Thursday, 20 January 2022

egad! extraordinary egret expanse

Egrets are very common in aquatic environments in Hong Kong, especially around the fish ponds along the border west of Fanling and in the Kam Tin River—but only at low tide in the river. We frequently see groups of 30–40 individuals in the Kam Tin River, but we were unprepared yesterday for the sight that confronted us as we cycled along San Tin Tsuen Road.

This road, which circles around the northern and western edges of the group of villages collectively known as San Tin, carries so little traffic that there’s a point where we always encounter three or four dogs sleeping in the middle of the road! San Tin is worth a visit because it contains several historical buildings (New Fields), but we invariably follow this bypass because our objective lies much further west, and the design of the recently completed cycle track connecting Sheung Shui and Yuen Long, which avoids San Tin to the south, is a disjointed dog’s breakfast, so we use it only where we haven’t been able to find an alternative.

We’d started yesterday’s bike ride east of Fanling so that we could follow the Hok Tau country trails, after which we decided to continue along what we always refer to as ‘the frontier road’ on our way west. I’d described this road, which used to be another quiet ride with minimal traffic, as ‘like a rural cart track’ in a recent post as a result of damage caused by heavy construction vehicles, to be avoided if possible, but while I was out of action last month, Paula had ridden along it and reported that the damaged sections had been resurfaced, so I wanted to see whether that meant we could start using it again. We could.

From the western end of the frontier road, it’s necessary to follow Lok Ma Chau Road, which leads to a major crossing point into China, and it usually carries a lot of high-speed traffic, but the border has been closed since the start of the pandemic, and we’ve been using it during this period. We shall have to find an alternative once the border reopens though.

Anyway, the next section is San Tin Tsuen Road, which you can see on this map:
When we reached the fish pond marked by an X on the map, we were staggered to see hundreds of egrets. The pond had been drained—the egrets wouldn’t have been there otherwise—so we stopped to take a few photos. This is a view of the northeastern corner of the pond:
Not an exceptional number of birds here, or so you might think, but there is a high wire-mesh fence between the pond and the road, restricting the view. And there is quite a lot of vegetation in the way, although I deliberately included the bougainvillea in the next photo because, well, I like bougainvillea:
Despite the trees, you can get some idea of how many egrets there were here from this photo:
Having taken the previous photos, we continued on our way, but within a short distance the vegetation on the bank had been cleared, and we could therefore get a better view, so we stopped again:
Like all the photos I took yesterday, the previous photos are the view looking northeast.

At this point, Paula asked a question:

“Why are there so many egrets here?”

I thought that she was looking to me for an explanation, but she’d just spotted several fish floundering around the edge of the pond, which clearly didn’t have enough water for them to survive indefinitely. And they were therefore easy prey for the egrets—the avian equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel.

All the remaining photos are general views of the pond followed by enlarged versions of the area of interest. This is the first:
…the second:
…and the third:
As I mentioned, one of the reasons that I was able to take such clear photos of the egret population in the pond was the absence of vegetation on the near bank, but there was another factor—only in Hong Kong. There were a couple of chairs next to the fence—we’ve often seen people sitting there—and by standing on one I was able to position my camera above the fence. The first photos above were taken with my camera held at arm’s length above my head!

There was just one minor disappointment. Although we usually continue beyond the end of San Tin Tsuen Road, our intention this time, because we’d started ‘out east’, was to double back once we’d reached the end of the road. As we approached the western corner of the pond, we spooked more than a hundred egrets, which immediately took flight. I’d love to have captured that on video. Maybe next time.

Wednesday, 12 January 2022

historical sites in sheung shui

When I wrote about a morning walk a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that we had detoured through northeast Sheung Shui on the way home because I knew that there were historical buildings in the area that Paula hadn’t seen, but I also wrote that a detailed account of these buildings would be held over for a separate post. Well, this is it.

Whenever we cycle out west, we have to negotiate an underground cycle track interchange that corresponds with the junction of Jockey Club Road and Po Shek Wu Road, both of which carry heavy traffic. The interchange is effectively a T-junction, and when we turn off the cycle track that runs alongside Jockey Club Road to come down to the junction, we turn left to follow the cycle track that runs alongside Po Shek Wu Road. You can see the roundabout that marks the road junction towards the southeast corner of this map:
I used to wonder where a right turn at the T-junction would lead to, and one day, a few years ago, I decided to find out. In fact, the cycle track comes to an end the moment it reaches ground level, but it continues as a narrow lane, so I followed that. This is the first building of interest that I came across:
This is the former Sheung Shui police station, which was built in 1902, three years after the signing of the lease that granted Britain control of the New Territories for 99 years. It is now a Junior Police Call clubhouse. Except where indicated, all the photos that I’ve used in this post were taken during our recent visit, and I didn’t recall seeing it during my earlier exploration, but when I looked at the photos that I took during that initial visit (see below), I found that I had indeed photographed it then. Incidentally, Fanling and Sheung Shui were once separate population centres, but they are now contiguous, and I've no idea where the boundary between the two is located, but the modern-day Sheung Shui police station is actually in Fanling!

