23 February 2010

The Starfruit Orchard

Chekhov's Madame Ranevskaya had her cherry orchard. Our village has its starfruit orchard, located on the eastern frontier, between the last houses and the steep base of a hill. Like the Ranevskayas, the owners of this last undeveloped fruit farm in the valley left it behind long ago. As with all the other farm plots in the village--including the former lychee and longan orchard, part of which survives in our garden--it was likely abandoned thirty years ago.

The trees remain, dropping hundreds of fruit throughout the fall and winter, left to sit on the ground and rot. What an appalling waste, you think. Until you take one home, cut a slice and pop it into your mouth. Ptui! It's more sour than a cross between a lemon and a rotten chili pepper. That's what happens when no one cares for the trees. Some ambitious pruning, fertilizing and TLC would probably bring these trees back to life, producing sweet, refreshing, juicy bright yellow fruits. They're so popular during the mid-Autumn Moon Festival that many people even carry around traditional lanterns shaped like starfruit.

The current owners, wherever they might be, probably think that resuscitating these graceful, elegant trees and harvesting their cartoon-like fruit doesn't offer enough return on investment. They're most likely holding out until this land is zoned for development, so they can chop everything down and pocket some easy money. That's how The Cherry Orchard ends. I hope that the starfruit orchard manages to dodge that fate for another thirty years.

21 February 2010

Lion and Tiger

I heard the lion coming ten minutes before it arrived. Cymbals crashing, drum pounding, wood blocks clacking, the lion dance sauntered along the beach before the procession veered onto the path past the wetland toward Wang Tong. The musicians took a break and the lion decapitated himself to dry off some sweat, until they entered the village. Then it was back to work for the lion to herald in the year of its fellow cat.

The lion dance is part of the annual Chinese New Year tradition, put on by the neighborhood youth association. I suspect it's just a lovely cover name for the local triad gang. So whether your household offers lucky lai see money to the lion to honor tradition, or to ensure that your property isn't vandalized, either way it's about enhancing your luck. And at least they make a pleasing entertainment out of it.

When they stop at each household the lion does a little dance in front of the door before devouring a bouquet of lettuce, with lucky red envelopes inside, then of course spits out the lettuce afterward (lions aren't vegetarians). Some places had the lettuce hanging outside their front door and the lion had to reach up to bite it down, but in two homes the lion was invited inside the living room to collect his meal in front of the family altar.

This year I noticed that pure Chinese households received a bonus: firecrackers. Long strings of them, some lasting ten seconds or more, sending thick clouds of smoke through the air and leaving the ground littered with red blossoms (see the photo below).

Non-Chinese didn't receive the benefit of explosives. Don't we need to frighten away demons too? Are they implying that foreigners aren't vulnerable to demon attack? Or, wait a minute...maybe they're implying that gwailos (and the Chinese traitors who marry them) are the devils that need chasing away.

Next year I'm insisting on firecrackers.

14 February 2010

Happy Tiger Year

Wang Tong welcomed the Year of the Tiger at midnight with a barrage of firecrackers, followed by around an hour of barking from the frightened village dogs. Maybe they were especially upset because it's a cat year. More likely they were concerned for their own safety. A few years ago one of our dogs was so terrified by a New Year firecracker display during a walk to the beach that she ran away and didn't come back that night, or the next or the one after that. We were sure she would never return. She's black, and black dogs are a favorite New Year delicacy in traditional Chinese communities. Up until maybe ten years ago we were sure we heard the screams of puppies being readied for the cooking pot at this time of year in all the local villages. We walked for miles every day searching for our lost dog, asking every old-timer we met if they'd seen a black dog with such-and-such markings. The unspoken message was: "If you took her, give her back, preferably in one unbarbecued piece." Every one of them replied, "Oh, don't worry; nobody eats dogs for New Year anymore." Fortunately, they were right. Our wayward mutt showed up at the gate a week later as if nothing had happened.

The red banners on our gate were composed and painted for us by a well-known calligrapher from Cheung Chau, a neighboring island. As any Chinese person can tell, my wife's and my Chinese names are incorporated into the auspicious phrase (a tradition I never heard of until yesterday!). This is apparently a particularly lovely and meaningful piece of original Chinese verse, which is apparently impossible to render into English. Vaguely, approximately, it says: (left) "Stepping forth throughout the southern realm in search of truth..." (right) "...beauty and truthfulness radiate from your being." Or something like that. Anyway, it's good.

Happy Chinese New Year. Keep your dogs on a leash.

06 February 2010

Wang Tong People: Our Postman

It's a light day for Ah-Wah, the village postman. A couple weeks ago he was complaining about the phone company. They used to distribute their printed phone directories at the Rural Committee office in the next village. Everyone received a letter which entitled them to pick up a free Hong Kong & Outlying Islands White Pages and Yellow Pages in either Chinese or English (if you wanted the Kowloon and New Territories editions as well, you had to special order them). No one uses phone directories anymore, so there are no more White Pages, and the Yellow Pages is reduced to a thick wad of advertisements. It's still pretty hefty, though, and last time the phone company simply put them in the mail. The poor postman could hardly balance on his bike. As for making it up the steep hill to the houses at the top and just over the ridge, forget about it. For once he parked at the bottom and walked up.

He shouldn't complain. I assume that every year his job gets easier. No one sends personal letters anymore. Junk mail is giving way to online spam. It's mainly the old-timers who still receive printed utility and tax bills. Occasionally his basket is weighed down by a package containing someone's online shopping. He hardly ever stops at our door.

Today he had to stop. The other day he saw how well our pomelo tree was doing, and mentioned to my wife that he had planted that tree thirty years ago, as a favor to the farmers who originally lived on our lot. The tree was neglected by subsequent tenants, so for years it bore no fruit. But after careful pruning, fertilizing and tender loving care, it has been bursting with sweet, juicy fruit for months. Today she flagged down the postman and made him wait while she plucked a few to give him. Fortunately he had room in his basket. (I took the picture while he was waiting).

Tsui is his surname, but everyone knows him as Ah-Wah. He's been delivering the mail on Lantau for 31 years: 20 years in Tai O, the fishing village at the extreme other end of the island, and 11 years peddling the paths of Wang Tong and neighboring villages. Whenever I see him coming up the path, I silently wish that maybe he's carrying something for me. Instead today I watched him go, with three pomelos from a tree that's been a part of the Lantau scenery as long as he has bouncing behind him.