operation, when open cut excavation was adopted between the period 1905 to 1953.
To the south-east of what is now the town of Ma On Shan is the mountain that gives its name to this nest of tower blocks. It is a dominating peak, surrounded by similarly impressive hills of Tiu Shau Ngam, the Hunch Backs and Pyramid Hill. It was on the south-west slopes of Ma On Shan that in 1905, an Australian explorer discovered the mineral that was to result in the largest mine to be developed in Hong Kong, a mine which supplied over 3 million tonnes of iron ore to Japan before its closure in March, 1976.
What an Australian was doing in this remote area of Hong Kong is not recorded, but possibly, he was prospecting for minerals. At this time, the New Territories had not yet been fully explored and the first maps had only just been published the year before, in 1904, though there were prior rumours of minerals present in the hills.
In 1866, the Italian missionary Mgr Volontieri placed an advert in the Government Gazette to sell his new map of the District of Sun-On. In here he noted, “The villagers entertain the idea that their mountains contain auriferous deposits, and are very jealous of foreigners examining them.”
Given that the great Hong Kong business man and philanthropist Sir Paul Chater submitted an application to the Government to exploit the Ma On Shan mineral prospect in July 1905, draws one to the conclusion that the Australian’s wanderings was at his request. One can only wonder where else Sir Paul may have had a geologist looking as he was not a novice when it came to owning mines, having already developed a coal mine in Vietnam to supply his Hong Kong Electric power station.
At the time of the deposit’s discovery there had been no geological survey of the New Territories, the first survey being carried out in 1923 and the first geological map in 1936. However, economically viable mineral deposits were known to be present around that era, with an active lead mine at Lin Ma Hang and abandoned mines at Lead Mine Pass and Mui Wo.
Getting to the Ma On Shan valley, the site of the deposit, was no easy task. There was only one road in the New Territories, the Tai Po Road, and the KCRC railway had yet to be constructed. The choice of route was simple; either to walk in from Tai Wai, or get a boat across the Tolo Harbour from Lok Lo Ha (later to become Ho Tung Lau) and later from the new KCR station at the Chinese University. All access to the mine was by sea, and this would remain the case for some time until the public road was built in the 1980’s, more than a decade after the mine had closed.
The geology of the Ma On Shan area, including the iron ore deposit, was first described by the geologist C M Weld in a paper of 1914. As a geologist, Mr Weld was something of a success, having located in the summer of 1903, an iron ore deposit that was to be the origin of the Indian steel company Tata. In 1914, he visited Hong Kong and undertook a survey of the territory, focusing on the iron bearing geology. In his subsequent 1914 paper he reports on the Ma On Shan mine as follows:
“It is not a solid mass of iron ore, but is broadly divisible into two members: namely, pure magnetite, and what was termed provisionally in the field “greenstone;” but which closely resembles the “skarn” of the iron-ore belt of central Sweden. I shall therefore call it skarn in the following.”
Thus, the term skarn was created and adopted by geologists thereafter.
Volcanic rocks of the Shing Mun Formation, part of the Repulse Bay Volcanic Group, form the peak of Ma On Shan. These rocks overlie sedimentary rocks of the Ma On Shan Formation, which were intruded by Granite. At the contacts with these Granite intrusions, the Siltstone of the Ma On Shan Formation were metamorphosed to hornfels and the Limestone (Marble) to skarn. The resulting Ma On Shan iron ore body comprises mainly of magnetite and haematite; limonite and goethite were later formed through the weathering of the original iron ore and iron-bearing minerals; these were to provide important additional sources of ore for iron-smelting.
The original discovery was located 800m southeast of the village of Ma On Shan and extended in an easterly direction up a small stream for 600m. The westerly extreme was found at 240m above sea level and the easterly at 365m above sea level.
The Ma On Shan iron ore deposit is lenticular-shaped and is generally located along the marginal contact with the Marble country rock. It crops out at an elevation of about 300m, at which level it is around 100m wide, dipping to north at between 35°and 55°over a distance of about 50m. The ore body reaches its maximum width of around 500m in a NE-SW orientation at an elevation of 240m, and from 200m to 160m elevation the ore body narrows. Mineralisation below the 110m elevation was considered insufficient to be of economic value.
