In some ways, the island is no different than a small town in the rural United States, where it was becoming increasingly difficult to earn a living from farming and the youth who remained en masse.
The original settlers were a family called Chan, from the Chinese province of Guangdong, who cultivated salt; the name of the island means “Little Salt Farm” in English.
Many of Chan’s descendants moved to more urban areas of Hong Kong in search of work or a different way of life. Others left the region entirely.
These days, Yim Tin Tsai is no longer officially deserted. It is the home of a part-time resident, a volunteer who works as a caregiver. This volunteer and community representative, Colin Chan, lives in the nearby city of Sai Kung, and, as you may have guessed by his last name, is a descendant of the Chan clan.
There’s a small museum and gift shop across from the ferry dock, as well as, perhaps most importantly, public toilets.
An abandoned house near the ferry dock.
Lilit Marcus / CNN
To get to the island, take a kaito, a small motorized wooden boat that is often used as a ferry between smaller islands, from the pier in the coastal community of Sai Kung.
These boats only work on weekends and holidays, although if you’re trying to get there during the week, you can hire a boat from the companies that line the boardwalk.
After the short trip to Yim Tin Tsai (approximately 15 minutes, depending on the weather), you will leave the pier and immediately begin to walk through a series of abandoned houses and other buildings.
Some people left furniture and other personal belongings with them when they moved, and years of exposure to Hong Kong’s hot, rainy weather has left them in various states of disrepair.
Walking along the path, you will pass houses with their sunken roofs, statues of the Buddha looking at you from empty windows, and other creepy scenes.
But not everything on the island has been abandoned to the elements.
Yim Tin Tsai was very Catholic in his heyday.
The best preserved site on the island is the Cathedral of San José, which has a spectacular red and white altar inside.
The building was completed and consecrated in 1890, and there is a statue of the Rev. Josef Freinademetz, an Austrian priest and missionary who arrived in Hong Kong in 1879, in the gardens behind him.
Freinademetz established the Catholic chapel at Yim Tin Tsai and after his death he was canonized as a saint by Pope John Paul II.
Catholics in Hong Kong celebrate Freinademetz Saint’s Day every year on January 29.
Lilit Marcus / CNN
There is another innovation that appears in Yim Tin Tsai these days: an art project that uses stained glass to depict scenes from typical village life.
There are hopes of holding a second annual festival in 2020, although the coronavirus pandemic may suspend those plans.
Either way, it is clear that Yim Tin Tsai has acquired a second life far beyond its salt-collecting days.