Wednesday, 29 April 2015

footprints in the sand

These fragments I have shored against my ruins.
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land.
There are scores of squatter huts in my neighbourhood, most of which have now been abandoned and their occupants rehoused. Inevitably, given the construction standards originally followed, such huts quickly fall into disrepair as extreme weather, termites, rust, creepers and other natural agents go to work.

Some of these huts were more substantially built than the average, but most consist of nothing more than thin sheets of galvanized steel nailed to an insubstantial wooden frame. Surprisingly, many had both electricity and running water while still occupied. I frequently take a close look at such ruins, mainly to see whether there is anything worth recording before the hut in question is overwhelmed by the forces of nature.

This is the story of one such hut, located in the area covered by my recent post South Side Story. The footpath shown in the following photograph passes within 10 metres of the hut, but the hut is completely hidden by the encroaching jungle—and you would probably struggle to find the path anyway, even with detailed instructions—so it is likely to moulder away undisturbed.

The next photo shows the hut itself. The main living area is on the left of the picture, behind what must have been quite a substantial stove, but there is an extensive covered area behind the tree on the right.

Judging by the limited extent to which trees and other vegetation have taken over the structure to date, it is likely to have been abandoned quite recently, probably no more than two or three years ago. But who lived here? There are some clues:

This is a photo of the entrance to the main living area. The apparently cryptic jumble of letters and numbers on the wall indicate that the occupant(s) has been rehoused by the relevant government agency, although I do not understand any of the details that may be recorded in this code. Note the dark wooden cabinet, which is a common item of furniture in Chinese homes that functions as a shrine. This tips the probability towards the occupant(s) being elderly, while the presence of discarded fast-food containers on the floor suggests male occupancy.

Of course, this is all speculative, and I can only offer even wilder guesswork in my lame attempts to explain the next photo.

This was taken in what may once have been some kind of kitchen area (the white pillar is there to support a stone shelf along one wall, although there is no sink). It shows a large number of teacups and a few teapots discarded on the floor, and the obvious question is why. This strange phenomenon might have been explicable had all these items been made of plastic, but they are regular ceramic cups and teapots. I can’t help wondering whether they were accumulated here for roughly the same reason as that behind the piles of jars described in The Mystery of the Chinese Jars, and that remains a mystery that I’ve failed to resolve.

How long will traces of this building survive? It was never built to last, but I would still expect to see evidence of its having been here ten years later. A hundred years? There wouldn’t be any obviously visible traces, but anomalies in soil chemistry would give the game away. And after a thousand years, there is a good chance that there won’t be any humans around to look.

Like footprints in wet sand on the edge of a rising tide, this hut is destined to vanish, leaving no detectable trace of its ever having existed. Even this account of its existence will soon be read for the last time. Nothing lasts for ever.

Friday, 17 April 2015

military madness

When Paula and I moved to our present house in 2008, one of the first things we did was to check out the walking options in the area. There is a low ridge running east–west about a kilometre north of our house, and when we reached it we were surprised to find a narrow road snaking from one summit to the next. It is clearly a military road, because it marks the southern limit of what is still called the ‘closed area’, a buffer zone between Hong Kong and the rest of China set up by the British to deter illegal immigration (the penultimate photo in Hong Kong Country shows a section of the road).

At the time, I did wonder what this road would be like to cycle along, but I had no idea whether it was accessible from anywhere at ‘ground level’. However, last winter, I did manage to find this access point, and I set off up the hill with no idea of what lay ahead.

The first steep section is easy enough, but after a short level section I took one look at the next hill and gave up, for reasons that I don’t need to explain.

On the last day of 2014, for reasons that now escape me (I must have been bored), I decided to make another attempt. This time, I reached the first summit, which not only involved climbing the two hills pictured above but also included a third hill that was longer and tougher than the first two hills combined. I estimate that the steepest gradient on this third hill, which is shown in the following sequence of photographs, is close to 40 percent.

