Pearl Cultivation – Tai Po Sea (Tolo Harbour)
HF/Richard Hale: At one time Hong Kong was home to a thriving pearl cultivation industry which appears to have been initially centred on Tolo Harbour.
“Tai Po was the centre of the local pearl industry. As far as we know, pearls were first collected from the nearby sea in AD 761 during the fourth year of the reign of the Tang emperor, Hoi Yuen. He established a monopoly on the pearl industry and, in AD 964, 8,000 soldiers were sent to Tai Po to protect it. The pearls and tortoise shells collected were highly prized and used to adorn an imperial palace in Canton, later burnt to the ground.
But the gathering of oysters from the sea bed was no light undertaking. The pearl fisher was tied to a weighted rope, lowered into the sea from a boat, and left in the depths until a boatmen him back up with his bag of oysters. If the boatmen were distracted, the pearl fisher would drown. The industry cost so many lives that at least two petitions were filed against this practice . It was stopped in AD 971, only to start again in 1280. The imperial monopoly was finally abolished in 1324.
The decline of the pearl industry was finally ensured when overfishing led to a serious drop in stocks. Oyster fishing moving eastwards [west?] across to Lau Fan Shan, where oyster beds are tended to this day in family plots, and harvested continually throughout the year, although the oysters are bred for consumption rather than for their pearls. The age-old oyster fisheries, however, are now under threat due to the growing pollution at Deep Bay.” (1)
HF: The Lockhart Report 1898 contains: “The Pearl fisheries exist in Tolo harbour where pearls of value are sometimes said to be found.”
Richard Hale: A large patch of oysters were in the mouth of the Tolo Channel. Presumably the tidal flow of water going into and out of Tolo Harbour provided ample nutrients.
In the 1960’s, construction of Plover Cove Reservoir reduced the quantity of water flowing through the channel. This allowed mud to settle and accumulate over the oyster beds. Knowledge of the oysters’ presence faded from collective memory, as the shells became buried below the muddy seabed.
The oyster fossils were found when Hong Kong and China Gas Company (Towngas) buried a pipeline beneath the seabed along the channel, the project being completed in 2006. The installer was Leighton This link below provides a reference:
Leighton: Shenzhen to Tai Po Twin Submarine Gas Pipeline
HF: Further information about the Towngas pipeline: Environmental Permit No. FEP-01B/167/2003/D: Proposed Submarine Gas Pipelines from Cheng Tou Jiao Liquefied Natural Gas Receiving Terminal, Shenzhen to Tai Po Gas Production Plant, Hong Kong – 2003 subsection 3.2c, For a section of the pipeline of about 200 metres long between Location H and Location J shown in Figure 1 of this Permit where jetting can only be proceeded to about 1.1 metres to 1.3 metres below seabed level due to the presence of oyster shell deposits in the area, backfilling of armour rock will be replaced by grout mattresses for protection of the submarine pipeline. (3)
Richard Hale: The natural oyster bed at the mouth of the channel obviously pre-dates the oyster culture reported at the SW end of Lo Fu Wat.
HF: This link suggests “The Deserted Pearl Farm at Lo Fu Wat…was dated back from 1950s or earlier. It was deserted for more than 20 years as of 2011.” (4)
I took these photos looking down on Lo Fu Wat on 12th January 2016 whilst walking around Plover Cove Reservoir. A very misty day when I was only able to see the latter during the last hour of a five hour tramp.
This article was first published on 29th March 2015.
- Discovering Hong Kong’s Cultural Heritage, Patricia Lim, OUP, 1997
- Pearl farming in Hong Kong: enthusiasts restock oyster beds in city waters to revive a 1,000-year-old industry SCMP 15th February 2018
- Towards Urbanisation: Shuen Wan and Plover Cove Reservoir
- www.360cities.net – deserted pearl farm at Lo Fu Wat
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