30 July 2009

Abandoned House

If you walk through the Lower East Side, take the right fork at the little dam and uphill another 500 meters along the steep slope of the valley, down below on your left you'll see this abandoned house.

There are abandoned houses all around Lantau. There's even a whole abandoned village along the coast just 40 minutes walk from Wang Tong. No one remembers who owns most of them. Somebody once claimed these homes, which makes me wonder why, in property-investment-mad Hong Kong, no heirs have come along to reclaim any for redevelopment. Maybe they were squatters to begin with, without title.

This house, though deep in a glen and obscured by dense forest, is in a lovely location next to the stream, with enough level area--if you cleared the trees--for a substantial garden. It's a single-story bungalow with a loft, made of whitewashed brick and concrete. There's a barn of sorts, possibly a former pigsty, in the back. The house is still intact; only a bit of the barn has collapsed. It would make an ideal artist's retreat.

One day I was walking with Uncle Six (whom you'll meet later) to do some repair work on the village water tank upstream. He's getting pretty old and though not native to Wang Tong, has lived here almost forever. I asked him whether the house belongs to anybody.

"I don't know anymore," he said. "Used to be a couple named...I don't remember...I think Chan. They were very old. I think their children moved away. When they died, no one came to take over. No one lived there since."

"When was that?"

"Oh...thirty, thirty-five years ago. Before the pipe." He was referring to the water pipe which leads from the water tank halfway up the valley down into the village.

Uncle Six shook his head. His expression looked sad. Those were the old days, I guess, when people worked hard to live off the land, and came and went without much notice.

The house remains, populated only by ghosts.

29 July 2009

Lotus Eaters

Is it a lotus or a water lily? There's some disagreement over whether Nelumbo nucifera is part of the water lily family of aquatic flowering plants. This particular flower is in our lily pond... make that our lotus pond. It's the sacred flower of Buddhism, which might explain why the pond at the end of our garden is crying out for a Buddha statue. Its roots and seeds are edible, and its stems and leaves are widely used in Chinese medicine.

I'm not the flower fanatic in the family. All I know is it's pretty and seems to know it. Out of the thousands of flowers in our garden, the lotuses seem to almost vocally demand attention, like floral divas. They're at the very end of the garden like the mistress at the head of the table, sticking their long skinny necks up and distracting your eye even at a distance. They're not as colorful as the cartoony bird of paradise, as exotic as the blossom of our dragon fruit, or as flashy as the bushes full of ruby chili peppers. There's something regal about the lotus instead. It commands you to pay attention.

Maybe this haughty sense of majesty intimidated Mr. Tang, on the other side of the village. He had a lotus pond as large as a swimming pool right in his front garden next to the public walkway. It was so big that it still appears on the topographic maps of the village. In the summer it was covered from one end to the other with waxy pink lotuses and floating water lilies. He had carp and a lot of turtles too, who stuck their heads up for air between the lily pads. Talk about Buddhist blessings, he had it in spades. Probably good feng shui too. Then a few years ago he filled it all in and converted his garden into a suburban American-style lawn. Now his grandchildren can run around playing football (soccer) when they visit, but I think he did the whole village a disservice.

My wife gets crazy pleasure from her flowers, and the lotus is the queen of them all. I'm not as nuts, though if they bring us Buddhist good karma, all I can say is, I need all I can get. Long live our lotuses.

28 July 2009

The Ugly Side: The Stream

These are not exactly before and after photos, but they could be. Actually, they illustrate government ineptitude and local idiocy and greed. And a shameful chapter in our village history.

Both are pictures of the Wang Tong Stream which, as you can see, is a shallow trickle of a brook. The section in the first photo runs along the south side of the village. It's a rich habitat for several species of fish, small reptiles, crabs, freshwater shrimp and aquatic insects. Which also makes it a popular hunting ground for egrets, herons, kingfishers, moorhens, as well as frogs and the water snakes which feed on them.

The section in the second photo, right around the corner a few meters upstream, used to look like that until the government, goaded by a few local residents, decided to "train the river" for so-called flood prevention. Well, it's true that every three years or so a week of torrential rains would cause the soil to become so waterlogged that the stream couldn't handle the runoff and numerous gardens would flood. In 1997 the government decided to fix the problem by turning an 800-meter section of the stream into a concrete channel.

At the sound of the word "concrete", many of the old-time residents stood up to cheer. Some even had messy wet dreams, in love with concrete. Concrete is modern. Concrete is clean. Concrete keeps out trees, which as we all know are the cause of mosquitoes. More concrete, they reasoned, would make property values increase. And concrete lines the pockets of our village leaders, who are all in the construction and building supply business.

So in came the government engineers. Well, not right away. They used topographic maps to design the channel without once ever visiting the site. There was no public consultation, and obviously not even an intelligent geological survey. Hey, it's just some puny, out of the way village. Who gives a crap?

