10 November 2010

Dragonflies vs. Wasps

Is it my imagination, or are we experiencing a particularly long and tempestuous dragonfly season? I associate dragonflies with the heat of summer, clouds of colorful buzzing insects as harbingers of thunderstorms. Yet this year we seem to have had more clouds of dragonflies than cloudbursts. Although now, deep into autumn, there are no longer thousands swooping and diving outside my window (as in the photo, taken a couple weeks ago), any time I open my window screens, one or two manage to dash inside and buzz furiously on the ceiling.

Wasps, too, have been invading my room for the past few days. Even with windows and doors shut tight, I'll enter to find four or five orange wasps tapping at the glass, trying to find a way out. How did they get in? I spent hours waiting in ambush before I discovered a machine-tooled hole in one of the aluminum window frames which they were obviously misinterpreting as the entrance to a nest, crawling through, and then finding themselves, like Alice, not in a world they knew, but the bizarre Wonderland of my home studio.

When I discover wasps or dragonflies trapped inside, I try to shoo them out. I slide open a window and try to help them to discover their escape route. These species have remarkably different tactics. A wasp will explore every corner of the window pane. When coming upon the opaque aluminum frame, the wasp will return to the glass to search some more. Left on its own, it might make two or three complete explorations of the windowpane before concluding the futility of getting through it. It will then fly around to look for another see-through opening. Eventually it finds the open window.

Sometimes I'll nudge it along, with a well-extended magazine, toward the opening. The wasp will resist, trying to remain on the transparent pane, but eventually give in and either follow my guidance or fly to another window. In either case, I see intelligence at work, methodically searching the glass for an escape route and, only after thorough examination, looking elsewhere. There is no hint of panic, no indication of fear. Even my nudging doesn't provoke a defense response. Wasps, to me, are frightening to look at, but worthy of respect.

Dragonflies, on the other hand, thrash around the room, buzzing noisily against ceiling panels, book cases and windows. If they don't immediately manage an escape through a transparent pane, they scamper off somewhere else, their wings beating furiously. A nudge with the extended magazine sends them into a terrified dither. There is no intelligence at work here. Their noise and frantic manner make me more nervous than venemous wasps.

Yet when it comes down to it, which one would I willingly kill? In the rare case of a stubborn or belligerent wasp, unwilling to follow instinct or instruction toward the open window, I've been known to reluctantly electrocute them with my battery-powered insect zapper. Yet I would never contemplate that with a moronic, irritating dragonfly. Why is that?

These dragonflies are a stunning day-glo electric blue. Their long, slender torsos and translucent biplane wings make them particularly elegant insects. To harm one would be like attacking a beautiful, innocent child, whereas to attack a sinister-looking hunchbacked wasp is akin to battling a shrewd movie villain. Yet trapped dragonflies are actually louder, more nerve-wracking and more likely to bump into you than trapped wasps. Why don't I hate the more annoying insect? I doubt that I'm alone in this gut response. Are we, on an instinctual, animal level, more willing to forgive beauty than to forgive intelligence?

On a human social level, we let pretty (and often genuinely stupid) female starlets get away with felonies with little more than a slapped wrist, while a young British university student I know, who has very dark skin (which, in the context of everyday Hong Kong racism, is not considered beautiful), was beaten by police and spent two weeks in prison for the crime of accidentally touching a woman behind him when he slipped on a rain-slickened steep sidewalk.

Only beauty prevails in this world. I resolve, in my own small way, to fight against that. From now on, I will be more tolerant toward wasps and lessen my regard for dragonflies.

07 November 2010

Ode to Garbage

"I've never seen so much garbage in my life!"

That was my mother's first response on her visit to Wang Tong a number of years ago. She'd envisioned it, from my letters and phone calls, as a picturesque rural idyll nestling in the arms of butterfly-covered hills and peopled by the Chinese equivalent of hobbits.

Until my mother's remark, it had never registered in my brain what a load of nonsense that was. Entering the village on foot, one passes a crumbling shack with a missing wall, stacked to the ceiling--no, that sounds too tidy--engorged with broken bottles, crumbling Styrofoam, rotten plywood, leprous cardboard boxes, corroded moon cake tins, and globs and pustules of unidentifiable debris that had probably been decaying there since the Tang Dynasty.

A few steps later you pass a "garden" of potted plants perched on overturned milk crates lurking behind a fence made from shreds of corrugated iron and chicken wire leaning against barbecue forks and umbrella skeletons planted in the ground, with empty LP gas canisters lending support.

I had walked past these places a thousand times, and never noticed. That's because when you live in a rural Chinese village, you develop special filters over your eyes which paint out the garbage. So when a neighbor, a relative newcomer to the village, suggested we organize a community cleanup day, I was skeptical.

"There isn't that much to clean up," I said.

"What about that nine-foot-tall cement mixer sitting there rusting in the center of the village for the past three years?"

"Oh yeah," I said.

"And those decomposed bicycles over there which probably haven't been ridden since the Japanese occupation."

"Hm." I blinked hard. Those garbage eye filters do a magnificent job. I should figure out how to manufacture them.

A group of us put up posters about the clean-up day, sent e-mails, slid notices into letterboxes and spoke to everyone we met on the footpaths. Obviously those same eye filters also apply to colorful notices affixed to lamp posts. Expressions of support were muted.

On the appointed day we laid out food and drink, cotton gloves and jumbo black garbage bags. The old-time villagers walked past as if their eye filters erased us from view. In the end, a dozen or so people showed up.

When you deliberately remove the filters from your eyes and search for trash, our village turns out to be a goldmine...or is that a cesspit? I'm amazed at how many industrial-sized rubbish bags one can fill with discarded drink boxes in just an hour. It's incredible how many toothless brooms, twisted bicycle wheels, 3½-legged chairs and sun-melted boots are strewn between buildings and along stream banks.

Most of the "locals"--families who have lived here for generations--watched with detached humor as these strange people spent a perfectly good horse racing day picking up litter. One resident was less amused when the mountains of trash in front of her door began to disappear. She tolerated the removal of a chest-high mound of broken Styrofoam from the stolen supermarket trolley chained to her gate. She muttered while her collection of maggot-infested plywood scraps vanished into black bags. But the cracked plastic bucket lid was the final straw. She grabbed it from my friend's hands and shooed us away.

A convoy of hand trolleys moved back and forth to the public rubbish collection facility half a kilometer from the village. Within three hours, six enormous dumpsters were filled to overflowing. Meanwhile, sinister pro-garbage forces alerted the authorities. As I wheeled in the final load, a man in blue uniform, silver kitsch attached to his shoulders, confronted me.

"Is this rubbish from Wang Tong Village?"

Rubbish? What rubbish? I was tempted to say. Wasn't he wearing his garbage eye filters? Instead I confessed: "Yes. Who are you?"

"Environmental Hygiene Department. You're not authorized to drop this here. This collection point is only for household rubbish."

"This is household rubbish," I said. "Which your department hasn't cleaned up for the past twenty-five years."

He stood his ground until I stepped closer. I must have smelled as awful as I looked. He backed away and closed his mouth, probably for fear of whatever was staining my shirt leaping into his nearest orifice.

The following day my wife was chatting with Ah-Po, the village's elderly sole remaining farmer, who gave a thumbs-up to the cleaning effort. So did Luk Suk, the old man who feeds the stray cats. Most others said nothing.

In the end, did it matter that we cleaned up? That we'd removed hundreds of pounds of debris which didn't exist in people’s consciousness? We may as well have played charades, carrying away bags of air. Even I don't notice the difference; that's how powerful my filters are.

Yet it was, strangely, fun. An anti-garbage insurrection that worked.

Next time my mother visits and complains about the trash, at least I'll know she's talking about my blog.

An expanded version of this piece appeared in Culture Magazine.