The iron ore itself comprises magnetite with pyrrhotite, goethite, andradite and pyrite. In addition to the primary minerals, secondary minerals were also identified within the skarn deposit, including; quartz, graphite, wolframite along with a host of other minor (tertiary) minerals; chalcopyrite, diopside, rhodonite, tremolite, fluorite, stilpnomelane, serpentine, calcite, granulite, palygorskite and vesuvianite.
Following the discovery of the mineral deposit, Sir Paul Chater applied for a licence to develop the deposit in July, 1905 while news of the find was made public by The Hong Kong Telegraph on 23 September 1905.
There was however, a problem. The issue of ownership had to be resolved. Following the leasing of the New Territories from the Chinese Government, there was no legal framework in place to deal with mineral finds, the Government having no power to grant permission to undertake mining within the Colony. To rectify this, a short Bill was introduced and passed in June, 1906 which gave the Governor-in-Council the necessary authority to grant licences and mining leases.
Thus, the Hong Kong Ore Company, founded by Sir Paul Chater in 1906, was given permission to undertake prospecting to establish the size and quality of the mineral deposit.
In 1908 the company produced a report indicating magnetite reserves of around 500 million tons at the site. As Weld had reported in his 1914 paper, the ore body was around 30m thick and an analysis of the ore indicated it had an iron content of around 60%.
In the 1920’s, a number of local engineers trained in the United States, tried to develop the site. Mr Ma Paulo (also known as Ma Shi Ji) spent three years undertaking site investigation, excavating holes, drilling cores and analysing samples but failed to develop the site. A follow-up team was also unable to develop the mine, leaving empty handed and abandoning their equipment at the site. The company went into liquidation in 1929.
On 26th March 1931, the New Territories Iron Mining Co. Ltd. founded by Mr Paul King, an Engineer, was granted, under Mining Licence No. 8, a 50-year Crown Lease for the mine and about 48 hectares of the surrounding area. The licence required the mining company to pay an annual rent of $1,280 to the Government.
Huaxing Mining Co., Ltd was subcontracted to operate the mine and in February 1932 started to upgrade the access road, purchased new vehicles and built warehouses and buildings. They also planned to erect an aerial cable way from the mine to the coast to reduce transportation costs.
The company had negotiated a supply agreement with a Mainland steel mill to provide 10,000 tonnes of ore per month. However, the mine was hit by a number of strikes and after a change of management, the site was eventually abandoned.
In the 1935 edition of the Hong Kong Naturalist, the author describes a visit to the area by taking a sampan from Lok Lo Ha and walking up the Iron Mine Road. He notes:
“Fortunately for the walker there are at present no signs that this secluded bit of country will become a smoky industrial area. Peace reigns, and the lorry which used to jolt up and down the road between the mine and the jetty appears to have made its last journey”
This prospect was soon lost as by 1938, the mine was back in production and as recorded in the report on “The Control Measures which the Hong Kong Government Should Adopt in Respect of Local Mining”, the mine employed 120 coolies and had produced around 8,000 tons of ore since 1931.
In 1940, the South China Iron Smelters Co. Ltd. took over the mine and started to excavate commercial quantities of ore in an open cut quarry using hand operated tools. Production reached up to 100 tons a day with the concentrate, carried to the coast using mule and horses and shipped to the Green Island Cement Company. The mining company had plans to build a blast furnace on the sea-front to produce its own steel. However, the Second World War interrupted production.
During the Japanese occupation of the territory, from 1942 to 1945, the mine was operated sporadically by the Japanese who shipped the raw ore to Japan to support war production. At this time the mine employed about 1,500 workers (it is not clear if these were paid or forced labour as adopted in many Japanese captured mines) and as there was still no mechanical transport, horses and donkeys were used to carry the ore down the hill to the dockside.
Records of what happened between 1945 and 1949 have been lost to the winds, but one assumes excavation continued on a small scale.
In 1949 the Mutual Trust Company took over the mining rights. The Company signed a contract with the Supreme Command of Allied Headquarters in Japan to supply 150,000 tons of ore annually to help re-build the Japanese steel industry after the devastation of the war. This was an onerous task for the Mutual Trust Company as the mine was producing less than 100,000 tons a year and losing money.
The methods of production and the means of transportation relied solely upon manual labour. With the mine employing some 2,000 labourers and the ore of poor quality forming around 32% of production, the company’s expenditure was higher than its income as the following extracts from the companies accounts show.
