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.

27 September 2009

Wang Tong People: The Garbage Lady

Meet Miss Leung. She's our friendly neighborhood garbage woman. She shuffles past a couple times a day, sometimes pushing her trolley piled high above her head with fully-stuffed black garbage bags, other times just pushing a wicker broom. She empties the public trash bins, sweeps the footpaths and, crucially, scoops up errant dog mess. She also likes to stop to admire people's gardens.

This morning my wife and I happened to be outside the house admiring some of the colorful flowers drooping over our garden wall, when Miss Leung came along and started chatting with my wife about plants. I don't know what they were jabbering about because I don't know most of the flower names in Chinese. Miss Leung doesn't have a garden herself, but she sees a lot of other people's. With a wink she promised next time to bring over a cutting of some flower or other that we don't have.

For decades, the garbage lady industry in south Lantau Island has been controlled by a cabal from Tai O, the famous fishing village at the other end of the island. Apparently the government made some kind of deal, in compensation for relocating a few fishing families, promising them a long-term monopoly on the lucrative dog poop-scooping and leaf-sweeping labor market in Mui Wo. The other garbage lady in our village, whose beat is the east side of Wang Tong (where we used to live), is from Tai O. She's as cheerful as the chimney sweep in "Mary Poppins", calling out a hearty hello to each of her--what would you call us--clients?--every time she sees us.

Miss Leung isn't as gregarious. In fact, she's a bit shy. Maybe that's because she feels like an outsider, since she commutes here from Cheung Chau island. In 1997 the government stopped hiring new people to clean the village footpaths in our district. As garbage ladies retired or quit, their positions were filled by experienced women from other districts. When Cheung Chau's garbage collection was privatized seven years ago, Miss Leung was happy to take the government job in our village.

Her territory is the west side of Wang Tong, which has a lot fewer houses and trash bins than the east side, though a longer and steeper footpath to keep clear. This gives her time to stop and smell the flowers, and indulge in a little conversation now and then.

When's the last time you had a chat about peonies and zinnias with your garbage collector?

23 September 2009

A Plague of Bureaucrats

Like ants invading the kitchen, swarms of civil servants have been infesting the village.

A few days ago a government delegation visited me to discuss the bit of our property that they intend to usurp. As usual for government, they sent a platoon of nine people representing four departments, though only two of them actually had anything to say. They were there to talk about a five-square-meter piece of the public footpath which we happen to own due to a surveying anamoly, probably because one of the original surveyors made a slip of the pen when he mapped the lot boundaries back in 1903. I was naturally relieved that they have no intention to take over any part of our actual garden. A neighbor, who is a retired civil servant, walked past during the discussion, did a head count, and estimated that the meeting was costing taxpayers HK$50,000 (US$6410).

Every day since then, troops of between 4 and 6 people have been appearing on the footpaths, clutching topographic maps, pointing here and there, and drawing hieroglyphic symbols on pavements and trees. One day a group wandered around with survey equipment, though every time I looked they were in a new place, standing in a huddle and talking. I never noticed them actually setting up and using their hardware.

The next day I spied a small crowd of clipboard-carriers following a man with a camera. As if leading a dragon dance, every few meters he would stop and the others would stumble to a halt, consult their clipboards and nod meaningfully. Then the parade would begin again for another few meters.

Today a gang of four bearing marking pens drew pink triangles outside our gate and elsewhere along the footpath, then doubled back to inspect their artistry.

All this is in preparation for the laying of the sewer pipes. It will be the largest engineering project in Wang Tong Village history. When it's finished, I hope that along with the household effluent, all those nervous herds of civil servants will make a one-way trip out of our village for good.

20 September 2009

Parallel Universe

According to the many-worlds interpretation (MWI) of quantum physics, the only way to reconcile paradoxes found in the observer effect and the uncertainty principle is to believe in the existence of parallel universes. Here on Lantau Island we have one such example.