06 August 2010

Rock Duty

The garden taps sputtered dry. That meant the village reservoir had filled with sand again. Once more all of Wang Tong went into water hibernation, everyone waiting for somebody else to dig it out. Almost every household taps into the mountain water for their garden hoses. Some pipe it in for their toilets and several old folks in the foothills rely on it for all their water needs, bypassing the chlorinated--and not free--government water supply. But when the little reservoir fills with sand, as it inevitably does, especially this time of year when frequent rainstorms wash grit and pebbles down the hillside, we all wait for somebody other than ourselves to feel desperate or guilty enough to clear it out. Just like last year at this time, the denizens of Wang Tong hunkered down and waited.

One day.

Two days.

On the third day of blistering hot sun, Maribel, our gardener, reported some flowers beginning to wilt and our long beans shriveling up. My wife was one of the "wait for someone else to dig" faction, but I knew that I would never hear the end of it if her Zinnias turned to dust. Urgent action was necessary.

I recruited Maribel and Gaby, a guy who works for one of the neighbors, to join me in liberating the water. Armed with shovels and a bicycle basket (to scoop out rotten leaves), we cycled a narrow path up into the mountains behind the village, past abandoned banana plantations, beyond a derelict house and a couple isolated homes, into an overgrown meadow. From there we hiked the last distance up a muddy footpath through dripping, tangly forest. I was worried about snakes, until suddenly I felt my entire head wrapped in gauze. I'd walked straight into the web of a giant tree spider. Shrieking and dancing around to make sure the spider--larger than an outstretched hand--wasn't on me, I scraped what I could off my face.

A few meters later another tree spider web, two meters high and at least a meter wide, blocked the path, with the red and black owner doing sentry duty in the center. A few swipes with a shovel ripped a hole large enough for us to pass through.

Gaby and Maribel dig in
Six or seven spiderweb gates later, we finally reached the reservoir. It's a rock pool sealed off with a concrete dam, fed by two little streams which converge at that spot. We leapt in and got to work. To give you some idea how much sand and pebbles were in there, the water was knee-deep when we first went in, and shoulder-deep by the time we finished.

As we cleared out rough sand, pebbles, fist-sized rocks, and a few golf balls (the Discovery Bay golf course is way on top of the ridge), the water got deeper and as a result, shoveling ten or twelve pounds at a time up to and over the surface became an increasing strain. Yet it was strangely difficult to stop.

After fifteen minutes we uncovered the intake filter, a stainless steel box with holes like a pasta strainer. I suggested we just do another five minutes to clear more space around it and then quit. Twenty minutes later the three of us were still digging, digging, digging, no one saying a word, each entranced by the rhythmic motion. Dig, lift, toss. Dig, lift, toss.

I said, okay, no need to clear out the whole reservoir. Let's go in five minutes.

Another twenty minutes or so passed. Dig, lift, toss. Dig, lift, toss.

Finally I realized that the amount of sand and rocks per shovel load had decreased to the point of diminshing returns. We had reached bottom rock in most parts. I said, "Really, let's go now." The others nodded and agreed. Oh, just a couple more shovel loads, I thought. Dig, lift, toss. Dig, lift, toss. I was nearly neck-deep in my end of the pool.

The others climbed out. I got in two more shovels full before forcing myself up. Then the soreness hit me. Back, shoulders, biceps and triceps bulged like like He-Man, the Hulk and Captain America combined. I felt rather macho, posing in my clingy wet shirt. All for the sake of some pretty peonies.

I spat out bits of spiderweb all the way home.

12 July 2010

The Ghost Tree

The Ghost Tree is under threat.

I'm not sure how it got that name, but that's what local people have always called it. It's a rubber tree, at least 50 years old and possibly much older, located at the entrance to Wang Tong Village. It's a magnificent multiple cascade of roots and trunks, towering over the village like the Lord of Trees. No single photo can capture its majesty.

The Ghost Tree is home to countless birds and an enormous Burmese python who is occasionally seen swinging from its branches (and twice creeping through our garden!). The tree grows adjacent to the long-vacant house #1, whose last occupant apparently died there in the 1980s and no one has moved in since. Is that one reason for the tree's name?

Several months ago, six roots were chopped off to make room for a small drainage ditch. By the time anyone noticed, the deed had been done. When I had finished choking and hissing my outrage, the foreman assured me that no further work was necessary. The tree was safe.

That was the first lie.

A few days ago I cycled past the tree on my way to the post office. A crew of government contractors were swinging axes at its roots. They explained that they needed to extend the drainage ditch. Already they had severed one major root. The path they had marked made it clear they planned to chop off the single largest root and dig down several feet to pour concrete, killing whatever roots lay directly below.

My Cantonese becomes incomprehensible when I'm red in the face furious, so I called my wife to the scene. She's a born diplomat. Though this time her diplomacy skills were stretched to the limit.

She browbeat the crew into stopping work and demanded to speak to the engineer in charge. Half an hour later he phoned her. He lectured this mere villager, clearly a madwoman, about the necessity of drainage works to protect property from storm water damage (the property to be "protected" being nothing more than a 10-meter-long stretch of concrete footpath which is so close to the village stream that it drains naturally). When she objected that damaging the roots would weaken or sicken an ancient tree, he reassured her:

"If the tree becomes sick as a result of our work, don't worry. We'll be there within one day to cut it down."

Those were the wrong words to say to the world's most fanatic plantaholic. My wife's response is unrepeatable.

Our village is considered an inconsequential pip in a remote outlying district. Government engineers don't waste their time visiting such sites. Plans for everything from a minor drain to the repositioning of an entire river are drawn up from topographic maps in air conditioned high rise city offices. The engineer claimed he knew the site in detail. That was the second lie, as his subsequent description of the site made obvious.

He sunk himself deeper with his next remark. He would be willing to suspend the works under the condition that my wife sign a legal document in which she personally assumes all liability for any claims of flood damage that may have been averted by their drainage ditch. He may as well have declared war.

One of the hardest things about living in a beautiful place is the constant need to do battle with the sinister forces of ugliness, exploitation and concrete addiction. One of the best things about living in such a place is that there is a well-developed network of people willing to join a worthy fight. After a few e-mails, phone calls and stopping neighbors on the footpath, the Ghost Tree has become a cause célèbre.

The Ghost Tree is especially awe-inspiring and photogenic. It's easy to rally the troops on its behalf. I wonder how many less glamorous trees have died in the name of minor and unnecessary infrastructure projects. What will this world look like when the engineers have finished making the environment "safe"?

What's more important? The life of a tree that has lived on this earth longer than most of us? Or not getting our designer shoes wet on a small section of footpath next time there's a torrential rain?

The photo on the right clearly shows the six roots chopped off for the first section of the drain. The fresh earth in the lower right covers the latest severed roots.

UPDATE: In October 2010 we received a letter from the government, which said that, having conducted further studies (undoubtedly costing tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars), they determined that the planned drainage extension was not necessary, and therefore further works were suspended. The Ghost Tree will not become a ghost anytime soon.

01 July 2010

Lychee Season

Summertime, and the living is queasy. When we haven't had non-stop torrential rain and thunderstorms, the temperature has hovered in the mid-30s Celsius (90 - 95 Fahrenheit) with 99 percent humidity. The ground feels spongy and the air is so leaden you can almost see it coagulate into sweaty droplets before your eyes. Grey mold stains creep across walls, and mushrooms sprout from our wooden garden gate.

Is there anything pleasant about summer?

One thing, at least. The beginning of summer marks the start of lychee season. This morning our neighbor Mr. Tam brought us a big bagful harvested from his tree. On the other side of the village, trees lean over the stream, weighed down with clusters of eyeball-sized fruit. Unfortunately, our two lychee trees haven't been very generous. They were neglected for decades before we moved in, then went through the trauma of our house reconstruction and concrete additives irresponsibly poured onto the ground. We guess that they'll take a few more years of nurturing to completely recover. Mr. Tam must have felt sorry for us.

Or was he trying to unload them? There's a Chinese saying: One lychee, three torches. Meaning, lychees are a "hot" food, which can cause dry skin and burn your inner organs. Well, what do you expect from a fiery red bomb which heralds summer?

I don't care. Lychees are my favorite fruits of all, beautiful to look at, syrupy sweet, a unique flavor that makes a tongue want to pirouette. Obviously God made lychees to trick the rest of us into looking forward to the south China summer.

