The village of Houtouwan on the tiny Chinese island of Shengshan truly is a sight to behold. Once an active fishing hub, inhabitants began to abandon their homes during the 1990s, as it became increasingly difficult for local fishermen to compete with the mainland’s thriving industry.

Houtouwan sits on a hill, now covered in climbing ivy and brambles.
Houtouwan sits on a hill, now covered in climbing ivy and brambles. Image by Joe Nafis

Since then, Mother Nature has done what she does best; enveloping the village in a veil of rich green. American filmmaker and photographer Joe Nafis is based in nearby Shanghai, and recently visited Houtouwan for the first time as part of a fashion shoot. Though it was once inhabited by 2000 fishermen and their families, Joe found the hundreds of empty dwellings that cover the island’s sweeping hills covered in thick brambles, creepers and climbing ivy. It made for an eerily beautiful scene.

The village was abandoned in the 1990s.
The village was abandoned in the 1990s. Image by Joe Nafis

“The overgrowth was definitely more than I had imagined for only being abandoned for 20 years”, he told Lonely Planet. “It was strange to say the least. It looked like five or so people still lived in the village. Other locals seemed to open a couple of shops at the weekend for tourists. We were there on a Monday and it was completely empty; we were the only people walking around, and it was super quiet.”

“We had great weather and the place to ourselves, so it was a little mind-boggling why this lovely beachside village had been abandoned. As for the ivy, it wasn’t so surprising to see how it had taken over – nature always seems to find a way.”

Houtouwan lies 40 miles east of Shanghai.
Houtouwan lies 40 miles east of Shanghai. Image by Joe Nafis

Intrigued? Shengshan is well worth the boat trip if you’re visiting eastern China. Though it’s one of 400 Shengsi Islands that lie 40 miles east of Shanghai, only 18 are habitable due to their rugged terrains. The largest, Sijiao, is another idyllic oasis dotted in the vast East China Sea. Boasting an area of 21.2 km², it’s a popular destination for sea-bathing.