Monday, 31 December 2012

guardians at the gate

I explained the origin of the ancient Chinese custom of pasting posters of ‘door gods’ on the front door of a house in Leaping Dragon, but for my final post of 2012 I’ve chosen to compare how these ‘gods’ are depicted on various public buildings in the area where I live. The buildings described are the Tang Chung Ling Ancestral Hall (left in the two pictures below), the Hau Ku Shek Ancestral Hall (centre) and the local Tin Hau temple (right).

I assume that these painted figures are repainted from time to time, and if you compare the figures that guard the two ancestral halls, you will see that those guarding the Hau Ku Shek Ancestral Hall appear to have been repainted quite recently, but all the various elements of the designs, from the oddly effeminate gesture of the hands not holding a weapon to the details of the costumes, are replicated in both cases, albeit with a degree of artistic licence involved, particularly in the faces.

This leads me to assume that a template exists for painting door gods on wooden doors, and that both painters followed it. 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.

However, if such a template ever existed, it wasn’t followed by whoever was responsible for the door gods guarding the Tin Hau temple. Only the ethnicity of the guards (Qin Shubao was obviously Han Chinese, while Yuchi Jingde appears to have been of Turkic origin—and the name isn’t Chinese) and the weapons they hold are the same. But the temple version of Yuchi Jingde is vastly more fearsome than his counterparts at the two ancestral halls, and the stance of Qin Shubao is more confrontational.

Three versions of Yuchi Jingde.

Three versions of Qin Shubao.

Finally, here is the cheap commercial version. The two posters are mirror images of each other; the only differences are in the overprinted facial hair. However, such posters are at least as effective as the elaborately painted door gods guarding temples and ancestral halls. And at least as effective as Janus, the Roman god of doorways and entrances, after whom next month is named. Janus is said to have had two heads, allowing him to look both ways at once, but he is unlikely to have done a better protection job than Yuchi Jingde and Qin Shubao, who have tirelessly been guarding Chinese homes from evil spirits and the harbingers of bad luck for almost 1,400 years and seem as popular as ever.


I will conclude with a traditional Cantonese salutation, appropriate at the change of years: lung ma ching san (may you have the strength of a dragon or horse).

Sunday, 16 December 2012

across the tracks

Before my accident, if I wanted to do any cycling I would head south. For the first three or four miles, the only route is a series of country paths and back roads, where it usually isn’t possible to cycle at speed, but once south of Taipo the main cycleway is the width of an ordinary road (two double-decker buses travelling in opposite directions could pass each other without either having to slow down), so in ordinary conditions it is possible to go as fast as I like. I should note that ‘ordinary conditions’ do not apply at weekends (Cycling in Hong Kong).

However, when I started cycling again after the accident, I didn’t want to go too far, so I opted to cycle along the local river, following the concrete access road provided by the Drainage Services Department. I pointed out in Owt Fresh? that technically this is not permitted, although so many locals use the road, which cannot be accessed by motor vehicles, that there is no enforcement. The only drawback is that the accessible stretch of river is only about 3km in length, which doesn’t justify getting the bike out in the first place.

Back in May, I started looking for a different option, and I was able to find a way to cross the main railway line into China via an extremely cramped tunnel:


The main difficulty cannot be seen in this picture. Immediately the track emerges from the tunnel, it turns left and up an extremely steep ramp, the only hill I’ve found in Hong Kong where I have to get off and push, although it might be feasible if it were possible to take a run at it.

Once I’d emerged through the obstacle course (there are other difficulties, see below), I found myself on the banks of a much larger river, the Shum Chun River (‘Shum Chun’ is the Cantonese rendition of the large metropolis on the other side of the border that is now universally known as Shenzhen), of which our local river is a tributary:

Hong Kong

This photo was taken from a road bridge over the river, looking upstream. There are no fewer than five grey herons in the picture, and the rail crossing is behind the trees on the left. Further downstream, this river forms the border between Hong Kong and the rest of China west of Shenzhen.

The access road alongside the river continues past the bridge, but it enters the so-called ‘closed area’, a measure that was put in place by the British colonial administration to deter illegal immigrants but maintained since the handover in 1997, so it is necessary to cross the bridge. This leads to a quiet road that climbs past a modern prison, the Lo Wu Correctional Institution.

During my initial explorations, I then took a road that drops down into the village of Ho Sheung Heung (literally, ‘village above the river’), where I was delighted to find the Hau Ku Shek Ancestral Hall:

Hong Kong

This ancestral hall was built in the late Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) and was extensively renovated in 1762. As can be seen in this photo, it follows the standard three-hall, two-courtyard design for ancestral halls and features red sandstone corner pillars and bases for the alcoves on each side of the main entrance. These are drum platforms. The red sandstone is a highly prized material for important buildings, and it must have been transported a considerable distance, because there are no sources close to the village.

Hong Kong

The hall will feature in a more detailed post eventually, but this photo shows some of the intricate plaster mouldings that are typical of ancestral halls, and a large ceramic lion in the corner of the roof. Don’t worry that it doesn’t look like a lion. There are no lions in China, and if you’ve ever seen a lion dance you’ll be aware that a Chinese ‘lion’ looks nothing like the real thing.

