Thursday, 29 January 2015


The Christmas holidays gave us a good opportunity to do the journey to the west, which with recent additions is now a 64km outing, three days in a row. This is an account of the chain of events that unfolded over these three days at a particular point on the route, and what it might mean in terms of the kinds of nefarious activity that take place below the radar of the local constabulary.

On the first day, we were following the dirt road that leads to the ‘link path’ described in Journey to the West when we encountered two men, one of whom said “Hello!” in the kind of voice that suggested he wanted to attract my attention but lacked the necessary English vocabulary. Naturally, I merely said “Hello” and continued on my way without slowing down, but Paula said that he’d muttered something about us being on private property.

This is nonsense, by the way, because there are two relatively active quasi-industrial units further along the track (complete with a full pack of guard dogs, which always provide a raucous greeting when we pass this way), and the presence of street lighting indicates that this is a public road. Whatever the truth of the man’s assertion, when we passed the same point on the second day, we were confronted by a locked gate, although we could squeeze our bikes through between the gatepost and the thicket on the right.

On the third day, the gate was wide open, but on all subsequent occasions it has been locked. However, there is an easy ride-around, not suitable for four-wheeled vehicles, to the left. It seems to me that we’ve uncovered some kind of extortion racket aimed at the various businesses further down the track, because they have no access when the gate is locked.

There are a couple of other observations that suggest skullduggery. The following photo, taken from a point next to the lamp-post seen in the photo above, shows what appears to be a bare, vacant lot. Early last year, however, I was puzzled to discover that someone appeared to be building village-style houses on this lot. Who, I wondered, would want to live in a location so remote? It was only when construction was finished that I realized the truth: three, fully functioning, three-storey stairwells, complete with glazing. The obvious assumption was that they were intended as a kind of showroom where a small-time builder could show prospective clients examples of his work, but here’s the rub: these structures were demolished during the summer. I suspect some kind of tax scam.

The other point to note is that I’ve seen police vans here. I imagine that it would have to be fairly serious for coppers to venture this far into such a network of roads, tracks and narrow alleyways, all of which are ultimately dead ends. Welcome to the wild east.

update: 28/12/2015
Shortly after I posted this account, the gate blocking the road was torn down, almost certainly not by the person who had erected it. The road remained open until last Saturday, when we were surprised to find it blocked by a locked gate again—with the ride-around no longer accessible.

Just as we arrived at the gate, a man appeared through the gap on the side to inform us that this was private property. I insisted that it wasn’t, which probably wasn’t a smart move, because he accused me of being rude. I thought it best to allow him to do all the talking, while I worked out the best way to get past him.

I believe it was the same man who attempted to accost us earlier in the year, and among the frequent references to ‘my land’ he had a few interesting things to say. For example, he claimed that the original gate had cost him more than HK$30,000, although as you can see from the above photo, if he paid one-fifth of that amount he was swindled. The photo below confirms that he has resurrected the old gate. He also mentioned that someone had called the police after finding the road blocked, but he boasted that all the local coppers knew him and therefore took no notice of the complaint.

I took the following photos six days after this encounter, and it looks as if somebody is in the process of constructing some kind of bypass. The first photo was taken as we arrived at the locked gate (compare this photo with the one illustrating the original post; the bypass had not been started when we encountered the ‘owner’), while the second shows what is happening on the other side.

In the original post, I referred to a missed photo opportunity, but there was a second missed opportunity around the same time. A short distance beyond the gate, but before the gate had been erected, I noticed that an area to the side of the track had been cleared and its perimeter defined by a fence of pressed steel panels. The area thus enclosed had been filled with neatly levelled coarse gravel, and it looked as if it would soon be opening for business of some kind. I meant to stop to take a photo, just as I meant to photograph the fake houses that were subsequently demolished. And now it’s too late: the site is choked with head-high weeds. I remain convinced that there are some dodgy goings-on around these parts.

update: 28/03/2016
The previous update to this post described our encounter with a man who claimed to be the owner of the land beyond the gate, and although I didn’t mention it, I felt sure at the time that he was handing us a line in bullshit. I can now confirm that I was correct in my assessment. Recently, we’d been unable to bypass the locked gate, because a steel-panel fence had been erected to the right of the gate to block onward progress completely. We had subsequently been obliged to turn back and take the alternative route described in Journey to the West: Part 3, which is the route we always follow on the return part of the journey.

