Hei Ling Chau: A Dark Chapter of Hong Kong’s History Hiding in Plain Sight


Sinister History Hiding in Plain Sight

Hei Ling Chau, which translates in English to 'The Island of Joyful Healing', is one of Hong Kong’s darkest secrets hiding in plain sight.

The unassuming island is very close to Mui Wo, meaning you’ve probably unwittingly seen it during ferry trips or hikes around south Lantau.

It’s L-shaped, has a useful typhoon shelter and is covered in lush greenery. To the outdoor enthusiast, Hei Ling Chau probably looks like a great summer camping or hiking spot.

Its history, on the other hand, is so twisted that the island would actually be the perfect setting for a Hong Kong horror film.

Getting to Hei Ling Chau

You can take a ferry from Peng Chau to get to Hei Ling Chau, but you’ll need a special permit to enter the island. Permits are only offered to people visiting loved ones in correctional institutions or the rehabilitation center. DO NOT DISEMBARK WITHOUT A PERMIT. The ferry timetable and fare can be found here.

A Quick Timeline of Hei Ling Chau’s History

  • 1890s – Settled by the Lam, Tsang, and Ng clans
  • 1951 – Turned into a leper camp
  • 1960s – Leprosarium reaches max occupancy of 540 patients
  • 1975 – Hei Ling Chau Addiction Treatment Centre set up
  • 1982 – Vietnamese Refugee Camp implemented
  • 1990s – Two prisons and a drug rehab center opened
  • 2004 – Massive island-wide prison plan proposed and scrapped
  • Today – Addiction treatment center and 2 correctional institutions on the island

An Idyllic Village Transformed into a Leprosy Colony (1950s)

Hei Ling Chau (initially named Ni Ku Chau, or Nun Island) was first settled toward the end of the 19th century by the Lam, Tsang, and Ng clans. Up until the 1950s, the three clans flourished, with the island’s population growing to about 100 people.

After the 1950s, the original inhabitants of the island were relocated to Tai Pak, Cheung Chau Island or Shap Long village so the island could be used as an isolated leprosy colony.

The Hei Ling Chau Leprosarium (1951)

With an influx of refugees after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and with the main center for Leprosy in Guangdong province now off-limits to Hong Kong residents, a local leprosy treatment facility became high priority.

Thus, “The Mission to Lepers and the British colonial government developed a new infrastructure to face this new problem.” This ‘new infrastructure’ was a leprosarium that was built to halt the spread of the disease and to offer treatment to leprosy sufferers in isolation from the rest of Hong Kong.

During this time, Ni Ku Chau was renamed to Hei Ling Chau (sometimes also called Hay Ling Chau), which translates to "Island of Happy Healing" or "Island of Joyful Soul."

This name is especially creepy since Hei Ling Chau was the site of a lot of suffering. Especially as the leprosarium reached its maximum capacity of 540 patients in the 1960s, but kept operating until the 1970s. After that, the leper population was relocated (since a cure for leprosy had been found) so that the island could be used to reform prisoners and drug addicts.

From Isolating Hong Kong’s Lepers to Isolating Drug Addicts (1975)

Following the shutdown of the leprosy colony, the Correctional Services Department assumed control of the island. In 1975, the Hei Ling Chau Addiction Treatment Centre, a drug rehabilitation facility solely for male detainees, was set up on the island.

In the 1980s, the island was repurposed once more to house an influx of Vietnamese refugees.

Transitioning to a Vietnamese Refugee Camp (1982)

After the end of the Vietnam War in April 1975, many Vietnamese people fled in fear of retribution from the new communist government that now held power. These refugees, often called ‘Vietnamese Boat People’ began arriving by boat in regions like Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Hong Kong. Refugees in Hong Kong at this point were very manageable in number.

Vietnamese Boat People Targeted

In 1979, the Vietnamese Government began to target ethnically Chinese people residing in Vietnam in retaliation to China's attempt to invade Vietnam. This led to a considerable number of ethnic Chinese Vietnamese people seeking refugee status in Hong Kong after it declared itself as the "port of first asylum".

Some notable Vietnamese boat people caught in this tumultuous period of history include Everything Everywhere All at Once star Ke Huy Quan and The Whale star Hong Chau.

In 1980, over 100,000 Vietnamese refugees arrived in Hong Kong. There was no overcrowding at this point since most of these refugees only stayed in Hong Kong temporarily before obtaining official refugee status and relocating to Western nations.

Starting in July 1982, however, the chances of Vietnamese refugees successfully resettling to other countries decreased. With more refugees now staying long-term in Hong Kong, the local government attempted to discourage the surge of newcomers from Vietnam by confining them to "closed camps."

One such camp was located in – you guessed it – Hei Ling Chau. A 1982 article from the South China Morning Post talks about the rushed opening of the refugee camp.

From Good Intentions to Torturous Conditions

No One has Asked to See Us” – a haunting quote from a 1988 New York Times article that sums up the appalling conditions Vietnamese people faced in Hong Kong refugee camps, such as the one in Hei Ling Chau.

The article goes on to describe the conditions in the Hei Ling Chau refugee camp:

The camp's barracks-like cinder-block buildings house 2,900 people in spaces meant for 2,400. Two meals a day and a snack are served and there is one toilet for every 90 people.”

The refugee camp was shut down in the early-mid 1990s.

Rehabilitation for Addicts and Prisoners (1990s - Present)

Today, Hei Ling Chau houses the Hei Ling Chau Addiction Treatment Centre, which occupies the north-western part of the island, the Hei Ling Chau Correctional Institution, which is located on the eastern part of the island and the Lai Sun Correctional Institution, which is located on the northern side of the island.

Nearly the Alcatraz of Hong Kong (2004)

In 2004, a plan was proposed by the Hong Kong government to repurpose the entire island into a massive prison complex - much like San Francisco’s infamous Alcatraz Island. However, the proposal, which was estimated to cost 12 billion HKD, met strong opposition from locals and experts and was scrapped.

Warding Away Bad Spirits

Hei Ling Chau has one surviving Tin Hau Temple that was built in 1985. There used to be an older temple that was built in 1925, but it was repurposed into a storage room.

Building a Positive Legacy

Though Hei Ling Chau is filled with a history of suffering, there is hope in the island’s story.

The rehabilitation facility offers much-needed help for those facing the uphill battle of overcoming substance abuse. You can call the Hei Ling Chau Addiction Treatment Centre through the following number if you or a loved one needs help: 2986 6800.

The island is also home to rare and unique Hong Kong wildlife. In 1987, the Bogadek’s Burrowing Lizard was discovered in Hei Ling Chau. It’s a super rare type of endemic legless lizard that looks like a weird cross between an earthworm and a snake. Given that Hei Ling Chau is one of the only places this strange lizard can be found, the island’s lack of visitors means this rare lizard can be kept safe from extinction!