Sunday, 13 January 2019


The villages immediately east and southeast of Fanling are characterized by what I’ve often described as ‘rural sprawl’. Most modern village houses—those built since the mid-1970s according to a legal formula that defines maximum height and floor area—have been sited in an indiscriminate, higgledy-piggledy fashion that makes it impossible to locate where one village ends and another begins, unless, of course, you live in one and are therefore aware of your address.

However, there are some pockets of regularity, where the houses have been laid out in a rectilinear grid with narrow alleyways between individual buildings. This is the case with Tsz Tong Tsuen, or at least that part of the village immediately east of the Tang Chung Ling Ancestral Hall, the largest ancestral hall in Hong Kong. Tsz Tong Tsuen is one of six tsuens (villages) and five wais (walled enclosures) established in this area by the Tang clan during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). The six villages lacked defensive walls, so it would have been natural to group the houses close together to make them easier to defend against marauding pirates and other ne’er-do-wells. Pirates were a constant menace in southern China for centuries.

In the case of Tsz Tong Tsuen, the present grid is made up almost exclusively of modern houses, but I conjecture that they were all built on the sites of older houses, which from my observations elsewhere are first abandoned, then are allowed to decay and finally are demolished and replaced.

I don’t usually walk through such places, but for some reason I decided to take a short cut last week via an east–west alleyway in Tsz Tong Tsuen. My attention was drawn immediately to the distinctive roof tree of a traditional Chinese house down an alleyway to my right (north):

Incidentally, I haven’t confirmed that these alleyways run precisely north–south and east–west, but the orienting of houses has always been important in Chinese culture (fung shui), and the layout is certainly close to what I’ve suggested.

Whatever lies behind the foliage on the left is of absolutely no interest, or so I thought, although a glance down the next alleyway to the left did appear to confirm that initial conclusion:

But I was wrong:

Although I may make erroneous assumptions, I will still look for confirmation. You may need to take a closer look at the brickwork on the left to see what I’m getting at:

The brickwork at the base of the wall is fairly conventional, but I have never seen bricks in a wall arranged in such a chaotic diagonal jumble.

But there’s more:

Of course, the brickwork on the corner of this building is fairly conventional, but there are two other things to note: the range of brick colours; and the variations in brick size. The first points to a range of different sources for the clay, while the second suggests that each brick was hand-moulded before being fired.

And if you want to see what the range of colours does to the ‘chaotic diagonal jumble’, look no further:

A point to make about the previous image is that although there is mortar between the bricks in the horizontal brickwork on the left, the main wall appears to have been built without, apart from occasional dollops here and there that I suspect are not original. In fact, if you look closely, small stones have been used to fill in some of the larger gaps!

This is what this wall looks like from the southwest corner. Note that the top of the wall is conventional brickwork, and the corner has been rendered:

This is a view down the south side of the building, looking east:

…while this is the view from the opposite direction:

There appears to be an inner wall supporting the chaotic outer wall, and the only way in is also visible, although I cannot believe that the building is still occupied. Would you allow such a creeper to obscure this much of your front door?

Incidentally, the traditional house that originally attracted my attention is derelict. I had hoped that there would be some painted friezes and polychrome mouldings to record. There would have been once, but they’re long gone.

Saturday, 5 January 2019

fruity pie: second helpings

Although I’ve spent a lot of time during the past few years exploring the countryside around Fanling on my bike, I didn’t pay much attention to the area to the east until last winter. I had explored Lau Shui Heung Road, which joins Sha Tau Kok Road—the main road out of Fanling to the east—about 2km from the town, but I had no idea what lay within the angle between the two roads until I decided to take a closer look. The result was ‘fruity pie’, an intricate route through a maze of narrow alleyways that emerges, eventually, onto Lau Shui Heung Road (the name I gave to this segment is a corruption of the name of the village from which it starts—Fu Tei Pai).

There are two T-junctions on this route where the left-hand option merely returns you to where you started (they occur at 4.40 and 5.15 in the fruity pie video—fruity pie itself starts at 3.51, but the approach to this point provides a good idea of what I’ve described elsewhere as ‘rural sprawl’ looks like). And here is a still from the video that shows the second of these T-junctions:

Notice that if you turn right, there is a path to the left within a few metres, but because continuing straight on eventually leads to somewhere that I could link into a contiguous route, I never returned to investigate.