Our esteemed village elders kept the project secret. In fact, the first that anyone else learned of it was thanks to my son. He was six years old at the time. I brought him to play in the swimming hole above the little dam at the end of the village. He heard some workers nearby speaking in Chinese, which he translated for me: "Daddy, they said they're going to concrete the river."

Oh, come on. That was too ridiculous. Why would anyone do that? Little boys make up all sorts of fantasies. But I phoned a local environmentalist, who made some inquiries, and discovered that it was true.

Thus began the largest civil unrest ever to hit Wang Tong Village. Numerous residents protested to the government, demanded meetings with the engineering department and explanations from local leaders. At least the engineers had the guts to respond. Local leaders, our very own neighbors, locked themselves behind closed doors. The engineers were adamant. Once a government project is put into action, it is impossible to stop.

We tried anyway. A defacto organization materialized. We occupied the site, placed posters everywhere and rallied the rest of the community for support.

But the bulldozers and excavators arrived. Enough steel reinforcement was laid, with so much concrete poured on top, that not even a nuclear bomb would crack it.

We still tried to stop it. Several of us organized local children to help us vandalize the site with a fun day of spray painting the concrete and equipment. That got us television coverage, and the issue of government destroying the landscape for spurious reasons became a matter of wider public controversy.

My family and others received threats from local triad gangsters. Another woman and I were marked as the ringleaders by one of our village Dear Leaders (not true; it was very much collective) and the police threatened us with prison unless we personally restored every item that had been painted. Which we did, under the gloating sneers of many locals.

Although the anti-concrete organization was two-thirds Chinese people, the fact that many foreign residents were involved turned the entire matter into a racial conflict. People would meet me on the footpath, point at themselves and with belligerent expressions shriek in my face: "I'm Chinese!!" Yeah, so what, I thought. The implication was that westerners were against progress, against honest hard-working Chinese people making as much money as possible and screw the environment. Of course that wasn't true, and the fact that Chinese outnumbered westerners among the protestors was ignored.

We won and we lost. The government agreed to stop similar plans in neighboring villages. But ours was too far gone to halt.

By the way, the flooding problem worsened after they put in the channel. Pouring so much concrete had actually raised the stream bed and decreased its volume capacity. Without plants and rocks along the bed and banks providing friction, storm runoff sped many times faster down the channel and bottlenecked at the end, spilling over onto neighboring land. And with impermeable concrete walls, the natural wetland on either side could no longer drain underground into the stream, making flooding even more inevitable.

Years later, a few of the original proponents of the concrete, including the man who set the police after me, admitted that it had been the wrong thing to do. Today, twelve years since, I've mended fences with nearly everyone. Nearly. There's still one woman who looks like she'd rather spit at me than say hello.

Meanwhile, Wang Tong is left with an 800-meter scar of sterile reinforced concrete where fish and frogs once flourished, and a social scar of a tiny community once bitterly split apart.

26 July 2009

Wild Night in Wang Tong

Things are hopping in the old village tonight!

Something about puddles brings out the impresario in frogs. After several downpours during the day left behind lots of puddles on top of already-saturated ground, the frogs have come out singing with such bombast as if Wagner himself was conducting.

First are the altos, whose song sounds like the squeak of rubber soles on a marble floor, repeating over and over and over. A basso continuo is provided by bullfrogs in a syncopated wail which sounds something like a rubber squeeze horn with a stomach ache. In the middle is an improvisation of tenors which sound like a cross between kazoos and people spitting, not sticking to any rhythm. It's like an off-key jazz opera which goes on all night, at a volume that can make you too crazy to sleep if you pay attention.

On top of the frogs is a sonic blanket of the trill of crickets; it's summer, after all.

Then the dogs start barking. One neurotic mutt on one side of the valley might bark at a cat, and then every other dog in the village feels obliged to comment like drunks in a bar. Some dogs seems to be quite unpopular among their peers. Any time the guy at the end of the Upper West Side takes his three dogs for a midnight walk, every other canine along the way, including ours, bursts into insanity.

If you're lucky you'll hear a barking deer, a miniature deer native to south China. Not that it's a pretty sound; it's a mournful bay like a moaning dog. Yet it's nice to know they're there. Not so far tonight, though. In this hot weather, perhaps the barking deer have moved to higher altitude.

Humans contribute little to the noise: the rattle of air conditioners and the occasional ding of a bicycle bell.

If you're looking for a wild and noisy night out you might consider the bars of Wanchai or Lan Kwai Fong. Or you might pay a visit to Wang Tong Village.

25 July 2009

Death of a Tree

Rose apple treeI regret to report the sad news of the death of an old and stately tree. It's called a rose apple, though I don't recall ever seeing any fruit. It's a gorgeous creature, a muscular tangle of fibrous trunks and branches overhanging an abandoned house and, incidentally, is located directly across the footpath from the entrance to my house.

