13 December 2009

Nobody home

I wonder whether one of those letters is for me. Yes, sometimes I still get mail there. I didn't risk finding out, for fear of contracting ebola or some other disease growing on them.

This was our first house in Wang Tong (a.k.a. Mang Tong or Man Tong). It's been vacant for years, and for good reason: it's falling apart and ought to be knocked down. The building was well past its use-by date when I first laid eyes on it eighteen years ago. Mushrooms grew on the inside walls and rusted steel reinforcement rods were warping their way down through the concrete ceilings. A disused well directly outside the front door was a mega-nursery for mosquitoes. In short, it was a dump. Of course, I didn't see it that way at the time. After five years living in a 500-square-foot habitation module (about the size of an average American living room) on the 24th floor of a characterless high-rise on Hong Kong island, this house was a fairy tale castle in the Emerald City. Who could have imagined such abundance in Hong Kong: a 3-story home with a garden for lower rent than our erstwhile shoebox apartment. We fixed it up and made it livable, turned the narrow strip of land around it into a flower arboretum and the flat roof into a vegetable farm; some of the best sweet corn I've ever eaten was raised on that roof. Our two kids spent the first years of their lives in that house, running up and down the tiled stairs dressed like Blackbeard the Pirate and Batgirl, shrieking and bickering and barging in on my top floor studio while I was drawing pictures.

When we moved out it became a dormitory for young Christian charity workers from around the world. Occasionally I'd wander by and they'd hand me a letter, mostly junk mail, but also a stack of monthly reminders that I owed a balance of zero dollars and zero cents to a long-distance call company. That company was obviously too stupid to pay attention to my change-of-address notices.

After the charity organization relocated to far-off Tuen Mun in the mainland New Territories, the house emptied out and stayed that way. The greedy old landlord, who had once attempted to quintuple our rent, couldn't find anyone sucker enough to live in his property. Being a typical Hong Kong landlord, he'd rather let it sit vacant and rot than sink a single penny into fixing it up.

By now it's beyond repair. One of these days it's just going to cave in under its own concrete. As much as I think it serves the owner right that no one is interested in his crummy building, and as much as I think it should be condemned, it makes me sad to imagine that happening. Every time I walk by--which isn't often; it's down a little side alley--I remember kids on the stairs, a color pallette of flowers in the garden, choi sum and potatoes growing on the roof. I'm not the nostalgic type, but I'm kind of glad that there's a place I can wander to pick up a sweet memory.

But I am not picking up the mail.

08 December 2009


The other day, while walking past the graveyard behind the village, I noticed this little stone plaque on the side of a family tomb. It's an advertisement for the local stoneworking company that built it.

Chinese graves consist of more than just a headstone. They're miniature architectural marvels, more like mausoleums, made of concrete and stone and usurping far more forest and covering more virgin hillside than any one person, especially a deceased one, deserves to. Nevertheless, the craftsmanship and elegant design of these local graves can't be denied, so who can blame the stone company for putting their contact details on the side? What if some passing hiker sees it and says, "Hey, that's a pretty cool grave. Think I'll order one!"

What interested me is that below their shop telephone number is their mobile phone number, as if someone might need an emergency tomb after business hours. "Help! My uncle just keeled over. Got to plant him before auntie finds out!"

Think of the ramifications of placing advertisements on burial sites. Ads are everywhere else these days, so why not here? Instead of visiting Ah-ba's grave twice a year and burning paper money for him to use in the spirit world, why not rent out one wall of the tomb to advertisers, who can pay their fees by directly burning offerings at their local temple? Ah-ba still gets his spirit money and his descendents are saved a bothersome trip. There are plenty of brands that might be interested. This death brought to you by Marlboro.

If you're going to spend all that money building a fancy grave, might as well make some profit out of it. That's the Hong Kong way.

06 December 2009

The closer you get

Wang Tong is not a very photogenic attraction. That's the conclusion I came to after looking at the picture I took today. It appeared so gorgeous from the hilltop: our little village snuggled between the reclining elbows of the surrounding hills, with the wetland and beach behind and the ferry pier in the distance. But in photo it looks less like a cozy, picturesque little hamlet and more like some careless god tossed a handful of random, worn-out dice onto a sloppy field...which pretty accurately sums up the planning that goes into local development.