However, a couple of weeks ago, I was exploring the area on foot. I was on Sha Tau Kok Road, about to use a light-controlled pedestrian crossing to reach the north side, when I spotted a gap in the buildings to my right that I’d never noticed before despite cycling past it dozens of times. Regular readers will recognize my response immediately:

Where does this go?

I ventured down the usual quota of culs de sac, but I eventually came to somewhere that I recognized—the second of the T-junctions described above. And of course I spotted the left turn and decided to investigate more closely. This is what the path looks like from fruity pie:

Not very promising, you might think, but it does get better:

What you can see in the distance in the previous photo is a bricked-up gateway, and the left turn is forced:

This is a close-up of the junction visible in the previous photo. When first exploring this section, I came from the right and took the path that is straight on in this photo:

…so all I had to do was backtrack on my previous exploration and I would have a new cycling option to enjoy.

The following sequence records how I got back to Sha Tau Kok Road.

It isn’t obvious, but the route turns left immediately after the building on the left:

…then right:

The route turns left at the T-junction seen in the previous photo:

…although I suspect that it may be possible to continue straight on where I advocated turning left above and rejoining the route described at this point.

This is a close-up of the junction shown in the distance in the previous photo:

By this stage, I knew to turn right at this point, because turning left would merely lead to a dead end:

I would like, eventually, to work out a route where I cycle this in the opposite direction, because ramps like this are much more fun going up rather than down:

A footbridge over the river and a short up-ramp lead to Sha Tau Kok Road:

At this point, I have to confess that whichever way I might cycle this route in the future, I haven’t ridden it in either direction to date. I can’t point to an incident that has caused the problem, but I’ve somehow sustained an injury that makes it almost impossible to ride a bike. I must be getting too old for this game.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

the corridor of uncertainty

As far as I’m aware, the phrase ‘corridor of uncertainty’ was coined by former England opening batsman Geoffrey Boycott to describe a situation that faces every batsman in cricket when deciding whether to hit or leave a ball that has been bowled at them. A ball bowled close to the legs must be played, or the batsman will almost certainly be out, while a ball whose trajectory is well away from the body should be left alone, because the risk is that the ball will graze the edge of the bat and be caught by a fielder positioned for precisely that circumstance. However, there is a narrow zone between the two where it’s easy to be indecisive: play or leave. A good bowler will try to provoke this indecisiveness with every ball he delivers.

Although this post has nothing further to do with the arcane sport of cricket, Boycott’s phrase always springs to mind whenever I want to visit the toilet in Green Code Plaza, a shopping mall that was opened on the eastern edge of Fanling three years ago. Paula and I are regular visitors because we go to the big Chinese restaurant in the mall several times a week for yam char (Cantonese: ‘drink tea’).

There is nothing to suggest uncertainty when looking from the mall itself, although I’m curious as to why the two double doors are not the same size. This is the only example of asymmetric double doors that I can recall seeing anywhere in Hong Kong:

There are male/female toilet icons only on the right-hand doors, although there is a sign at ceiling height. The sign to the right of the left-hand doors points to the management office for the mall.

As you will see from the following sequence of photos, the corridor leading to the toilets is not straight:

The walls and floor are polished stone, which can be disorienting, especially with the mysterious markings on the floor, but there is a helpful arrow pointing the way to the toilets and the management office.

Why do we need a second sign, given that there is no alternative?

Ah! Now I understand. There is an alternative reality in which you might turn left and pass into another world:

The next turn needs no signage:

…but we are still getting signs pointing the way to the toilets:

Finally, the management office (not a hive of activity):

The door on the right leads to the car park:

Finally, the toilets! Women straight ahead; men around the corner to the right:

Now this is what I find baffling: why is this corridor not straight? I suspect that it has been designed this way for purely ├Žsthetic reasons. However, assuming that you go through the right-hand of the two double doors seen in the first photo above, you will then have to turn left–right–right–left–left–right–left–right–right to reach the men’s toilet. I can see that causing utter chaos in an English pub.

Monday, 31 December 2018

an elementary puzzle

I used to post puzzles on New Year’s Eve that were designed to give you a hangover without the alcohol, but nobody seems able to solve my more difficult problems, so here’s another easy one instead:
What do the following have in common?
D ● E ● J ● Q ● W
No! It isn’t quite that easy. If you identify the correct criterion, you will see that it isn’t possible to add any more letters to the list.