15 June 2010


The water buffaloes are back. Though their timing might have been a little better. My wife nearly missed the morning ferry because, as you can see, they didn't leave much room to squeeze past with a bicycle. A few dings of her bell, a couple friendly calls of "Psshh!" and the commotion of me running up behind her, wiping the humidity from the camera lens with my shirttail, convinced them to make a slow turn and regally sashay into the field behind the fence to the left. Everyone was happy: my wife made the ferry and the buffaloes discovered enough munchies to keep them occupied for the next half hour.

Not everyone likes the buffaloes. Some old-timers consider them a nuisance, detritus from a farming existence long past. Many of the garden fences in the village are there not to keep out human intruders, but to prevent buffaloes from grazing on their marigolds. More ominously, and maddeningly stupid, is the belief of our village leadership that water buffaloes, the most docile creatures you'll ever meet--which make even dairy cows seem like grizzly bears in comparison--are dangerous and frighten away tourists. A couple years ago our village Dear Leader arranged with the government to pack them into trucks and relocate them to some distant spot in the mainland New Territories. Most of the animals died in the process, from nothing more than the stress of the move, including the family of three which lived semi-permanently in the field behind our house. Many of us felt like making Dear Leader join them in heaven, a plan we called off when we realized he'd go to the other place.

Now, after several years of being left alone, the feral herds on the other side of Lantau Island have spread out and started filling the vacuum left by their departed cousins. Some mornings we've seen as many as six of these huge animals walking along the beach or swimming in the shallows. Now they're rediscovering Wang Tong Valley, with its rich pickings in the ginger fields.

Most people I know either accept the water buffaloes with a shrug or outright love them. Count my wife and me among the latter. Not just for the pastoral charm they add to the district, but for more practical, selfish reasons. Their poop is the best garden fertilizer on earth, lots better than Miracle Gro. We hope they keep coming back and leave plenty of souvenirs, as long as they allow a bit of room for anxious commuters to reach the ferry.

14 June 2010

Wang Tong Prison

How do I explain three months away, when I've been here all along? Was the removal of the ill-fated Welcome sign, the day after the deadline ran out, a signal to everybody to please shut up? Maybe in a way it was.

Wang Tong, like most rural villages, is a quiet, unassuming place. The long-term residents here are taciturn, undemonstrative with their feelings, getting along with the neighbors not through community barbecues or displays of open-armed chumminess, but by adopting a live-and-let-live tolerance. We greet one another, swap vegetables and gardening tips, grumble about the usual things--weather, water supplies, dog poop. We keep an eye out for intruders when a neighbor has gone away. But Wang Tongers are not gregarious people. We don't raise our hands to wave at hikers and tourists or shout a cheery welcome. In fact, most of us--myself included--wish those holiday makers would pass through quickly; they tend to steal blossoms from our fence vines and talk so loud that you can hear them as far away as-- well, you can hear them. You wouldn't say that about most village locals, unless it's Ah-Po chasing birds out of her vegetable patch.

When you think about it, that Welcome sign was entirely out of character.

The government removed the sign from a strip of public land, not Mr. Tang, who owns the adjacent wedge-shaped empty lot. But just by coincidence, two weeks later he erected this hideous-looking fence, the very first thing anyone now sees when entering the village. People have started referring to it as Wang Tong Prison.

His family has owned that land for generations. He's never done anything with it before. Though I have heard him complain out loud when others, including our own building contractor, as well as any government department or utility company doing work in the village, used his lot as a convenient temporary storage dump. Click here to see how it looked. In the past few months it has also become the unofficial dog toilet for the region. So I can sympathize with his desire for a fence.

It could have been a boundary which blends in with the surroundings, like a bamboo trellis or something whimsical of cast iron. But nothing shrieks "Keep Out!" like steel grey chain link.

What was he planning? Did he intend to build a house there? Or simply pave it over with concrete to keep it neat and tidy? When I asked, he was, in typical village fashion, economical with words. In fact, only two: "Beautiful plants," he said, as he and his helper slashed and put a match to every leaf and blade within the compound.

Over the weekend, a row of banana trees appeared inside, plus two raised mounds of freshly turned earth with irrigation channels inbetween.

I suppose if I had the choice between a hideous dump littered with dog poop or a vegetable garden incarcerated behind steel, I'd choose the latter. As a first impression of Wang Tong, Mr. Tang's prison garden may not have the cheery warmth of a Welcome sign, but all in all, I suppose it's more honest.