If you take a map of Lantau, place a spot of wet ink on Wang Tong Village, fold the map along the north-south axis of the island, then open it again, the ink would have made a stain on the opposite fold. Approximately at that point is Wang Tong Village. The other Wang Tong, that is.

To get to the other Wang Tong, you need to walk between 45 and 60 minutes westward along the coast, past an abandoned village and two apparently feral banana plantations. Situated on a tiny cove, it's a collection of seven houses, of which only three appear to be occupied. Yesterday when I was there the entrance to the last house was barricaded by a belligerent-looking Chinese god and an enormous (and real, living) spider.

How to explain two identically-named villages (yes, the Chinese characters are the same) within short walking distance of each other? Were the denizens of this other Wang Tong the offspring of colonists from the original village? Were they exiles, pushed out by an invading clan, who trekked into the wilderness and, clinging to their heritage, established a New Wang Tong?

The man who briefly poked his head out the door of the first house didn't look at all friendly, so I was hesitant to knock on his door to ask questions. I searched elsewhere for clues.

Unlike my Wang Tong Village, this other one had an official government sign. Did that imply that this was the original and I lived in a knock-off version of Wang Tong? As I searched further I noticed a name plate on the village's single electricity pole. It identified the pole as belonging to Wang Tong Tsai, which literally translates as "Son of Wang Tong", but idiomatically means "Little Wang Tong". Either way, it answers part of the question.

But why the same name? What's the connection? Is the duplicate name just a coincidence, a friendly homage, or the result of bitter exile? Or had I really walked through a space-time continuum into an alternate Wang Tong universe? Next time I'll come prepared with a bottle of cognac to ensure a friendlier reception and, I hope, a drop of enlightenment.

18 September 2009

Home Sweet

Returning to Wang Tong after more than two weeks away is like traveling through a time warp. Many of the things I'd been waiting for all summer were finally starting to bear fruit, literally.

For months--endless seasons, it seemed--I'd watched papayas clinging to the trees, hard and stubborn and a strict military green so remote from yellow that it seemed they'd never ripen. Every time I passed a window, or walked past a papaya tree jutting from our or a neighbor's garden, I'd turn to look, and it seemed that they hadn't increased in size and didn't show the slightest hint of softening in shape or color.

Then I went away.

Then I came back. The abundance I'd been waiting for was now waiting for me. The papaya trees were noticeably lighter, and ripe fleshy fruit had found their way to the kitchen counter. The sugar apple harvest was also coming in. Chinese call them 番鬼荔枝--faan gwai lai ji--meaning "foreign lychee", a sweet tangy fruit made up of squishy sections each with a mahogany-colored seed inside. The end of summer also means the fading of the lotus blossoms, so we can harvest the pods and seeds to boil in soups.

If only the rest of life was like that. If only I could go off somewhere for a couple more weeks and return to find that all the things I've been waiting to come true, those projects I'd planted and nurtured and fussed over, would have finally borne fruit. Maybe that's all you need, to turn your attention elsewhere, run to Georgia and back, and meanwhile your dreams and aspirations will have become ripe and soft and life would be sweet.

31 August 2009

Gas Attack

My eyes stung and I felt like spitting to rid my mouth of the tinny chemical taste. What was happening? From time to time you read about unexploded World War Two bombs still being discovered at building site excavations around Hong Kong. Had the crew working on the nearby slope perhaps unearthed an unreported World War One trench warfare site, and accidentally cracked open a can of mustard gas?

No, it was just Ah-Po next door drenching her farm with insecticide.

Her vegetables look gorgeous, and there's a reason for that. She pours insecticide on them by the bucket. This is not hyperbole or figurative speech. She actually pours poison on her plants with a bucket. Sometimes she uses an industrial-sized power sprayer strapped to her back, the kind you might use to paint the sides of a building. No gentle treatment here; she means total war.

By the time I took the photo, the chemical attack was over and she was tying bundles of ginger flowers, which presumably no one will eat.

Every time she sprays, all the bugs take refuge in our organic, pesticide-free garden right next door. We've pointed this out to her, as well as explained that if she raised organic produce, she would be able to sell it for more money. That piqued her interest for all of one afternoon. But old habits die hard.

