Hong Kong, SAR

THE STORY OF LO TING

AUTHOR
Andi Cross
PHOTOGRAPHERS
Marla Tomorug & Andi Cross
October 1, 2023
|
6 min read
Audio generated for accessibility using AI. Intonation does not express the true level of awe and stoke.

Obsessing over pirates (known as sea bandits in China) was a big motivator in luring us to the shores of Hong Kong. Initially, we were laser focused on understanding sea bandit history in the region. However, the tides quickly started to shift once we got onsite and met one of our location partners, The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Enthralled in a huge oyster survey around the Pearl River Delta, this team was knee deep in murky water, sharing baseline studies with us upon our arrival. 

None of us thought that oysters would steal our heart over many of the other, seemingly more exciting creatures of the sea. But, there we were diving in some of the worst visibility we’d ever experienced, searching for the precious bivalve. Now, fully obsessing just as much over them as we were the sea bandits. But what exactly shifted for us? Learning about their relevance then and now. That, and learning about the mythical fish people called the “Lo Ting” that once commanded these waters. But for now, let’s talk oysters. 

As far back as humankind can interpret and document, oysters were, and continue to be, the lifeblood of this thriving region. 

From an ecological perspective, oysters contribute immensely to water quality improvement. These mollusks are natural filter feeding marvels, each capable of cleaning and filtering over 30 gallons of water per day. This not only contributes to the clarity of the water but also enhances the overall health of the marine ecosystem by removing excess nutrients and impurities.

Historically, Hong Kong’s coastal areas were abundant with shellfish reefs, providing rich breeding grounds for a variety of marine life. The once sustainable practice of oyster farming has been a traditional activity in the region, with roots traced back centuries ago. The oyster beds of Hong Kong have supported local biodiversity, while sustaining communities over generations. Acting equally as a source of livelihood, they have become an integral part of the local cuisine and culture.

Taking a deeper dive into the history of oysters in Hong Kong, it’s impossible to avoid mention of the Lau Fau Shan region near the shores of Deep Bay. This place has been the centerpiece of oyster farming for many centuries. Despite its proximity to the bustling city center, this place has managed to remain a hidden gem, considered off the most trodden of paths. 

With a humble seafood market and a few restaurants, this is where you can venture to understand the farming practices that are now slowly fading out. Anniqa Chung Kiu Law, the Conservation Project Manager with TNC, helped to paint the picture of life in Lau Fau Shan, and some of the other, deeply fascinating folklore here. 

It was rumored that, even today, descendents of the Lo Ting lived in these parts, looking over oyster farming and selling the bivalves in markets. Having never heard of the Lo Ting, we took to the famed Maritime Museum to get a better sense of their historical significance. 

Hong Kong's history prior to British colonization is largely obscure, understood mainly through customs and oral traditions—and that’s where the Lo Ting people come into the mix. A mythical half-human, half-fish species was believed to have lived around Lantau Island—the largest of the islands near Hong Kong's epicenter, sitting at the Pearl River mouth. These creatures are considered by some to be the ancestors of the Tanka people, one of the city's indigenous groups.

Lo Ting’s origins are traced back to ancient Chinese texts from the Eastern Jin dynasty, with contemporary depictions drawing mainly from Qing dynasty documents. These creatures, characterized by their distinctive black-and-yellow eyes, looking somewhat like a mermaid, were known to engage primarily in fishing. Occasionally, they were said to trade fish for other resources with the residents of a nearby community called Tai O. Considered peaceful, these creatures were noted as antisocial and isolationist, living far away from civilization due to their deep connection to the sea. 

So how did this community of outcasts come to be? 

The legend of Lo Ting is connected to the historical figure Lo Chun from the Eastern Jin dynasty. Lo Chun, a military leader, led a failed uprising against the time’s dynasty and was forced to retreat with his followers to the southern regions in fear of persecution. Having removed themselves completely from civilization, legend has it the original soldiers and their generations of descendants eventually developed their unique traits and evolved into the Lo Ting species. 

The Lo Ting story isn’t considered a happy legend. It’s often associated with indigenous turmoil, being pushed out of their home by colonizers and shunned for being “different.” In art, they were often depicted as ugly and scary creatures, with many unpleasant representations surfacing. It’s tragic to see the depictions of Lo Ting likened to a sea monster. 

Today, there are lots of different ways to interpret the myths of the Lo Ting. Some say Lo Ting represents post-colonizing or the blending of heritages that make Hong Kong such a melting pot. Others say the Lo Ting are still among us, hiding in plain sight in remote fishing communities and villages on the outskirts of Hong Kong—like in Lau Fau Shan. 

When we started to explore some of these remote regions of the Hong Kong islands, we got a glimpse into what life might have been like for the legendary Lo Ting. Conducting our dives with TNC, we were finding interesting bivalves of all kinds, painting a picture of how diverse and abundant these oyster reefs must have been ages ago. 

Being able to find this type of life, off the shores of a city with almost 7.5 million people as of 2023, is a remarkable sign of resilience given the amount of water pollution and human based activity in the area. It left a lot of room for the imagination to wonder what the baseline must have been like back then, with the Lo Ting thriving as half land, half sea dwelling creatures. Especially as they used oyster shells to create barriers, blocades and homes, as some of the legends say. 

That is if you’re willing to believe they ever existed at all. 

The legends surrounding the Lo Ting piqued our curiosity, highlighting the vast unknowns that still exist in our natural world. In an age where modern technology and societal shifts increasingly distance us from nature, we found ourselves intrigued by the depth of connection historic sea-centered cultures harbored. 

These communities, whose lives were intricately woven with the ebbs and flows of the ocean, enjoyed an intimacy with the marine environment that many today might find elusive. In Hong Kong, the many different versions of the Lo Ting story inspired a profound reflection on our own connection to the sea. 

Finishing our expedition chapter in this vibrant city, we couldn’t escape the Lo Ting. Everywhere we went, we felt this urge to forge a much deeper, more meaningful connection with the natural world. It was as if their spirits were somehow sitting with us, reminding us of their story. We couldn't help but imagine the Lo Ting, in their unique forms. So much so that Marla got one tattooed to her arm!

Wondering if we too would turn into the Lo Ting if we kept diving this much over the next two years, these special creatures left a serious impression and left us craving even more weird and hidden discovery. 

To be continued …

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