24 May, 2015

black and white minstrels

According to Wikipedia, seventeen species of thrush have been recorded in Hong Kong, but I’ve heard only one, and then on only one occasion. This total does not include the masked laughing thrush, which isn’t a thrush, as anyone who has heard its single-note squawk can confirm. And of the seventeen, seven are not native and have therefore been recorded only occasionally.

In the absence of such authentic songbirds in my own neighbourhood, the magpie robin has no serious rivals as the most accomplished songster. Wikipedia makes the following statements about this species:
The calls of many other species may be imitated as part of their song.
They appear to use elements of the calls of other birds in their own songs.
However, I’ve heard no evidence to corroborate either of these statements anywhere in Hong Kong, although magpie robins can be found throughout South and Southeast Asia, so it may be that in other parts of the bird’s range such imitation does take place.

Wikipedia also claims that it is a forest bird, although it can be seen and heard in urban gardens. As far as Hong Kong is concerned, this claim is nonsense. I have neither seen nor heard a magpie robin in any of the territory’s primary forest, but they are common in urban parks that have many trees.

Magpie robins are aggressive birds: I’ve seen quite a few aerial dogfights and high-speed chases through the branches of nearby trees as one male attempts to drive a rival from its territory. And their threat calls, which you might mistake for the sound of an insect, do sound quite menacing.

The typical magpie robin song consists of a six- to ten-note phrase, endlessly repeated. This phrase can be broken down into an initial three- or four-note segment, which is usually a piercing, high-pitched whistle, followed by a second segment that offers some scope for distinctive vocal flourishes. However, some such phrases are much longer, as can be heard in the following recording:

The dominant male around my house (click to play):


Each individual has its own song, and it turns out that I recorded the individual featured in this clip four times, presumably because my house falls within its territory. However, this next clip features a newcomer that seemed intent on muscling in. I saw it first atop the metal pole used to support a neighbour’s television aerial, where it repeatedly turned in different directions as it sang, probably to ensure that its presence was heard, and noted, throughout the neighbourhood. After it had briefly repeated this performance on a second neighbour’s aerial, it alighted on mine, where I recorded it.

An aggressive newcomer tries to muscle in (click to play):


I recorded the best example of what I referred to above as ‘vocal flourishes’ a couple of years ago. At the end of each iteration of its song, this individual added either a three-note phrase or a distinctive two-note, ‘wink! wink!’ vocalization.

A distinctive vocal flourish (click to play):


A few weeks ago, I was standing on my balcony, listening to a magpie robin singing from the top of the streetlight opposite my house, when I spotted a young couple walking down the road. Neither was talking, probably because both were gazing intently at the screens of their smartphones. I doubt whether either was even aware of the free musical entertainment being provided just a short distance above their heads, which I think is a sad reflection on modern society.

Unfortunately, I failed to record the most arresting magpie robin song that I heard this spring. At first, I thought that the singer was being accompanied by a second bird, which was singing in a different register, but after listening intently I concluded that it was all the work of a single bird. It sounded as if an intense conversation was taking place as the bird switched seamlessly from one register to the other with no identifiable gap between them. So why did I not record it?

I hadn’t used my digital recorder for three years, and I’d forgotten how to operate it. I tried pressing every button, but to no avail; I’d forgotten that in order to switch it on, I not only had to press the correct button, I had to keep it pressed until the screen lit up. Much to my disappointment, I never heard this performance again, but at least I’m not likely to forget how to use my recorder next spring.

17 May, 2015

quæstio ad libitum

I shall be jetting off to spend the summer in my home town in England later today, and as per custom I have a tricky question involving the kind of convoluted thinking that you have probably come to expect from my puzzles. I think that this one is easy though, so I expect someone to come up with the answer before I’m back online, which will probably be on Tuesday morning, depending on how much gin I drink en route. (Last year, as I disembarked from the plane in Manchester, three flight attendants told me that they’d never seen anyone drink so much gin before. Hey! It’s free.)

Anyway, here’s the question:
What connects one of the five beaches used for the D-Day landings in Normandy on 6th June 1944 to a royal album and a Japanese car model?
As always with this kind of puzzle, it will seem unfathomably abstruse until you’ve worked out which beach, etc., is the relevant one.

