Wednesday, 25 April 2018

hark! the village round

During my 2016/17 sojourn in Hong Kong, I developed a new bike ride that I called ‘the final frontier’—because it passed through an area that, until the beginning of 2016, had been part of the so-called ‘frontier closed area’. Exploring this new area meant venturing east from Fanling for the first time—previously, I’d always gone west.

However, it never occurred to me to look south of Sha Tau Kok Road (the main road out of Fanling to the east) until a couple of weeks before I was due to head back to the UK in May last year. In Reservoir Dodges, I described how I’d found an unexpected path that led to an area south of the main road that I simply had to take a closer look at. As part of that exploration, I followed one path that led back to Sha Tau Kok Road, which is a dual carriageway only as far as its junction with Ping Che Road.

I crossed to the north side of the road and followed a narrow lane and path as far as a Drainage Services access road (X on the following map):

As you can see, turning right only leads back to Sha Tau Kok Road. The road to the left is the kind of road that I ride only once. It leads to the Ping Che Service Reservoir, which is effectively a giant water tank at the top of quite a gruelling climb. Did I say “only once”? Naturally, I had to show Paula, and to make it really interesting, I pitched it as a ‘four-hill challenge’, the other three hills being the climb up to Hok Tau Reservoir, Hok Tau Road and Liu Pok Hill). This is by far the toughest of the four.

However, on this first visit to the area, I saw a much more obvious way to go:

I simply had to find out where the bridge over the drainage channel might lead to. It was certainly a good path:

As you have probably already noticed, the images I’m using to illustrate this excursion are not photographs but stills from a video, hence the distortion and, in some pictures, the crazy angles.

Solid yellow railings are always a sign that the path they border is going somewhere. But where? The first decision isn’t long in coming:

In my initial exploration, I chose to go straight on here, although as you will discover, I eventually returned via the right-hand path. And it’s all flat:

However, that is about to change. Radically! The ramp is not technically difficult, but it’s a lot steeper than it looks:

Around this point, I met a man who informed me that there was no way through. I’d like to see for myself, I replied. Keep to the right, he suggested. However, I kept left at the top of the ramp:

It’s the kind of question that I’ll never know the answer to: I have a vague feeling that the steps alongside the ramp weren’t there when I first came this way. The ramp was blocked a few weeks ago, I think for the concrete of the ramp to be renewed, and I now wonder if the steps were added then. The exit from the ramp seen in the previous image does seem easier now.

It’s still uphill though:

On my first visit, I continued up to the left:

…but it was a dead end, so I followed the path past the pavilion on the right:

The path here is obvious, contouring across the hillside:

…with one final uphill section:

…and a short level section:

…before an abrupt right turn:

The turn is an easy decision to make because, although it isn’t obvious in the picture, straight ahead is a flight of steps!

And it’s now downhill all the way:

You don’t want to allow your concentration to lapse here though:

…because the left-hand third of the path is a flight of steps!

There are no further difficulties, and we’re soon back on the flat:

The far end of the yellow railing in the previous image marks the junction seen in the fifth picture above:

And then it’s back the way I came earlier:

I’ve just described a circuit of the village of Wang Shan Keuk San Tsuen, which, as you have seen, is located on a hillside. The route follows the more westerly of the two paths north of the X on the map and returns via the more easterly. The path that connects the two is not marked on the map above, as I’ve come to expect from Google Maps.

San Tsuen means ‘new village’ in Cantonese, and I know of several such new villages in the Fanling area. I don’t know how or why such villages exist, whether they’re some kind of overspill from the ‘parent’ village, which is always located nearby. In this case, Wang Shan Keuk is located between Sha Tau Kok Road and the X on the map, and I do have to say that I find siting an overspill village on a hillside rather than on a flat area strange. It must be quite new though, because until 40 years ago New Territories villages were self-sufficient in rice, and there is nowhere here where rice could have been grown.

Finally, give yourself a bonus point if you spotted the Steeleye Span reference. Hark! The Village Wait is the title of an early album by my favourite folk band. I always do this round nowadays whenever I’m in the area, but to paraphrase Doctor Johnson’s assessment of the Giant’s Causeway, it may be worth doing, but it probably isn’t worth the trouble of going to do. After all, it doesn’t actually go anywhere.

Friday, 13 April 2018

squatters’ rights

Last summer, a friend in Penrith, my home town in the UK, told me that he’d watched a TV documentary about Hong Kong, and he expressed surprise that shacks and shanties were still to be found here. A couple of years earlier, a friend who’d been a high-ranking government official during the British administration was equally surprised to see the squatter huts around where I live.