After reaching the first summit, the road meanders along the ridge for a short distance:

It then plunges down to a col before climbing again to the next summit. I took one look at the next series of climbs and decided that it would be sensible to turn back:

To get an idea of how tough the next summit would be to reach, I decided to walk the route a couple of months ago. The first hill is as steep as it looks in the next photo, and while I may have exaggerated the gradients on the climb to the first summit, this one really is about 40 percent. The rest of the ascent doesn’t look easy, but it isn’t quite as steep.

There are at least two more summits after this one—an estimate, because I took an escape route down to the right after reaching the second summit—but the climbs, while steep, are not as long as those pictured above. Consequently, like the Arnold Schwarzenegger character in more movies than you can shake a stick at, I’ll be back for another attempt. Just not soon. I need to wear out my current set of 5.5cm tyres first, so that I can replace them with something narrower. Another thing that will need to change if I ever succeed in completing this route is my hill-classification system, which works on the premise that the toughest hill in the area is the climb over Saddle Pass from the west (category 1), which would barely merit a classification if this military road were to be added to the top category. I must be mad to even think of trying it again.

Friday, 10 April 2015

the hong kong barrow

“What’s so great about Hong Kong?”

It’s a question that I’m asked frequently whenever I’m back in the UK, and my answer always includes a comment on the territory’s capacity for change. In fact, Hong Kong changes so rapidly that I notice differences after an absence of only a few months, and were I to stay away for a decade, I’m sure that I would find the place unrecognizable.

However, there is one thing that hasn’t changed since I first came here more than 40 years ago: the Hong Kong barrow.

Nowadays, these barrows come in a range of different sizes, but in the 1970s there was just the one. And the basic design hasn’t changed: anyone with rudimentary welding skills could put one together from pieces of angled steel, with steel strips to form a load platform, steel tubing, a couple of steel rods and four polyurethane wheels. Such barrows can be seen everywhere in Hong Kong—old ladies pushing mounds of cardboard, which they can sell for recycling; street sweepers, whose outsize barrows are used to hold the detritus they have swept up from the city’s streets—and anything heavy or bulky that has to be moved, even a short distance, can be more easily transported to wherever it needs to go with a Hong Kong barrow.

And the barrow can be folded up when not in use:

The following photographs provide some examples of the barrow in action.

Although I consider the Hong Kong barrow to be a good design, this doesn’t help when a task is attempted for which the barrow is singularly unsuited. I picked up some sense of this surprisingly common practice when I came to work at the Hong Kong Outward Bound School in 1974. Here, a barrow was the preferred means of launching a sailing dinghy!

However, probably the most awkward task that I’ve ever witnessed being attempted using the Hong Kong barrow (in this case two barrows) took place a couple of months ago. I was returning home along the path documented in Journey to the West: Part 5 when I encountered two men with barrows on the tight bend shown in the following photograph:

The men were trying to move three or four construction panels—the type that can be used to build a superior type of shack—which were half as wide again as a domestic door and almost twice as long. The barrow under the load at the back faced the normal way, while the barrow at the front faced backwards. The two were joined by a length of rope, which I imagine was done to stop the front barrow being pulled from underneath the load but which severely restricted the manoeuvrability of the rear barrow.

As can be seen in the photo, there is a stanchion to support the power pole and a lamp-post on the outside of the bend. Despite their efforts, the men couldn’t manoeuvre the panels past these obstacles, partly because the path is less than a metre wide.

Watching someone attempt the nearly impossible is usually interesting, but after about five minutes, during which no progress was made and the problem seemed insoluble, I lost interest, dismounted, lifted my bike down into the ditch and continued on my way. The men must have solved the problem eventually though, because when I passed that way again the following day, the path was clear. No discarded panels in the ditch. I wonder how they did it. And how long it took.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

photographic abstraction #14

This latest instalment in my abstract photography series contains some old themes and some new ones. As usual, the titles are what I see in the images. You will probably see something entirely different, so you should click on the first picture if you want to avoid seeing my titles.


the cauldron of secrets

root and branch


fields of grey

recent posts in this series
Photographic Abstraction #11
Photographic Abstraction #12
Photographic Abstraction #13