Friday, 31 October 2014

the three immortals

You don’t have to go far, in places where the Chinese have a significant presence, before you encounter a group of three ceramic figurines of venerable Chinese gentlemen. These are Fuk, Luk and Sau (the Cantonese names for these characters), collectively known as the three immortals. They are found in temples, in restaurants, in shops and in many Chinese homes, and they have huge symbolic cultural significance.

The first thing to note about the figures in the above photograph, which was taken at the same place as the first photograph in A Baker’s Dozen, is that they aren’t placed in the traditional order. Tradition requires that Luk stand in the centre, but here he stands on the left, while Sau, who should be on the left, is in the centre. These three figurines were not there when the first picture was taken earlier this year, and it is certainly odd to see them standing atop a pile of junk.

Fuk, Luk and Sau represent what the Chinese consider to be the three most desirable characteristics of an ideal life: good luck, prosperity and longevity.

Fuk is a scholar who is usually depicted holding a scroll in one hand and a small child in the other. He is regarded as the personification of good fortune, although it would make more sense for him to represent knowledge or wisdom.

Luk translates as the salary paid to a government official, and he was often seen as the tutelary deity of candidates for the imperial civil service examinations. He wears the winged hat of a court official, and nowadays he represents prosperity.

Sau, the old man with the domed forehead, obviously represents longevity. He always carries a peach, which in Chinese folklore is the symbol of a long life. One of the best-known exploits of the monkey king, the central character in Journey to the West and one of the most popular characters in Chinese folklore, is his theft of the peaches of immortality from the heavenly peach orchard (and scoffing the lot). The following picture is a still from Havoc in Heaven, a feature-length animated movie that was produced by the Shanghai Animation Studio in the 1960s, that shows this incident.

Peach blossom is also a symbol of longevity, and small peach trees are bought by many Chinese families as part of their new year celebrations. The following photograph shows a plantation of such trees a couple of kilometres south of Fanling. Like the European Christmas tree, these peach trees are sawn off close to the base and therefore cannot be reused the following year. Note that some of the trees are much bigger than the others, which means that they weren’t sold the previous year. However, bigger trees always fetch higher prices, so the grower can’t lose.

Of course, all this is mere superstition, although in saying so it is not my intention to denigrate Chinese folk beliefs, because I’m only too aware of the dozens of irrational notions that are native to my own country. However, the number of people there who touch wood for luck, who believe that it is unlucky to walk under a ladder or who deem it prudent to stay in bed whenever the thirteenth day of a month falls on a Friday has probably declined steadily in recent decades, while belief in the efficacy of the three immortals does not appear to have dimmed in the forty years I’ve been associated with Hong Kong.

Monday, 20 October 2014

a dangerous arrangement

Management of the rivers in the northern New Territories is the responsibility of the Drainage Services Department (DSD), which has overseen the canalization of these waterways to reduce the possibility of flooding. In order to maintain such an elaborate flood defence system, the DSD built access roads along the banks of the rivers, but the way these roads are used now varies from river system to river system.

The access road running alongside our local river is very popular with organized cycling groups.

For example, the access road along our local river is blocked by locked gates, so only authorized motor vehicles can gain access. In theory, cyclists and pedestrians are not allowed on these roads either—there are lots of warning signs—but in a classic case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, the Home Affairs Department decided to build a number of sheltered seating areas along the access road soon after we came to live in Fanling in 2008, presumably for use by the cyclists and pedestrians who are not supposed to be there. The local district board then installed solar-powered street lighting (Owt Fresh?) in the summer of 2011. This informal arrangement works.

The access road that runs alongside the Sheung Yue River has speed bumps that are close enough together to deter reckless speeding.

However, when you cross the main railway line, you will find that the DSD access roads around the Sheung Yue River catchment are accessible to motor vehicles and are widely used by locals. Nevertheless, these roads are safe to cycle on, provided that cyclists ride sensibly, which isn’t always the case. The main reason for this is the provision of speed bumps every couple of hundred metres, so dangerous driving is a rarity.

Contrast these arrangements with those in operation in the Kam Tin River catchment. All the access roads are accessible to anyone, the only restriction being that some roads are designated one-way only. There are no speed limits, other than the territory-wide limit of 50km/hr on such roads, which is widely ignored here.

I’ve chosen to highlight four main problem areas. All four of the roads in question are single-track roads, and three are one-way.

Although it isn’t marked on this map, Yau Pok Road is one-way from B, the entrance to Fairview Park, to A. When I first came this way, I noted the ‘no entry’ signs at A, so I decided that I should follow Kam Pok Road, on the opposite side of the river. However, the constant stream of trucks and coaches roaring past at ridiculous speeds has meant that, on safety grounds, I now follow Yau Pok Road in both directions.

Yau Pok Road, looking upstream. This photo provides a good reflection of traffic conditions here.

Earlier this year, I was cycling from B to A when I noticed a policeman on a motorcycle crossing one of the two bridges across the river and continuing down Yau Pok Road. He stopped to reprimand two groups of pedestrians who were walking on the road rather than the footpath before stopping a teenage boy who was cycling the ‘wrong’ way. I don’t know what happened, but my guess is that the boy was handed a fixed penalty notice for his indiscretion. Should someone try to give me a ticket on this section, then I will refuse to pay, whatever the consequences. It seems completely unreasonable to me that anyone be penalized for putting personal safety before what they are legally required to do.