I just wish that next time she'd warn us, so that I can take the day off to run into town and breathe in some nice fresh bus exhaust instead.

29 August 2009

Heat Wave

The Hong Kong Observatory announced yesterday that August has been very hot. Well, duh! It's the hottest August on record since 1974. If it gets any hotter, the earth's crust might melt back into magma. They didn't say the last bit, but that's how it feels.

Nobody is outside unless they have to be. Even this frog is desperately avoiding the sun in the perfect-fit shadow of a baby hibiscus.

The whole world of Wang Tong feels lethargic in the heat. Including the plants. Fruit on the trees--papayas, pomelos and sugar apples--haven't grown or shown any signs of changing color for the last couple weeks, as if the trees themselves are exhausted.

Which human ancestor, so greedy for real estate, came up with the idea of living in the unbearable temperature and humidity of the tropics? Which sadist--whose brother was probably a cement merchant--determined that all houses built on Lantau Island should be made from solid concrete, which rather than shielding occupants from the sun, soaks up its rays and redistributes the heat inside like a stone-bake pizza oven?

It's a choice now between the metallic-tasting breeze from an air conditioner, or asking that frog to move aside and share the shade.

28 August 2009

Hanging Notice

Like a corpse hanging from a noose, this government notice was discovered dangling from the guard rail today. It contained numerous pages and was laminated, which indicated it was a serious notice.

Indeed it was. They want to pave over part of our garden!

That wasn't the only thing mentioned in 14 single-spaced pages of English and Chinese, but to me it was the most significant.

At long last the government intends to bring a sewer system to Wang Tong. This is a good thing. Houses here rely on septic tanks, not all of which are well-maintained. And when you crowd six generations of a family, plus all their cousins and in-laws into a small house, which is pretty common in this part of the world, it can put a strain on a septic system, as can be seen occasionally in the form of mucky, oily filth leeching into the stream. Many houses rely on septic tanks only for their flushing water, so you can usually tell when certain households are doing their laundry or just finished brushing their teeth. In other words, it can get pretty disgusting. The fish and crabs in Wang Tong Stream, not to mention the human children who play in the brackish outflow where the stream crosses the beach, will live longer, healthier lives once the sewers are in.

But they want to slice off a piece of our garden! They'll need to remove a beautiful (and expensive) granite wall and self-designed cast iron sunflower fence. They'll pave over flower beds and adolescent fruit trees near the border. For what? Most likely just for the temporary purpose of allowing machinery through a narrow section of the footpath. This is government, so expecting them to put things back the way they were after the job is done is like asking Godzilla to clean up after himself when he's finished devouring the population of Tokyo.

Worse, this is the Hong Kong Chinese government. Worse than that, it's Hong Kong Chinese government engineers. Who live and work in the city. If you tell such people that their plans require paving over greenery and killing trees, their response is likely to be: "You mean... that isn't a good thing?"

I'm all for the improvement to the environment the sewerage will bring. But it's depressing that it may happen at the expense of a small but irreplaceable portion of my own environment. I've written a letter of objection and asked for a meeting with the engineers. Please, kind sirs, a stay of execution for our flowers.

26 August 2009

Snail Breakfast

I went out for a walk after breakfast to see what might be stirring in the village. It was already boiling hot: at least 30 degrees (86° F), with humidity so high I expected even rocks to sweat. When I exited the garden gate I was nearly run over as three or four cyclists dashed madly down the footpath, with just minutes left to catch the 8:05 ferry. Once their dinging bells faded in the distance, I found myself alone.

Well, not quite alone. About twenty steps away, in the middle of the path, was this enormous snail, tucking into his--or her (snails are hermaphroditic)--breakfast: a roll of bark from a tree branch. When I say enormous, I mean it. It was about as large as a bar of bath soap, its shell around 5 inches (12 cm) long.

