Patched together with metal panels and filled with hand-dyed fabrics, wooden furniture and planters, the eclectic Bei Bei Book House was initially a primitive retirement holiday home project Lee kicked off with her husband Ringo Tsoi about six years ago.
Ditching the city for the farm
Six years ago, Teresa Lee and Ringo Tsoi decided to build a retirement home in the wild.
Maggie Hiufu Wong/CNN
The couple started dating in the 1970s, when they were studying to be social workers in the same university.
Lee — small, bubbly and “the one with all the creative ideas” — grew up in the densely populated Kowloon area of Hong Kong, whereas Tsoi — tall, discreet and “the one who likes to fix things in the background” — was raised in a rural village not far from where they live now.
“I’m a Kowlooner, a city girl who is afraid of insects and small critters,” says Lee.
“He has always had a deep connection with the countryside. We would visit his parents in Yuen Long during the holidays. I found it quite intriguing, but I never thought I could live here.”
In fact, it took more than three decades for Lee to be convinced to make the move to Yuen Long.
After the young couple got married, they settled in To Kwa Wan in busy Kowloon. But over the years, every time they moved, they found they had migrated just a bit closer to the countryside.
“It was probably my plan, to move closer and closer back home,” says Tsoi.
In 2003, in the midst of the SARS outbreak, the couple paid another visit to Yuen Long.
“It was a bit like experiencing the pandemic now — we were all wearing masks,” recalls Lee.
“As we were sitting on a sofa looking out, it suddenly hit me that living amongst nature was quite nice. I might actually be able to live out here.”
But it wasn’t until 2015 that they retired from social work and were alerted to an unused part of farmland owned by a friend.
‘So many people told us to give up’
The couple, along with a small team of family and friends, built Bei Bei by hand. Much of the furniture was donated by friends.
Maggie Hiufu Wong/CNN
The couple, now in their sixties, had an idea: they would build a space that would allow them to farm and store their large collection of books.
“It started with just the two of us, plus Ringo’s younger brother and elder sister,” says Lee.
“We thought after a day of farming, we’d need a place to sit down, read, play music with friends and have a cup of tea. So we wanted to build a holiday book house where we can enjoy and relax. It sounded so romantic, right?”
Not long after kick-starting their “not-so-grand plan,” romance was the furthest thing from their minds.
“Oh, it was such a big challenge — every big and small thing you see here, we had to move by hand,” says Tsoi, pausing a moment to gasp while recalling the energy spent on their many moving trips.
The only structure on their newly acquired farm was a run-down pig shed. So in addition to their books, they started moving some stools and building materials to transform the shelter.
A handyman friend helped them add flooring and set them up with electricity. There was no water so an old well had to be re-dug and a pump was added.
“It was just for the four of us and a few friends then, so it was pretty primitive,” says Lee.
“So many people told us to give up. Even if you would like to pay a mover or a contractor, they may not be willing to do it because of its remoteness. We and a few friends took a long time to move, adding parts to the book house slowly.”
They named the book house Bei Bei after their dog, who also happens to be the CEO. Bei also means to give in Cantonese, inspired by the old Bible verse that “it’s more blessed to give than to receive.”
An unusual travel destination
The semi-open book house managed to survive Typhoon Mangkhut in 2018.
Maggie Hiufu Wong/CNN
Over the years, Bei Bei Book House has grown to become an alternative community center, luring visitors from other parts of Hong Kong as well as global travelers.
Their popularity skyrocketed after they agreed — with some reluctance — to be featured in a magazine.
“We said no to all the interviews but a friend’s freshly graduated daughter just joined a magazine as a reporter. She was looking for a story so we said yes,” says Tsoi.
“Once that report came out, it went out of control. Every media outlet and so many more people came, even tourists from China.”
Today, Bei Bei features designated zones for different activities. Volunteers and visitors come to share their skills and knowledge, which can cover everything from floral arrangements to gong bath meditation to tea meditation.
“As retired social workers, we want this place to still be able to heal people and to remind the fast-paced Hong Kongers to live slow,” says Tsoi.
After some basic renovations, the pig shed is now the dining hall, where they invite fellow readers to share simple rustic meals together.
There is a library-like book house at the entrance. Behind the semi-open area is the “Deck,” where guests can sit on the wooden platform under the tree and enjoy tea or meditate.
On the left is a communal table, more bookshelves and a stage for music performances.
The Woody Garden is for farming, while the Blissful Land is filled with planters, where farming newbies are invited to do some “plant-crossing.”
“It’s like book-crossing,” says Tsoi. “Plant-crossing is when people take a sprout home to try nurturing it. When it grows up, you give back a sprout to the garden so the next person can adopt one.”
The Treehouse took the biggest effort to build. The bar allows visitors to sit and have a cup of tea and sample snacks harvested from farms nearby.
Maggie Hiufu Wong/CNN
There is also a sheltered and air-conditioned “Treehouse,” which took the biggest effort to build. The walls are lined with bookshelves. A bar counter in the corner offers tea samples and seasonal fruits.
Visitors can bring a dish or a book and in exchange the couple will offer a simple, communal lunch. Guests can purchase books and some items like tea leaves to support the operation.
The couple admits that opening Bei Bei Book House to a wider audience was a dilemma — it meant they would have to sacrifice some privacy and tranquility, but it’s only open on Friday and Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Their original plan for a relaxing retirement playground may have deviated, but what emerged in its place has helped the couple achieve something else.
“When we were social workers, our main targets were the elderly. We think Hong Kong is quite discriminatory towards our elderly. But many of these ‘young-olds’ can still do so much and can live a very successful and wonderful elderly life. That inspired us. We could live beautifully and successfully after retirement, too,” says Tsoi.
How to live the dream
Visitors take part in tea meditation on the deck.
Maggie Hiufu Wong/CNN
Former urbanite Lee has slowly gotten used to their lives on the farm over the past six years.
“I used to get frustrated by how constantly things would break and be weathered, and how a day of tidying up would be destroyed by nature in a second,” she says. “There are also constantly leaves on the floor waiting to be swept aside.
“But the other day, as I was sweeping the fallen blossoms and fruits from our longan tree, I’d stop and admire the beautiful scene, take a photo, before picking up the broom again. I understand that you can’t negotiate with nature. You can only let go.”
Reflecting on their sixth year running a book house on a farm, the two agree that they’re living their ideal lives at the moment.
“We may not have the luxury to go traveling around the world as we would rather spend the money on Bei Bei, but I find everything I need here. I find peace and friends and happiness. Living in the moment brings me a lot of joy,” says Lee.
When asked if she has any advice for those who would like to pursue their own passions, Lee says financial independence is essential.
“It’s impractical to rely on someone else’s finances to kick start your dream. You need courage, money and good friends,” says Lee.
Tsoi adds that endurance and simplicity are also key.
“Don’t focus on achieving huge success at the end, but find happiness in working hard and solving problems during the process,” he says. “You don’t have to be successful before being happy.”
Top image: This bridge takes visitors to the Bei Bei Book House, near the village of Tai Kong Po in Yuen Long, in Hong Kong’s northwest. Credit: Maggie Hiufu Wong/CNN