14 May, 2015

more door gods #2

The posting of [door gods] to guard against intruders is an ancient Chinese custom dating back to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907). The models for these fearsome warriors were two of the first Tang emperor’s most loyal generals, Qin Shubao and Yuchi Jingde. According to the legend, the emperor was being harassed each night by an unruly ghost and was thus unable to sleep, so he asked that the pair stand guard overnight to protect him from this unwelcome visitor. Apparently, the emperor subsequently spent a peaceful night, but, not wanting to impose further on his generals, he ordered his servants to hang giant portraits of the generals to perform the guard duties. It was a practice that caught on quickly with ordinary Chinese keen to ward off evil spirits and attract good luck.
Cheaply printed posters of the generals in highly stylized poses are widely used in Hong Kong, especially around Chinese New Year, but the generals portrayed here have been rendered in meticulous detail (and are considerably larger than those seen on a typical poster). Note that the pair are shown facing slightly to one side. This means that Yuchi Jingde (the dark-skinned one) must always be posted on the left-hand door, and Qin Shubao on the right. If this is not done, both guards will be facing away from each other, which would allow an intruder to walk between them unseen, and for good luck to slip away unnoticed.

[I] assume that a template exists for painting door gods on wooden doors…. I assume too that what we see today is a constantly retouched and repainted version of the work of the anonymous artist who painted the original figures. The template would also prescribe the weaponry carried, a Chinese halberd or ji and a broadsword by Yuchi Jingde, and a pole sword and a longsword by Qin Shubao.
A few days ago, in my photographic highlights post, I mentioned a small temple that I’d stumbled upon when taking a roundabout route to the post office, and I noted that the door gods there were ‘outlandish’, although you would have to wait until I did another post about door gods to see what I meant. The reason for this procrastination on my part was that I had only one other example to show, from the recently renovated Tin Hau Temple in the village of Shui Mei, which we cycle past regularly on the journey to the west.

Guarding the Tin Hau Temple in Shui Mei.

However, the day after I posted those highlights, Paula and I were up ridiculously early, so we decided to go for early-morning tea at our favourite restaurant. Afterwards, Paula headed off to work, while I decided to look for the Liu Man Shek Tong Ancestral Hall in Sheung Shui, my intention being to photograph the door gods that I expected to find there. I knew only the general area in which the hall was located, an area of village houses, densely packed, so it took quite a while to find. And when I did find it, I discovered that it was closed. This usually means that it is possible to photograph both guardians at once; unfortunately, the gates into the courtyard in front of the hall were locked, so I will have to return another day to get a better picture than the one here, which is a montage of two photos taken from the sides of the courtyard.

Guarding the Liu Man Shek Tong Ancestral Hall.

Nevertheless, my excursion succeeded well beyond my expectations. I wasn’t about to walk from Fanling station to the ancestral hall, a distance of 3–4km, by following the main road, and I had barely left that road behind when I found myself at the rear of a building with the classic layout of two halls separated by an internal courtyard. This, I discovered later, is the Tsz Tak Study Hall.

Guarding the Tsz Tak Study Hall.

Continuing on my way, it wasn’t long before I came across a second traditional building, the Pang Ancestral Hall. A few days earlier, I’d come within 20 metres of this hall, but it had been hidden from view behind a nondescript village house, and my route then took me in a different direction.

Guarding the Pang Ancestral Hall.

The doors of both these buildings were closed, so I was able to obtain good pictures, and the first thing to note is the nonstandard weaponry. Both guards appear to be carrying iron cudgels, but I have no idea why Qin Shubao is holding two, while Yuchi Jingde is holding only one, unless it is because the latter looks the more ferocious, so one will suffice. The two pictures are strikingly similar, so I wonder whether they are the work of the same artist.

I eventually arrived in the general area of the Liu Man Shek Tong Ancestral Hall, and while looking for it I stumbled across two more traditional buildings, the first facing directly onto the back of the second. The doors of the first were open, making it necessary to photograph each of the door gods separately and montage them together. In such circumstances, the glare is unavoidable. The doors of the second building, which were closed, look as if they haven’t been painted for a long time, although the images of the two figures standing guard have been maintained in good condition. This building is the Liu Ying Lung Study Hall, but I haven’t had time to identify the first one. The guardians of both buildings are carrying the standard weapons.