15 June 2010


The water buffaloes are back. Though their timing might have been a little better. My wife nearly missed the morning ferry because, as you can see, they didn't leave much room to squeeze past with a bicycle. A few dings of her bell, a couple friendly calls of "Psshh!" and the commotion of me running up behind her, wiping the humidity from the camera lens with my shirttail, convinced them to make a slow turn and regally sashay into the field behind the fence to the left. Everyone was happy: my wife made the ferry and the buffaloes discovered enough munchies to keep them occupied for the next half hour.

Not everyone likes the buffaloes. Some old-timers consider them a nuisance, detritus from a farming existence long past. Many of the garden fences in the village are there not to keep out human intruders, but to prevent buffaloes from grazing on their marigolds. More ominously, and maddeningly stupid, is the belief of our village leadership that water buffaloes, the most docile creatures you'll ever meet--which make even dairy cows seem like grizzly bears in comparison--are dangerous and frighten away tourists. A couple years ago our village Dear Leader arranged with the government to pack them into trucks and relocate them to some distant spot in the mainland New Territories. Most of the animals died in the process, from nothing more than the stress of the move, including the family of three which lived semi-permanently in the field behind our house. Many of us felt like making Dear Leader join them in heaven, a plan we called off when we realized he'd go to the other place.

Now, after several years of being left alone, the feral herds on the other side of Lantau Island have spread out and started filling the vacuum left by their departed cousins. Some mornings we've seen as many as six of these huge animals walking along the beach or swimming in the shallows. Now they're rediscovering Wang Tong Valley, with its rich pickings in the ginger fields.

Most people I know either accept the water buffaloes with a shrug or outright love them. Count my wife and me among the latter. Not just for the pastoral charm they add to the district, but for more practical, selfish reasons. Their poop is the best garden fertilizer on earth, lots better than Miracle Gro. We hope they keep coming back and leave plenty of souvenirs, as long as they allow a bit of room for anxious commuters to reach the ferry.

14 June 2010

Wang Tong Prison

How do I explain three months away, when I've been here all along? Was the removal of the ill-fated Welcome sign, the day after the deadline ran out, a signal to everybody to please shut up? Maybe in a way it was.

Wang Tong, like most rural villages, is a quiet, unassuming place. The long-term residents here are taciturn, undemonstrative with their feelings, getting along with the neighbors not through community barbecues or displays of open-armed chumminess, but by adopting a live-and-let-live tolerance. We greet one another, swap vegetables and gardening tips, grumble about the usual things--weather, water supplies, dog poop. We keep an eye out for intruders when a neighbor has gone away. But Wang Tongers are not gregarious people. We don't raise our hands to wave at hikers and tourists or shout a cheery welcome. In fact, most of us--myself included--wish those holiday makers would pass through quickly; they tend to steal blossoms from our fence vines and talk so loud that you can hear them as far away as-- well, you can hear them. You wouldn't say that about most village locals, unless it's Ah-Po chasing birds out of her vegetable patch.

When you think about it, that Welcome sign was entirely out of character.

The government removed the sign from a strip of public land, not Mr. Tang, who owns the adjacent wedge-shaped empty lot. But just by coincidence, two weeks later he erected this hideous-looking fence, the very first thing anyone now sees when entering the village. People have started referring to it as Wang Tong Prison.

His family has owned that land for generations. He's never done anything with it before. Though I have heard him complain out loud when others, including our own building contractor, as well as any government department or utility company doing work in the village, used his lot as a convenient temporary storage dump. Click here to see how it looked. In the past few months it has also become the unofficial dog toilet for the region. So I can sympathize with his desire for a fence.

It could have been a boundary which blends in with the surroundings, like a bamboo trellis or something whimsical of cast iron. But nothing shrieks "Keep Out!" like steel grey chain link.

What was he planning? Did he intend to build a house there? Or simply pave it over with concrete to keep it neat and tidy? When I asked, he was, in typical village fashion, economical with words. In fact, only two: "Beautiful plants," he said, as he and his helper slashed and put a match to every leaf and blade within the compound.

Over the weekend, a row of banana trees appeared inside, plus two raised mounds of freshly turned earth with irrigation channels inbetween.

I suppose if I had the choice between a hideous dump littered with dog poop or a vegetable garden incarcerated behind steel, I'd choose the latter. As a first impression of Wang Tong, Mr. Tang's prison garden may not have the cheery warmth of a Welcome sign, but all in all, I suppose it's more honest.

07 March 2010

No longer welcome

A notice taped to the village "Welcome" sign says it has to come down. What it actually says, in true government-speak, is that pursuant to the Lands (Miscellaneous Provisions) Ordinance, in Chapter 28 of the Laws of Hong Kong, section 6, subsection 1, notice is given that under subsection 3 of the Ordinance, a structure unlawfully occupying public land without a licence must be removed or it will be demolished by an officer of the District Lands Office (Islands). Not only that, but whoever caused the infraction will be billed for costs incurred in its removal.

This is ironic because it was put there by our village's Dear Leader, in one of his rare acts of actually doing something for the benefit of the village and not just his relatives, without his being browbeaten into it. Originally there also were several directional signs, with inaccurate house numbers and awkward English translations, on laminated cardboard stapled to the pole, but the makeshift shabbiness only contributed to their rustic charm. The directional signs all blew off in various rainstorms, leaving a lone beacon of welcome for visitors to Wang Tong.

Ironic, too, that it is being forcibly removed by a government that is in love with signs. Even out here in the boondocks, official signs are everywhere, at ground level, eye level and administering overhead. Most government signs are authoritarian in nature: warnings, prohibitions, limitations, admonishments and directions. Beware of dangerous slope, along hillsides that people have walked beside for centuries; don't drink the water, no swimming, no dumping, get your flu jabs, empty your flower pot trays to prevent mosquitoes, cyclists dismount, this way, that way. The blurred green sign in the background of the photo warns against unauthorized entry to the slope maintenance staircase behind it. The whole island is cluttered with little metal badges identifying by number this slope, that tree, this drain. Worst of all are the brash, Stalinesque engraved steel plaques embedded in concrete pedestals, which self-congratulatorily proclaim credit to this or that government department for things that are actually part of their job. Will future generations continue to hail the Caesars responsible for a water pump, a public toilet or a bench? Irony of all ironies is a sign which boasts credit for putting up the sign above it.

And now they prepare to remove the only useful sign in the village, the only one which actually identifies us by name (in Chinese). Is this really just about a wooden pole which lacks a permit? By removing our collective identity, condemning an entire village to anonymity, and threatening to punish he who would dare stand up and shout the name Wang Tong to the world, by treating a warm welcome as a threat to its authority, is this government displaying its sinister true colors as a totalitarian regime?

Welcome to Wang Tong only until 10 March 2010. After that day, enter at your own risk.

23 February 2010

The Starfruit Orchard

Chekhov's Madame Ranevskaya had her cherry orchard. Our village has its starfruit orchard, located on the eastern frontier, between the last houses and the steep base of a hill. Like the Ranevskayas, the owners of this last undeveloped fruit farm in the valley left it behind long ago. As with all the other farm plots in the village--including the former lychee and longan orchard, part of which survives in our garden--it was likely abandoned thirty years ago.

The trees remain, dropping hundreds of fruit throughout the fall and winter, left to sit on the ground and rot. What an appalling waste, you think. Until you take one home, cut a slice and pop it into your mouth. Ptui! It's more sour than a cross between a lemon and a rotten chili pepper. That's what happens when no one cares for the trees. Some ambitious pruning, fertilizing and TLC would probably bring these trees back to life, producing sweet, refreshing, juicy bright yellow fruits. They're so popular during the mid-Autumn Moon Festival that many people even carry around traditional lanterns shaped like starfruit.

The current owners, wherever they might be, probably think that resuscitating these graceful, elegant trees and harvesting their cartoon-like fruit doesn't offer enough return on investment. They're most likely holding out until this land is zoned for development, so they can chop everything down and pocket some easy money. That's how The Cherry Orchard ends. I hope that the starfruit orchard manages to dodge that fate for another thirty years.