The entire area is filled with densely packed village houses—a legal definition stemming from the 1972 Small House Policy, which stipulated that any male who could trace their descent, through the male line, to males who had lived in the area prior to 1898 had the right to build a house, a right known as ding. The policy also stipulated that such houses must be no more than three storeys high, with a maximum footprint of 700 square feet. The stated aim was to improve the housing stock in the New Territories, although I had always thought that it was intended to halt the depopulation of the New Territories.

As you might guess, the policy has always been controversial, not least because it was blatantly sexist. It has also been fertile ground for corruption. In the village where we lived between 2005 and 2008, the native villagers scoured Europe to trace former residents of the village who had emigrated to work in Chinese restaurants there. No need to come back to Hong Kong: we will make an application on your behalf and build the house; then, when we sell it, we will forward you the money, less commission. The houses in that village were built very close together, albeit nowhere near as close as the houses in the area I’m describing here. You can see what I mean by a quick glance at the following satellite photo:
There are no fewer than nine ‘separate’ villages in the relatively small area northwest of the roundabout, although you would be hard-pressed to locate any boundaries between them nowadays.

Continuing north from the former police station, the next point of interest is the Liu Ming Tak Tong Ancestral Hall:
It was originally built in the early nineteenth century, but—I didn’t know it at the time of our recent visit—it was completely demolished in 1972 and rebuilt the following year with only the granite door frame retained from the original structure.

The next photo shows the dong chung, the wooden panel just inside the doorway that is there to prevent the ingress of evil spirits:
…and this is the central courtyard:
The rear hall of an ancestral hall always contains what are known as ‘soul tablets’, the earthly representations of important former members of the local clan:
Each horizontal row represents a single generation.

Notice the blue panels on each side of the soul tablets. This is a closer look:
They depict a phoenix (on the left) and a dragon (on the right), reflecting the female and male principles, respectively. At least I thought it was a dragon when I took the photo, but when I looked at the photo later, I saw that it is in fact a lungma, a cross between a dragon and a horse, although it doesn’t look remotely fierce, as these mythical creatures are supposed to be.

Directly in front of the Liu Ming Tak Tong Ancestral Hall is another historical building, facing in the same direction. At the time of my original visit, this hall was closed, and all I could do was photograph the door gods. I identified it as the Liu Ying Lung Study Hall, probably from Wikipedia, which still holds to this definition, but as you will see, it’s more like an ancestral hall. Study halls, which were once used to prepare candidates for the imperial civil service examination, didn’t have ceremonial drum platforms on each side of the entrance. It was built in 1838:
And this is the dong chung:
…while this is the central courtyard:
I did wonder about the reason for all the plastic stools, although it was obvious that their purpose was to prevent visitors from entering the area they enclosed. In fact, the roof is currently in quite a parlous state:
This is a look inside the rear hall:
Unlike the Liu Ming Tak Tong Ancestral Hall, this hall also features soul tablets in the alcoves on each side of the main shrine. These are usually reserved for clan members who have excelled in virtue (on the left), or made an important contribution to the clan or attained high rank in the imperial court. On that basis though, the three ancestors commemorated in the right-hand alcove must have been really high achievers:
Notice the object in the bottom right of the photo. I thought it was worth a closer look:
It appears to depict a line of people lining up to pay homage to the seated man on the right, although the man who is first in line is wearing a winged hat, a sign that he is of high rank in the imperial bureaucracy. And he appears to be holding a glass aloft as if proposing a toast. I’ve no idea why the woman is wearing what appears to be a feathered headdress, but the short man behind her is clearly striking an aggressive kung fu pose. The line of supplicants extends through the doorway (the absence of heads probably reflects damage rather than anything sinister).

Continuing north from the two ancestral halls, the next place of interest is Sheung Shui Wai (wai is Cantonese for ‘walled enclosure’). This is the southern entrance:
Although the label ‘Sheung Shui Wai’ appears to have been extended to almost the entire area, this is the only genuine wai hereabouts. It’s incredibly small (only about 20 metres square), and there isn’t a gatehouse, but it does feature a traditional bow-shaped Chinese gable end to a house just right of the entrance:
And there’s another on the opposite side of the wai:
…while this is the north entrance:
From this entrance, it’s possible to see the rear of the Liu Man Shek Tong Ancestral Hall, which was built in 1751:
I’ve used the photo I took on my earlier visit because the hall is currently undergoing extensive renovation, and the elaborate doorway on the left, which provided access to a narrow alleyway running alongside the hall, appears to have gone.

