26 October 2009

The Day the Village Didn't Burn

I'm delighted--surprised, even--to report that Wang Tong Valley did not burn to the ground today as expected.

Today is the Chung Yeung Festival, one of two annual holidays to honor departed ancestors, sweep their graves and leave offerings. Unfortunately the preferred method of delivering those offerings is by setting them on fire, then turning around and leaving them to burn, while sparks disperse in the dry wind--it's always dry season around Chung Yeung--and standing back to watch entire hillsides burst into bush fires or, if the worshippers are lucky, a full raging forest fire.

Okay, I'm being cynical here, but sometimes I do wonder whether that's secretly the point, to orchestrate a grand performance like an emperor, to make sure your ancestors up in heaven will notice. It must be awfully difficult to make out one little stack of burning counterfeit money from way out in space, but a major forest fire? It'll warm old granny's cold dead heart to know that she's not only remembered, but more highly cherished than five dozen trees. To me, the flames resemble the fires of hell, which is where every one of those worshippers who leave behind burning debris belong, the sooner the better.

I worried all day today about the fires, even ran up to the hillside to check. Luckily there was nothing out of control, though there were plenty of people.

The footpaths of Wang Tong become nearly as crowded as a downtown lunch hour during Chung Yeung, since we have a popular graveyard on the hillside above the village. Long lines of family groups traipse up the hill all day long carrying bags filled with paper offerings, chickens, fruit, rice wine, and flowers. There's nothing somber about these outings. They're usually talking loud--really loud--and laughing, which is charming to consider. It's a celebration, a family reunion of living and departed. If only they carried fire extinguishers with them as well, so that us local residents would feel just as cheerful when they leave.

It isn't a fenced-off official graveyard, just a hill that apparently has the right sort of feng shui, and is pockmarked with concrete family tombs wherever there's space. I suspect that most of the people buried here have no connection whatsoever to Lantau Island, but simply gained permission from one of the local clans. Either way, the non-living population of Wang Tong well outnumbers the living. Plus they have the nicest views, overlooking the village to the bay and islands beyond.

Call me a curmudgeon, but I find it terribly audacious for human beings to regard ourselves so highly that after death we not only take up space that could be used for better purpose, including the choicest hillside real estate, but that our survivors would pollute the air and risk burning down beautiful trees, habitats for birds and other animals, to remind us twice a year how regally important are our bones.

When I'm gone, please don't come to Wang Tong or set a fire on my behalf. Sing a song or something. I'd rather hear music in the afterlife than get smoke in my eyes. I suspect that where I'm going, there'll be smoke enough.

24 October 2009

Temporary Absence of Concrete

One of Hong Kong's basic laws of nature is: Any open green space is just a temporary absence of concrete.

You see this law in action where they're reinforcing (meaning: pouring a concrete shell over) the hillside around #1 Wang Tong. They're doing a neat and careful job for their client. Meanwhile, all construction debris, broken parts and leftover concrete are deposited on the undeveloped lot just across the footpath. The area in the photo was overgrown with prickly bushes, small trees and broadleaf plants just two months ago. Its current condition will likely remain until the sun implodes into a white dwarf and the earth is sucked out of its orbit.

When we moved into our first rented house in the village, we found rusted winching equipment, a cement mixer and metal pipes which had been left in the garden when the house was built 35 years before. Numerous people had lived in the house between then and when we moved in, yet no one had bothered to move it. When we gathered some strong guys to help us carry the heavy debris to the garbage collection area, neighbors remarked out loud: "Why bother? Why don't you just leave it there?"

Today I stopped one of the slope workers as he tossed lighter bits of metal and plastic trash deeper into the bushes at the end of the lot. I pointed to the public garbage bin five steps to his left. He looked at the bin as if he hadn't noticed it in all the six weeks he'd been working there, and thanked me for pointing this out. But the expression on his and his colleagues' faces was "What's the big deal? It's just an empty lot and useless plants." An hour later I passed by again. The metal and plastic were gone. I checked inside the garbage bin. It was empty. But the bushes were decorated with wire mesh clippings and plastic bags that were too lightweight to sink through.

Chinese villagers and laborers have a pragmatic attitude toward life that is mostly quite admirable. Am I being a cultural chauvinist for thinking that sometimes pragmatism can be truly, horribly ugly?

23 October 2009

Wang Tong is for Dreamers

I think autumn, October in particular, is the favorite time of year for people who are dreamers, whereas pragmatists prefer spring. If so, then Wang Tong is for the dreamy type.

