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.