The growth of population in the harsh MOS Iron Mine was partly due to the post-WWII conditions elsewhere in Hong Kong when everything was just slowly recovering after the re-establishment of British Civil Government in 1946. In 1949, the District Commissioner of the New Territories, introduced unemployed rural villagers to work in the MOS Iron Mine to alleviate their hardship in life as they lost employment when British shipping companies did not resume operation in Hong Kong at that time.
More importantly, the rapid growth of population in the MOS Iron Mine was primarily a result of the influx of people from mainland China, escaping from political and social turmoil. The first batch of miners were mainly Hakka people and Chiu Chow people from Guangdong during the Chinese Civil War from 1945 to 1949. By the end of 1949, the setting up of the PRC triggered another round of migration to Hong Kong. In 1950, nearly half a million of migrants entered Hong Kong, including former KMT soldiers and their families. These KMT soldiers had contributed to the nascent development of the MOS Iron Mine. Those who came alone were usually from northern provinces, ranging from Hubei (湖北), Anhui (安徽), Henan (河南), Jiangsu (江蘇) to Shandong (山東). Those who came with families were primarily from Guangdong and the adjacent areas.
In 1952, there were dozens of sub-contractors in the MOS Iron Mine and they recruited migrants from various provinces to work as miners, giving rise to diverse cultural practices in the settlements. Population in the MOS Iron Mine peaked during the period from 1949 to 1954, followed by a decline, probably due to the mechanisation of the Mine as a result of Japanese investment. At the same time, higher paid job opportunities in factories or construction sites in the urban areas attracted some Cantonese-speaking workers to leave the mining work. Full mechanisation of the MOS Iron Mine in 1963 further reduced labour demand, while some miners emigrated to Taiwan.
As the Mine was closed in 1976, some workers switched to construction industry, while others worked in factories. The construction of the MOS New Town started and the majority of the residents were relocated to public housing in Sha Tin or Tuen Mun. However, some older heavily accented Mandarin-speaking and illiterate miners were not able to find a job in the urban areas due to language barrier and inappropriate skills.
Before mining started in MOS, it was a rural place. The on-and-off operation of mining before the take-over by MMTC in 1949 brought little change to the rural nature of the place. The development of the MOS Iron Mine by MMTC coincided with the influx of migrants from the mainland, thus providing cheap labour for its operation. With the expansion of the population, the settlements evolved accordingly. From 1949 to 1954, miners were concentrated around the Peak District. After the Japanese investors introduced modern management to the MMTC, productivity of the mine increased. Employees of the mine earned more to build their own houses and invest in community building. Settlements for miners expanded and differentiated into several districts. The centre of gravity shifted from the Peak District to the Pier District along with the development of underground mining in the MOS Iron Mine. After the closure of the mine, changes of the settlements were brought about by the construction of the MOS New Town.
Religious organisations played a pivotal role in nurturing the communities in MOS, providing them with material and spiritual support through the Roman Catholic Church operated by The Order of Friars Minor (方濟會, Franciscan Friars) and the Lutheran Church. The missionaries of both churches in mainland China were forced to retreat to Hong Kong in the early 1950s due to the Communist take-over in 1949. During their stay in Hong Kong, the missionaries learned about the hardship of refugees in MOS and decided to serve them, leading to intertwined histories of the MOS Iron Mine settlements and both Churches.
Both religious organisations adopted the twin strategies of spiritual and social supports. The communities were very blessed to be served by the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church, receiving spiritual and social services including education as well as material support such as relief materials, medical services or even accommodation. Support from the churches had converted many inhabitants to become followers of God and also helped improve their living conditions.
When the MMTC adopted the MOS Iron Mine in 1949, there was material shortage for the miners. The situation only improved after 1954, when Japanese investment helped improve the productivity of the mine as well as people’s overall living conditions. The need to build everything from scratch, coupled with a lack of resources, had triggered self-help and reciprocity, leading to strong social networks in the communities.
When MMTC took over the mine, barracks were built for the miners at the Peak District by each sub-contractor. One barrack housed 70 to 80 persons, sometimes even a hundred. Self-built shelters were constructed with make-shift local materials for free or at minimal cost. After typhoon Wanda hit in 1962, many households had to rebuild their shelters, except those living in the Lutheran World Federation sponsored Shun Yee San Tsuen and a few recently-built houses. Those who became homeless after typhoon counted on their neighbours for free lodging until their houses were rebuilt with help from their neighbours. People helped one another in rebuilding houses and the materials used were gradually replaced by stone and other more durable matters.