I took the following photo of the front elevation on a subsequent visit (see below) to take more photos. I’ve preferred it to the one I took when with Paula because this hall, as the only ‘declared monument’ in the area, is closed on Tuesdays, and this photo therefore shows the door gods:
Because of the renovation, we weren’t able to access the second and third halls—the view from the entrance across the first courtyard is just bamboo scaffolding and industrial sheeting, so I couldn’t take more photos inside, but this is the dong chung:
However, there are attractive friezes directly above the drum platforms on the front of the hall:
I’ve rotated the images to provide a better view, first on the left:
…and then on the right:
As you can see, they are traditional Chinese landscape paintings.

A short distance from the front of the Liu Man Shek Tong Ancestral Hall is a feature that I didn’t recall seeing on my earlier visit:
This is the gatehouse of Wai Loi Tsuen. According to Wikipedia:
Wai Loi Tsuen is a walled village.
No it isn’t! It was a walled village, but apart from this gatehouse, and a back gate:
…absolutely nothing now remains of the walls, which were probably demolished at some time during the past fifty years to make room for new houses. Judging by their designs, most of the houses around the perimeter were built after the introduction of the Small House Policy in 1972, although I did spot a two-storey house with a carved date plaque of 1968—putting the date on the front elevation of a house was a common practice in the 1950s and 1960s. I’ve seen a photograph, taken in 1950, that showed the walls, which looked imposing, although you can get some idea of how high they were by looking at the photo of the gatehouse.

Wai Loi Tsuen is the area’s original settlement, probably established in the sixteenth century. The walls were built in 1646/47. Unusually, however, the village still retains part of its original defensive moat, which is the crescent-shaped body of water on the above map:
I’d seen this on my earlier visit, but I’d assumed that it was merely an ornamental lake—there’s a park on the other side of the water from the village, and such lakes were a common feature of Victorian urban parks in England. However, it’s rare for defensive moats to have survived. The wai in the village where I live is surrounded on all four sides by car parks, because you can make money by filling in the moat then charging residents to park their cars.

Unlike Fanling Wai, where the central alley from the gatehouse to the rear entrance is distinctly claustrophobic, the central thoroughfare in Wai Loi Tsuen qualifies as a lane:
…although all the side alleys are a tight squeeze:
*  *  *
There’s a curious postscript to this story. A few days after our visit to the area, Paula and I were walking past the Tsz Tak Study Hall, near Fanling Wai. The doors of this hall are always closed, and as we walked past, I glanced at the door gods. I thought immediately that they had changed. The unconventional weaponry being toted by these ‘guardians at the gate’ hadn’t changed, but there was definitely something not quite right.

Consequently, when we got home, I checked my archives. I’d included a photo of these door gods in More Door Gods #2—and they had indeed changed—but I noticed that, in addition to the door gods on the buildings I’ve described above, I’d also included a photo of what I’d labelled ‘temple in sheung shui’ in this collection. I had a vague memory of photographing four pairs of door gods on the same day, so I went back to the area to look for this elusive temple, without success. But I did find the ‘temple’ when I returned home. When I looked at the other photos that I’d taken in May 2015, I realized that I’d also taken the photo of the door gods guarding the Tsz Tak Study Hall on the same day. And then it dawned on me: I’d mistakenly identified the Liu Ming Tak Tong Ancestral Hall as a temple. I hadn’t known that it had been demolished and rebuilt, and it certainly doesn’t look like an ancestral hall—ancestral halls don’t have windows, and there are no recessed drum platforms.

Saturday, 8 January 2022

the wow! factor

If you were to ask me what I love most about Hong Kong, my reply would be that I never know what I might encounter whenever I leave the house. Of course, this doesn’t mean that I will see something strange or unusual every time I leave the house, but it certainly happened yesterday.

Paula and I were cycling ‘out west’ yesterday, and as we always do, we stopped at the point where we first reach the Kam Tin River, just upstream from the confluence of the river with a major (but unnamed) tributary. I always take a few photos—this is a typical estuarine environment, and at low tide there are always lots of birds. In addition to the usual complement of herons and egrets, I’ve photographed cormorants and spoonbills here too, and a couple of months ago, we spotted an albino cormorant in flight.

At one time, we never saw anyone else here, but it’s recently become a popular vantage point for serious wildlife photographers armed with 1,000mm telephoto lenses. There were three or four there yesterday, and while I was taking a few photos, something suddenly attracted their attention.

“Look!” said Paula, noting the bird’s long, narrow beak. “It’s a kingfisher.”