21 February 2010

Lion and Tiger

I heard the lion coming ten minutes before it arrived. Cymbals crashing, drum pounding, wood blocks clacking, the lion dance sauntered along the beach before the procession veered onto the path past the wetland toward Wang Tong. The musicians took a break and the lion decapitated himself to dry off some sweat, until they entered the village. Then it was back to work for the lion to herald in the year of its fellow cat.

The lion dance is part of the annual Chinese New Year tradition, put on by the neighborhood youth association. I suspect it's just a lovely cover name for the local triad gang. So whether your household offers lucky lai see money to the lion to honor tradition, or to ensure that your property isn't vandalized, either way it's about enhancing your luck. And at least they make a pleasing entertainment out of it.

When they stop at each household the lion does a little dance in front of the door before devouring a bouquet of lettuce, with lucky red envelopes inside, then of course spits out the lettuce afterward (lions aren't vegetarians). Some places had the lettuce hanging outside their front door and the lion had to reach up to bite it down, but in two homes the lion was invited inside the living room to collect his meal in front of the family altar.

This year I noticed that pure Chinese households received a bonus: firecrackers. Long strings of them, some lasting ten seconds or more, sending thick clouds of smoke through the air and leaving the ground littered with red blossoms (see the photo below).

Non-Chinese didn't receive the benefit of explosives. Don't we need to frighten away demons too? Are they implying that foreigners aren't vulnerable to demon attack? Or, wait a minute...maybe they're implying that gwailos (and the Chinese traitors who marry them) are the devils that need chasing away.

Next year I'm insisting on firecrackers.

14 February 2010

Happy Tiger Year

Wang Tong welcomed the Year of the Tiger at midnight with a barrage of firecrackers, followed by around an hour of barking from the frightened village dogs. Maybe they were especially upset because it's a cat year. More likely they were concerned for their own safety. A few years ago one of our dogs was so terrified by a New Year firecracker display during a walk to the beach that she ran away and didn't come back that night, or the next or the one after that. We were sure she would never return. She's black, and black dogs are a favorite New Year delicacy in traditional Chinese communities. Up until maybe ten years ago we were sure we heard the screams of puppies being readied for the cooking pot at this time of year in all the local villages. We walked for miles every day searching for our lost dog, asking every old-timer we met if they'd seen a black dog with such-and-such markings. The unspoken message was: "If you took her, give her back, preferably in one unbarbecued piece." Every one of them replied, "Oh, don't worry; nobody eats dogs for New Year anymore." Fortunately, they were right. Our wayward mutt showed up at the gate a week later as if nothing had happened.

The red banners on our gate were composed and painted for us by a well-known calligrapher from Cheung Chau, a neighboring island. As any Chinese person can tell, my wife's and my Chinese names are incorporated into the auspicious phrase (a tradition I never heard of until yesterday!). This is apparently a particularly lovely and meaningful piece of original Chinese verse, which is apparently impossible to render into English. Vaguely, approximately, it says: (left) "Stepping forth throughout the southern realm in search of truth..." (right) "...beauty and truthfulness radiate from your being." Or something like that. Anyway, it's good.

Happy Chinese New Year. Keep your dogs on a leash.

06 February 2010

Wang Tong People: Our Postman

It's a light day for Ah-Wah, the village postman. A couple weeks ago he was complaining about the phone company. They used to distribute their printed phone directories at the Rural Committee office in the next village. Everyone received a letter which entitled them to pick up a free Hong Kong & Outlying Islands White Pages and Yellow Pages in either Chinese or English (if you wanted the Kowloon and New Territories editions as well, you had to special order them). No one uses phone directories anymore, so there are no more White Pages, and the Yellow Pages is reduced to a thick wad of advertisements. It's still pretty hefty, though, and last time the phone company simply put them in the mail. The poor postman could hardly balance on his bike. As for making it up the steep hill to the houses at the top and just over the ridge, forget about it. For once he parked at the bottom and walked up.

He shouldn't complain. I assume that every year his job gets easier. No one sends personal letters anymore. Junk mail is giving way to online spam. It's mainly the old-timers who still receive printed utility and tax bills. Occasionally his basket is weighed down by a package containing someone's online shopping. He hardly ever stops at our door.

Today he had to stop. The other day he saw how well our pomelo tree was doing, and mentioned to my wife that he had planted that tree thirty years ago, as a favor to the farmers who originally lived on our lot. The tree was neglected by subsequent tenants, so for years it bore no fruit. But after careful pruning, fertilizing and tender loving care, it has been bursting with sweet, juicy fruit for months. Today she flagged down the postman and made him wait while she plucked a few to give him. Fortunately he had room in his basket. (I took the picture while he was waiting).

Tsui is his surname, but everyone knows him as Ah-Wah. He's been delivering the mail on Lantau for 31 years: 20 years in Tai O, the fishing village at the extreme other end of the island, and 11 years peddling the paths of Wang Tong and neighboring villages. Whenever I see him coming up the path, I silently wish that maybe he's carrying something for me. Instead today I watched him go, with three pomelos from a tree that's been a part of the Lantau scenery as long as he has bouncing behind him.

28 January 2010

Dolomite Contraction

I found this note in the mailbox today. At least it was something. In the age of e-mail and texting instead of letters, and junk calls (at 2:16 a.m. last night!) instead of bulk post, our home mailbox normally contains nothing but spiders.

The flyer perturbed me, though not because of its funny English. There are enough lowbrow blogs which rely on awkwardly translated English signs in Asia for a jab at cheap humor, and I don't do that. Though I'm not sure why anyone in crowded Hong Kong would pay for "Interior Contraction", and I'd surely like to know what Mr. Cheung means by "Dolomite Decoration". I love the Dolomites. I've hiked the mountains around Cortina, stumbled upon natural sparkling water springs deep in the forest and indulged in delicious Austro-Italian cuisine. But an Alpine chalet would be out of place in Wang Tong. Here they prefer fake Spanish villas. (Damn, I did do it. Sorry.)

What disturbed me then...? Well, did you notice something else about the language besides the grammar? No Chinese! It isn't even bilingual. Unless Mr. Cheung knows the nationality of each household in the village, I'm guessing that everyone got an English flyer. Is that what Wang Tong has come to? Has it reached the tipping point and turned into a white ghetto?

For the first 15 years that I lived here, the population of non-Chinese villagers remained pretty steady: a rotating population of Filipino renters and a handful of longterm expats, mostly English, plus this Yank, who all like to live tucked away far from the madding crowd. But in the last few years there has been a steady trickle of new houses being built and immediately sold or rented to young Caucasian families, who are attracted to the semi-rustic country lifestyle. There have been no Chinese newcomers. No Mainlander would be caught dead living in the countryside; too much a reminder of their recent past, and anyway, like crows, nouveau riche Mainlanders are attracted to shiny objects, like the brass faux Louis XIV kitsch and marble foyers of overpriced urban "luxury" apartments. Native Hong Kong Chinese would never move here from the outside; they're afraid of the trees (see this post). So the blanching of Wang Tong is, in the long run, inevitable.

I'm not some Lord Jim trying to defend my remote Chinese rural idyll from the ravages of western civilization. Change is unavoidable. Surely it can never go to the sickening extreme of other enclaves, such as Discovery Bay on the other side of Lantau, a dominion unto itself of such manicured Americanized suburban ambience that it feels as if a meteorite from Scottsdale, Arizona crash-landed there. Or could it?

Maybe Mr. Cheung just thinks that no Chinese would hire him, either because they have a cousin/in-law in the business or, more likely, he knows that no self-respecting Hong Kong Chinese would squander money on renovation that could be better spent on speculation in futures derivatives. For now, for the sake of diversity in one sleepy little village, I hope that's the message of the yellow funny-English flyer.

04 January 2010

The Stream Diggers

They're digging up the Wang Tong Stream. Well, that's a good thing. During typhoons and heavy rains a lot of coarse sand washes down from the granite hills, down through the village, and replenishes the beach a few hundred meters downstream.