I'm always suspicious when a government department announces that a tree must be removed. This is a government which views trees as nothing more than nuisances which get in the way of roads and buildings. Ever since a tree in Stanley collapsed after a rainstorm, tragically killing a teenage girl, all trees are viewed with suspicion: potential killers unless proven innocent.

Local people in Mui Wo aren't much better. Trees are simply overgrown weeds. Trees cause mosquitos. Yes, cause. Not "harbor", not "attract"; mosquitoes are spontaneously generated from trees, according to Hong Kong Chinese belief. In some of the other villages they're regularly chopped down or, if they're in a particularly conspicuous spot, poisoned by drilling holes at the base and injecting drain cleaner, to artificially widen footpaths so that people can illegally drive cars there. Sympathy for trees is not in wide supply.

So when we saw the notice pinned to the village notice board regarding the rose apple tree, Cathy and I phoned the number to ask questions. We were given another number to call, then another and another. I wrote a letter of objection. Finally Cathy spoke to the tree inspector himself. He explained that this tree was severely damaged by termites and, being on the side of a steep slope, was in danger of collapse in the event of a typhoon or heavy rainstorm.

But can't they just treat it? Maybe trim the higher limbs to make it less top-heavy, and use some sort of medicine to kill the termites?

Not advisable in this case, he said. The main trunk was so rotten inside that it was beyond saving. He assured my skeptical wife that killing a tree was a last resort measure, not first. But he promised to come take another look and see whether there were any remedial measures. Which he did a couple weeks later. I met him and he showed me in detail why the tree had to go. Even if they treated it, he said, the termites would simply move to the next tree up the hill. Best to remove it entirely. It broke my heart to admit he was right. It overhung our entrance and a public pathway. It posed a genuine danger.

Okay, so we accepted that it's a danger. Go ahead and remove it. Months went by and no one came even to look. Again Cathy phoned number after number in this department or that. "Next Wednesday," they said. Wednesday came and went. Actually, many Wednesdays came and went. It started to get infuriating.

From wanting desperately to preserve this magnificent tree, we were now anxious for them to do their terrible deed.

Here they are today, cutting it down a branch at a time. Euthenasia is never pretty.

Rest in peace, beautiful tree.

24 July 2009

Wang Tong People: Ah-Po

I smelled smoke. Looking out the window I saw the old lady pulling dried banana stalks onto a small bonfire in the middle of her farm plot next door. I went out to the balcony and called down to her in Chinese.

"Ah-Po, so much smoke."

"Is it going in your windows?"


"Just a little bit to burn. I'll do it quickly." She smiled and waved. I waved back and said thank you.

I couldn't blame her. We were the newcomers in Wang Tong, only 18 years. She's been farming this field for over 30 years. In fact, I just learned that she's the one who introduced ginger to the valley. Meet Ah-Po, the last remaining farmer in Wang Tong.

Her family name is Lai, but everyone knows her only as Ah-Po, which means Granny. She and her husband moved from the Guangning region of Guangdong Province to Hong Kong and somehow ended up settling in Wang Tong. Back then, she remembers, there were hardly any houses. The valley was a patchwork of rice paddies and small farm plots. She remembers Yuen Fat, the previous owner of our land, planting his fruit orchard. The surviving trees are old and knuckly now.

Ah-Po and her husband supported themselves doing odd jobs on construction sites all around Lantau, including some of the first buildings in Discovery Bay. But one day they had the idea to plant ginger. All around Hong Kong you'll find old women sitting on the sidewalks holding wicker baskets filled with pungent, aromatic white ginger flowers, often with safety pins attached to sell as instant corsages for a dollar. If they could supply these women, they could make a good profit. So they planted a patch of ginger, then another, then more in neighboring villages. It was all open land; nobody knew who owned it, and even if they did know, the owners mostly didn't care. Every May the couple took leave from construction work to harvest the flowers. Ah-Po says it was indeed very profitable. Ginger needs no maintenance. In fact, it's almost impossible to get rid of. As the rice paddies went fallow, the ginger marched in like an army. The vast ginger fields of Wang Tong and neighboring Luk Tei Tong are her legacy.

She still harvests ginger, but most of her energy goes into her vegetable farm. She raises bananas, squash, bak choi... well, whatever's in season. That's her new taro crop next to her in the photo.

We weren't always so friendly with Ah-Po. To irrigate her vegetable farm she used to block the outflow pipe in the small dam at the upper end of the village so as to divert more water into a tributary running through the ginger field and into her farm. That left the main Wang Tong Stream deprived of water. Back then we lived on the Lower East Side, next to the stream, and it annoyed us to see it dry up like that. We sent the kids after dark to unblock the pipe. The next day it would be blocked again.