There is an open space in front of the ancestral hall that functions as the terminus of a minibus route from the nearest railway station. Naturally, most of the passengers are local villagers, but the minibus also brings in a lot of wildlife photographers armed with tripods and 1,000mm telephoto lenses. I assume that the photos that they take are a lot better than mine, which were shot with a cheap digital camera. On the other hand, I get to see a lot more because I’m constantly on the move, and over the past few weeks I’ve seen a number of interesting sights.

There was the time when a heron grabbed a fish just as I was passing, and the vision of the sun glinting on the fish has stuck in my memory. On another occasion, a black-capped kingfisher burst from the trees in front of me in a riot of blue and orange. A few days ago, I saw what I confidently identified as a crested kingfisher, only to discover that Wikipedia claims this species to be 41cm long, which strikes me as being too big for any species of kingfisher. This bird too was in the process of grabbing a fish as I rode past, and I saw a second individual 100m or so further along.

The best area to see the local birdlife is along a tributary of the Shum Chun River, the mouth of which is visible in the second picture above. The following three photographs are of this tributary.




The first picture shows the mouth of the tributary; the bridge carries the access road along the bank of the main river. The second picture was taken from this bridge, looking upstream, and it shows, inter alia, a herd of feral cows, which occasionally represent a hazard on the roads. The ferality of cows seems like an odd concept, but there is an even bigger feral herd in the Sai Kung area, and it roams across a large territory. The third picture was taken from a point about a kilometre upstream, looking downstream.

I managed to cobble together a 25km route that covers the access roads along the banks of the main river and the tributary and that I could do regularly. It involves covering most of the route twice. If I see something that interests me, I’ll stop to take a photo, but otherwise I don’t bother stopping for anything as mundane as a rest. However, last week I decided to see where the road leading past the prison went, so instead of following the side road down to Ho Sheung Heung, I kept going straight ahead. My reward, although this probably isn’t the best way to describe it, was a pig of a hill and an alternative way into the village. This adds 2km to the overall route and has Paula’s approval (she likes long hills).

I’ll end with three photographs that I’ve taken recently. They don’t show the detail that would be visible if I’d had a telephoto lens, but they do give a good idea of what I see as I ride alongside the various rivers. Egrets are extremely common here, and on one recent occasion I counted no less than seventeen grey herons (plus or minus one—I may have counted up to two twice).




The first photo is of a grey heron perched on a partly submerged tree branch in the main river. The second shows a greater egret (left) and a grey heron in the tributary, and the third shows a buffalo on a mud bank in the main river. These beasts were used regularly for ploughing at one time in Hong Kong, but the few people who farm in Hong Kong use mechanical aids nowadays, so I speculate that the erstwhile ‘owner’ has simply turned the animal loose to fend for itself.

Anyway, it’s time to head off home, and the railway crossing is much easier this way, but I still flatten myself on the crossbar to pass under this gigantic pipe, which is Hong Kong’s water supply (there are actually three pipes, all the same size). It isn’t too obvious from the photo, but you need to pedal out of the depression under the pipe: you cannot rely on momentum to get you through.


The cycling itself is fairly uneventful. The access roads along the riverbanks are flat, and the only hills are therefore those described above, where my route moves away from the river. Unlike the access road that runs alongside our local river, there is some (limited) motor traffic here—mainly local villagers—but the access roads are quite wide, so this presents no problems. However, the area is popular with cyclists and is to be avoided at weekends, when large (dis)organized groups of up to thirty cyclists can be encountered. I’ll stick to mid-afternoon, midweek. It’s very quiet then, although I did encounter up to 200 policemen and women on an organized run last week, which forced me to alter my usual route.

update: 21/2/2013
The description “the only hill I’ve found in Hong Kong where I have to get off and push” is no longer valid, although it is probably accurate to say that this hill is too tricky to guarantee success every time, especially if there is a puddle of water at the bottom.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

bad habits

I probably have more bad habits than you could shake a stick at, and some are probably so ingrained as to be incurable, but I appear to have developed a quite unwelcome habit over the past couple of years: falling off my bike every December. In December 2010, my bike disappeared from under me (An Apology), skidding on smooth concrete as I turned a corner. Then, last year, I caught my pedal on the ground as I turned another corner (A Momentary Lapse of Concentration), dumping me on the ground before I’d had time to react and fracturing my patella in the process.

This time, it wasn’t my fault; I was taking evasive action to avoid an idiot who had appeared in my path suddenly when I hit the kerb alongside the cycle track. I lost control as a result, and once again I was spared serious injury by my helmet, although I now have a black eye, and extensive abrasions to my left hand mean that I cannot grip the handlebar of my bike.

I had been doing a lot of cycling lately, which is the main reason for the lack of activity on my blog. It had been going extremely well—I’ve been working on an illustrated post that reflects this progress—but I’m now going to have to rest for a few days. It won’t be easy to endure an enforced lay-off, especially as my knee, which gave me a lot of trouble during the summer, has improved rapidly over the past few weeks. Even tough hills have been causing no discomfort, and I’ve been optimistic that a full recovery was within easy reach. I still am, although I now have other injuries to deal with.

I plan to post the article referred to in the previous paragraph within the next day or so, unless my headache gets worse.