However, a few weeks ago, we found the gate open, and when we reached the link path, we encountered a team of workers from the Water Supplies Department, which was in the process of installing a pipeline to supply premises in the area. I surmised that the gate had been left open to provide access for the team and its equipment, but I thought that once that work had been completed, the gate would again be locked. I was wrong. A week ago, when we were taking an Australian friend around the journey to the west, I was surprised (and delighted) to discover that the gate (and associated fencing) had disappeared completely. The following photograph, which I took today, explains why:

As the signs on each side of the track unequivocally point out, the land beyond the gate is government land! However, this may not be the end of the story. I’ve seen this kind of sign erected in other locations in an attempt to curb illicit activity, and if my observations in these cases are an accurate guide, the government officials who erected these signs are unlikely to come back to check whether anyone has taken notice. Welcome to the Wild East.

update: 28/12/2015
As I predicted (above), the previous update turned out, surprisingly quickly, not to be the end of the story. Since that update, we’ve ridden the journey to the west half a dozen times without incident, but last weekend we encountered a locked gate again:

This gate has been erected in a new location about 20 metres further down the track (the lamp-post seen in most of the above photos is the same one in each case). Although the government signs are still there, it’s possible that they refer only to the 20-metre strip between the locations of the old and new gates. However, the street lights indicate a public right of way, so I return to my original assessment, that the gate is illegal and is probably linked to some kind of extortion racket.

I shall be heading off to the UK next weekend, so there won’t be any more updates until October at the earliest, but I have no doubt that this story still has some way to run.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

the mystery of the chinese jars

Many situations, when first encountered, are strange enough to seem inexplicable, but a plausible explanation usually presents itself quite quickly, although plausibility is not a guarantee of accuracy. However, the mystery of the Chinese jars remains unexplained: all attempts that have been made to date have been unconvincing. Perhaps there is no explanation.

I’d been nosing around the rural sprawl on the other side of Sha Tau Kok Road, looking for interesting paths to follow, wondering where the ones that I found might lead. Was that a path between the two houses over there? No! It was just a narrow strip of broken ground that couldn’t possibly lead anywhere useful and was in any case impassable on a bike.

I turned away and continued my exploration elsewhere, but a thought kept nagging me: had I missed something when I looked for a path between the two houses? Eventually, I convinced myself that I should go back and take a second look.

I had been so certain about where to look for a path that I had failed to notice a path that headed off in a different direction. I chose this newly discovered option and followed it for about 20 metres, at which point, alongside a bend in the path, I came upon a pile of apparently discarded Chinese ceramic objects, mainly vases and jars. This is shown in the following photograph.

Only one of the objects is broken, so I deduce that each object was placed carefully on the pile, but why was the pile started in the first place? There are no pottery kilns in the neighbourhood, and there are no obvious clues as to who might be responsible for the pile, but there must have been a reason for its appearance. I suspect a supernatural motive, but I have no evidence to back up this hypothesis, so if anyone can throw some light on this baffling mystery, I would welcome their comments.

update: 20/01/2015
Although I had never seen anything like this collection of jars in more than 40 years in Hong Kong, last weekend I was walking up the ‘eastern descent’, something I’m not in the habit of doing, when I spotted a similar pile. I hadn’t noticed it previously, because with a sharp drop off both sides of the path, riding a bike here requires that one is fully focused only on the way ahead.

The items stacked here are earthenware pots rather than china jars and vases, and they have been stacked in a more orderly fashion than the items in the first pile, but this merely deepens the mystery. I do have one idea, which is probably completely fanciful: the Latin word for an earthenware pot is testa, from which the French word tête (head) is derived. And the first thought that occurred to me when I saw these testae was the old Mongol custom of piling up into pyramids the skulls of their defeated enemies. The Chinese would have known a thing or two about such practices, and they may well retain some folk memories of the atrocities suffered, commemorated in piles of pots. As I said, completely fanciful.

Friday, 9 January 2015

the design floor

Have you ever looked at or stumbled across something that made you wonder who had designed it, because the design was so obviously flawed that the only rational deduction to be made was that the designer was either insane or stupid, or both? It’s a feeling that I experience a lot, but my latest encounter with poor design leaves me incredulous, and also mystified that no one seems to have foreseen the problems it would create.

Public transport between my village and Fanling railway station is inadequate at peak times, so every weekday morning around 8 o’clock I drive Paula to the station. Once we have joined Sha Tau Kok Road, the first junction we encounter is the one shown in the following diagram, to which I’ve added compass points for the four roads feeding into the junction to make the problem easier to describe.

