27 September 2009

Wang Tong People: The Garbage Lady

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

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

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

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

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

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

23 September 2009

A Plague of Bureaucrats

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 September 2009

Parallel Universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18 September 2009

Home Sweet

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

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

Then I went away.

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

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