We find a lot of these snails around here. They're definitely not welcome, since they wreak havoc on vegetation. When they turn up in our garden, they get a swift flight through the air into the ginger field. They're called Giant East African Snails (Achatina Fulica), and as you can tell by the name, they're not local. Some people think they were introduced to Hong Kong when they were imported as terrarium pets. More likely they hitched rides around the world in cargo containers. They apparently first arrived here during the Japanese occupation in the 1940s. Brought in as delicacies? No, that would have been the French.

I walked along the stream. The fish were again hiding away from the heat. After walking half the length of the village and encountering no one, not even a bird, and sweating madly, I turned around to go home. The giant snail was still there, finishing off the last bits of its meal. In under five minutes it had devoured a piece of bark as long as its own body.

What should I do with it? Squash it? Throw it in the stream? It could end up in our vegetable patch. It didn't belong in this part of the world. It was an unwelcome foreign intruder...which is probably what some of the indigenous villagers think about me.

That decided it. I left my fellow immigrant in peace.

23 August 2009

You've got mail...if you're lucky

This is how Wang Tong people collect their mail. You can buy your own mailbox--cheap!--at the local hardware shop. One size fits all.

If you live near one of the main footpaths you'll nail it up next to your front entrance. But people who live way uphill along narrow, winding lanes--in other words, where the postman won't bother--either hammer their mailbox to a tree near the bottom of the path or, in this case of neighborhood solidarity, find a plank of discarded plywood large enough to accomodate the entire block.

Some people paint theirs, but why bother? On a rainy day your letters are going to more resemble wood pulp than the bank statement or property tax bill they started out as.

Notice that Number 50 says "Mang Tong". Several houses in the village are officially listed that way. Where did the "Mang" come from? The Chinese name is clearly pronounced Wang Tong. My best guess is that someone not very proficient in English had to fill out a government form and wrote the W upside-down. Then others even less proficient copied him. (If you think that's funny, and you don't know Chinese, imagine having to fill out a written form in Chinese characters from memory.)

Our current house was originally listed as Mang Tong, so I did what I thought was the right thing and contacted the Survey and Mapping Department, explained the situation and convinced them to change it. They were supposed to send notices about the change to all the relevant authorities, but those relevant authorities must all have mailboxes nailed to trees, even in the city, and the notices were probably delivered during a rainstorm.

The Water Department refused to connect our water, since the existing water meter was registered in Mang Tong, but now my property tax bill, used as proof of ownership, showed Wang Tong. It took three angry months before we got the water connected. The telephone company claimed that our location was still listed in their records as Mang Tong. But since I'd written Wang Tong on the application, the installation crew assumed I meant another village on Lantau Island, also named Wang Tong, accessible only by a 40-minute hike on an unpaved trail. The phone company men called me from there, out of breath. It took nearly a year to get all the various addresses to match.

Now you understand all the reasons why I have my mail addressed to a post office box, the waterproof kind, inside the post office.

21 August 2009

The Toilet Bar

Yes, there really is a Toilet Bar. It's located at the point where the Wang Tong Stream makes a sharp left to empty into the bay. It's our local, sort of, well, pub.

Actually it has no name. It's simply Granny Mak's little shop. Correction: in fact, it's her home. Poh-Poh (Granny) put a canopy over her front patio, brought in a freezer chest and a drinks cooler, and for years has sold popsicles, cold drinks, slippers and rattan beach mats to passing tourists. She still lives in the back.

A number of years ago a few guys, mostly westerners, started hanging around there in the evenings. There were a couple fold-out card tables, some stools, and cold beer out of the cooler for one quarter the price of the pubs near the ferry pier. It was outdoors, quiet, everyone there knew each other. A pleasant, convenient place to hang out and have a chat and a pint--well, a can. Except for one thing.

It was directly across the footpath from the public toilet, which anyone could smell from a quarter mile away. I held my breath every time I rode past on my way home. What kind of powerful cameraderie there must have been, not to mention cheap beer, that would engage people to hang out drinking next to a disgusting, putrid toilet!

People started referring to it sarcastically as the Toilet Bar.

