The Dying Island

This piece won Reuters story of the month in August, 1991. It resulted from a visit to Ap Chau, an island I’d read was dominated by a dying sect of Pentacostalists.


By Jeremy Wagstaff

AP CHAU, Hong Kong, Aug 8, Reuter – There are few people on this tiny island under 60 but still they kick up enough noise during prayers to drown out the sea and set the dogs barking.

An old lady babbles incoherently, shaking her head and rattling beads in her hand. A youth who left the island as a child murmurs in a distinctive northern English accent.

The deacon rings a bell to end the prayers and the spell is broken.

The True Jesus Church, a Christian sect with its roots in China and a conviction that believers — possessed by the Holy Spirit — pray in mysterious, unintelligible tongues, has been the island’s life force since it was first settled less than half a century ago.

Now, their children and grandchildren spread across the globe from Hong Kong’s nearby Kowloon peninsula to distant Glasgow, the few remaining inhabitants are quietly waiting for their community to die out.

“I leave all these things to God. This place is history. It is not good for gospel spreading, but it’s good for visiting,” said Chan San-tung, island deacon since the 1960s.

The island, physically closer to the smokestacks and office blocks of China’s Shenzhen special economic zone than it is to the bustling heart of Hong Kong, has the feel of an off-season holiday resort.

The 30 or so surviving inhabitants, the oldest of them 93, sit watching the waves rock redundant fishing boats in the bay. Many of the houses are locked up, their owners gone to join affluent relatives overseas.

A group of brightly-dressed tourists from Hong Kong press their faces against the glass of the chapel and peer at the spartan church. The islanders watch impassively.

“The old people do not encourage tourism. They want to keep the island as it is, even if it means (the community) dying out,” says Joseph Chan, a religious teacher who lived in England for several years before returning to the British colony.

The island’s most welcome visitors are relatives, who number about 200 a year. For them it is a trip into memories both faint and ambivalent.

Newly-weds Kevin and Jenny Liu are returning for the first time to where, separately, they spent some of their childhood. But now, managing a French restaurant in the northern English town of Newcastle, the world of their parents and grandparents seems remote.

“I don’t like the place. It’s covered in creepy-crawlies and it brings my skin out in a rash,” says Jenny in a thick blend of Scottish and Newcastle accents.

“Besides I don’t understand a word my grandparents say. I just, you know, nod and smile.”

Many of the old folks have been abroad to see their families but few wanted to stay. Most say they prefer the simple life, even if money they get from relatives abroad makes their fish-farming less a livelihood than a hobby.

“I’ve been twice to the U.K. to visit my son in Sunderland,” says 74-year-old Lin Kiu-shek, crouched in a rain-soaked boat headed for Hong Kong to welcome relatives at the airport.

“It’s good for a trip but I’m too old.”

Islanders are vague about how a largely boat-bound community adopted an obscure branch of Christianity. But they are all resigned to the gradual decay of their island life.

They say that with seven churches in Britain alone, from Southampton to the Scottish town of Elgin, the doctrines of the True Jesus Church have already passed on to new generations.

“We know the constraints here that made people leave. On the good side, it is a sign of the expansion of our church overseas,” says deacon Chan.

But for the island of Ap Chau, named after the swimming duck its shoreline resembles from afar, the old people retain a life little different from that when they first settled on the island in the 1950s.

Electricity, running water and telephones arrived only a few years ago but these amenities have barely affected a community pledged to austerity.

All icons or images are banned from the whitewashed interior of the church.

Communion wine cups are collected unceremoniously and thrown into a red plastic washing-up bowl. The deacon belts out the hymns in a raucous shout to compensate for the lack of organist.

“It’s pretty boring here. I’m related to most of the people here one way or another but there’s not much I can relate to, like,” says Mark Liu, a 16-year-old on holiday from helping his parents run a Chinese takeaway restaurant on Tyneside in northern England.

Their worship over, the islanders sit around the closed school and watch the dogs play on a disused basketball court.

The tourists are gone and no more boats are due today. The deacon, still wearing a simple white shirt he wore for the morning’s service, smiles through gold teeth.

“Everywhere’s the same. But I still like this place where I was born, where I have lived, and where I will die,” he says.

(c) 1991 Reuters Limited


One comment

  1. Looks liek there’s going to be a revival of the island very soon. News that there are plans to have a 3 day Spiritual Convocations on the Island organised by the ex-pats of the island. It’s going to be around April of 2009. Exact date will be need to be confirmed as preparations interms of catering, organisation, funding, travel arrangements and accomodations will need careful considerations. A organisational team would need to be established to arrange the smooth oporation and co-ordination of the attendees, especially the elderlys and children.

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