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.

07 August 2009

To the City and Back

Sometimes I need a day in the city. Usually it's because I have to, but sometimes I simply need a change of pace. Too much calm can drive you crazy.

I go into central Hong Kong maybe once every two weeks. It isn't that far away: a five-minute bike ride to the pier (unless I'm running late and I can do it in three), then a 30- or 55-minute ferry ride, depending on whether it's a fast or slow boat, followed by a six or seven minute walk into the heart of the central business district, where I can hop on a tram, bus or the MTR subway train.

I feel like a tourist every time I go into town. It's like entering the midway of a carnival. The Impressionist-like splatter of colorful signs, crowds, taxi horns, pile drivers, gigantic outdoor video monitors blaring incomprehensible nonsense, all excite me. Sitting in a cafe with people jabbering all around me is stimulating. When I need to write, I'm sometimes more productive in a noisy, hectic environment than at home, where the only sturm und drang comes from birds running and fighting on the aluminum roof my home studio.

When I go into town so infrequently, a lot of chores have stacked up, so I run around to one shop after another, picking up parts and supplies and spices, browse a book shop, and save a little time to window shop--though I'm always disappointed. Hong Kong is hell for men to window shop. 99 percent of all stores are mind-numbingly boring women's clothes, shoes and cosmetics.

By the end of the day I've had enough. I'm exhausted from running around, the noise and hyperactivity overload my senses, and the air pollution makes my lungs hurt. Why do I do this to myself? I don't have to be here! My attitude sure has changed in just a few hours. I return to the ferry, drained.

Coming back into Mui Wo, I could almost hug my bike I'm so glad to be back in a truly civilized place, where the air doesn't make you sick, people nod and say hello, and the loudest noise is the ding of a bicycle bell.

As I lead my bike down the home walkway, seen in the photo, the dogs bark with pleasure. I come in the front door and take off my shoes. I won't be wearing them until my next dose of the city, though I can't imagine going back. I've had my fix for the next couple weeks. I'm glad to be back home in my house and village.

05 August 2009

Rain Cycle

Wang Tong is located between 22°16'14.20" and 22°16'21.60" north latitude, which puts us just south of the Tropic of Cancer. That means three things: heat, humidity and rain. I'll gladly trade in the first two. The rain I don't mind, though we've had an awful lot of it this summer. Tropical Storm Goni is wandering by slowly, like someone peering in a window, while continuing to drench the universe in and around Wang Tong Village.

In this community one thing people never get tired of arguing about is how to avoid getting wet while riding a bike. If you have to ride home, you can wear a vinyl poncho, which inevitably comes unsnapped and blows behind you like a cape, sparing only your shoulders from being dripping wet when you walk in the door. Unless it's gotten caught in the spokes and you limp home with a bruised knee.

Some people ride with one hand while grasping an umbrella in the other, like the poor guy in the photo. It's picturesque, but also the surest way to wreck an umbrella and lose control of your bike at the same time. Two seconds after the picture he nearly had a collision with some urban tourists, who are by definition incompetent and inconsiderate cyclists.

Some hapless people use the rain as an excuse to ride their road-hog tricycles, most of which have canopies. If only rain fell straight down in a tropical storm, then that might work. Tell the rain gods to switch off the wind first.

I've never understood the fear of getting rained on. It's only water. It isn't all that uncomfortable, at least in the warm tropics. We bathe and wash our clothes in water, so what's the harm if our bodies and garments get an unscheduled rinse? I think the struggle against rain comes from a human instinct to master the elements. Getting rained on is not a matter of getting wet, it's being defeated by nature. That's why we so fruitlessly fight it.

The only sure way to avoid getting soaked is to not go out. Or move to the city and stay in covered walkways and subway tunnels. Either way you miss a chance of having a little bit of heaven drip on you.

04 August 2009

Mormons in the Garden

Living next to Butterfly Hill, it isn't surprising that we have a lot of butterflies in the valley. One survey put the number of butterfly species on the hill at 40. Butterfly Hill is 90 percent covered in dense forest and is theoretically a conservation area (government departments differ on this).

Today I took a break in the garden, in between rain bands provided by Tropical Storm Goni (it has a name now) and saw at least five butterfly species, all competing with wasps and bees for spaces on the flowers.

The queen of them all is the Great Mormon, or Papilio memnon. At a distance you might mistake the female for a small bird or a bat. Her wingspan reaches 14 cm (5 1/2 inches). Rather than a demure coquette fluttering from blossom to blossom, the Great Mormon dashes and dives around in the air, through trees and under bushes, like a demented swallow.

It must be their mating season. In the photo, a female--the black-white-and-red one--is playing hard to get with a male--the dark blue one. She was doing a back loop before diving for cover beneath a flowering bush. When she emerged a few seconds later, two other males joined the pursuit. Funny, I'd expect a butterfly called a Great Mormon to have three females chasing a single male.

All four flew around the densely flowered side of our garden for two long minutes of aerial courtship. Talk about a femme fatale! One male dropped out. The three remaining butterflies landed on a bed of flowers, only to be chased off by irritated wasps. I ran too when the wasps rose in a defensive swarm. When I was safely away I watched the female, now down to a single suitor, soar over the fence and back toward the sanctuary of Butterfly Hill.

The rain started coming down again in big fat drops. I ran to my own sanctuary inside the cocoon of my house.

03 August 2009

Lightning Strike

After a morning even hotter than yesterday, the afternoon sky suddenly went dark, the wind arrived like a cannon shot and lightning flashed in the distance. The outer tentacles of the unnamed tropical storm gripped Hong Kong and tossed bolts of lightning directly onto Wang Tong Village.