In any case, there are no houses or business premises along this road, so the only motor vehicles that need to use it are DSD vehicles trying to access the gates that lead down to the river. I therefore recommend that locked gates be installed across the two bridges and that Yau Pok Road be designated for use by pedestrians and cyclists only, in both directions. There is already a removable barrier at B.

Shortly after passing the entrance to Fairview Park, the route reaches Pok Wai South Road, which for part of its length runs alongside the Kam Tin River. It is the only road I’m highlighting here where traffic is permitted in both directions.

The main problem on this road is the roadside barriers, which are clearly shown in the following photograph:

Pok Wai South Road, looking north from B.

The tubular steel rails are obviously there to protect pedestrians, but their positioning, coupled with the broken line of kerbstones, make this a dangerous road for cyclists. The traffic on this road is fairly light, but there are similar roads in the area, such as the one on the opposite side of the river in the photo, that pose a significant risk to cyclists. The danger comes from cars travelling in the opposite direction. Most drivers keep well to the left, but a significant minority leave huge gaps—up to 150cm—on the left of their vehicles, which means that, inevitably, the clearance offered to an approaching cyclist is 15cm, or even less. And that doesn’t include protruding wing mirrors!

Having experienced this blatant lack of consideration on a couple of occasions where the approaching vehicle was travelling well in excess of the speed limit, and having noted the singular lack of an escape route should the driver of the oncoming vehicle misjudge his line, I now avoid all other such roads in the area, but there is no viable alternative to following Pok Wai South Road in both directions. Naturally, I favour the removal of all these roadside barriers, but traffic enforcement by the police to curb speeding and other forms of dangerous driving is also essential.

The final two dangerous sections present broadly similar problems. In each case, the road in question is used as a ‘rat run’, a convenient way of avoiding the traffic on Kam Tin Road (most clearly seen in the case of Kam Tai Road). The problem is the speed at which such vehicles travel—up to 100km/hr is far too common, and few drivers give cyclists a reasonable amount of room when overtaking. Far too many appear to regard cyclists as fixed rather than moving hazards.

An added difficulty on Kam Tai Road is the cyclists riding in the wrong direction, which appears to be a common habit here (the majority of offenders seem to be locals rather than recreational cyclists from outside the area). It may seem perverse to complain about people cycling the wrong way down a one-way road, having advocated just such behaviour in the case of Yau Pok Road (above). However, Yau Pok Road carries almost no traffic, so the one-way designation is entirely arbitrary, while Kam Tai Road carries quite a lot of traffic, much of which travels at insane speeds. Given how narrow this road is, anything coming the wrong way presents a serious hazard to other vehicles of both the two-wheeled and four-wheeled varieties.

Chi Ho Road between A and B is even more dangerous (east of A, the road is much wider and therefore safer), largely because drivers show little respect for cyclists. I therefore suggest that speed bumps be installed on both Kam Tai Road and Chi Ho Road, and more enforcement by the police on these roads would also be welcome.

In case anyone has gained the impression that I’m thinking only of my own convenience by highlighting the dangers of cycling around the Kam Tin River catchment, I should point out that this area is extremely popular with recreational cyclists, especially at weekends. I have no idea how often there are serious accidents involving cyclists here, but I would expect such incidents to be far too common given the way that some people drive on these roads. Something does need to be done.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

odd one out

I’ll be setting off back to Hong Kong early tomorrow morning, which means that I’ll be offline for a couple of days. As usual, here is one of my convoluted little puzzles to amuse (or frustrate) you while I’m incommunicado.
What connects the following?
• A TV hospital drama.
• A literary detective.
• Fluff.
• A type of comic verse.
• A nineteenth-century English poet.
Having established the connection, you then have to determine which is the odd one out, and why. This is probably the easier part of the question.

If you haven’t seen this kind of puzzle before, you need to turn what are general clues into specific answers. For example, is the English poet Wordsworth? Coleridge? Keats? Tennyson? Or someone else? The right overall answer can only be found by comparing lists of answers for the individual clues, but once you have a match between two clues, the rest should fall into place quite easily.

As usual, I will acknowledge all correct answers, but I won’t actually publish an answer for a few weeks, to give other readers a chance to work it out for themselves. Can anyone come up with the answer before I get back online?

spoiler alert
Correct solution submitted below.

similar puzzles
A Hard Question
What’s the Connection?

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

photographic abstraction #12

There is a cosmic theme to this latest instalment in my photographic abstraction series, although that could simply be my imagination, and you might well see different things in these images. The source of these pictures should be obvious, except for Pisces, the origin of which I defy anyone to guess.


exploding galaxy


event horizon

worm hole

other posts in this series
Photographic Abstraction
Photographic Abstraction #2
Photographic Abstraction #3
Photographic Abstraction #4
Photographic Abstraction #5
Photographic Abstraction #6
Photographic Abstraction #7
Photographic Abstraction #8
Photographic Abstraction #9
Photographic Abstraction #10
Photographic Abstraction #11