A few years ago the government replaced the old public toilet with a new, modern hygienic one. No more stench. But the name Toilet Bar stuck, by now an almost endearing title for a near-legendary establishment. A few people tried for a new, classier name--Café Latrine was suggested. But it will forever be known as the Toilet Bar.

Poh-Poh has been gradually taking the Toilet Bar upmarket. First, she started stocking wine. Take your choice: chilled white or chilled red, both cold and cheap. Eventually she even bought some wine glasses, probably because someone told her they were slightly classier than plastic cups. She's rummaged up an eclectic assortment of extra tables and chairs in the past few months, so it's more comfortable to sit. But the pièce de résistance is that she now provides free wi-fi! Where else in the world can you enjoy an ice-cold can of local Carlsberg or a chilled glass of Australian Merlot in al fresco tropical ambiance, with free wi-fi, all for under US$2.00? And a toilet conveniently located three steps away.

I don't hang out there, in case you're wondering. Sometimes I stop off to buy an ice cream, but I don't linger. Ask any of the regulars about me, they'll tell you: I'm an antisocial son of a bitch and, worse, not much of a drinker.

So why would I name this blog after such a place? The Toilet Bar is the gateway to Wang Tong, the place everyone must pass on their way to our village. I hope this chronicle will serve the same purpose for you. Pop open a cold can of San Mig and come stay a while at the Toilet Bar.

photo by Ivan Feign

20 August 2009

A Most Expensive Gecko

The light above our front gate is like a tapas bar for geckos. It seems that every known insect species on earth congregates there at night, so it isn't surprising to find five or six geckos gathered for an upside-down feast.

They're all over our house as well, on outside walls and within every room. I'm very fond of them. They do a great job of keeping the interior of our house insect-free, amazingly so, considering that we're surrounded by an enormous organic garden and a ginger swamp. Besides, geckos are cute. They pop up everywhere. Just a few minutes ago, a little baby reptilian head appeared on the top of my computer monitor. Its big bulging marble eyes charmed me. But it also has me worried. Here's why:

There is normally a constant breeze in the Wang Tong valley. When we're in the living room we keep the doors and windows wide open (with screens, of course) and with the help of a ceiling fan, we almost never feel the need to use the air conditioner. One particularly hot, breezeless day, my sweat staining the upholstery, we decided to turn on the air conditioner. It hadn't been used for around eight months, so we weren't surprised when, after a few minutes, the air blowing on us still felt warm. Probably it took time to get the freon flowing again through sclerotic copper pipes.

After ten minutes, it was still blowing hot air at us. Obviously something was wrong. The next day I phoned the repair service.

The technician climbed out my daughter's window and spent nearly an hour examining the machinery. The compressor fluid level was fine. The moving parts were all moving like they should. He fetched some special meters to test the wiring and electronics. At least two circuit boards were defective.

"How could this have happened?" I asked him. "We almost never use it."

He also wanted to get to the bottom of it. Was something leaking onto the circuitry? Had something melted in the summer heat? He disassembled more and more of the equipment to see what he could find. After 45 minutes of this, he climbed back in through the window and said he'd discovered the problem.

"Four legged snake," he said, in Chinese.

"What?" I said. I knew that was the Chinese term for lizard, but I didn't get why he'd mentioned it.

The repairman drew a picture of a gecko. Obviously one had made a home, or maybe even a nest, safe from predators, inside the sanctuary of our air conditioning unit. When we'd turned it on, the unfortunate gecko had been instantly fried and short-circuited the boards he'd probably been snuggling between.

The following week a repair crew replaced the circuit boards. Before they left, they handed me the damaged ones. They also gave me a plastic sandwich bag containing the dried corpse of a gecko.

I felt horror at what it must feel like to be curled up, snug and safe, then to suddenly have 240 volts of electricity surge through your body and turn you to toast. I hoped that it hadn't felt any pain.

Then the repair man handed me the bill, and I felt even more horror and pain. HK$1800 (US$230).

That was the most expensive gecko I've ever met.

I hope the baby hanging around my computer monitor doesn't try to go for the new world record.