Before the storm actually reached the village I ran around the house unplugging things. No matter how much our electrician swears that our house is properly grounded, I won't take any chances. In other Wang Tong houses I've lost two fax machines to lightning strikes and a friend of mine had two fried computers in a row. Any time I hear thunder less than ten seconds after seeing a flash, our house goes into lightning drill.

"All computers off!" I shout, usually to responses of "Aww! Why??" Well, if my kids want to risk their computers because they can't tear themselves away from Facebook, it isn't my problem... until they ask me to pay for repairs.

"Because I said so!"

The kids are out this afternoon, so no screaming necessary.

I rush downstairs to disconnect the TV antenna, then pull the phone wire from the back of the broadband modem. Out here in the countryside the phone lines all dangle through the air, often tangled in trees. A direct strike on any telephone pole in the village would wipe out every electronic phone, fax and computer in the valley.

Just in time! A blinding flash, followed two seconds later by rolling thunder, send the dogs into a panic. Let them inside, quick.

Another flash, total white-out, almost instantly followed by a deafening boom. The entire house shakes. An electric flash bursts behind the bookcase on the middle floor, where a fusebox is located. Lamps and appliances go dark. There's a sour burning ozone smell behind the aroma of sugar cane boiling on the stove.

The rain doesn't arrive for another two minutes, then it makes up for lost time. The view through the window is a blur, liquid static across my field of vision.

Fifteen minutes later the worst is over. The arm of the storm has swept past. Dragonflies dart like sparks outside the window. At least the air is cooler now.

02 August 2009

White Sky

It was 33 degrees (93° F) by nine o'clock this morning and the air felt like someone in heaven was bearing down with a plunger. Glancing outside at the white sky and bluish haze in the hills brought premonitions of heavy weather. The usually steady breeze through the valley was reduced to a few puffs. The birds seem nervous; there are more inside the trees, bickering with each other, than flying around or pecking seeds out of the ground. The only things active are squadrons of red and orange dragonflies. This is how it always feels before a typhoon, like the whole world has dug in its claws in anticipation.

I checked the weather satellite photo. There's an enormous spiral of clouds between here and the Philippines which they're calling a tropical depression. Heavy rain is predicted for the middle of the week. It's a normal August, the height of typhoon season.

In the rest of Hong Kong hot and stormy August is the month when traditionally, since colonial times, everyone who can leave does leave. It's still true among most of the expatriate community and the Chinese upper crust. But here in Wang Tong, nobody I can think of has gone away. Maybe it's just too nice a place to rush away from. Who needs the Thames or the Seine or the Hudson River when you've got the Wang Tong Stream?

01 August 2009

Wang Tong People: Uncle Six

Luk Suk (literally "sixth uncle") and I are friends, but we are divided on a significant point of ideology: cats. He loves them, while I wish they would go away.

Luk Suk is a gentle, kind-hearted old man who lives in a small two-room house on the slope above the east side. His family name is Wong, but everyone calls him Luk Suk (pronounced "look sook"). I don't know a lot about his story. Even when I've asked him, he says little about himself. I don't know where he got the name Uncle Six. He moved to Wang Tong from somewhere else around fifty years ago. He maintains a neat little flower garden outside his home. He sometimes walks up the valley to check the village water tank for problems or vandalism. But his main pleasure in life is communing with cats.

He makes two or three rounds of the village each day, pulling a small trolley filled with plastic bags, which are each stuffed with a mix of rice, meat and other food scraps that he feeds to stray cats. There are several way stations where he's set up bowls and trays. He reaches into a bag and deposits a fistful of morsels into each. The cats of course adore him. No matter where he walks in and around Wang Tong, they come running, rubbing his leg and mewing.

He's been making these daily rounds every day for the 18 years I've lived in this village, and who knows how long before that. You can tell when Luk Suk isn't feeling well: small gangs of feral cats pace around empty feeding bowls, crying all day.

I used to adore cats. Cats were my closest companions as a kid, sharing my room all the way through to adulthood. After I graduated college, my cat followed me back and forth across America several times. It deeply broke my heart when, after I got married, he mysteriously disappeared.

I started changing my mind about cats when we moved to London for two years. Our children were small and we decided to get them a pair of kittens. When the cats started bringing dead birds into the house, naturally we put bells on their collars, but one of them was clever enough to learn how to adapt to the bell, and the killing continued. I read a newspaper article there about a study which found that housecats killed an estimated 275 million small animals each year, including 55 million birds, just in England, Scotland and Wales. In the United States, the number of birds killed by cats every year is in the hundreds of millions. I've never looked at cats the same way since.

Wang Tong Village and all of Lantau Island is a rich habitat, teeming with wildlife. Besides the numerous native birds, we're fortunate to have a mangrove swamp on the edge of the village which attracts seasonal migrating birds. The bushes and footpaths are crawling with long-tailed lizards, skinks and fiddler crabs. Frogs are everywhere. Snakes too, as you know.

If it's a choice between wild birds and reptiles versus domesticated cats, I'll choose the wildlife. Cats don't belong here. I'll tell you about our own battles with stray cats to save generations of bulbuls some other time.

The colonies of feral cats that Luk Suk takes care of don't belong to anyone. A local group of animal lovers occasionally catches them, brings them to the SPCA for desexing, then releases them right where they found them, but enough cats avoid capture that the stray population keeps going up. They argue that Luk Suk's feeding makes it unnecessary for the cats to hunt birds and small animals. I think the feeding just encourages them to sit around breeding like the worst caricature of welfare recipients, meanwhile hunting fresh meat between meals of mostly rice.

I've never spoken to Luk Suk about it. He doesn't even know my feelings. He finds pleasure, meaning and peace with himself by feeding and communing with his beloved cats. That's something I would never want to spoil either.