Trouble is, ever since the government's ill-conceived "training" and concreting of the middle section of the stream for "flood control", storm water shoots through the channel like wild horses, without any natural streambed, plants or twists and turns to slow its course and catch some of the sand and then release it downstream gradually during more relaxed, normal river flow.

Just where the concrete ends there's a ninety-degree turn in the river. I don't understand the physics of liquid motion dynamics, but as the raging waters smash into the turn with a wallop, so apparently does much of the sand and, rather than turn the corner with the water, it simply accumulates. After a while, a miniature delta begins to form, narrow arteries of water cutting through sand islands. Garbage and various forms of ick and goo which are illegally discharged upstream get stuck there, and the sand islands crust over with algae. Yuck.

Cue the Drainage Services Department to come in every couple of years to dig it out. Look how much they piled up in just one thirty-meter stretch. Later they'll load it a bit at a time into that motorized cart on the left and haul it out to the beach.

The workers were naturally suspicious when they saw me walking around them taking photos. A gwailo -- foreign devil -- with a camera usually means one thing: an official complaint about something. Gwailos are always complaining, interfering with hard-working Chinese just trying to earn an income for their families, or to blow at the horse races, or maybe even both. I smiled and assured them that I merely found it "interesting" to watch them work. I'm sure they didn't believe me, but they smiled back nevertheless.

I understood their worry. Nine out of ten times when government workers creep into our village, it's usually for sinister purposes: installing unnecessary guard rails, erecting yet more nanny-like warning signs, concreting even more lush green hillsides "just in case" of mud slides, or building their odd little "temporary storage depots" for equipment, that they always seem to forget to take down. There is plenty to complain about.

As I left them, even I felt a sense of relief that this was a rare case of government doing something necessary, cleaning up after themselves, leaving behind no trace, and no complaints. It's as unusual as a blue sky in the smoggy Pearl River Delta. Strange, the skies were blue for much of the day as well.

A government project that makes sense and a blue sky. What an uncommon day it has been.

13 December 2009

Nobody home

I wonder whether one of those letters is for me. Yes, sometimes I still get mail there. I didn't risk finding out, for fear of contracting ebola or some other disease growing on them.

This was our first house in Wang Tong (a.k.a. Mang Tong or Man Tong). It's been vacant for years, and for good reason: it's falling apart and ought to be knocked down. The building was well past its use-by date when I first laid eyes on it eighteen years ago. Mushrooms grew on the inside walls and rusted steel reinforcement rods were warping their way down through the concrete ceilings. A disused well directly outside the front door was a mega-nursery for mosquitoes. In short, it was a dump. Of course, I didn't see it that way at the time. After five years living in a 500-square-foot habitation module (about the size of an average American living room) on the 24th floor of a characterless high-rise on Hong Kong island, this house was a fairy tale castle in the Emerald City. Who could have imagined such abundance in Hong Kong: a 3-story home with a garden for lower rent than our erstwhile shoebox apartment. We fixed it up and made it livable, turned the narrow strip of land around it into a flower arboretum and the flat roof into a vegetable farm; some of the best sweet corn I've ever eaten was raised on that roof. Our two kids spent the first years of their lives in that house, running up and down the tiled stairs dressed like Blackbeard the Pirate and Batgirl, shrieking and bickering and barging in on my top floor studio while I was drawing pictures.

When we moved out it became a dormitory for young Christian charity workers from around the world. Occasionally I'd wander by and they'd hand me a letter, mostly junk mail, but also a stack of monthly reminders that I owed a balance of zero dollars and zero cents to a long-distance call company. That company was obviously too stupid to pay attention to my change-of-address notices.

After the charity organization relocated to far-off Tuen Mun in the mainland New Territories, the house emptied out and stayed that way. The greedy old landlord, who had once attempted to quintuple our rent, couldn't find anyone sucker enough to live in his property. Being a typical Hong Kong landlord, he'd rather let it sit vacant and rot than sink a single penny into fixing it up.

By now it's beyond repair. One of these days it's just going to cave in under its own concrete. As much as I think it serves the owner right that no one is interested in his crummy building, and as much as I think it should be condemned, it makes me sad to imagine that happening. Every time I walk by--which isn't often; it's down a little side alley--I remember kids on the stairs, a color pallette of flowers in the garden, choi sum and potatoes growing on the roof. I'm not the nostalgic type, but I'm kind of glad that there's a place I can wander to pick up a sweet memory.

But I am not picking up the mail.

08 December 2009


The other day, while walking past the graveyard behind the village, I noticed this little stone plaque on the side of a family tomb. It's an advertisement for the local stoneworking company that built it.

Chinese graves consist of more than just a headstone. They're miniature architectural marvels, more like mausoleums, made of concrete and stone and usurping far more forest and covering more virgin hillside than any one person, especially a deceased one, deserves to. Nevertheless, the craftsmanship and elegant design of these local graves can't be denied, so who can blame the stone company for putting their contact details on the side? What if some passing hiker sees it and says, "Hey, that's a pretty cool grave. Think I'll order one!"

What interested me is that below their shop telephone number is their mobile phone number, as if someone might need an emergency tomb after business hours. "Help! My uncle just keeled over. Got to plant him before auntie finds out!"

Think of the ramifications of placing advertisements on burial sites. Ads are everywhere else these days, so why not here? Instead of visiting Ah-ba's grave twice a year and burning paper money for him to use in the spirit world, why not rent out one wall of the tomb to advertisers, who can pay their fees by directly burning offerings at their local temple? Ah-ba still gets his spirit money and his descendents are saved a bothersome trip. There are plenty of brands that might be interested. This death brought to you by Marlboro.

If you're going to spend all that money building a fancy grave, might as well make some profit out of it. That's the Hong Kong way.

06 December 2009

The closer you get

Wang Tong is not a very photogenic attraction. That's the conclusion I came to after looking at the picture I took today. It appeared so gorgeous from the hilltop: our little village snuggled between the reclining elbows of the surrounding hills, with the wetland and beach behind and the ferry pier in the distance. But in photo it looks less like a cozy, picturesque little hamlet and more like some careless god tossed a handful of random, worn-out dice onto a sloppy field...which pretty accurately sums up the planning that goes into local development.

It reminds me of the Clairol coloring shampoo slogan: "The closer he gets the better you look." Too far away and it's a disorganized collection of mismatched buildings. On the other hand, get too close and you can't help noticing the blemishes: leftover construction waste, corroded external plumbing, abandoned bicycles. But if you step back the right amount, adjust your field of vision to take in Mr. Tang's house and his majestic lawn, or the white house with the Vietnamese hardwood gate, the small field of canna flowers with Ah-Po's farm as a backdrop, then this village has its share of eye candy.

Aesthetics isn't much of a concern for most local residents. That can be a danger--there are constant battles, large and small, to minimize the desecration of the landscape. Yet the lack of pretension, right outside urban Hong Kong--possibly the shallowest brand-label and face-conscious society on the planet, where new residential developments are all histrionic displays of marble and gilt--is one of the village's special attractions. Sometimes you love something only because of a beautiful heart.

04 December 2009

The Village Wins an Award

News travels slowly out in the wild and remote hinterlands. There's a famous story of the Han Emperor Wu-ti sending an emissary to Central Asia in 139 BC. The envoy reached what is now northern Pakistan, settled down there, married and raised a family, then finally returned thirteen years later to brief the Emperor and, incidentally, inform him that there was an overland trade route to India.

It didn't take quite that long for the Fire Services Department to make it known that Wang Tong Village had received an award, but considering that we have, yes, telephones and even high-speed wifi broadband, it does seem odd that this laminated A4 sized certificate appeared on the village bulletin board only two days ago. It bestows upon Wang Tong Village the 2007 Award for the Absence of Hill Fires during that year's Chung Yeung grave sweeping festival.

Maybe it shouldn't surprise me. I hate to say it, but when there is a hill fire nearby, it sometimes takes the Fire Department nearly that long to get here and put it out. Maybe they're all too busy raising families in Chung Hau, the main village between here and the fire station.