18 August 2009

The Glory of Concrete

City bureaucrats who visit our area are scandalized. "There isn't enough concrete! These underprivileged country folks need more concrete!"

Any government inspector, untethered in Wang Tong, feels an almost primeval urge to "improve", the way that normal human beings feel the need for food or sex. It would be unthinkable, a confession of impotence, to return to their desk without at least one directive to concrete this slope, straighten that babbling brook, put guard rails where no guarding has been necessary since the earth's crust cooled.

So here they are, applying new concrete to the slope beneath house #1. The house sits on a ridge overlooking the entrance to the village, with a commanding view of the surroundings and sea, and has been vacant for, I believe, nearly twenty years. The locals say it's haunted. It still has an owner, and that owner was commanded by government to reinforce the slope.

It's fortunate that it's a private job, since they'll try to get away with the minimum work necessary. On government-owned hillsides, the bureaucrats get to decide what to do, and they always decide to carry out such projects to epic, Pharaonic proportions, laying on tens of tons of concrete where, for millennia, the roots of trees and shrubs held the earth in place with administrative edict only from God himself.

When the project is finished, maybe in two or three weeks, the civil servant will do the responsible thing and inspect his alteration of the earth and call it good, then return to the level of the angels on the 36th floor of some grey steel tower, lean back in his chair and shrug modestly at his own glory.

16 August 2009

The Pig Sty of History

Many people walk past this abandoned pig sty without realizing the pivotal role it played in Hong Kong history. It's tucked away at the bottom of the hill in the southeast corner of Wang Tong Village, visible only if you take the narrow pathway to the back row of houses.

In the old days Mui Wo was full of pig farms, largely supplying a flourishing local trade in preparing whole roasted pigs for banquets and other ceremonies throughout Hong Kong. Farm hygiene was achieved by draining the animal waste into the nearest stream or gully, which carried it the short distance to Silvermine Bay.

Silvermine Bay was for years possibly the most polluted body of water on Planet Earth. But the numerous weekend holiday makers wouldn't have known that, since the government routinely rated the water quality at around 4-minus-minus, which meant "just barely acceptable". Who knows what diseases people caught after simply dipping their toes in the water? Worse, children played in the mouth of the Wang Tong Stream, where it empties into the bay. One wonders how it affected their DNA.

Maybe some government official's kid came down with diphtheria or hepatitis after a day at Silvermine Beach, because in 1987 the Hong Kong Government closed the beach and declared the water off-limits. People stopped coming on weekends and local businesses complained loudly. Instead of blaming their neighbors (or, more likely, their own relatives) for letting the pig farms ruin it for everybody, they demanded that the government revise its water quality standards downwards!

A new water quality law was passed, and Silvermine Bay was the test case. In 1988 Mui Wo became the first place in Hong Kong where pig farming was banned. It was a significant turning point in the way Hong Kong viewed itself and its future. Pig and poultry farming were declared incompatible with urban development and recreation. It was as if, after three decades of breathless post-war development and urbanization in most of the territory, the powers-that-be took a look around and pronounced that Hong Kong was a great city now, breaking once and for all with its past as a sleepy enclave of fishers and farmers. Those two trades could continue, but from now on only under controlled circumstances and limited to a few places. It signaled a new mindset for Hong Kong, one which looks only to the future and disdains the past.

You would think that the new law would stir up huge opposition from the local farmers. If you think that, then you don't know a thing about Hong Kong people. Each pig farmer was paid off anywhere between 100,000 and one million Hong Kong dollars (US$12,800 - $128,000) to shut down their farm, which back then in remote Lantau was an emperor's ransom. Every penny was plowed into real estate, and every one of those ex-pig farmers is now a property millionaire.

By the way, the beach remained closed until 1989, when the last pig farms shut down. The beach water today is merely dirty rather than venomous. Local kids, including mine, build up antibodies and have never gotten sick.