When we moved in to our current house and marked the borders of our land it turned out that it overlapped the corn section of Ah-Po's farm, which prompted intense negotiations. We had one or two arguments about ginger that our construction workers damaged. But once she saw what a plantaholic Cathy is, and how intensely serious Cathy was about creating a substantial vegetable garden, we gained respect in her eyes. Now she's Cathy's farming mentor, passing on her knowledge, and occasional seedlings, to another generation, not so young but eager nevertheless.

I don't know how old Ah-Po is. I pray that she's around for a long time to come. Some occasional banana leaf smoke in the window is a small price to pay for the beauty, the food and the link with the land that she provides for our village.

23 July 2009

Feng Shui in my Window

This is the view from the window of my home studio on the top floor of our house. In front of me is a small seldom-used house owned by a church, then the neighbor at #15 and a coastal wetland. Beyond that is Silvermine Bay, with tiny Hei Ling Chau island in the distance. I enjoy watching the fishing boats and ferries coming and going, and at this time of year when the storms all come in from the south-east I sometimes get panoramic, apocalyptic lightning displays.

Many years ago, when we lived in another house in the village, not far from where are now, I had a similar view, though out of a much smaller window. One day I was listening to the radio and they were interviewing one of the most famous feng shui experts in Hong Kong. He said that in Hong Kong, speaking in general terms, the most auspicious location for a room was facing east-south-east with a view overlooking water. I rushed down to the bedroom and searched through the miscellaneous-whatever drawers until I found what I was looking for: a small keychain with a compass. I brought it back up to my studio and checked: exactly east-south-east, overlooking the bay! Well, I couldn't deny that things were going pretty well for me. I had an excellent marriage, two healthy young children, and simply the greatest job anyone could have in the whole world.

Around six months after that radio show, a developer built a new house directly in front of ours, obscuring my lucky view. It was like one sailboat blanketing another: getting in the way of its wind. Two days after officially completing the building, packing up their equipment and clearing out the site, I was unexpectedly fired from my job in the most humiliating way possible--by fax. My firing touched off an enormous scandal which still to this day haunts my life. You betcha, I became a firm believer in feng shui.

Many people treat feng shui an entertaining and harmless superstition, but I'll put my money on it. In fact, I did. We bought the plot of land directly in front of our house so that no one will ever be able to build there and get in the way of our east-south-east sea view.

22 July 2009

Hummers of the Footpath

There is a growing menace on our thoroughfares, crowding out smaller vehicles, devouring parking areas, blocking traffic and endangering pedestrians. They're heavy, as clumsy as tanks and ridden mainly as status symbols. Yes, that's right, I'm talking about tricycles.

Most of Mui Wo, which includes four main villages, several minor ones and a few square miles of open fields, small farms and hills inbetween, is closed to motor vehicles. The 3000 people of the district get around on bicycles and foot to commute to the ferry pier and shops. Here in Wang Tong we have three narrow--and unnamed--concrete paths inside the village which all feed into one main track along the Wang Tong Stream (seen in the photo).

Kids here grow up on bikes. They ride in wicker baskets mounted on the crossbars of their parents' bicycles until they're old enough to ride their own. All are expert cyclists, without training wheels, by age 3. It's amazing how much a normal bicycle can carry. I've been known to carry a week's worth of groceries dangling from the handlebars, a new plastic deck chair tied to the rear rack, and several potted plants in the front basket, while talking on my mobile phone.

In the mornings there can be bicycle traffic jams as hundreds of cyclists from around Mui Wo converge to catch the morning ferries. There are occasional accidents, almost all caused by inexperienced cyclists--by definition, tourists from Hong Kong's urban areas. But otherwise things have been pretty harmonious along the cycle paths.

That is, until a couple years ago, when one of the local bicycle shops had the bright idea to start selling tricycles. They're completely impractical for Mui Wo. They take up most of the width of the pathways. When two approach each other from opposite directions it leads to standoffs while all other traffic, including pedestrians, comes to a halt. Heavily built, the driver's seats welded on too low for comfortable riding, with impractically small wheels and a single gear, they're torturous to ride up even a mild slope, and that's without a passenger. This leads to traffic pileups behind them as they strain their way forward. At the bicycle parking lot near the ferry pier, already overflowing by nine o'clock every morning, each tricycle takes up two spaces.

But what bothers me most about these Hummers of the bike path is what they represent. As you can see in the photo, this perfectly fit Chinese gentleman, wearing sunglasses like a pop star, is being chauffeured by his Filipina maid. And that's the point. People don't buy these because they need them. They'll say, "Oh, it's for shopping." But really it's the local equivalent of owning a limousine. I've watched, disgusted, as two neighbors in Wang Tong, both fit adults who used to ride their own bicycles, stand with impatience burned into their faces, while the maid fetches the tricycle and pulls up in front to let them get on. They can't even be bothered to walk ten paces to where it was parked. They don't care how strenuous it is for their petite maid to deliver them to the pier and pick them up later in the day. They don't care that a trip which takes 5 to 7 minutes on a normal bicycle now takes 15 minutes of hard labor... someone else's hard labor. They aren't bothered by the selfishness of impeding traffic and hogging parking. All they know is that they are Very Important People, too important to use their own legs.

