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?


  1. I don't know. I just don't get it. If you read into Feng Shui (not just the decoration bits and doorways bits) then it's also about not having waste and rubbish around.
    I think it's a combination of poor education, a surfeit of helpers and workers to clean up after one in HK, and a sad out of touchness with the natural world.

    Is it age related? My lovely dawn chorus of old ladies and men take great care of the public space near us where they do their morning singing and taichi, they're always cleaning and sweeping and do a better job than the LCSD.

  2. Seriously, I think it's a combination of many factors:

    1) Farmer (not just Chinese) mentality of simply disposing rubbish on the land. Seriously, I've watched other old-timers on Lantau as they throw their own household garbage out of their windows onto their own (or neighboring) land.

    2) A Chinese cultural attitude of focusing very inwardly on the family and by extension the physical household. I find Chinese people to be very interior-oriented, and not just urban ones. You'll commonly find Chinese homes which are immaculate inside and garbage dumps all around, both in the country and in city apartment buildings.

    3) Sheer laziness. It's simply customary in Hong Kong's rural districts to toss all construction waste on the property next door. The owner doesn't give a damn, since if a property is not being developed for housing, it's worthless anyway. When he does develop it, he simply shoves the garbage onto the next lot, and the cycle continues.

    4) Government policy. Construction firms have to pay a dumping tax for all materials brought to public dumps. Cheaper to simply chuck it into the bushes. The you don't even have to pay to transport it. Government can't prosecute for dumping onto private land unless the landowner complains, which he usually won't.

    5) Main reason: poor education. People in Hong Kong are not raised by family, tradition or public education to consider aesthetics as an aspect of life. That's why gaudiness passes as elegance, and why property is valued for its square footage and location, but not for its appearance or even its condition. In a word: pragmatism.

  3. When has it ever been chauvinistic to point out the truth?