It reminds me of the Clairol coloring shampoo slogan: "The closer he gets the better you look." Too far away and it's a disorganized collection of mismatched buildings. On the other hand, get too close and you can't help noticing the blemishes: leftover construction waste, corroded external plumbing, abandoned bicycles. But if you step back the right amount, adjust your field of vision to take in Mr. Tang's house and his majestic lawn, or the white house with the Vietnamese hardwood gate, the small field of canna flowers with Ah-Po's farm as a backdrop, then this village has its share of eye candy.

Aesthetics isn't much of a concern for most local residents. That can be a danger--there are constant battles, large and small, to minimize the desecration of the landscape. Yet the lack of pretension, right outside urban Hong Kong--possibly the shallowest brand-label and face-conscious society on the planet, where new residential developments are all histrionic displays of marble and gilt--is one of the village's special attractions. Sometimes you love something only because of a beautiful heart.

04 December 2009

The Village Wins an Award

News travels slowly out in the wild and remote hinterlands. There's a famous story of the Han Emperor Wu-ti sending an emissary to Central Asia in 139 BC. The envoy reached what is now northern Pakistan, settled down there, married and raised a family, then finally returned thirteen years later to brief the Emperor and, incidentally, inform him that there was an overland trade route to India.

It didn't take quite that long for the Fire Services Department to make it known that Wang Tong Village had received an award, but considering that we have, yes, telephones and even high-speed wifi broadband, it does seem odd that this laminated A4 sized certificate appeared on the village bulletin board only two days ago. It bestows upon Wang Tong Village the 2007 Award for the Absence of Hill Fires during that year's Chung Yeung grave sweeping festival.

Maybe it shouldn't surprise me. I hate to say it, but when there is a hill fire nearby, it sometimes takes the Fire Department nearly that long to get here and put it out. Maybe they're all too busy raising families in Chung Hau, the main village between here and the fire station.

I have to admit that I'm a little bit concerned. First Wang Tong becomes a tourist attraction, now this award. If we're not careful, the next thing you know, Wang Tong will actually appear on the map!

01 December 2009

Chop Chop Tourism

Wang Tong is a tourist attraction again!

In 1962 the restaurant on top of the hill behind the village shut down, signaling the nail in the coffin of the Cross-Lantau Footpath, once the main thoroughfare between south and north, but seldom used since the opening of the South Lantau Road in the late 1950s. Wang Tong pretty much fell off the map and has nestled in comfortable obscurity ever since.

Until now.

Sometime in the past week a couple of plastic boxes mysteriously appeared, each containing an ink pad and a rubber stamp. One is attached to a pole next to the ruins of the old restaurant gate; the other is fastened to the railing of the late Mr. Mak's sitting area across from his vacant house, overlooking the stream. I mean, river.

I tried the one at Mr. Mak's place. Now I can finally prove that I've seen the Wang Tong River. In Chinese it's more specific: "Wang Tong River/Mangroves". Though I can't tell whether the illustration is meant to be charred trees or mangled human bodies. Either way, perhaps the drawing is a not-so-subtle suggestion that raw nature is something ghastly, and wouldn't a housing development with proper landscaping better suit the view. If our village chief was the one behind these stamps, then I wouldn't be surprised if that's his intention.

I assume these are part of a campaign in which visitors are handed little Mui Wo passports and encouraged to run around collecting every chop in a scavenger hunt approach to tourism. Now people can properly "do" Lantau Island rather than simply walking around experiencing it. By approximating a shopping experience, the natural environment can be made palatable to Hong Kong city people.

I suppose if it causes visitors to stop just long enough to notice an actual river with real fish in it and some trees in which you can sometimes see pretty birds, in between the usual leaping off the ferry and rushing to the concrete barbecue pit outside their concrete holiday flat, then it's a good thing.

I just hope I don't find one of these chops outside my gate, saying "Big nose gwailo's house."