Of course, the huge squatter areas of the 1970s in town, such as Diamond Hill, are long gone, but a lot of impromptu dwellings exist out in the New Territories. However, I must confess to being ignorant of the legal status of squatters until the first day of 2018, when Paula and I were doing our favourite bike ride, the long and winding road. At one point, we found that the path we usually follow was blocked, and in the course of navigating a detour, I spotted a sign that contained a lot of writing. I stopped to take a look.

All the structures in this photo are squatter dwellings, except, possibly, the three-storey building on the right.

I’d seen signs related to squatters before, notably the one announcing that a given slope is subject to landslide risk, and some dwellings have been scheduled for clearance. This one was different. There were a lot more words for a start, and I thought that these were worth recording:
  1. Squatter structures existing before 1982, as well as their uses, were surveyed and recorded by the government.
  2. Change in the use or unauthorized extensions will lead to demolition of the squatter structures concerned.
  3. New erections of squatter structures will be demolished, and offenders may be prosecuted.
  4. Residents are advised to contact their respective Squatter Control Offices for appropriate advice on any repairs before commencement of works to ensure that the works accord with the requirements.
  5. A territory-wide squatter occupancy survey was conducted by the government in 1984/85 whereby the squatters were registered. Coverage by this survey is one of the eligibility criteria for public rental housing when squatters are affected by clearances. However, the survey does not confer any right to anybody for the occupation of government land.
  6. Purchase of squatter structures is not protected by the law nor confers any rights to their occupants on clearance. Therefore, DO NOT purchase any squatter structures.
  7. Unauthorized occupation of squatter structures recovered by the government is liable to prosecution and eviction.
  8. If in doubt, please contact the District Squatter Control Office.
I frequently cycle through squatter areas, and I’d already noted that squatter dwellings have piped water and mains electricity connected, but I knew little else about the legal status of such structures, so this sign was quite an eye-opener.

Despite Article 3, I see new structures going up all the time, although any long-term resident of Hong Kong is unlikely to be surprised by my statement. For example, this fine house, located on the frontier road, is unlikely to have been built—and therefore surveyed—before 1984/85 (Article 5):

Although you cannot see them, there are four air-conditioning units on the right of the building, and three on the left, so it’s a fair guess that the interior will be surprisingly luxurious, even though the walls are merely industrial panelling. Note too the sign in front proclaiming government ownership of the land. I see scores of these signs, and as in this case they refer to a narrow strip of land that has been so designed to constrain development around it. It doesn’t refer to the land on which the house has been built.

However, it’s not difficult to find examples of squatters blatantly ignoring such signs:

I took this photo just a short distance from my house on the eastern outskirts of Fanling.

I should comment on Article 6, which admonishes readers not to purchase squatter structures. I know of at least one confidence trickster who scours the countryside looking for structures that have been abandoned. He renovates them and sells them on. Welcome to the Wild East.

Since discovering that first sign, I’ve noticed quite a few more, although there are none within easy walking distance of my house. This is the nearest, and also the first that I found, at the junction of Po Kat Tsai Road and Lau Shui Heung Road:

The curious thing about this location is that there do not appear to be any squatter dwellings in the immediate vicinity, although there are a lot of what I’ve described elsewhere as ‘quasi-industrial units’. I’ve since spotted a couple of signs east of Fanling in another area where there are only such industrial sites, and I now begin to wonder about the legal status of such premises.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

farmland fandango

The triangle of land between the Sheung Yue River to the northwest, the Shek Sheung River to the northeast and the Fanling Highway to the south is extensively cultivated. It is also considered environmentally sensitive, to the extent that the Kowloon–Canton Railway (KCR) was obliged to go underground when it wanted to construct a line to Lok Ma Chau. It also poses some keen route-finding problems for cyclists, because it is criss-crossed by an extensive network of narrow paths, many of which lead nowhere.

However, it is only recently that I’ve had to confront any of these problems. When I first ventured west of the main railway line in 2012 (Across the Tracks), I hardly ever strayed off the Drainage Services Department (DSD) access roads, although I did once cross the footbridge opposite the village of Ho Sheung Heung. It didn’t take long to reach a dead end, and I thence confined my cycling to the DSD access roads and Ho Sheung Heung Road.

A few months later, where the DSD access road running alongside the Sheung Yue River ended, I discovered a ramp leading up to Kwu Tung Road, which crosses the expressway and thus allows exploration further west. Paula then found that the footbridge over the expressway about 100 metres to the right of the end of the DSD access road provides an even better option, so whenever we did the journey to the west or the long and winding road, we would use the footbridge on the outward journey and the ramp on the return.