Not many of the old pig sties remain around this part of the island. The few that haven't been redeveloped into houses have mainly crumbled beyond recognition. The pig sty in Wang Tong, being the closest of them all to the beach, was probably at the vanguard of the pollution problem, and despite its slowly being reclaimed by the forest, is still in fairly sturdy condition. For those reasons it ought to declared a shrine, where urban developers and property speculators bring offerings in gratitude. For here in Wang Tong began a small revolution, where Urban Man once and for all cut off his roots.

14 August 2009

Dry Rain

It's been raining so hard and so often that the sky must have used up all its water. That's why there's none left in the garden hose.

Actually, there's a better explanation. We've had torrential rain and lightning storms nearly every day for a month. Sometimes it drops down so hard it feels like hail on your shoulders, and it doesn't stop for hours. Normally tiny mountain streams become gushing torrents, dragging rocks and pebbles and uprooted plants down hillsides. And therein lies the problem.

Wang Tong has two water supplies: one is piped in by the government for drinking. The other is the village's own source of mountain stream water, which is supplied by a small pool halfway up a mountainside. Stream water fills the pool and runs through a mesh filter in the bottom, then into a pipe which supplies the village. Most villagers tap into the pipe for their garden faucets. Some use it for their home's toilet flush water and others, like Luk Suk, use it as their main water supply. Unlike the government supply, it's free.

Most of the time nothing collects in the pool other than some rotten leaves fallen from surrounding trees. But when there's a deluge caused by a heavy rainstorm, sand and silt and pebbles wash down the steep mountain gorge, fill the pool and block the drain with hard, heavy debris. Ironically, after prolonged heavy rain, Wang Tong suffers a water shortage.

It's at times like this when Wang Tong shows its real community spirit...or lack of it. Everyone waits to see who's going to trudge up the mountain with a spade and clear out the reservoir this time. I've done more than my fair share. I guess everyone feels the same as me. Luk Suk is getting a bit too old to do his share any more. Old Mr. Lam used to clear it, since he lived closest. But since he died a few years ago, it's become a waiting game of who can stand it the longest.

Oh, all right, I'll probably give in. It's good village politics when the foreign devil publicly does his bit.

Or maybe I'll wait just one more day and hope someone else gets the blisters...

13 August 2009

Dragon Dogfight

There's a war going on outside. In this case, it's World War One.

Enormous squadrons of dragonflies fly above the tree tops, darting back and forth, diving and climbing, hovering and dodging in every direction. From the vantage point of my upstairs window, it looks like a First World War dogfight. There must be fifty of them out there, at least. When they're in flight, dragonflies bear a resemblance to biplanes, with their upper and lower wings and long, tapered fuselage bodies. Somehow they remind me more of Fokker D-7s than Sopwith Camels, so I always associate dragonflies as being somehow Germanic.

I suppose they're simply picking mosquitoes out of the air, but I can't help imagining the drone of rotary engines and the rat-a-tat of machine guns. In somnolent Wang Tong, it makes for exciting entertainment.

You might expect me to compare the one in the photo with the Red Baron, its transparent wingtips looking like bullet-pierced canvas. But the dogfight combatants are mostly orange, while some have bodies which are luminous reddish-violet that fades to black at the tip. This magnificent red one was resting peacefully, far from the conflict, by the lotus pond.

What are you, red dragonfly: coward or conscientious objector?

photo by Cathy Tsang-Feign

11 August 2009

A Crabby Visitor

We had an unusual visitor this afternoon. My wife opened the front door and standing there, as if he had just knocked, was this crab.

No one knows how it got there. Nearly every day you'll see little fiddler crabs crossing the main footpath next to the Wang Tong Stream. They can be a road menace, as you try to dodge them on your bike. Those are about an inch across with an enormous bright orange-red claw. But this guy's shell was around three inches wide and less brightly colored, the kind you'd expect to find at the beach. And anyway, for a crab it's a long walk to our house from the main stream, and nearly as long from the little tributary at the far end of the garden. Maybe someone had bought him for dinner and he'd escaped out of the bicycle basket. Or maybe...

Had he come to deliver news about the missing turtle?