One of the reasons why people could settle down in MOS is the availability of water resources. Water from river streams is still in use in the residential settlements in the MOS Iron Mine. Water supply systems have evolved differently in various settlements. The Pier District was probably the first to be connected with water taps because the management staff of MMTC lived here. It was costly to lay water-pipes and the MMTC only constructed public taps to divert stream water to the central locations of the Pier and the Peak Districts. Today, the remaining residents still rely heavily on stream water. It is only when rainfall is not reliable that they will use metered water supplied by the government.
Mining is an energy-intensive industry and so MMTC built an electricity system at the beginning. Unfortunately, the electric generators only served the mining operations and were not available for domestic use. It was not until 1969 that the China Light and Power Company (CLP) started to serve the area, allowing the majority households access to electricity for lighting.
In the years when sub-contractors arranged work and livelihood issues for the miners, kitchens were built near the barracks and cooks were hired to provide humble “big-pot rice” meals for the miners in the Peak District. During the early 1950s, only two meals a day were provided and miners had to pay for their meals. With the modernisation of the Mine, the situation was improved. Higher ranking staff members of MMTC and Japanese engineers had a separate canteen at the Pier District. The Japanese engineers had Cantonese-style food such as fried rice and Cantonese Udon noodles most of the time but sometimes cooked Japanese food on their own.
Before the markets in the Peak and the Pier Districts were formed, miners could buy food and groceries at the company’s co-operative but the prices were seen as “exorbitant, much higher than market prices” in 1952. The miserable conditions were alleviated when some former miners (who chose not to work or could no longer work in the mine) started small businesses to serve the community. These included growing vegetables for self-consumption and sale; keeping poultries and pigs for sale; and running groceries stores.
The development of the local economy and “Se Sou” (賒數, the practice of credit purchases) in the community helped foster social relations as everyone knew one another and people would pay back voluntarily when they received their salaries.
The location of major market areas in MOS had changed over time. In the 1950s, the distribution of residents was skewed towards the Peak District and there was once a street of eateries until the late 1960s. However, when open-pit98mining stopped in 1959 and 110 ML opened in 1963, the operation of the mining company started to shift to the Pier District. Some families started to relocate to the Pier District.
Within the MOS Iron Mine and the settlement areas, a regular bus service operated by MMTC was the primary means of transportation for the miners. Sometimes, families of the miners and other settlers could use the bus service but most of the time, walking was the main means to get around. In those days, mail was the main means for communication. If people needed to make a call, the only place to borrow a telephone was in MMTC office at the Pier District.
Though the day-in and day-out life in the MOS Iron Mine seemed mundane, communities were enlivened now and then by various cultural practices. The arrival of migrants with different geographical origins brought with them their cultures, expressed in diverse forms through cuisine, clothing, music and so on. As most of the miners in MOS were former KMT soldiers, they celebrated the National Day of the Republic of China (ROC) on 10th of October every year (also refer to as “Double Ten Festival”). During the Festival, ROC flags could be found everywhere stretching from the Pier to the Peak District. A pailou (牌樓, a small archway) as tall as 40 feet was erected in the Pier District and Chinese opera performances were arranged as part of the celebration.
The most festive time in the MOS Iron Ore settlements was the Lunar New Year. Women would gather to prepare traditional Chinese food (e.g. Niangao and fried dumplings) and share food with neighbours and friends. Red pockets were distributed. Chinese opera and firecrackers were parts of the celebration. Miners had to work in a hostile environment where accidents and casualties happened frequently. This was the reason for people to celebrate the Hungry Ghost Festival (or the Ghost Festival) in the seventh month of the Lunar Calendar. In order to satisfy the hungry ghosts, rituals such as offering food and drinks and burning hell bank notes and joss paper would take place in the area, usually performed by MMTC for the deceased miners. Some boys would wait at the Ma On Bridge to collect the dispersed candies and coins [for the ghosts].
There is a Tudigong (土地公, Earth God) Temple in the Mid-level District of the Chiu Chow community, worshipped by most people in the district. Three Chinese folk deities in the pantheon are worshipped in the temple. The temple is believed to be the only religious structure dedicated to Chinese folk religion in MOS, as only churches are found in the Peak and Pier Districts. Every July and December, the Chiu Chow people gather to enjoy a meal together. This practice has continued until today.
In Western culture, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ contains both cultural and religious meanings. Christmas brought a festive atmosphere to MOS. Staff and students decorated the Lutheran schools and church. They gathered in the church when the bell rang in the evening and wore their new clothes to attend the service and praise the Lord. The service was followed by drama, singing and instrumental performances, members of the church reading the Bible scripture in different dialects and then the party was perfectly wrapped up with the distribution of Christmas gifts from Santa Clause. Hong Kong has always been described as a place where the East meets the West and it is reflected in the cultural practices in MOS. Simultaneously they embraced the Western cultural practices introduced by the religious organisations. It is also interesting to see how strong the influence of the churches has been, as almost no other religious structure could be found in the area except the Tudigong Temple in the Mid-level District.