If you live in a place where idiots in SUVs and snobs in Mercedes drive rudely and choke the roads, count yourself lucky that you're not stuck in a rainstorm, just trying to get home, cycling behind a huffing and puffing, creaking and crawling fat-assed tricycle.

21 July 2009

Nothing Happened

It was hot. 33 degrees (91° Fahrenheit) by ten o'clock in the morning. The ground all through the village was still so gorged with water from the typhoon that it shed moisture upwards like a simmering pot. As soon as I opened the door my forehead started drooling sweat.

Cathy was at work in central Hong Kong. One kid was out for the day and the other was, like a typical mid-summer bored teenager, sleeping in until at least noon. Our housemaid was in town to renew her visa. I was alone in the house.

I've worked at home for over 25 years, wherever we've lived. People always say "How lucky! You get to work at home!" On a day like today I think: How lucky they are. They have people around they can talk to and have lunch with.

Usually I crave the solitude when I work, but sometimes it gets to me. It's the irony of the artist everywhere: in order to create the words or pictures that we hope will connect us with other people, we need to be alone. Back in 1989 I begged the editor of the newspaper I worked for as a cartoonist to let me have a desk. When one finally became vacant six weeks later his secretary called me. I moved in with a supply of drawing materials and discovered that I was utterly unable to work in such an environment. I learned that journalists spend ninety percent of their day chatting and gossiping. A bit of that was entertaining, though I often didn't know the person over in Business or Special Supplements they were sneering about. As soon as I said excuse me, I need to concentrate and do my drawings, people took it as a slap. After two weeks I surrendered my desk. That was the last time I ever worked in someone else's office.

At times the craving for company is excruciating, especially on a day like today when I was all alone in a big house in a tiny village where no creatures were moving. Even the few birds were just passing through, high overhead. I felt like the last human being after the plague.

I went for a walk to see who might be around. I left the house for the main footpath, turned the corner for the more densely developed Lower East Side of Wang Tong, hoping I might run into somebody. Someone I could photograph and introduce you to on this page.

Not even the rubbish collection ladies were around, and I really want you to meet them. The Wang Tong Stream was clear and empty. The fish were hiding out of sight in the shadows, away from the heat.

I kept walking, heading inland, past our old house, which the new owners had painted white. Across the stream Mrs. Suen waved to me before disappearing inside and shutting her door. I walked all the way to the little dam at the end of the village. Sometimes you find kids splashing around or fishing in the little swimming hole formed by the dam. Nobody.

On the way back a woman I didn't recognize passed me on her bicycle. All the way home she was the only other person I encountered.

Sometimes Wang Tong Village is my Paradise on earth. Sometimes it feels like a gorgeous prison.

The photo above tells it all. The sign at the top says in Chinese: "Welcome to Wang Tong Village". Welcome...somebody...anybody!

20 July 2009

Wang Tong Archaeology

When we lived in our previous house in the village, we hired men with shovels and a jackhammer to dig deep and turn the soil in the garden. To our amazement they discovered pieces of porcelain dishes, clay pots and several old bricks buried deep in the ground. We called a neighbor, an archaeologist whose job is to examine building site excavations for signs of archaeological treasures. He gathered some of our samples and brought them home for examination. Could they be remnants of some ancient Ming Dynasty settlement? Or at the very least maybe they belonged to someone who had farmed this spot a hundred years ago? They were down pretty deep; they must have been quite old.

The next day we learned the result: they were cheap dishes like you could buy at any Chinese department store. Most likely there had been a house on that spot which, along with all its contents, had been demolished and the rubble mixed into the soil before building the new house back in 1980. Oh well.

Wang Tong does have a few sites of historical interest, though. There's a disused traditional Chinese style pigsty left over from before pig farming was banned here in the 1980s. There is the watchtower on top of Butterfly Hill. And then there's the old restaurant.

When you walk toward the waterfall, at the top of the steepest part of the path, on your right are the remains of an entrance gate, which you can see in the photo. Some of the original green paint is left. The red Chinese characters are still readable and say "Sea food snack restaurant". My wife thinks the tree on the left was deliberately planted to frame the gate in a beautiful and auspicious manner. Walk through the gate and about 50 yards up the hill the only remains of the restaurant you'll find is part of its foundation.

Locals think the restaurant opened in the 1930s. Back then all of Lantau Island was a forgotten, remote backwater which may as well been the far side of the Moon. There were a few small fishing villages and nothing of much interest to tourists. The only way to get here was by a slow, infrequent ferry. Until the late 1950s there were no roads anywhere on the island. The main thoroughfare between the north and south of Lantau was a footpath which passed right through Wang Tong. It was paved with cobblestones, some of which can still be seen along the edges of the current footpath. The restaurant was likely a stop-off point for travelers at the end of the long hike.

