My village is called San Wai, and it’s a walled village. This view is of the west wall, and the gateway you see is the only way in and out. There is a squat defensive tower at each corner with embrasures through which crossbows could have been fired in earlier times. However, I don’t live within the walls. Too claustrophobic. I live in a modern house close to the east wall, built on what was once the village’s paddy fields (no rice has been grown in Hong Kong since about 1975).
If we now turn around and walk about 60 metres from where the previous photo was taken, we come to the River Indus (not the one in Pakistan, obviously, but it is one of the largest rivers in Hong Kong). It was probably given this name by some wag in the British colonial administration in the distant past. It has been canalized, like all the rivers in the area, which suggests that flooding was once a regular occurrence here. Egrets are common, herons are often seen, and if you’re lucky you may catch the turquoise flash of a kingfisher. An evening stroll along the river bank in springtime is a ‘musical’ delight. The air is filled with the cacophonous croaking of thousands of frogs, and if my hypothesis is correct that each species has its own distinctive croak, you will hear at least ten and possibly twelve different species. The most ‘entertaining’ are the frogs that live in the drainage traps. These are concrete shafts about a metre square and four metres deep that are designed to trap debris during heavy rain. The shaft acts as an acoustic resonator (the same effect that you get when you hold a seashell to your ear), and as a result the croak is so loud you might think it was a cow mooing.
Our route now takes us across the footbridge that can be seen in the distance in the previous picture and across what was once the floodplain of the river. Much of this plain has been overtaken by weeds, but given that the soil is extremely fertile, some enterprising locals have taken advantage by growing vegetables here. It is a curious fact that most of the people tending these plots are old ladies, and it is not an exaggeration to say that many of them are in their eighties! The high-rise apartment blocks in the distance mark the eastern edge of Luen Wo Hui, a working-class district of Fanling where I do most of my food shopping and where my wife and I often go for yam char (literally, ‘drink tea’ but in practice ‘breakfast’).
However, before we reach Luen Wo Hui, we pass Koon Garden. The derelict house that can be glimpsed through the gateway bears the date ‘1960’ on its front elevation, which means that in the space of half a century, someone has built a substantial house, lived in it and abandoned it, and a tree has grown to partially block the entrance.
Returning to San Wai by a shorter route, we pass another gateway. This one proudly proclaims that it is the dwelling of Mr Lee Ming Sang, and like Koon Garden the house within is in ruins. Every time I pass it, I’m reminded of Shelley’s poem:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,Yes, I am aware that I’m employing a degree of hyperbole here, but no more than might be expected from a former hack journalist. A recently abandoned wood-framed tin shack can be seen on the right of the picture. The last occupant removed all the tin before leaving, presumably to use elsewhere, leaving the frame to the termites, which won’t take long to finish it off.
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
Further along the path, we come to the ‘sun gate’. This is what I call a ‘story picture’. The story may not be true, but it is certainly plausible: the substantial house behind the gate, well hidden by trees, is owned by a Chinese millionaire, who may well have grown up here. It is not occupied all the time, but it is still in use. This house is about half a kilometre from any road, and the anonymous millionaire uses this address in all correspondence with the tax authorities, which, knowing that all the other houses on this plain are tin shacks, assume that this dwelling too is merely a shack. In this way, the millionaire is able to declare less than his real income without arousing suspicion. However, this very expensive stainless steel gate is the giveaway, betraying an opulence not seen anywhere else in the neighbourhood.
The tin shack in this picture is more typical of the dwellings scattered across the plain. It is taken looking back along the track from a footbridge, from which the next picture is also taken.
This is a tributary of the River Indus, the name of which I’ve not yet been able to discover; the confluence can be seen in the middle distance. Although in winter the river flow is confined to the narrow channel on the right, I’ve seen a three-foot catfish in the channel. Egrets can be seen frequently here, standing motionless along the edge of the channel watching intently for smaller fish. From this point, it is less than 200 metres to where we started, but the skyline in the far distance is our next destination. It circumscribes a narrow side valley now used as a firing range by the People’s Liberation Army but set up originally by the British army.
A narrow concrete military road runs along the ridge line. It too was built by the British and demarcates an exclusion zone along the border with the rest of China that was once a preventive measure against illegal immigrants. It is no longer used by vehicular traffic, except possibly mountain bikes, but the occasional hiker may be encountered. The murkiness of the background is a measure of the pollution level in this area, all of which is a result of the rapid industrialization of southern Guangdong over the past three decades.
Finally, on the descent from the ridge, we pass this grave. Graves like this are scattered all over the hillsides of the New Territories, and the exact location of each will have been determined by the dictates of fung shui. Although it may not be obvious, this is something of a puzzle picture. The white area in the foreground is all that remains of another grave, one that has been almost completely obliterated. Fragments of engraved and polished granite litter the immediate area. My wife and I have discussed this at length: it is clear that the smaller grave must have been desecrated by people associated with the larger grave, but the sequence of events is not obvious. Which grave was established first? If it was the larger, why would anyone make a new grave so close? If it was the smaller, how does one account for the observation that the lichen on the larger grave makes it appear to be older? The solution to this conundrum may not be discoverable: this photograph was taken in the autumn of 2008, shortly after a major hill fire. I have a second photo, taken last year shortly after the autumn grave-sweeping festival of Chung Yeung, and the grave is almost completely engulfed by new vegetation. Had the grave been visited during the festival, that vegetation would have been cleared. So there it remains, neglected and forgotten.
And that concludes a whistle-stop tour of the district. It may not have been a tour de force, but I hope it wasn’t a wild goose chase either.
A recent visit to Koon Garden revealed some inaccuracies in the interpretation set out above.
Koon Garden, the house of Lee Ming Sang and the millionaire’s house have been demolished, although the sun gate is still there. I assume that the henchmen of Uncle Four were responsible.