Thursday, 27 February 2014

an unhappy garden

I must apologize for the dearth of up-to-date material on this blog so far this year. I offer no excuses, although I’ve been taking every opportunity to get out on my bike, exploring the local countryside. What follows are a few lines on a recent discovery that lies along the Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trail, although it doesn’t form part of that excursion.

‘Happy Garden’ sounds like the name of a restaurant (I know of one such in Kowloon), but this post is about a real garden, although in its present condition it probably has as much in common with a restaurant as with a functioning garden.

I’d probably ridden past it on several occasions without noticing, because it isn’t easy to spot. It retires between two thick projections of bamboo, and the three-foot drop on the left off the edge of the road means that my attention has to be directed straight ahead. In case you’re wondering, the drop-off was always on my left because, when cycling in the opposite direction, I always take an alternative route.

Anyway, I do glance around whenever I can, and recently as I looked to my right, I just happened to notice an ornate entrance with nothing beyond it. My curiosity was piqued immediately. As you can see from the photograph above, this gateway is falling apart, and it appears to have been abandoned to the ravages of nature for quite some time.

The principal culprit for this disintegration appears to be a small tree, which can clearly be seen to the left of the entrance. The lintel above the gateway proclaims that this is the entrance to Happy Garden, and each of the columns supporting the lintel has eleven characters carved into it. Unfortunately, erosion of the rock from which these columns were made and the encrustation of lichen accumulated over many decades make this writing almost illegible, although I was able to learn that this is a place where one can find peace and tranquillity. There is no date.

So what kind of garden was it? Nowadays, the only plant that can be seen in the remains of the garden is bamboo (see photo below). But bamboo is not a particularly invasive plant—there are a few pernicious weed species in Hong Kong (lantana, morning glory and mile-a-minute vine spring to mind) that would have choked out any attempts by the bamboo to colonize the abandoned garden. I therefore conjecture that planted bamboo was the main feature of the garden.

However, in trying to find out more about the history of the garden, I came across one apparently reliable source that claims it was once a lychee orchard. This does seem to be implausible; at any rate, there is no longer any sign that trees were once found on this site (the tree that is currently engaged in demolishing the gateway must have appeared only after the garden was abandoned). On the other hand, the absence of any evidence that there were formal walkways in the garden does lend tenuous support to the lychee orchard hypothesis, although an orchard is not the kind of place where I would expect to find peace and tranquillity.

I am therefore compelled to leave the question of the garden’s origins and purpose until I have more convincing evidence to work with. I am also interested in finding out when the garden was established, and when it was abandoned. There is one possible clue less than 100 metres west of the Happy Garden:

This is Shek Lo, which would ordinarily translate as ‘the mansion of Mr Shek’, except that the architect and first resident was named Peter, and the Bible tells us that Peter means ‘rock’, while shek is Cantonese for ‘rock’. This doesn’t seem like a coincidence. The mansion was built before the Second World War, but how long before I’ve not been able to discover. It was finally abandoned in the 1980s, and as can be seen in the photo, it is now severely dilapidated and choked with weeds, which have so far thwarted all my attempts to take a closer look. There appears to have once been a connection between the garden and the mansion, and I will be returning to this subject if I can find a way through the undergrowth. I have a few mysteries to clear up.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

a horse with no name

Firecrackers have been illegal in Hong Kong since the 1967 riots, when they were a ready source of gunpowder for those citizens of the territory who were intent on destabilizing the colonial administration by planting bombs (the Cultural Revolution was in full swing on the mainland at the time). It has always struck me as a pointless prohibition, partly because anyone who has passed O-level chemistry should be able to concoct an explosive mixture without recourse to ready-made materials, and partly because the law doesn’t appear to be enforced with any degree of vigour—over the course of the Chinese New Year celebrations, I hear firecrackers being set off at frequent intervals throughout my neighbourhood.

For those of you who don’t follow such matters, we have now entered the year of the horse, and if you do follow such matters, you will know that people born in the year of the horse…
…have ingenious communicating techniques and always want to be in the limelight. They are clever, kind to others, and like to follow adventurous careers. They sometimes talk too much, and they are cheerful, perceptive and talented, but they are also stubborn. They like entertainment and large crowds. They are popular among friends, active at work and refuse to be reconciled to failure, although their efforts cannot last indefinitely. However, they cannot bear much constraint, and their interest may be only superficial and lacking real substance. They are usually impatient and hot-blooded about everything other than their daily work. They are independent and rarely listen to advice. They have strong endurance but also a bad temper. They are flamboyant by nature but are wasteful, since they are not good in matters of finance. Some of those born in the year of the horse like to move in glamorous circles while pursuing high-profile careers. They tend to interfere in many things but frequently fail to finish projects of their own.
If you are a regular reader, you will also know that I don’t believe it possible to predict a person’s personality from the entirely arbitrary year in which they were born. However, my scepticism doesn’t spoil my enjoyment of the celebrations that bring in the new year, which for me begins with firecrackers and a lion dance on the first day:

There is an octagonal box at the top of the string of firecrackers, clearly visible in the third photograph. It is packed with gunpowder, so its ultimate explosion brings the cacophony to a rousing conclusion, as captured by the fourth photo.

The following sequence of photos is from the lion dance. The character in the papier mâché mask appeared for the first time last year, and I do not understand his role in the ritual, but his presence does boost the entertainment factor:

On the third day, the main attraction where I live is the ceremony of the roast pigs, which can be seen on the temporary altar in the following photo:

Naturally, the ceremony is preceded by another string of firecrackers:

In case you were wondering, much of the roast pork is eaten on the spot—it’s delicious, by the way—and the rest is distributed around the village. And that’s what I like about Chinese New Year: it always comes in with a bang!

There is an urban legend, which I’ve probably done as much as anyone to propagate, that it is always cold in Hong Kong during Chinese New Year. Not this year, however, even though the holiday was earlier than usual. Thanks to a mild maritime airstream (unheard-of at this time of year, when the northeast monsoon is supposed to be in charge), the afternoon temperature in the Fanling area exceeded 26 degrees throughout the holiday period. I’m not complaining, by the way.