Spring is always metaphorically associated with fertility, lushness, perfume and lasciviousness. But you would change your mind about that if you visited Wang Tong in October, on any dry day just before sunset. The ginger blanketing the valley has been in bloom continuously for weeks, but as the weather has cooled, the ginger plants have turned their blossoming up several notches, as if squeezing out one last big push, like marathon runners in the last half mile, before gently closing down for the winter.

The ginger flowers spread across the field are so white that no details show up in photographs. That's why I want you to come here before sunset, so you can see them before the real treat begins.

About an hour after sunset, you not only smell it, but you can feel it. For reasons I've never learned, the ginger flowers turn up the fragrance tap after dark. That isn't to say there's no aroma while the sun is up. All day long I hear passersby through the valley remarking about the wonderful ginger smell, which I suppose I've become acclimatized to.

But in the evening a sudden crescendo of perfume pours through the open windows like an almost liquid wave of sweet, spicy, aphrodisiac scent, so heavy you can imagine scooping it into a spoon. Though the flowers are white, at night you'd think they were flaming red, lustful, sweating with passion and musk. It's an aroma both languid and erotic. It pulls your attention away from everything else, even the evening news, and makes you think of tigers and gigantic luminescent butterflies, of caressing bodies and melting butter.

Twenty or thirty minutes later it's gone, and all of a sudden you notice the news is over and your food has gone cold.

Is it any wonder that dreamers prefer October? Especially in Wang Tong.

14 October 2009

Lunch with an Egret

Feeling cooped up and agitated, I went out for a recuperative walk. Watching this Snowy Egret taking lunch in the stream, and playing tag with it to get a photo, took my mind off malfunctioning drawing pens and unwelcome correspondence. This angelic looking bird, standing three feet tall, was feeding itself in the part of the Wang Tong Stream which had been turned into a concrete ditch, and that cheered me up.

This section of the stream was once a creek meandering past banks of tall grasses, swarming with dragonflies, fish, crabs, frogs--and of course snakes--and was therefore a bountiful feeding ground for birds. Then the government turned it into a box-shaped channel of dead grey concrete. But nature proves its tenacity. Here and there twigs blow into the channel and catch on irregularities in the concrete. Leaves and other organic debris get caught on the twigs, rot, and turn into compost. Small aquatic plants start to grow, and algae blooms in the warm, slow-moving water. Then miraculously, from somewhere, guppies and tiny crabs appear. Maybe their eggs fall in the rain.

And then it's lunchtime for egrets, moorhens and the occasional Chinese heron.

A couple times a year some civil servant decides that all that messy mud and green stuff is spoiling his view of immaculate, unblemished concrete. So the cleaning crews come in with enormous brooms, sweep away the entire ecosystem, and the channel dies. But not for long. It takes only a couple months for the cycle to repeat itself, and the big birds return.

We've been seeing a lot more egrets and herons in Wang Tong. Their numbers have increased steadily for the past five years or so. They're often seen in trees or on tall bushes in the ginger field, probably stalking frogs and lizards. They used to raid our neighbor Kedo's carp pond until she finally gave up on restocking it. The birds don't nest here, but it's a cheerful sight to see them enter the valley in the morning, circle in holding patterns, then stretch their wings into a stall before landing straight down and spending the day.

I have mixed feelings about seeing egrets in Wang Tong. This isn't their ideal hunting ground. The stream fish are small, and the pickings in the field can't possibly match those of the mangroves and coastal swamps where they normally flourish. The fact that we're seeing more of them can only mean that they're losing better quality habitats up and down the China coast. No prizes for guessing why that's happening.

It would be nice to think that the coastal environments which have been spoiled by industry, development and effluents might recover as robustly as our little stream. If the egrets stop coming to Wang Tong, I'll hope for the best.

On the other hand, I think I'd worry even more.

08 October 2009

The Rarest Time of Year

I couldn't tell you when Autumn arrived. Traditionally summer ends on the night of the Moon Festival, the weather changing almost abruptly, as if a glassy carpet of cool air unrolls across the heavens. That prediction has come true, I think, eighteen out of the twenty-one years I've spent in this corner of the world, the weather changing noticeably within 48 hours either side of mid-autumn night.