I have to admit that I'm a little bit concerned. First Wang Tong becomes a tourist attraction, now this award. If we're not careful, the next thing you know, Wang Tong will actually appear on the map!

01 December 2009

Chop Chop Tourism

Wang Tong is a tourist attraction again!

In 1962 the restaurant on top of the hill behind the village shut down, signaling the nail in the coffin of the Cross-Lantau Footpath, once the main thoroughfare between south and north, but seldom used since the opening of the South Lantau Road in the late 1950s. Wang Tong pretty much fell off the map and has nestled in comfortable obscurity ever since.

Until now.

Sometime in the past week a couple of plastic boxes mysteriously appeared, each containing an ink pad and a rubber stamp. One is attached to a pole next to the ruins of the old restaurant gate; the other is fastened to the railing of the late Mr. Mak's sitting area across from his vacant house, overlooking the stream. I mean, river.

I tried the one at Mr. Mak's place. Now I can finally prove that I've seen the Wang Tong River. In Chinese it's more specific: "Wang Tong River/Mangroves". Though I can't tell whether the illustration is meant to be charred trees or mangled human bodies. Either way, perhaps the drawing is a not-so-subtle suggestion that raw nature is something ghastly, and wouldn't a housing development with proper landscaping better suit the view. If our village chief was the one behind these stamps, then I wouldn't be surprised if that's his intention.

I assume these are part of a campaign in which visitors are handed little Mui Wo passports and encouraged to run around collecting every chop in a scavenger hunt approach to tourism. Now people can properly "do" Lantau Island rather than simply walking around experiencing it. By approximating a shopping experience, the natural environment can be made palatable to Hong Kong city people.

I suppose if it causes visitors to stop just long enough to notice an actual river with real fish in it and some trees in which you can sometimes see pretty birds, in between the usual leaping off the ferry and rushing to the concrete barbecue pit outside their concrete holiday flat, then it's a good thing.

I just hope I don't find one of these chops outside my gate, saying "Big nose gwailo's house."

30 November 2009

Sewers vs. Flowers ... continued

Yet another visit from a government posse to talk sewers and flowers. I'm starting to consider these guys part of the family.

This time they brought a detailed survey map and diagrams to pinpoint exactly where they'll trample the flower garden that we planted while they install sewer pipes. Not that we have any leverage, since the flower patch in question is on a narrow strip of public land outside our garden wall. We even put in a white trellis fence to protect it from dog poop and unskilled, careening cyclists. By law they could have fined us for illegal fencing of government land. On the other hand, we own a piece of the public footpath further down (not near the flower garden, unfortunately) and, although they plan to take it from us by right of eminent domain, I could throw a cog in their production schedule by submitting a series of objections.

So they promised me an official memo, which limits how much of the flower garden they'll wreck, and states that it will be restored afterwards to pristine dirt - no concrete - though we'll have to do the replanting. In return they want me to withdraw my objection to usurping our sliver of land intersecting the footpath. Could be worse. They could be bastards about it instead, prosecute me, confiscate a substantial piece of our garden, and spew concrete right and left. Instead they're counting buttercups.

I find it rather charming - hopeful, in fact - that this government - which is preparing to wreck a huge green swathe of the New Territories and raze an entire village to put in a useless railroad to nowhere, and is about to devastate the remaining pink dolphin habitat, destroy a pristine area of Lantau coastline, and exacerbate air pollution throughout the Pearl River estuary, to build a Pharoah's wet dream of a bridge that will lose money forever - this same government is going out of its way to negotiate over a tiny patch of flowers in a little island village. There is some humanity at work in this world. Maybe not enough to do much good on a grand scale. But here in Wang Tong Village, a little humanity is all we ask.

29 November 2009

The Art of the Scarecrow

While Ah-Po uses the anti-Disney approach of a twisted Magic Kingdom to keep the birds away, the two other significant vegetable gardens in Wang Tong--Mr. Tam's and ours--employ more classical scarecrows. Though Mr. Tam's might be better described as post-modern or neo-primitive. His is an almost Jungian archetype of the human figure: four sticks wrapped in plastic garbage bags, with a little stuffing, and topped with a hat. The fact that it works is living proof that birds have a Gestalt perception of reality, and therefore might appreciate modern art more than I do.

Our scarecrow, on the other hand, is more contemporary pop style, all clean lines, bold vectors, and solid forms. Whatever, it fooled our dog. When he first saw the figure from across the garden, he barked at it as if it was an intruder. My wife had to walk over and put her arm around the scarecrow to reassure him that this was a friend. Unfortunately our Golden Retriever, who is not always the brightest candle in the menorah, sometimes treats new friends with excess affection...by humping them. He's barred from the vegetable garden.

I hope the birds continue their sophisticated interpretations of Mr. Tam's and our sculptural masterpieces, so that we non-abstract humans can all look forward to some hole-free cabbage and choi sum.

28 November 2009

Teddy Bears versus the Birds

Can a stuffed panda save the world from magpie devastation?

Magpies are considered good luck in Chinese tradition; they're harbingers of positive changes coming. That's great. I need all the good luck I can latch onto lately. I doubt it was a Chinese farmer who came up with that superstition, though.

At first we thought all the holes in our cabbage leaves were caused by snails, until one morning my wife looked outside and saw a black blanket of birds covering our mini-farm. After one loud hand clap, a hundred magpies lifted off and perched in surrounding trees, waiting for their next chance to attack. There are a lot of magpies around lately, and they make sure you know it. We don't need an alarm clock to wake us up in the morning.

Those little black and white birds may be pests, but they're also kind of cute. Maybe that's why Ah-Po is fighting cute with cute. Instead of using scarecrows, her farm looks like an execution ground for plush toys, as if warning avian intruders: "This could be you!" She has pandas, Hello Kitties, C3PO, Disney characters and several species of teddy bear, all gruesomely impaled on bamboo spikes or twisting in the breeze on nooses. It isn't a sight you'd want your five-year-old to see.

Where does she get all these toys? Does she snatch them out of the clasping arms of her own grandchildren? Ah-Po won't say. She claims they just kind of "show up". Maybe she's breeding them in a secret room, like factory farmed animals, raised for slaughter.

I actually believe that plush toys are capable of procreating. The 5000+ stuffed animals in my teenage daughter's room came from somewhere, and I sure didn't buy even a fraction of them. Yet every time I glance at her closet, there seems to be more adorable animals. Maybe we should put some of them to use protecting our food supply.

On the other hand, would you want your garden to look like a cutesy-wutesy slaughterhouse?

26 October 2009

The Day the Village Didn't Burn

I'm delighted--surprised, even--to report that Wang Tong Valley did not burn to the ground today as expected.

Today is the Chung Yeung Festival, one of two annual holidays to honor departed ancestors, sweep their graves and leave offerings. Unfortunately the preferred method of delivering those offerings is by setting them on fire, then turning around and leaving them to burn, while sparks disperse in the dry wind--it's always dry season around Chung Yeung--and standing back to watch entire hillsides burst into bush fires or, if the worshippers are lucky, a full raging forest fire.

Okay, I'm being cynical here, but sometimes I do wonder whether that's secretly the point, to orchestrate a grand performance like an emperor, to make sure your ancestors up in heaven will notice. It must be awfully difficult to make out one little stack of burning counterfeit money from way out in space, but a major forest fire? It'll warm old granny's cold dead heart to know that she's not only remembered, but more highly cherished than five dozen trees. To me, the flames resemble the fires of hell, which is where every one of those worshippers who leave behind burning debris belong, the sooner the better.

I worried all day today about the fires, even ran up to the hillside to check. Luckily there was nothing out of control, though there were plenty of people.

The footpaths of Wang Tong become nearly as crowded as a downtown lunch hour during Chung Yeung, since we have a popular graveyard on the hillside above the village. Long lines of family groups traipse up the hill all day long carrying bags filled with paper offerings, chickens, fruit, rice wine, and flowers. There's nothing somber about these outings. They're usually talking loud--really loud--and laughing, which is charming to consider. It's a celebration, a family reunion of living and departed. If only they carried fire extinguishers with them as well, so that us local residents would feel just as cheerful when they leave.