That state of affairs persisted until this winter, when—to cut a long story down to more manageable proportions—I wondered whether there was anything worth exploring to the east of these two crossing points. It didn’t take me long to find another footbridge across the expressway, but that was only the beginning of my problems. How was I to reach the DSD access roads?

However, at this point I propose to jump ahead to the ‘finished article’. It turns out to be possible to combine the various paths in a variety of different ways, but Paula and I are now agreed on the optimum sequence—for now! The following video stills illustrate the various choices that have to be made.

The first shows the approach to a T-junction. A turn right doesn’t lead to an abrupt dead end, but the path becomes increasingly difficult to follow, while the left-hand option is straightforward:

The choice at the next T-junction is far less obvious. A turn right here is perfectly viable, although it is less interesting than the left-hand option:

For a while, I did turn right here, then by a circuitous route came back around from the left, but repeating a section of path in the same direction is not allowed in my rulebook.

The path to the left leads eventually to a road that is in a direct line from the footbridge, although it almost immediately dwindles to a path winding through a cultivated area. This is the way I came when I first visited the area, when I was surprised to discover that such a well-made path led nowhere:

But there is a turn-right option before the path peters out:

The ‘circuitous route’ that I referred to earlier came this way in reverse.

The path now becomes rougher and more broken, but it’s a while before another choice has to be made:

The left-hand option becomes impassable almost immediately.

The next decision to be made isn’t long in coming:

It’s possible to continue straight on here, ultimately arriving at the same place, but that option involves a short section on a road accessible to motor vehicles.

When I first came to the next T-junction, I recognized the cross-path immediately, because I’d explored it from the DSD access road running along the left bank of the Shek Sheung River, so it was easy to choose to turn left:

The route turns right at the final T-junction, although during my earlier explorations I had checked out the left-hand option. I’ve been wondering if I missed something here though, because according to Google Maps—not usually a reliable source—there is a path hereabouts that leads across the farmland to Ho Sheung Heung via the footbridge I referred to earlier.

Whenever I’m exploring an area like this, I have a three-dimensional mental map that connects everything together. Paula, however, can only memorize the route itself, which means that it takes her longer to become familiar with it. Nevertheless, when I asked her two days ago whether she now felt confident to lead, she accepted my challenge. This is the video:

Didn’t she do well!

Even though some of the buildings that you see in this video are very substantial, they’re technically ‘squatter’ houses. This doesn’t mean that they’re illegal, but they cannot be bought and sold. The exceptions are the village houses—a legal definition—on the right between 3:20 and 3:35, and between 6:22 and 6:27, on the video.

Finally, a word about the title of this post: a fandango is a lively Spanish dance. I could have got the alliteration by describing this endeavour as a ‘foxtrot’, but ‘fandango’ is also a slang term for a foolish enterprise and thus seems more appropriate.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

photographic abstraction #26

Although I keep thinking that I won’t find enough suitable images to continue my series of abstract photographs, I’m still coming up with new ideas and new motifs. Of course, a lot of the images I produce—and reject—are too amorphous to allow me to suggest a meaning through a title, although I think that you will find the present collection both varied and interesting.

What is going on in the first picture? To me, it is a perfect illustration of chaos.

chaos theory

I believe that most people are familiar with Descartes’ famous dictum, cogito ergo sum (‘I think therefore I am’)—indeed, I’ve had it quoted at me on several occasions by someone trying to make a philosophical point, invariably without their realizing that this statement assumes that ‘mind’ and ‘body’ are somehow separate, which is probably an error. The most cogent rebuttal of Cartesian dualism was made by British philosopher Gilbert Ryle, who called it ‘the ghost in the machine’:

ghost in the machine

You don’t need me to point out that the next image isn’t hair, but it is something that’s been brushed. I can’t remember what though.

hair today, gone tomorrow

The impact was on the left, but the target was in the middle. In other words, the attacker missed:


The title I’ve given to the next image refers to the term’s cartographic usage rather than to remission of pain:


It isn’t often that an image is so striking that I simply have to get off my bike and take a photograph, but this is what happened with my final image, which I’ve named after one of the few musical acts of the twenty-first century that I consider worth listening to.

white stripes

recent posts in this series
Photographic Abstraction #21
Photographic Abstraction #22
Photographic Abstraction #23
Photographic Abstraction #24
Photographic Abstraction #25