Picture what it must have been like back in 1950. You just walked for two or three hours from Tung Chung, a cluster of tiny villages where pirates once lived. The cobbled path led you along the coast, up into a long valley and over a steep pass. Just one more hill to go and you'll be in Mui Wo. At the top of that small hill is a little seafood restaurant offering fast food and a view. What a nice place to have a little meal before trekking the last mile to the ferry pier and the end of your journey.

It would have been a stunning location. Today the hilltop where it stood is covered with dense forest, but in fact that wasn't the natural state of things on Lantau Island. Most of the island had been deforested by local inhabitants for fuel and building materials and from hill fires accidentally set by ancestor worshipers in various hillside cemeteries. So chances are that the restaurant patrons had a view unobstructed by trees. On one side they would have been able to see the Silvermine Waterfall. On the other side they'd have had a panoramic view across Wang Tong valley, likely covered with small farms, over Silvermine Bay, of the harbor and other islands, with western Hong Kong island in the distance. Judging by the quality of workmanship on the pillars, it must have been an elegant restaurant, probably a great place to linger over a bowl of noodles and a pot of tea.

In the late 1950s the government put in a paved road connecting the north and south of the island, which terminates at the ferry pier about a mile from Wang Tong. The old cobblestone footpath was no longer a vital throughway and the restaurant would have lost most of its patronage. So it isn't surprising that it closed in the 1960s.

No one knows who owned it and the site has never been put up for sale. There have been no restaurants in Wang Tong ever since. If you want noodles, you need to walk about a third of mile outside the village to the Sun Lok Restaurant, whose dishes are about as old and cracked as the ones we dug up from our garden.

19 July 2009

Typhoon Victim

Last night we had a direct hit from Typhoon Molave, which struck Hong Kong at midnight. 140 km/h (87 mph) winds flattened the ginger fields and uprooted plants. We prepared by supporting our most vulnerable trees with rope attached to the garden fence. One papaya tree nearly fell over, and some of those almost-ripe pomelos dropped like bombs, but otherwise we escaped damage.

We also escaped burglary. Burglars often choose nights like these, with no witnesses out for midnight strolls and the the deafening noise of wind and driving rain covering the sounds of breaking locks and crowbarred windows. At 1:15 a.m. our housemaid got up to get a drink and saw two men in black coats just outside. They saw her, leaped over the fence and ran away. This morning the police told us a house on the other side of the village wasn't so lucky. The thieves got away with a horde of cash.

But the one who had the closest call last night was this baby bulbul in the photo. I found it on the ground beneath a tree, motionless, its wings askew. Cathy thought it was dead, but then we saw it breathing. It had obviously been blown out of its nest. But from which tree? We weren't aware of any nest in the tree directly above, but knew there was a bulbul nest in a tree around 20 yards away. How to return it there? And what if it didn't really belong to that family?

Fortunately Cathy remembered there was an abandoned nest in a bush elsewhere in the garden, comically constructed from twigs and white nylon packing twine. She put on some gloves, fetched the nest, then gently lifted the protesting baby into it. She placed the nest in a branch of the tree below the other bulbul nest.

The photo shows Cathy holding the nest with the baby in it. Note the white nylon twine the birds wove around the nest, as neatly as a birthday present.

An hour later we went to check. The baby was standing and crying on a branch next to the nest. Across the garden we saw adult bulbuls chirping and hopping around on the fence in an agitated manner. Having watched countless generations of bulbuls produce families outside our windows wherever we've lived in Wang Tong, we thought their behavior looked very much like upset parents.

Another half hour later the baby was back on the ground. Concerned, Cathy got her gloves and was about to pick it up again when the baby spread its wings and flew away.

We're no longer worried. Maybe this baby had to leave the nest prematurely, but we're sure it will find its way in the world.

I hope it comes back to visit. I hope those burglars don't.

18 July 2009

Yellow Skins

Ha! You expected a racist joke. Let's talk fruit instead.

Wong pei (黃皮) are in season all around the village. The name translates literally as "yellow skin", though the dictionary claims the English name of this berry-like fruit is wampee. They're about the size of large grapes, with thin leathery skins.

They're not my favorite Chinese fruit mainly because the skins are hard to peel, so you're supposed to just pop them into your mouth and spit out the skin later. I know some people do that with grapes, but I've always found it to be more effort than it's worth.

However, it is worth the trouble with wong pei. The flesh inside has a satisfying squishy texture a bit more rubbery than grapes and just as juicy. Once you bite down your mouth is knocked awake with a sweet, tangy flavor like sugary orange-lemon-lime punch.