It isn't a fenced-off official graveyard, just a hill that apparently has the right sort of feng shui, and is pockmarked with concrete family tombs wherever there's space. I suspect that most of the people buried here have no connection whatsoever to Lantau Island, but simply gained permission from one of the local clans. Either way, the non-living population of Wang Tong well outnumbers the living. Plus they have the nicest views, overlooking the village to the bay and islands beyond.

Call me a curmudgeon, but I find it terribly audacious for human beings to regard ourselves so highly that after death we not only take up space that could be used for better purpose, including the choicest hillside real estate, but that our survivors would pollute the air and risk burning down beautiful trees, habitats for birds and other animals, to remind us twice a year how regally important are our bones.

When I'm gone, please don't come to Wang Tong or set a fire on my behalf. Sing a song or something. I'd rather hear music in the afterlife than get smoke in my eyes. I suspect that where I'm going, there'll be smoke enough.

24 October 2009

Temporary Absence of Concrete

One of Hong Kong's basic laws of nature is: Any open green space is just a temporary absence of concrete.

You see this law in action where they're reinforcing (meaning: pouring a concrete shell over) the hillside around #1 Wang Tong. They're doing a neat and careful job for their client. Meanwhile, all construction debris, broken parts and leftover concrete are deposited on the undeveloped lot just across the footpath. The area in the photo was overgrown with prickly bushes, small trees and broadleaf plants just two months ago. Its current condition will likely remain until the sun implodes into a white dwarf and the earth is sucked out of its orbit.

When we moved into our first rented house in the village, we found rusted winching equipment, a cement mixer and metal pipes which had been left in the garden when the house was built 35 years before. Numerous people had lived in the house between then and when we moved in, yet no one had bothered to move it. When we gathered some strong guys to help us carry the heavy debris to the garbage collection area, neighbors remarked out loud: "Why bother? Why don't you just leave it there?"

Today I stopped one of the slope workers as he tossed lighter bits of metal and plastic trash deeper into the bushes at the end of the lot. I pointed to the public garbage bin five steps to his left. He looked at the bin as if he hadn't noticed it in all the six weeks he'd been working there, and thanked me for pointing this out. But the expression on his and his colleagues' faces was "What's the big deal? It's just an empty lot and useless plants." An hour later I passed by again. The metal and plastic were gone. I checked inside the garbage bin. It was empty. But the bushes were decorated with wire mesh clippings and plastic bags that were too lightweight to sink through.

Chinese villagers and laborers have a pragmatic attitude toward life that is mostly quite admirable. Am I being a cultural chauvinist for thinking that sometimes pragmatism can be truly, horribly ugly?

23 October 2009

Wang Tong is for Dreamers

I think autumn, October in particular, is the favorite time of year for people who are dreamers, whereas pragmatists prefer spring. If so, then Wang Tong is for the dreamy type.

Spring is always metaphorically associated with fertility, lushness, perfume and lasciviousness. But you would change your mind about that if you visited Wang Tong in October, on any dry day just before sunset. The ginger blanketing the valley has been in bloom continuously for weeks, but as the weather has cooled, the ginger plants have turned their blossoming up several notches, as if squeezing out one last big push, like marathon runners in the last half mile, before gently closing down for the winter.

The ginger flowers spread across the field are so white that no details show up in photographs. That's why I want you to come here before sunset, so you can see them before the real treat begins.

About an hour after sunset, you not only smell it, but you can feel it. For reasons I've never learned, the ginger flowers turn up the fragrance tap after dark. That isn't to say there's no aroma while the sun is up. All day long I hear passersby through the valley remarking about the wonderful ginger smell, which I suppose I've become acclimatized to.

But in the evening a sudden crescendo of perfume pours through the open windows like an almost liquid wave of sweet, spicy, aphrodisiac scent, so heavy you can imagine scooping it into a spoon. Though the flowers are white, at night you'd think they were flaming red, lustful, sweating with passion and musk. It's an aroma both languid and erotic. It pulls your attention away from everything else, even the evening news, and makes you think of tigers and gigantic luminescent butterflies, of caressing bodies and melting butter.

Twenty or thirty minutes later it's gone, and all of a sudden you notice the news is over and your food has gone cold.

Is it any wonder that dreamers prefer October? Especially in Wang Tong.

14 October 2009

Lunch with an Egret

Feeling cooped up and agitated, I went out for a recuperative walk. Watching this Snowy Egret taking lunch in the stream, and playing tag with it to get a photo, took my mind off malfunctioning drawing pens and unwelcome correspondence. This angelic looking bird, standing three feet tall, was feeding itself in the part of the Wang Tong Stream which had been turned into a concrete ditch, and that cheered me up.

This section of the stream was once a creek meandering past banks of tall grasses, swarming with dragonflies, fish, crabs, frogs--and of course snakes--and was therefore a bountiful feeding ground for birds. Then the government turned it into a box-shaped channel of dead grey concrete. But nature proves its tenacity. Here and there twigs blow into the channel and catch on irregularities in the concrete. Leaves and other organic debris get caught on the twigs, rot, and turn into compost. Small aquatic plants start to grow, and algae blooms in the warm, slow-moving water. Then miraculously, from somewhere, guppies and tiny crabs appear. Maybe their eggs fall in the rain.

And then it's lunchtime for egrets, moorhens and the occasional Chinese heron.

A couple times a year some civil servant decides that all that messy mud and green stuff is spoiling his view of immaculate, unblemished concrete. So the cleaning crews come in with enormous brooms, sweep away the entire ecosystem, and the channel dies. But not for long. It takes only a couple months for the cycle to repeat itself, and the big birds return.

We've been seeing a lot more egrets and herons in Wang Tong. Their numbers have increased steadily for the past five years or so. They're often seen in trees or on tall bushes in the ginger field, probably stalking frogs and lizards. They used to raid our neighbor Kedo's carp pond until she finally gave up on restocking it. The birds don't nest here, but it's a cheerful sight to see them enter the valley in the morning, circle in holding patterns, then stretch their wings into a stall before landing straight down and spending the day.

I have mixed feelings about seeing egrets in Wang Tong. This isn't their ideal hunting ground. The stream fish are small, and the pickings in the field can't possibly match those of the mangroves and coastal swamps where they normally flourish. The fact that we're seeing more of them can only mean that they're losing better quality habitats up and down the China coast. No prizes for guessing why that's happening.

It would be nice to think that the coastal environments which have been spoiled by industry, development and effluents might recover as robustly as our little stream. If the egrets stop coming to Wang Tong, I'll hope for the best.

On the other hand, I think I'd worry even more.

08 October 2009

The Rarest Time of Year

I couldn't tell you when Autumn arrived. Traditionally summer ends on the night of the Moon Festival, the weather changing almost abruptly, as if a glassy carpet of cool air unrolls across the heavens. That prediction has come true, I think, eighteen out of the twenty-one years I've spent in this corner of the world, the weather changing noticeably within 48 hours either side of mid-autumn night.

This year the change hasn't been so abrupt. More like a car descending a mountain on a series of hairpin turns. First, a day or two before the scheduled time, there was a faint hint of coolness in the late evening, like a drop of peppermint in a hot bath, and a touch less humidity. By the night of the full moon on October 3, the nights were cool, followed by pretty hot days. Since then the temperatures have see-sawed: one evening a bit warmer than the last, the daytime a bit drier and veering toward warm instead of hot. Today, it seems, the weather gods have made up their minds at last, and we're firmly into Fall.

There are no visual clues that Autumn has arrived. No leaves change, not until much later into the winter. The only hint is a few seasonal fruit, such as the pomelos finally turning yellow.

In temperate zones of the world, Fall signals the time to start battening up the hatches and preparing to retreat indoors. Here it's the total opposite. Autumn is the only time of year when it's actually pleasant to go outside. The only time of year when it's neither too hot nor too cold and damp, and the humidity is low enough that you can turn off the air conditioners and dehumidifiers and actually leave the windows open to sleep (if you live in a quiet place like Wang Tong).