This year the change hasn't been so abrupt. More like a car descending a mountain on a series of hairpin turns. First, a day or two before the scheduled time, there was a faint hint of coolness in the late evening, like a drop of peppermint in a hot bath, and a touch less humidity. By the night of the full moon on October 3, the nights were cool, followed by pretty hot days. Since then the temperatures have see-sawed: one evening a bit warmer than the last, the daytime a bit drier and veering toward warm instead of hot. Today, it seems, the weather gods have made up their minds at last, and we're firmly into Fall.

There are no visual clues that Autumn has arrived. No leaves change, not until much later into the winter. The only hint is a few seasonal fruit, such as the pomelos finally turning yellow.

In temperate zones of the world, Fall signals the time to start battening up the hatches and preparing to retreat indoors. Here it's the total opposite. Autumn is the only time of year when it's actually pleasant to go outside. The only time of year when it's neither too hot nor too cold and damp, and the humidity is low enough that you can turn off the air conditioners and dehumidifiers and actually leave the windows open to sleep (if you live in a quiet place like Wang Tong).

Actually, there are some who prepare for winter. Ah-Po reminded us that right after the Moon Festival is snake season. This is the time of year when snakes are the most active, hunting mice, frogs and lizards, for one last gluttonous meal before they curl up somewhere and hibernate. She's had a couple venomous ones in her garden--though not cobras like our recent visitor--and another neighbor spotted a long one, which he identified but I can't remember, heading up the hill.

The Autumn weather lasts only two weeks, three if we're really lucky. I'm gulping it in like a refreshment, bloating myself in its splendor, trying to stuff in as much of it as possible before the long artificially heated and cooled hibernation until the next Moon Festival.

06 October 2009

Red Flags Over Wang Tong

October 1 was the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. There weren't any particular ceremonies to mark this event in Wang Tong, other than a few national flags on bamboo staffs fastened to the guard rails, presumably by our Dear Leader Mr. Wong. The flags are still there, a week after they were put up, and nobody seems to be in a particular hurry to remove them. Maybe they're meant to keep aflame the lingering afterglow of patriotic fervor.

You won't find much of that in Wang Tong. That isn't out of disrespect for the central government or the Communist Party, but because Lantau people's feelings have always ranged from total indifference to slight hostility toward anyone who claims to rule from a distance. The ruins of our stone watchtower on top of Butterfly Hill, built not by government but by a local clan, attest to people's long-standing determination to keep out intruders. In fact, this area has long been a place of refuge and resistance.

In 1277 the nine-year-old Emperor Duanzong, along with his six-year-old brother who succeeded him a year later as the last emperor of the Song Dynasty, fled to Mui Wo when the Mongols conquered China. No one has uncovered any artifacts or knows exactly where they stayed, but it might very well have been at Wang Tong, the fertile V-shaped valley at the end of the bay, with ample fresh water and easily defensible mountain slopes on both sides.

Lantau natives grumbled when the British took over in 1898 and were openly resentful when in the 1950s the government imposed modernity in the form of the island's first road, which nipped Wang Tong's importance as the starting point of the principal footpath across the island.

During World War Two, Mui Wo was one of the main centers of resistance against the Japanese occupiers, which resulted in a mass execution of 60 local men, including several Wang Tong residents, on the nearby beach. Mr. Lam, who was our village chief until he died a few years ago, was one of those lined up to receive a bullet, until he took a chance to slip away through the mangrove swamp.

The latest act of resistance happened on the night of the glorious handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Aside from some protests near the ceremony in the city, the only act of defiance anywhere within newly-Chinese Hong Kong was the desecration of several national flags strapped to a footbridge half-way between Wang Tong and the ferry pier.

There's no threat that these flags will be vandalized, except perhaps by birds. Nor will many people notice when they're taken down. If one day they're replaced by the symbols of some new, intangible, faraway dynasty, people here will probably just shrug their shoulders and go about their business as usual.

04 October 2009

Village Wedding

Mr. and Mrs. Suen's son is getting married. I was reminded of this when the pounding of drums reverberated around the valley and put an end to my attempted late lie-in. Peering through the curtains I saw the procession on the other side of the village. I quickly dressed and ran outside.

On the morning of a Chinese wedding, the bride is delivered to the groom's family obscured from view inside a covered sedan chair, preceded by a colorful parade of waving banners, a company of drummers and, in this case, a dancing lion. Traditionally the sedan chair is carried on the shoulders of four strong bearers. In the city nowadays they tend instead toward ostentatious German limousines. But this was the first time I'd ever seen a tricycle serve as a sedan chair. They did a gorgeous job outfitting the trike and, in a small nod to western tradition, it pulled two trails of cans in back.

