Thursday, 5 April 2012

fire: the transforming element

Scientists believe that early hominids made use of fire as long ago as one million years. Of course, this is not to imply that these early cultures knew how to make fire, and there is no way of knowing how, in the first place, they learned how to use it, but this early use would have been contingent on tending naturally occurring fires from such as lightning strikes, whenever these occurred.

Nowadays, the equipment for making fire has been condensed into a small plastic vessel containing volatile fuel attached to a small device for generating a spark. Most people, if they were required to make fire from scratch, would be completely helpless, but because the task is now so easy using a device that can be purchased for pennies, it is easy to lose sight of the fundamental role of fire in early civilization. Without fire, potters could not have made their cups and bowls, metallurgists could not have extracted what we think of as common metals from their ores, and smiths could not have fashioned these metals into tools and weapons.

I have made these obvious and banal statements about fire because yesterday was one of the most important dates in the Chinese calendar, the festival of Ching Ming. This is the day when Chinese people traditionally pay their respects to their ancestors, principally by ensuring that the graves of these ancestors are neat and tidy (Ching Ming is referred to colloquially as the ‘grave-sweeping festival’). Many of these graves are on the hillsides of the New Territories, and part of the ritual involves the lighting of joss sticks and the burning of paper money, which the aforementioned ancestors can spend in the afterlife.

For as long as I can remember, the Hong Kong Observatory has always issued a red fire danger warning for Ching Ming, even when it rains heavily and the possibility of a hill fire is nil. However, yesterday was dry—we’ve had little rain for weeks—and there was a massive hill fire on the ridge overlooking our local river. I wasn’t aware of it until mid-afternoon, when Paula and I went out for a short bike ride, by which time a mile-wide swathe of hillside had been reduced to smouldering ashes. I had planned to return today to take some photos of the devastation, but—this is sod’s law in action—it has been raining heavily all day.

And this is my reason for starting this post by bemoaning the ease with which fire can be produced nowadays. The hillside that went up in flames is peppered with graves, and it is absolutely certain that the fire started with the careless burning of paper money using a cheap pocket lighter. One can but marvel at the boundless stupidity of some people.

Although I was unable to take any pictures of the fire itself, work was still in progress to try to put it out. I took the following photograph of a helicopter refilling its ‘bucket’ from the local river to help douse the flames. I can’t help wondering whether it caught any fish, because the river is full of them.


  1. Hi Dennis!
    I live in a part of the world that is ALWAYS under a fire alert. In this area, if it's not burning or shaking, it's in a mud slide!
    At least there are no tornados...

  2. Hi Pat. Long time, no see. We don’t get tornadoes here either, but we do get typhoons and the mother of all thunderstorms from time to time.

  3. Sounds like you'd end up with some fried fish:)

  4. Actually Bryan, after writing this it occurred to me that the noise of the chopper would panic the fish into heading for deeper water!

  5. Hello Dennis. Wonderful website (I don't like the word 'blog') - by far the best personal site I've read since moving here at the beginning of February from Indonesia.
    On the subject of fish, when I was staying with friends in Sai Kung I encountered two John Dory fish lying on the ground - one on the doorstep - presumably both were dropped by seabirds because of the spikes.
    Now I'm up in Tai Po, doing my own 'blog' about all sorts...
    This Ching Ming festival you mention... I wonder if you could clarify your opinion as to the extent to which the locals actually believe in this stuff. Is is 'just' a tradition for most people here or does a large proportion of HK society really believe that burnt money could be used in an afterlife?

  6. Hello Dennis. Wonderful website... by far the best I have stumbled upon since moving here from Indonesia in February.
    On the subject of fish, when I was staying with friends in Sai Kung I encountered two John Dory fish lying on the ground - one on the doorstep - presumably having been dropped by seabirds because of the spikes.
    I'm up in Tai Po now, doing my own blog about all sorts...
    I wonder if you could explain the extent to which you think local people here genuinely believe that ancestors can use burnt money... how strong is this kind of belief in HK society? In Jakarta, pretty much every local I met genuinely believed in ghosts and had 'examples'. I'd be fascinated to hear how widespread you think this belief in the supernatural is here in relatively rational Hong Kong.

  7. Hi Daniel. Thanks for stopping by. Ching Ming is indeed a major festival here in Hong Kong, and I doubt that so many people would be visiting remote graves to light joss sticks and burn paper money if they didn’t believe. Belief in the efficacy of fung shui is certainly widespread (even the Hongkong Bank [HSBC] took it into account in the design of its new headquarters—at the time the world’s most expensive building—in the 1980s). However, there is little or none of the animism (belief in tree spirits, etc.) that you would have encountered in Southeast Asia.

  8. Castle peak behind us also went up with a fury - thankfully the wind was blowing away from Chez M.....


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