Friday, 19 October 2012

leaping dragon

When I came to live in Fanling in 2008, I quickly spotted an intriguing road sign at the first set of traffic lights on the main road leading east from the town. It informed me that if I turned right, I would be on the ‘Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trail’. As soon as I could find the time, I followed it, on foot, only to become hopelessly lost in Fanling’s industrial area.

I was aware that this trail passed through the village where I live, the walls, corner guard towers and gatehouse of which have been designated ‘declared monuments’ under the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance, but until two weeks ago I had assumed that the rest of the trail merely linked the scattering of traditional Chinese houses that can still be seen in the area, so I thought no more about it.

However, following a depressing summer in the UK, I returned to Hong Kong two weeks ago. If you were to ask me about my first priority whenever I come back to the territory after an extended absence, I could summarize it in two words: yam char. However, we no longer patronize the restaurant described in this link, which is within easy walking distance of our house. There is a much better restaurant next to Fanling railway station, although we do need to catch a minibus or cycle there. We chose the latter option. Given that it was a Saturday afternoon, the restaurant was packed, but we soon found a table. More precisely, we were allocated space on one of the twelve-seater tables, but we have long been accustomed to sharing tables with other diners.

Having enjoyed all the delicacies I’d missed while in the UK and drunk huge amounts of tea, we set off home. However, when we reached the fourth set of traffic lights on the main road, where we’d normally turn left to San Wai, we decided to turn right instead and explore (we’d never done so previously). Rather than follow the road, we chose to follow a maze of narrow footpaths, but eventually we were reunited with the road, and I noticed what looked like a traditional Chinese building along the road to our right. It turned out to be the entrance gate of another walled village, Tung Kok Wai. Naturally, we couldn’t resist taking a look around, but there were more surprises in store when we continued along the road.

First, we came to the Tang Chung Ling Ancestral Hall, the largest such hall in Hong Kong, which was originally built in 1525 but extensively rebuilt in the early eighteenth century. It too is a declared monument. The Tang clan, one of the biggest in the New Territories, came to this area from Jiangxi province in the thirteenth century, during the final chaotic years of the Song Dynasty, and established a network of eleven villages in the area now known as Lung Yeuk Tau.

According to the website of the Hong Kong Tourism Board, Lung Yeuk Tau means ‘mountain of the leaping dragon’, which is inaccurate. The first two characters do mean ‘leaping dragon’, but ‘Tau’ actually means ‘head’. Perhaps the error reflects an earlier name for the area, Lung Shan, which does mean ‘dragon mountain’. The same website also has the following statement:
It is said that a dragon could once be seen leaping in the mountains here, which is how the area got its name.
Before anyone attributes the origin of this statement to the credulity of superstitious villagers, take a look at the photograph at the bottom of this page (an enhanced version of the same photo appears at the beginning of this article). It was taken from my balcony and shows mist swirling along the ridge of the mountain overlooking Lung Yeuk Tau just as the sun is rising. It does look vaguely like a dragon.

There are two words for ‘village’ in Cantonese: tsuen is the word usually used, but if a village name includes the word wai, literally ‘enclosure’, this is an indication that the village is surrounded by a defensive wall. There are no less than five such walled villages in Lung Yeuk Tau, suggesting that the dangers posed by bandits and pirates were once considerable.

Next to the ancestral hall is a temple dedicated to Tin Hau, goddess of the sea, which may seem odd given that this area is as far from the sea as it is possible to be in Hong Kong. The explanation is that Tin Hau is widely regarded by those Chinese who believe in such things as a tutelary deity. Her temple here is yet another declared monument.

Only a short distance further, we reached Lo Wai, the walls and gatehouse of which are also a declared monument, although the walls are nowhere near as imposing as those of San Wai, which looks more like a military fort than any of the other walled villages and was probably where the leading members of the clan lived in earlier times.

There is much more to see in this area, and much more to describe, but I shall leave this task until my health has improved. However, I have included one photograph here as a kind of trailer for future posts on Lung Yeuk Tau. It was taken from the outer courtyard of the Tang Chung Ling Ancestral Hall looking out through the only entrance. Note the exquisite plaster mouldings underneath the eaves and the hand-painted door gods, the posting of whom 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.

6 comments:

  1. How cool. What an interesting life you lead! I can understand why you're so happy to be back in Hong Kong.

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    1. Yes Janene. Hong Kong continues to fascinate, even though I first came here in 1974!

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  2. It's absolutely amazing what could be sitting right on your door-step without you even knowing it. All that history not too far away. I also find it fascinating how different cultures have varying superstitions etc in regards to the emperor's solution to warding off ghosts, and how the same sort of thing is still used today by hanging those large portraits, with such attention to detail with how their bodies should be faced.

    As soon as I saw the first picture in your post, I did think it looked like a fiery dragon. Thanks for such an interesting read Dennis. I look forward to your next posts too.

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    1. Amazing? I was absolutely gobsmacked Rum. I’ve been fascinated by Chinese culture since I arrived in Hong Kong in 1974, and finding so much history within easy reach will keep me busy exploring for quite a while. I should note that the area where I live is more traditionally Chinese than the rest of the territory, and I do enjoy sharing my fascination with our local culture with my readers.

      By the way, I have a couple of posts that I meant to write during the summer that I’m working on at the moment, but I will be posting more about Lung Yeuk Tau very soon.

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  3. Whoa you have lived in Hong Kong for long. I think now I know who I will ask if I need to know some info about Hong Kong. I hope you don't mind :)
    Btw I love the shot of the dragon clouds. Looks amazing!

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    1. Hi DebbZ. Feel free to contact me at any time — you can leave a comment on this blog, and if it contains personal contact details I won’t publish them.

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