Guarding a temple in Sheung Shui.

Guarding the Liu Ying Lung Study Hall.

Finally, here are the outlandish guardians of Sam Sheung Temple. They look more like footpads than generals in the imperial army. I wonder who was responsible, and what was going through their head when they painted them. Although these ruffians are facing the right way to be effective as guards, if they are intended to represent the two renowned Tang generals, they are the wrong way round.

Guarding Sam Sheung Temple.

See More Door Gods for more of these fascinating images.

11 May, 2015

another baker’s dozen

Last year around this time, I posted my favourites among the hundreds of photographs I’d taken during the previous seven months in Hong Kong. This year, a few days before I head off to the UK for the summer, I thought I would do the same, and by the merest coincidence, I again have precisely thirteen to post. This selection does not include any of the photos I’ve used in other posts, or photos such as those of door gods or the three immortals that I plan to use in future posts.

Between December and February, the Kam Tin River teems with migratory birds, and the first photo has an amusing story attached to it. We were cycling along the right bank of the river when I spotted a large group of cormorants in the water, so I stopped to try to photograph the scene. Normally, merely riding past is enough to spook a cormorant, but this group seemed unfazed, probably because there was a shoal of fish in the water beneath them.


I estimated the total number of birds at around forty, and they were ducking and diving, so less than half the number were visible at any one time. Having taken a few photos, I had just put my camera away, assuming that they weren’t about to go anywhere, when the blighters suddenly started to take off. Because of the enormous effort needed to pull their large bodies out of the water, cormorants taking off are a spectacular sight, and these forty taking off at once constituted the biggest missed shot of the winter.

The next two photos were also taken on the Kam Tin River. The first is of two spoonbills, while the second shows a group of cormorants, two of which are drying their wings in the sun, a spoonbill and a couple of egrets.



Staying with the bird theme, the next picture, taken from my balcony, shows four rose-ringed parakeets. These birds are not native to Hong Kong, and they are not regular visitors to the area where I live, but I know immediately from their whistling calls when a gang is in the neighbourhood.


Another photo taken from my balcony shows a barred cloud formation that, according to my observations, is quite common in Hong Kong, although I don’t remember seeing anything similar in the UK:


The section of the journey to the west that I labelled ‘the snake path’ meanders around several lotus ponds, and I couldn’t help but notice the range of colours in the leaves of this specimen:


I’ve given the title ‘Islamic State’ to the next picture.


I leave it to you, the reader, to determine why I would choose such a title, although the next photo may provide a clue. It is a shot of Mirror Pool, a less well-known companion to Bride’s Pool, which is one of Hong Kong’s best-known ‘beauty spots’.


I took the previous photo during a hike to the so-called ghost village of Lai Chi Wo over the Easter break, and the next two photos were taken on the same excursion. The first is a ceramic counterpoint to the bronze dragon and phoenix featured in last year’s photo highlights and is on the roof of a small temple. The second shows another common feature of such buildings: a stylized street scene. This latter caused some disagreement between Paula and myself, because I think it shows a ‘sing-song girl’ (courtesan) at an upstairs window. Paula doesn’t.



A few days ago, I had a letter to post, and even by the shortest route the distance to the post office is about 3km. I could have taken a minibus—only $2 (16p) for a senior like me—but I opted for a circuitous walk instead, a walk that took me past a temple I hadn’t known was there. The door gods here are the most outlandish I’ve ever seen, but you’ll have to await a future post on door gods to see what I mean. Meanwhile, the wooden screen behind the doors, which blocks the direct view from outside when the doors are open—evil spirits can only travel in straight lines—is here decorated with the garish images of two imperial civil servants (the winged hats are a bit of a giveaway); such screens are usually unadorned:


Closer to home (in the next village, in fact), I took the following photo of a narrow alley between two rows of traditional houses. The most striking feature of this scene is the stone benches on one side. They are slabs of an igneous rock, probably diorite, and I estimate the weight of each slab at 100kg, so a lot of work would have been involved in cutting them to the required size and transporting them to their present location.


Finally, I had to include this photo. I had less than 10 seconds after spotting this cyclist, who was riding at right angles to my direction of travel, to get my camera out of my pocket, point and shoot. I think I did quite well.