To meet the ore supply commitments, the company purchased similar ore from a Mainland mine at Shi Lu Shan on Hainan Island (the mine had been developed by an industrialist for the Japanese during the Second Word War). The cargo ship would initially load the ore at Hainan Island then, stop off at Ma On Shan to take on the remainder of the ore contracted to be supplied from the Hong Kong mine’s stockpile.
Following the Second World War, Hainan Island was initially controlled by the Kuomintang (KMT), but with the rise of the Communists and the resulting turmoil within China, the ore supplies from the Hainan Island seems to have been stopped forcing the Hong Kong company to depend on the Ma On Shan mine as the only reliable source of supply.
To improve production, the mine needed capital for new equipment, and experienced and forward looking managers to introduce modern mining methods. In 1953 the Nittetsu Mining Company of Japan (a subsidiary of Nippon Steel Corporation) joined the Mutual Trust Company to operate the mine under the new company the Mutual Mining & Trading Company.
Following a survey of the mine environment and the deposit, a number of changes were made to the mining method. These include the introduction of underground mining and the investment in material processing plant or dressing plant.
With this technical assistance from Japan, mining commenced underground, in March 1953. The following year, in March 1954, US$500,000 of new mining equipment arrived with the aim of improving production and by 1959 the open cast workings was abandoned with all ore being extracted from the underground mine.
The mining operation itself continued to follow the old-established Chinese custom of sub-letting the works to multiple sub-contractors. In 1959 there were nine companies working in the mine, employing 350 miners underground and around 800 workers and staff on the surface.
Despite this investment, the mine continued to have financial difficulties and starting in the October, 1954 through to January 1955, the mine was unable to pay the workers’ wages. Following fruitless negotiations on the 5th January, 1955, 200 miners were laid off with a further 170 departing in April, 1955. Eventually the Hong Kong Government found it necessary to step in to mediate between the parties and resolve the situation.
Labour relations subsequently improved, and by 1956, production at the mine achieved the planned 120,000 tons a year and the development of the new underground facilities was proceeding well.
By the 1970’s and although production at the mine was exceeding planned targets, the mine was in decline. In the mid-1970’s there was a world-wide decline in the demand for steel triggered by the 1973 oil crisis and the cost of the ore produced was no longer competitive against production from the recently developed open cast mines in Australia. Furthermore, the 50 year mining lease was about to expire which raised questions as to the benefit of any further investment. Thus, in March 1976 mining works were suspended and on the 2 March 1981 the Mines Department requested the owner to close the two portals and install warning signs to prevent entry. The mine was finally abandoned in 25 May 1981 when the mining lease expired.
During the period from 1949 to 1976, some 3 million tons of processed iron ore had been exported, principally to Japan. It is estimated that there are still about 4 million tons of iron ore in the mine which remain unexploited.
Open Cast Mining
In the initial years of the mine’s development, open cast mining was employed. Here the miners identified the exposed minerals and excavated the ore. As can be seen from the 1949 image, small excavations and spoil dumps litter the hillside.
The open cast methods of excavation employed were similar to most quarrying operations. The site would be stripped of vegetation and top soil to expose the rock. The miners would then drill holes into the rock, in the early days with hand tools and later with air-powered drills. The holes were then filled with an explosive, with nitroglycerine being recorded as being commonly used in this mine, and the rock then blasted.
The rock was then broken into smaller pieces using sledge hammers then experienced miners with smaller hammers picked through the debris to extract the mineral ore. They looked for rocks with a high mineral content by considering the colour, crystalline nature and weight of the rock. In addition to the iron ore they would also locate other minerals such as Feldspar, Quartz and Graphite. These minerals were separated and stacked while the remaining rock debris was placed to one side for disposal.
A team of men with simple hand pushed mining cars would load the debris then push the car along a narrow gauge rail track, along a contour route for tipping at one of the spoil heaps. The tipping was downhill, so two men with a suitable stick to act as a wheel break was all that was needed. Pushing back up the hill was harder!
The stacked minerals were then collected and taken from the mine down the hill to the coast from where they were exported by ship. Carrying of the ore initially used donkeys, horses and coolies, but after the war, they were replaced with old military vehicles; the mine owner having purchased a large amount of surplus post-war equipment, including military vehicles, tires and generators, from the US military.
There were two areas of open cast mining, the first being the valley where the original minerals outcrop had been identified, known as the 240 Level (the valley floor being at 240m above sea level). Then a second area, an adjacent ridge to the south, was opened up in the early 1950’s, and known as the ‘280 Level’.