The procession reached the Suens' home at the northeast end of the village, made their formal introductions, then went back the way they came, flags waving and drums pounding, bringing the bride to wait for the next event of the day, a mid-day barbecue banquet, to which my wife and I were invited. Most of the long-term village residents were there. It was casual by Chinese wedding standards; I was the only one wearing a tie. Ah-Po was seated at the VIP table, across from Wang Tong's Dear Leader, Mr. Wong. We were seated with other neighbors, and we soaked up more village gossip (and traded some of our own) in an hour than we normally learned in three months.

I suppose the main pomp was reserved for that evening in the city, where the ceremony took place followed by a formal traditional wedding dinner banquet.

It's been quite a ceremonial weekend in Wang Tong. First, the pathways lined with red flags for China National Day, then the lanterns and moon-gazing of the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, and now the wedding. How long will it take the village to recover from all this excitement? Well, people here are pragmatic. Tomorrow it's sure to be back to quiet as usual.

01 October 2009

Snake Power

"Come here, quick! A snake!"

My daughter Annika was playing outside with the dogs when she spotted a black snake lying leisurely in the grass between our small wooden deck and the garden wall. Its head was hidden inside a bush, so all we could see was its tail and mid-torso, which was swollen and writhing. Obviously it was digesting freshly-swallowed prey. I ran inside to grab my trusty reptile identification book while my wife phoned the local police station. We're all too timid to challenge a snake; let the professional snake catcher come and take it away.

Trouble is, we were told by the officers who arrived minutes later, the Hong Kong Police's professional snake catcher is, inexplicably, based in the city, in Sai Wan district, which is about as far away as you can get from any of Hong Kong's rural districts where snakes commonly encounter humans. He needed to drive twenty minutes to the pier, catch whatever was the next public ferry, then walk to our house. It would be two hours before he arrived. Meanwhile, the two policemen would stand there and keep an eye on our visitor.

Based on the markings on its torso and tail, I identified it positively as a Wolf Snake, non-venomous but aggressive when caught. Probably it was best to chase it out of the garden and let it disappear into the surrounding fields.

We watched it for ten minutes while it lay there digesting, its stomach churning and twisting. At last it started to crawl away. Then it took a sharp right turn and headed into the hollow gap beneath the deck, which was the last place we wanted it to go.

My wife grabbed an umbrella and pounded on the wood. The frightened reptile pulled out and did a U-turn across the top of the deck. But we wanted it to head in the other direction, toward an opening in the stone wall. Cathy kept pounding. We weren't worried about some harmless non-poisonous snake. But we wanted it out of there.

Outside the garden a small crowd of passersby watched the action. Someone shouted out, "Need some help?"

When there's a snake around, it isn't surprising to find a local Chinese villager eager to assist, in return for taking away the bounty to make soup. But this voice--I still couldn't see who it was--sounded American.

"We've got a snake here," I said.

"No problem," the man replied. "I'll catch it for you. Do you know what it is?"

"A wolf snake."

"They're no trouble," he said.

I led him and his friend in through the gate and pointed across the deck. They were both Caucasians.

"That's not a wolf snake! That's a cobra!!"

A chill ran through me. Moments before we had been calmly moving furniture out of the way, and Cathy had been scaring it with the umbrella, just a step away from an aggressive, venomous species.

"You got any tools?" he asked. "A spade? Some garden shears?"

Cathy fetched them, and he and his friend went to work. Fortunately, the cobra had just eaten, making it less of a threat. He stood over the snake and, aiming the spade like a spear, pinned it down. His friend leaned over with the shears and snipped its head off.

"Thank you, Lord," the first guy whispered.

He introduced himself as Edward. I've encountered him once or twice in the area. He lives in another village and has caught numerous snakes on his property. His friend Craig was visiting from another part of Hong Kong. Craig is from the bayous of Louisiana and said he's caught more snakes than he can count.

"If they're non-venomous, I just want to chase them away," Edward explained. "Otherwise I pray first. If I get a message back that I have power over this snake, then I do what has to be done."

The police left, relieved. I picked up my snake book again and saw the mistake I'd made in identification. Wolf snakes are tiny and have different markings. This one was four feet long.

I don't believe in arbitrarily killing one of God's creatures. But perhaps it wasn't arbitrary that Edward and his friend just happened to pass our way at just that moment when we were noisily drawing attention to a snake which we thought harmless. He prayed for power over it, and received it. You can't argue with that.