Wong pei are native to southern China and they're one of the most popular fruits among local people, so it isn't surprising to find the trees in many gardens and in the wild. Each tree will give you many hundreds of fruit. Our current garden was once a small fruit orchard, and we've kept as many of the original trees intact as possible. We have lychees, longans, sugar-apples (known as faan gwai lychee: literally "foreign devil lychees"...they're not native to China), and pomelos, but the original farmers knew their market and planted mostly wong pei. We're reaping that abundance right now. The tree in the photo is next to our front gate.

Like I said, they're not my favorite. That's Western tastebuds for you. I can't wait for the syrupy-sweet lychees to ripen later this summer.

17 July 2009

Wang Tong Geography

Wang Tong isn't exactly in the middle of nowhere. But it isn't in the middle of somewhere either.

Imagine a right triangle. The right angle sides, on the east and south, are bounded by the Wang Tong River (actually a babbling brook) as it emerges from a razor-cut gap in the hills, cuts a straight path along the foothills, then veers sharp right just as it strikes a line of trees bordering a wetland. The river passes another hill on its way to a mangrove swamp and the sea, leaving Wang Tong behind.

The hypotenuse of the triangle is formed by Butterfly Hill on the northwest. It got its name from the reputed 200 species of butterflies that have been reported on its flanks. Butterfly Hill is densely wooded, its only structures being a few houses at its ankles and the ruins of an old watchtower on its crown. Hong Kongers being notoriously uninterested in any history longer than the 3-year profile of a stock's selling price, no one is exactly sure of the age or even the purpose of the old watchtowers which are found all around Lantau. Some say they pre-date the British, erected by local chieftains to guard against pirates. Others claim they're from the 1930s, built when Lantau was still a backwater as distant as the Moon. The rest of Butterfly Hill is an informal conservation area--one government agency says it is one, while another agency says it isn't. It's home to eagles owls, rare barking deer, the even rarer Romer's Tree Frog, and that Burmese python I mentioned yesterday. I've seen kingfishers darting in and out, presumably to build their nests, as do bulbuls and many other local resident birds.

The majority of the human part of the village is along both sides of the first section of the river, literally Wang Tong's Lower East Side. The Upper West Side, where I live, closer to Butterfly Hill, has only a few houses built before zoning put a limit on development.

Most of Wang Tong Valley is blanketed by an unbroken stretch of ginger fields mixed with tall grasses and broadleaf shrubs. It isn't the kind of ginger you can eat. But, man, its flowers! They're whiter than snow, loose waxy petals which give off a intense spicy fragrance. Twice a year when the ginger is in bloom, its perfume saturates the valley, intoxicating anyone who passes through. This is one of those times of year.

The photo above shows the ginger field in bloom directly behind my house, framed by our pomelo tree, almost ready for harvest.

The valley is also a wildlife haven. There are dozens of insect species I've never seen before in my life. Baby praying mantises often land on your shoulders and dragonflies which look they were painted with blue, red, and purple fluorescent marking pens dart in and out of open windows. Hidden in the brush are turtles, frogs, snakes and skinks, many of whom provide food for the egrets, herons, moorhens, curlews, coucals, grebes and other funny-sounding birds who visit during the day.

The area's main attractions are beyond the village in opposite directions.

If you take the footpath past Butterfly Hill, it leads you up a steep incline, through a gap and into the next valley, which contains a single farmhouse and a forest of bauhinia trees. Another five-minute walk beyond that brings you to the spectacular Silvermine Waterfall and the abandoned silver mine which gives the area its English name.

In the other direction, south of the village, I mentioned a wetland and a mangrove swamp. It's a small mangrove, too small for the government to declare a Coastal Protection Area according to their stubborn regulations, but it's stuffed full of creatures: mudskippers--fish which walk on land, covered by thick coats of slime which serve the same purpose in reverse as air tanks for human divers--fiddler crabs with enlarged right claws, fluorescent blue kingfishers, snowy egrets, Chinese herons, and a rotating population of migratory birds.

Beyond that is Silvermine Beach, a sandy beach framing Silvermine Bay, whose water is, well, if you grew up here like my kids and develop the right antibodies, potentially swimmable.

I'll bring you to some of these places in more detail later. But right now my eye is distracted away from the keyboard and toward the panorama of the ginger field in exuberant bloom outside my window.

16 July 2009

Snakes in the Garden (again)

Our gardener phoned me. "Sir! Snakes in the lily pond!"

Did she say snakes...with a second S?

At the end of our garden we built a small pond and planted water lilies. The pond is fed by a little trickle of a stream at the edge of the property, entering through an opening in the back and exiting through the side, where it flows into the vegetable farm next door. The pond quickly became home to scores of tiny fish and, within a few months, was filled with tadpoles. Usually you can find frogs of various sizes hanging out on a lily pad. One day we discovered two large turtles chilling out in there; the next day they had moved on. But this was the first time we'd had snakes in the pond. I called the police to send the snake squad and ran downstairs (unfortunately forgetting my camera; I took the photo of the pond this morning, mainly because a gorgeous lily had just opened)

Nothing brings out the primeval gut feeling that we humans are just animals than when you face a snake. Fear, revulsion, the urge to flee and an urge to kill all well up inside and the skin tingles with adrenalin. I've been face-to-face with a brown bear and armed muggers, but the fight-or-flight response is never so intense as when there's a snake in front of me. In this case, not one but two slender dark brown snakes were curled up in the pond, their narrow heads breaking the surface. One rose up and looked at us curiously. Then the other.