In the 1950’s with the increased demand for iron ore and availability of new workers from the Mainland, prospecting for similar deposits was undertaken all over the immediate area. The area of the current BBQ pits was excavated at this time, one assumes looking for minerals, along with a series of contour paths and excavations on the hillside. On the opposite side of the road, minerals were found and excavated along a fault line but the prospect here only had limited potential.
The open cut workings, by their very nature were exposed to the risk of land slide from the surrounding hillside. As the excavation went deeper, the side walls became unstable with stress fractures appearing. Landslides occurred in 1957, 1958 and following heavy rain in June 1959. The latter occurred between two fault zones with the debris from the slide blocking the access to the 240m level portal servicing the underground works at 240m and above.
Landslides continued to occur and, ultimately, covered all the portals providing access to the 240m and 280m level underground works. As part of the new mine development, a new portal was built at the 240m level, located on a stable hillside, remote from existing landslides. This would serve as the new access to the underground workings.
When iron ore was first discovered on Ma On Shan, the only people living in the area were the Hakka, farmers struggling in a difficult environment with an inadequate water supply. This absence of suitable labour locally meant skilled artisans and labourers had to be recruited from elsewhere and accommodation provided. When the mine re-opened in 1949, the new operator needed experienced miners. To source these they visited Mainland coal mines and recruited 100 experienced miners, many of them Hakka, which formed the core of the workforce. Also, with a steady supply of refugees from the Mainland, mining workers including Hakka were recruited from Chaozhou, Siyi, Shandong, Hebei, Henan, Hunan and Guangdong.
With this increase in the mine’s workforce, the mountain village grew in size and a new village was formed on the coast line to service the mine and those working there. The total number of residents, including miners and their families, as well as in the village business teahouse, peaked at around 6,000 people.
As the open cast workings closed down, many of the workers unfamiliar in working underground sought employment elsewhere. This was further exacerbated following the adoption of modern mining methods with its increased productivity / reduction in labour requirements. As a consequence, the workforce shrunk to less than a thousand and with the majority of those workers coming from Hebei, Henan and Hunan.
Along with the new workforce, skilled KMT engineers and technicians, escaping from the fighting in China, joined the workforce. They formed the local management for the mine and created a unique and distinct local community with the aim of keeping their culture alive. This cultural difference is evident from photographs of major events during that period with the British, Japanese and Taiwanese flags raised.
The next article will address the development of the underground workings and the mineral processing plant.
- Notes on an iron-ore deposit near Hong-Kong, China, by C.M. Weld, 1914 https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=osu.32435008239741;view=2up;seq=1
- Hong Kong Government Gazette, 26 May 1866, http://sunzi.lib.hku.hk/hkgro/view/g1866/713237.pdf
- Geological Maps of Hong Kong http://hkss.cedd.gov.hk/hkss/eng/education/GS/eng/hkg/chapter5.htm?tab=3
- The Geology And Exploitation Of The Ma On Shan Magnetite Deposit P J Strange & N W Woods, 1991 http://www.geolsoc.org.hk/_newsletters/Newsletter%201991%20Vol.9%20No.1.pdf
- Hong Kong Naturalist, 1935 Hong Kong Hills Part II Ma On Shan G S P Heywood http://hkjo.lib.hku.hk/archive/files/7ca5777bb216853823629c12f7cd70b9.pdf
- Report by the Senior Inspector of Mines, Perak, Federated Malay States, on the subject of The Control Measure Which the Hong Kong Government Should Adopt in Report of the Local Mining – 1938 http://sunzi.lib.hku.hk/hkgro/view/s1938/2420.pdf
- Hainan Island: A Brief Historical Sketch D L Michalk http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.730.5415&rep=rep1&type=pdf
- HKU Stephen Hui Musuem Rock Exhibits – Ma On Shan
This article was first posted on 20th February 2017.
Related Indhhk articles:
- Ma On Shan Iron Mine
- Ma On Shan Mine – Part Two, Going Underground
- Ma On Shan Iron Mine, 1906-1976, open-pit and underground mining
- Ma On Shan Iron Mine, Hong Kong Naturalist, 1931
- Ma On Shan Mine, recent damage caused to explosives storeroom
- Ma On Shan Mine, recent underground images
- Ma On Shan Mine – SMP article, nearby miner’s village, three buildings restored
- Ma On Shan Mine – underground film, 2014
- Kuhn Mines Ltd, railway(s) at Ma On Shan mine – any information needed!