Actually, there are some who prepare for winter. Ah-Po reminded us that right after the Moon Festival is snake season. This is the time of year when snakes are the most active, hunting mice, frogs and lizards, for one last gluttonous meal before they curl up somewhere and hibernate. She's had a couple venomous ones in her garden--though not cobras like our recent visitor--and another neighbor spotted a long one, which he identified but I can't remember, heading up the hill.

The Autumn weather lasts only two weeks, three if we're really lucky. I'm gulping it in like a refreshment, bloating myself in its splendor, trying to stuff in as much of it as possible before the long artificially heated and cooled hibernation until the next Moon Festival.

06 October 2009

Red Flags Over Wang Tong

October 1 was the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. There weren't any particular ceremonies to mark this event in Wang Tong, other than a few national flags on bamboo staffs fastened to the guard rails, presumably by our Dear Leader Mr. Wong. The flags are still there, a week after they were put up, and nobody seems to be in a particular hurry to remove them. Maybe they're meant to keep aflame the lingering afterglow of patriotic fervor.

You won't find much of that in Wang Tong. That isn't out of disrespect for the central government or the Communist Party, but because Lantau people's feelings have always ranged from total indifference to slight hostility toward anyone who claims to rule from a distance. The ruins of our stone watchtower on top of Butterfly Hill, built not by government but by a local clan, attest to people's long-standing determination to keep out intruders. In fact, this area has long been a place of refuge and resistance.

In 1277 the nine-year-old Emperor Duanzong, along with his six-year-old brother who succeeded him a year later as the last emperor of the Song Dynasty, fled to Mui Wo when the Mongols conquered China. No one has uncovered any artifacts or knows exactly where they stayed, but it might very well have been at Wang Tong, the fertile V-shaped valley at the end of the bay, with ample fresh water and easily defensible mountain slopes on both sides.

Lantau natives grumbled when the British took over in 1898 and were openly resentful when in the 1950s the government imposed modernity in the form of the island's first road, which nipped Wang Tong's importance as the starting point of the principal footpath across the island.

During World War Two, Mui Wo was one of the main centers of resistance against the Japanese occupiers, which resulted in a mass execution of 60 local men, including several Wang Tong residents, on the nearby beach. Mr. Lam, who was our village chief until he died a few years ago, was one of those lined up to receive a bullet, until he took a chance to slip away through the mangrove swamp.

The latest act of resistance happened on the night of the glorious handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Aside from some protests near the ceremony in the city, the only act of defiance anywhere within newly-Chinese Hong Kong was the desecration of several national flags strapped to a footbridge half-way between Wang Tong and the ferry pier.

There's no threat that these flags will be vandalized, except perhaps by birds. Nor will many people notice when they're taken down. If one day they're replaced by the symbols of some new, intangible, faraway dynasty, people here will probably just shrug their shoulders and go about their business as usual.

04 October 2009

Village Wedding

Mr. and Mrs. Suen's son is getting married. I was reminded of this when the pounding of drums reverberated around the valley and put an end to my attempted late lie-in. Peering through the curtains I saw the procession on the other side of the village. I quickly dressed and ran outside.

On the morning of a Chinese wedding, the bride is delivered to the groom's family obscured from view inside a covered sedan chair, preceded by a colorful parade of waving banners, a company of drummers and, in this case, a dancing lion. Traditionally the sedan chair is carried on the shoulders of four strong bearers. In the city nowadays they tend instead toward ostentatious German limousines. But this was the first time I'd ever seen a tricycle serve as a sedan chair. They did a gorgeous job outfitting the trike and, in a small nod to western tradition, it pulled two trails of cans in back.

The procession reached the Suens' home at the northeast end of the village, made their formal introductions, then went back the way they came, flags waving and drums pounding, bringing the bride to wait for the next event of the day, a mid-day barbecue banquet, to which my wife and I were invited. Most of the long-term village residents were there. It was casual by Chinese wedding standards; I was the only one wearing a tie. Ah-Po was seated at the VIP table, across from Wang Tong's Dear Leader, Mr. Wong. We were seated with other neighbors, and we soaked up more village gossip (and traded some of our own) in an hour than we normally learned in three months.

I suppose the main pomp was reserved for that evening in the city, where the ceremony took place followed by a formal traditional wedding dinner banquet.

It's been quite a ceremonial weekend in Wang Tong. First, the pathways lined with red flags for China National Day, then the lanterns and moon-gazing of the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, and now the wedding. How long will it take the village to recover from all this excitement? Well, people here are pragmatic. Tomorrow it's sure to be back to quiet as usual.

01 October 2009

Snake Power

"Come here, quick! A snake!"

My daughter Annika was playing outside with the dogs when she spotted a black snake lying leisurely in the grass between our small wooden deck and the garden wall. Its head was hidden inside a bush, so all we could see was its tail and mid-torso, which was swollen and writhing. Obviously it was digesting freshly-swallowed prey. I ran inside to grab my trusty reptile identification book while my wife phoned the local police station. We're all too timid to challenge a snake; let the professional snake catcher come and take it away.

Trouble is, we were told by the officers who arrived minutes later, the Hong Kong Police's professional snake catcher is, inexplicably, based in the city, in Sai Wan district, which is about as far away as you can get from any of Hong Kong's rural districts where snakes commonly encounter humans. He needed to drive twenty minutes to the pier, catch whatever was the next public ferry, then walk to our house. It would be two hours before he arrived. Meanwhile, the two policemen would stand there and keep an eye on our visitor.

Based on the markings on its torso and tail, I identified it positively as a Wolf Snake, non-venomous but aggressive when caught. Probably it was best to chase it out of the garden and let it disappear into the surrounding fields.

We watched it for ten minutes while it lay there digesting, its stomach churning and twisting. At last it started to crawl away. Then it took a sharp right turn and headed into the hollow gap beneath the deck, which was the last place we wanted it to go.

My wife grabbed an umbrella and pounded on the wood. The frightened reptile pulled out and did a U-turn across the top of the deck. But we wanted it to head in the other direction, toward an opening in the stone wall. Cathy kept pounding. We weren't worried about some harmless non-poisonous snake. But we wanted it out of there.

Outside the garden a small crowd of passersby watched the action. Someone shouted out, "Need some help?"

When there's a snake around, it isn't surprising to find a local Chinese villager eager to assist, in return for taking away the bounty to make soup. But this voice--I still couldn't see who it was--sounded American.

"We've got a snake here," I said.

"No problem," the man replied. "I'll catch it for you. Do you know what it is?"

"A wolf snake."

"They're no trouble," he said.

I led him and his friend in through the gate and pointed across the deck. They were both Caucasians.

"That's not a wolf snake! That's a cobra!!"

A chill ran through me. Moments before we had been calmly moving furniture out of the way, and Cathy had been scaring it with the umbrella, just a step away from an aggressive, venomous species.

"You got any tools?" he asked. "A spade? Some garden shears?"

Cathy fetched them, and he and his friend went to work. Fortunately, the cobra had just eaten, making it less of a threat. He stood over the snake and, aiming the spade like a spear, pinned it down. His friend leaned over with the shears and snipped its head off.

"Thank you, Lord," the first guy whispered.

He introduced himself as Edward. I've encountered him once or twice in the area. He lives in another village and has caught numerous snakes on his property. His friend Craig was visiting from another part of Hong Kong. Craig is from the bayous of Louisiana and said he's caught more snakes than he can count.

"If they're non-venomous, I just want to chase them away," Edward explained. "Otherwise I pray first. If I get a message back that I have power over this snake, then I do what has to be done."

The police left, relieved. I picked up my snake book again and saw the mistake I'd made in identification. Wolf snakes are tiny and have different markings. This one was four feet long.

I don't believe in arbitrarily killing one of God's creatures. But perhaps it wasn't arbitrary that Edward and his friend just happened to pass our way at just that moment when we were noisily drawing attention to a snake which we thought harmless. He prayed for power over it, and received it. You can't argue with that.