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Walled Off From Hong Kong's Neon

Far from the city lights, pre-British Chinese enclaves preserve the customs of a feudal era

Tang Kun-nin says his ancestors first came to what is now Hong Kong more than 800 years ago. That makes him a rarity in a community that is made mostly of people whose parents probably came from somewhere else.

Mr. Tang's is the largest of the six clans whose ancestors dominated the large rural area and collection of offshore islands that the British leased in 1898. Ninety-nine years later, it is still known as the New Territories. The expiration date of this lease is the reason Britain returned Hong Kong to China at midnight yesterday.

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Altogether, about 300,000 indigenous Chinese live in the New Territories, although today they make up only about 10 percent of the region's population. Most of the inhabitants are newcomers living in the clusters of high-rise apartment buildings known as the New Towns.

The clan villages seem far removed from either the New Towns or from the soaring skyscrapers and pulsating streets of Hong Kong Island that are more familiar to outsiders.

Here people live in walled villages where the names of their ancestors, going back 15 generations or more, are still inscribed in ancestral halls.

"More than 100 places in Hong Kong have the word wai in their name, and it denotes a walled village," explains British colonialist and local historian Dan Waters. "For many of them, there is no trace of the walls or memory of them."

Nevertheless, there are still 26 walled villages in Hong Kong, many of them well preserved. One of the best examples is Kun Kung Wai, not far from the border with China, which Tang represents on local district governing boards along with four other walled and six unwalled villages that make up the Lung Yeuk Tai township.

Vestiges of ancient China

Thick brick walls, with watch towers in each corner, enclose an area not much larger than a modern school playground. Traditional homes intermix with more-modern structures. The front entrance still has the original iron gate. Similar ones at another village were taken down by the British after the local leaders showed disrespect to the visiting governor. They were not returned until the 1920s.

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Tang's ancestors resisted the British in several skirmishes, and one can still find the names of people who "died defending the village" in ancestral halls.

"Of course, they were fighting professionals," says Mr. Waters, the historian. Many plan a friendlier welcome for 4,000 arriving soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army who will be based in the Hong Kong garrison.

In many ways, these clan villages represent the last remaining vestige of feudal China. The British colonial government left local customs intact if they did not disrupt its administration. So-called "customary laws" from the Ching Dynasty enshrining male primogeniture persisted in Hong Kong long after the Communists abolished them in China.

Even today, some of Hong Kong's 900 or so villages do not allow women to vote for local councils or clan associations.

The election on the offshore island of Cheung Chau, popular with vacationers, included women voters for the first time in May 1996.

Only in 1994 did the colonial Legislative Council pass a law allowing indigenous women to inherit property. The bill was sponsored by Christine Loh, one of the new liberal-minded politicians, many educated in the West, who came to the forefront as democracy was gradually introduced in the territory.

Local clan leaders fought the inheritance bill fiercely and still have hopes that the new administration may be persuaded to repeal it. They argued that the change would destroy the social structure of the villages by allowing interlopers to marry into clans and inherit property.

Ms. Loh and her colleagues responded that the ancient male inheritance rights violated Hong Kong's new Bill of Rights, enshrining equality of the sexes, and that the cultural argument had lost force in recent years.

"The customary law no longer protects the integrity of village land, it merely concentrates the proceeds into the hands of a few male heads of household," she says.

Pleas to bring back the old ways

The Communists have cultivated the support of villagers and the various clan associations for years. And this year Beijing scrapped and amended some Hong Kong laws it claimed were inconsistent with the post-1997 charter, the Basic Law. But it pointedly failed to include a repeal of the inheritance law.

Some of the leaders still hope to persuade Tung Chee Hwa, the incoming chief executive, to bring back the archaic system.

Mr. Tung has spoken often, though vaguely, in approval of "Chinese" values. But he has been cautious on New Territories inheritance rights, saying the subject is "complex."

So it seems unlikely that the old customary laws will be restored after the handover.

It would be ironic in the extreme if the Communist takeover of Hong Kong today led to the restoration of feudal practices.

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