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Guardian of Dragon’s Back and beyond: the tale of park artisan Fan Wai-yip

South China Morning Post (Morning Studio)
  • Written by South China Morning Post (Morning Studio)
Fan Wai-yip enjoying the view on the platform at Tai Tam Country Park

For 45 years, Fan Wai-yip has started work at 8am almost every day in the same place — Tai Tam Country Park, located on the eastern corner of Hong Kong Island.

His job entails traversing the park’s 1,315 hectares, which gives home to an urban sanctuary known for its four reservoirs, lush peaks, rolling hills and spectacular scenery covering one-fifth of the island’s total area.

As a senior park artisan, Fan is responsible for reforesting and protecting the park’s previously barren landscapes, which were left devastated during the city’s Japanese occupation in World War II. He also builds and maintains hiking trails, huts, shelters, benches and picnic and barbeque areas, which offer city dwellers a tranquil escape from the urban hustle.

“My parents were fisherfolk, and I started helping them out from the age of 13 after I completed Secondary One,” Fan shares. “But my father believed fishing was arduous and suggested I find a more stable job with better income.”

At that time, the government had set up divisions within what is now the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department to develop and manage country parks, creating job opportunities that Fan’s friend brought to his attention. 

Excavated route on the Dragon’s Back trail done by Fan and his team

A journey of growth

He joined a team of around 30 to turn the city’s uncultivated wilderness into hiking trails and country parks. “The work was tough but not,” the 64-year-old park artisan reminisces. “We had to do everything from excavation to cleaning toilets, using limited tools such as a hoe and a shovel.”

Back then, there were no properly built paths in the countryside, so Fan and his team had to slowly make their way around while carrying tools, timber and rocks required for construction. They had to come up with creative ideas to enhance efficiency, such as using a soft water tube as a makeshift backpack to carry heavy loads.

One of Fan’s major outdoor projects involved excavating and paving the Dragon’s Back trail. Now part of the Shek O Country Park, this 8.5km ridgeline route between Shek O Peninsula and Big Wave Bay is one of Hong Kong’s most popular hikes with spectacular coastal scenery. However, it was “pretty much barren” at first according to Fan, and the team had to plant trees along the trail to restore vegetation and prevent soil erosion.

Fan received training as a park artisan to identify suitable tree species for the project. Exotic trees such as Taiwan Acacia, Brisbane Box and Slash Pine were chosen for their fast growth and resilience. “We call them the ‘three treasures of forestry’,” says Fan.

Tree planting also involves regular maintenance work, and Fan takes pride in his ability to properly prune trees. “You can find branches that pose a risk to a nearby facility, or may be at risk of falling and endangering the safety of hikers,” he says. “I can look at a tree and quickly identify the branches that need to be removed, and have it done quickly and safely while maintaining the plant’s health.” 

Fan and his favorite wooden creations

A trail for everyone

Having made numerous journeys on Dragon’s Back, Fan has also come to admire this popular trail. “It’s not a strenuous hike, but the views are breathtaking as you can see the sea on both sides of the trail,” he says. “It connects to various start and end points. Head to Cape D’Aguilar to see dramatic rock formations and caves, or go to Big Wave Bay for the beach. Many like to finish their hike in Shek O to have a meal.”

Apart from making Dragon’s Back safe for hikers, Fan also added comfort and aesthetics to the trail through his craftsmanship. He collects fallen or pruned branches and repurposes them to build fences, chairs and ornaments. Such carpentry efforts involve more than meets the eyes, though.

“First, you have to sun-dry the timber to remove moisture,” he explains. “Then, it’s time to figure out what to make out of the particular tree trunk shapes that you have, before cutting and painting them.”

Fan enjoys the creative process, as it not only benefits the environment but also nourishes his soul. “Like people, trees also have life cycles,” he says. “I find joy in being able to extend their existence in nature by creating useful structures.”

Fan at Tai Tam Country Park under the clear blue sky

A lifelong connection

Fan is now close to the retirement age of 65, which means he’ll soon be stepping away from the only job he has ever known. “I have never really thought about finding another job,” he reflects. “There was always something to learn, something to do to make the park better.”

He is particularly pleased that visiting the countryside and hiking have become popular pastimes in Hong Kong. 

“Part of our job used to be clearing the bins out along hiking trails,” he says. “But we have since removed them because people have come to be much more caring about the environment and have learnt not to leave litter behind.

“It shows the public appreciates our hard work,” he says. “The countryside is our shared asset and we should all treasure it.”

Creating and polishing the signs with “Dragon’s Back’s smiling dragon” symbol along the trail

5 wooden creations Fan is most proud of at Tai Tam Country Park

  1. A chair that’s connected to a small tabletop, crafted from a uniquely shaped log
  2. A night owl-shaped ornament, which has turned into a road sign, thanks to its open wing that points towards a water fountain — a suggestion from Fan’s supervisor
  3. A beloved wooden squirrel which was particularly challenging to carve
  4. Wooden ornaments that depict the transformation of a worm into a butterfly
  5. The Dragon’s Back’s smiling dragon as seen on signs along many of the park’s trails; it was the result of teamwork to create a unique symbol for the trail 

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