He didn't like it when we came too close, raising his claw threateningly in the air. He also didn't like having his picture taken. When he made this rude gesture...
...we'd had enough of his crabby manners. We picked him up and placed him in the lower garden, where he was last seen making his way toward Ah-Po's farm and the little stream.

photos by Annika Feign

10 August 2009


Scene of the crime: fish in the stream, but where's the turtle?

Ah-Po, the farmer lady next door, broke the terrible news: a turtle has been kidnapped!

A small colony of turtles lives somewhere out in the ginger field. Occasionally one or two of them appear in our lotus pond or lumber around our front garden. The most we've seen at one time is three. They're normal pond turtles, with shells around 9 inches long. No one knows whether they're native or, more likely, descendants of someone's abandoned pets. After all, Mr. Tang on the other side of the village used to have an enormous lotus and lily pond stocked with turtles before he covered it up with a lawn. I suspect those turtles used to be his. Whatever their origin, they seem quite content.

Ah-Po says they've been regular visitors to her farm for years. Rather than worrying about them grabbing a free dinner from her lettuce patch, she's genuinely fond of them. She claims she recognizes each of them by their shell color and pattern.

We were alarmed when she told my wife the news. Her son had been walking on the public footpath next to the Wang Tong Stream. Down below him someone lifted a turtle out of the water and ran off with it. He's a bit shy and wasn't sure how to confront the person. He claimed to recognize that turtle.

It must have swam down the little tributary which passes through our garden and Ah-Po's field into the main stream. Two other turtles were inside her farm. She immediately picked them up and placed them in the sanctuary of our lotus pond, hoping they would rather hang out there than follow their ill-fated relative.

What would happen to the unfortunate hostage? Was it about to become soup? No, Ah-Po said. The person who took it lives in the area, though not in our village. They probably wanted the turtle as a pet.

Outwardly Ah-Po laughed it off. But we could tell by her quick rescue actions that she's quite affectionate to the wild friends who occasionally drop in on her down on the farm. I wonder if turtles feel the same way about each other. Or get lonely.

08 August 2009

Wang Tong People: Mr. Mak

Mr. Mak just finished putting in a garden for a house on the east side of the village. He built the wall and did the landscaping.

His own garden is not a great advertisement for his services. He lives in one of the tiny old-style village houses overlooking the Wang Tong Stream. Clipped to his chain link fence is a hand-scrawled sign on a piece of driftwood, in Chinese and English:

Lantau Horticultural Society
Garden Design

Inside the fence is a scattered hodge-podge of plants and short trees, some in pots and some in the ground. The misnamed Horticultural Society which he presides over is really a bonsai club. Once or twice a year the group puts on a public exhibit of their miniature trees and fantasy Chinese landscapes, many of which are elaborately beautiful. I wish I could say the same for Mak's own garden. He's done a nice job for his client, though, a foreigner who bought the house last year.

Mr. Mak grew up in Wang Tong, the son of his father's Hong Kong wife (the China wife still lived across the border in Guangdong). When Mak was seven, his father ran off to South Africa to work in a Chinese restaurant, and married his third wife there. Mak and his two brothers stayed behind with their mother in Wang Tong, living off the meager remittances his father sent back.

When he was seven his mother died, and his father sent his South African wife (of course she was Chinese) back to Lantau to care for the children. Several years later his father returned, with enough savings to buy land around Mui Wo and provide a more comfortable life for his family.

I knew his father, a jovial old guy who always sat outside his little pink house overlooking the stream and handed Chinese candy to any kid who walked past.

I was surprised when the president of the Lantau Horticultural Society cut down the entire lovely bamboo grove next to his father's house right after he died. He must have his reasons. Some Chinese believe hollow plants like bamboo provide refuge for ghosts. Maybe he didn't want other ghosts hanging around his dad's place like spirit vagrants. Or maybe the bamboo was just too wild and unkempt for a bonsai enthusiast. We never discuss it. Which ever way you look at it, he's a gardener, and gardeners deserve respect.