And then they started to dance. They curled around each other, uncurled, then curled again in the other direction. Were they playing? Was it a mating dance? Do snakes mate in the water? Whatever they were doing, I couldn't help but think that they looked like they were having fun.

The police snake catchers arrived. They said it would be difficult to catch them in the water, since they couldn't be pinned down, and in any case they looked like non-venomous water snakes. My wife arrived home early from work and joined the crowd. Just as we were discussing whether they might be rat snakes (also non-venomous), one languidly crawled up over the edge of the pond, turned away from us, then calmly crossed the stream and disappeared into the farm next door. The other must have snuck out the water inlet hole, because there was no sign of it.

In the year and a half since we moved into our new house, we've had numerous snake visits. During the construction, a Burmese python ("The biggest one I've ever seen in my life" said one of the construction workers, who grew up in the countryside), passed right through our future living room. After we moved in, one morning a rat snake, easily nine feet long, was resting in the shade outside the kitchen door. When it saw me it lifted its head and indignantly traveled across the garden, over the wall and into the wild ginger field on the other side. We've had several black cobras pop their heads out of holes in the wall. Those are the ones I really hate. They're poisonous and short-tempered. I've had more close encounters with cobras than I can count in my 18 years in Wang Tong.

The oddest snake incident occurred one evening when Cathy, my wife, ran in from watering the garden. "I nearly stepped on a snake!" She grabbed a flashlight and our snake identification book. Next to a papaya tree was a muscular snake curled up like a garden hose. It had a stunning pattern of black and white rings around the length of its body. It turned out to be a banded krait, uncommon in this part of China, and so venomous that its bite will kill an adult human in 8 hours. The police sent over a brilliant snake catcher, who used a flashlight and a bamboo stick to actually hypnotize the reptile. He then stunned it with a tap on the head, and did something I'd never dare: he picked up the living but woozy snake and tossed it into a bag. Kraits are a protected species, so he had no intention of killing it. It would be taken to a remote spot and released.

Lucky for those snakes I'm not Chinese and my wife isn't a snake eater. In our previous house on the other side of the village, whenever anyone shouted "Snake!" several local men would come running with sacks and bamboo sticks. They could name instantly the species of the snake, as well as the price per pound of its meat. Their goal: catch whatever it was alive, carry it home and drop it into a pot of boiling water.

When the two snakes scurried away after their brief romp in our pond I actually felt kind of touched. They'd enjoyed a refreshing mid-summer-day swim, perhaps a little afternoon delight, and gone back to work. Live and let live, even snakes.

15 July 2009

The News From Wang Tong

Welcome to Wang Tong, a little village somewhere on the southern end of Lantau Island in the South China Sea. That's most of it in the photo. Wang Tong has between 60 and 75 buildings, depending on your opinion about where the village boundary lies. Only a few are single-family homes. The rest are split into apartments, others are almost permanently vacant, and a few exist as down-market guesthouses for braying packs of teenagers.

How many people live here? I don't think anyone ever counted. Even the government census lumps Wang Tong and its neighboring villages into one broad entity called Mui Wo. But if I had to guess, I would say that the permanent population of our village hovers between 150 and 180.

Wang Tong is no Anatevka, or even Lake Wobegon. You would never go out of your way to visit this place. You can't drive to it; there are no roads! It isn't quite visible from the beach. You might stroll along its edge on your way to the Silvermine Waterfall, but you don't have to. There isn't much to see except a field of wild ginger, a few nice gardens and the one remaining vegetable farm.

So who lives here? Even in a village this tiny there are four distinct populations. Start with the so-called indigenous: descendents of the original, pre-British colonial era, settlers of Lantau Island. Two clans predominate: the Tsangs and the Wans. Then there are the other Chinese residents, people who drifted here to save money or get away from the city. Until around 2005 only a small handful of Caucasian and other non-Chinese people bought or rented homes, in order to have the space that we foreigners seem to need surrounding us. In the past several years, we've seen a small surge of incoming foreigners, including an increasing number of overseas Chinese. And don't forget the Filipinos. Since nearly every household employs a Filipina domestic helper, and a few have gardeners as well, Filipinos might in fact be the largest homogeneous group in Wang Tong.

I've lived in Wang Tong since 1991. My children grew up in its fields and streams and nearby beaches and hills. I truly love this village. I'll tell you more about it in this chronicle.