She had expected to see a gaudy display of colour, but this appeared to be just black and white. We often see kingfishers on our local river, but they are either just perching on an overhead wire or merely flying past. This one was hovering about 15 metres above the water, then, suddenly, it plunged into a vertical dive, pulling out just before it would have hit the water, presumably because the fish it had had its eyes on had disappeared. We saw this process repeated at least half a dozen times, and each time I could hear the motor drives of the cameras around me taking several shots each second. Paula did manage to capture the hover-and-dive routine in one short video, but the subject was too small for the video to be worth posting, although she was able to enlarge the video on her phone for us to watch and marvel at.

When we eventually got back home, I was able to identify this bird as a pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis)—apparently, the hover-and-dive routine is ‘distinctive’ of the species.

Yet this was not the ‘strange and unusual’ experience of the day!

We continued upstream as far as the first bridge across the river, where we crossed to the other side to follow a Drainage Services Department (DSD) access road. Just before the river divides into two, we encountered a large crowd of photographers lining the bank. Although we didn’t stop, the focus of attention appeared to be large numbers of mandarin ducks in the shallow water.

Our focus, naturally, was on cycling, and we were heading for the village of Shui Mei, where there is a public toilet and a shelter where we could sit down for a few minutes. I’m still rebuilding after a four-week lay-off occasioned by a serious back injury, and our next objective would be the five ‘outer limits’ narrow paths. We had done paths #3 and #4 earlier in the week, but I wanted to add paths #1, #2 and #5 this time, because they present quite a challenge—and they’re a lot of fun to ride.

After we had returned to the resting point in Shui Mei, it was time to head home. There are three options from here to the cycle track that we follow for part of the way: the short way simply follows Shui Mei Road, an option that we rarely take, while the route we usually follow continues straight on along an unnamed road where Shui Mei Road turns left. After crossing a bridge over a small stream, there is a short alleyway that leads to the start of Sha Po Tsuen Road, which is a one-way road that carries little traffic and leads to a recently discovered subway under the main road hereabouts to the cycle track.

However, there is a longer option. If we continue along the unnamed road, we come eventually to Fung Kat Heung Road, where we turn right (east). This road does lead to some industrial premises, but traffic isn’t heavy, and after a short distance, we reach the start of a long sequence of narrow alleyways. This was the plan yesterday, partly so that I could continue to monitor how my back was holding up on bumpy paths and partly so that we could add to the overall distance of the ride.

Just before we reached the start of the alleyways, Paula, who was behind me at the time, suddenly shouted.

“Turn back!”

Oh dear, I thought, I wonder what the problem is. However, while I’d been focused on the road ahead, Paula had had time to look around, and when I’d backtracked about 20 metres, this is what I saw at the top of an embankment on the north side of the road:
The two white objects looked like skeletons, but how could we take a closer look? However, there was a way to scramble up to the platform at the top of the embankment:
Paula thought that the creature on the left was a hippopotamus, but when I climbed up to take a closer look and take a front-on photo—and discovered that there were two—I thought that they looked more like a couple of cats:
The ox has had one of its horns broken off:
It’s lying next to its left foreleg.

The subjects of the next two photos are a couple of Chinese lions. At least, I think so, although it’s difficult to make much sense of these images.
Paula thinks that the reclining figure in the next photo is Buddha, and I cannot offer any identification of the statuette in the background:
Nor can I be certain of identifying the next carving, which was simply lying on the ground, but I think it’s a scaly anteater, or pangolin:
The next photo contains a clutter of smaller items. The object in the foreground appears to be bookended by two fish, the symbol of longevity in Chinese culture, but I cannot identify either the mustachioed man with the skullcap or the bald old woman on the left. There is a bas-relief of Buddha behind the old woman, and a bas-relief carving of some kind of mythical beast behind the man, as well as what appear to be several empty plinths:
The final two photos are of what I’d thought from the road were skulls:
Both appear to be some kind of horrifying sea serpent. The second photo also includes more empty plinths.

There is a mystery to clear up here. I’d already conjectured that the objects that I’ve photographed here were some kind of salvage from demolished buildings, but where did they come from? And why did they end up on the top of a roadside embankment?

I have a theory. According to Google Maps, this road, which is a dead end, leads eventually to Po Kwong Monastery. A few years ago, I cycled to the end of the road looking for this monastery but was unable to find it. However, according to a review on Google Maps—the English auto-translation is somewhat garbled—it has been demolished. So that is a plausible answer to the first question, but there appears to be no way to answer the second. Nevertheless, this whole enigma certainly fits the description ‘strange and unusual’.

The remainder of the ride home was a bit of a slog, but we did record the longest bike ride of the winter to date: 83.7km.