Work to modify the layout at this junction had been in progress throughout last winter and was finally completed during the summer. Basically, all that has been added are left-turn lanes from Sha Tau Kok Road in both directions, and the right-turn lane from the northeast has been lengthened. However, in the original layout, locals driving from the northeast knew to join the much longer queue in the left-hand lane, because the right-hand lane was blocked by traffic waiting to turn right. Curing this problem is the likely motive for changing the light sequence, but this has had unexpected consequences.

To illustrate the problem, I need to compare the old and the new light sequences. This is the old sequence:
1. Traffic from NE (left turn and straight ahead only); traffic from SW*.
2. All traffic from NE; traffic from NW (left turn only).
3. All traffic from NW.
4. All traffic from SE.
5. Universal pedestrian phase.
* Turning right is forbidden if coming from the southwest.
 This phase is activated only if someone presses the button—a given at this junction.
And this is the new:
1. All traffic from NE.
2. All traffic from NW.
3. All traffic from SE.
4. All traffic from SW (right turn prohibited).
There is no universal pedestrian phase in the new sequence, so pedestrians and cyclists negotiating this junction have to do so piecemeal, which is especially frustrating if your eventual destination is diagonally opposite your starting point. However, the first flaw in this arrangement drew my attention immediately: up to 90 percent of the traffic from the northwest, southeast and southwest (phases #2–#4) exits the junction to the northeast, and the next set of traffic lights is only about 300 metres away. Although the lights at this next junction are heavily biased towards traffic on the main road, here the pedestrian phase—if somebody has pressed the button—is quite long, and when this occurs traffic invariably backs up and clogs the junction that is the subject of this analysis.

If this had been my only criticism of the changes, it could plausibly be argued that one problem had been resolved (turning right from the northeast), and the replacement problem is not as serious. However, there has been another consequence of the changes that is dangerous and that needs to be addressed urgently. Traffic from the southeast, which will have come through Fanling’s industrial district, continues to pour out of the unnamed road up to 15 seconds after the lights have turned red! Some of this traffic is 40-foot container trucks, and some is smaller freight vehicles, but this lawless flow also includes coaches, minibuses and private cars, a point that I will return to presently.

This phenomenon (see photos below) only occurs during peak periods; during the day, there is sufficient time for all the traffic that is waiting its turn to get through the junction while the signal remains at green. This nonchalant red-light jumping is new; it never happened under the old system, and I think I know why.

Note that under the old system, phase #4 (traffic from the southeast) was followed by a universal pedestrian phase, so within a second or so of the little green men appearing on eight separate crossings, the junction was swarming with pedestrians and cyclists, many of whom were crossing the junction diagonally. Even an inveterate runner of red lights would think twice before finding themselves having to explain how they came to knock down several people who had decided to cross on the quite reasonable expectation that they wouldn’t encounter any traffic because all the little men were green.

Unfortunately, this incentive to stay behind the stop line once the red light has appeared no longer seems to apply, because traffic from the southwest, whose turn it should be, can be relied upon to wait patiently until the illicit backlog has cleared. But why should this behaviour have developed? And why is it so blatant? I return to an analysis of the traffic types, particularly the cars, coaches and minibuses, that emerge from this road. Where have they come from?

Anyone driving up from the south or from the other side of the railway, if they are not familiar with the lie of the land, will follow the conventional, signposted route, which involves turning right onto Sha Tau Kok Road at a light-controlled junction that isn’t particularly generous with the time allotted to traffic wanting to make this manœuvre. Driving through the industrial district avoids this junction, and a second set of traffic lights, before joining Sha Tau Kok Road. Clearly, such drivers have already developed a time-saving mindset, which translates into thinking that they still have time to cross the junction even though the light turned red several seconds ago.

This sequence of photos illustrates the difficulty of adequately recording this phenomenon. You have only my word that the black van in the first photo was behind the stop line when the light turned to red. It could have just turned, making this vehicle's position legitimate. However, it is easy to deduce that the yellow truck would have been crossing the stop line as the light changed. So where does that leave the driver of the black car in the third photo, who would have had more than enough time to stop?

This system has now been in operation for several months, and I would be astounded if the police were unaware of the current situation. But this would imply that they do know yet choose to do nothing about it. And what about the anonymous official who designed this new light sequence? Surely they would have been aware that the road through the industrial district is used as a rat run by local drivers and should thus have anticipated the possibility that those same drivers might disregard the lights. And did anyone think to tell the police, and/or the Highways Department, that the sequence had been changed and could someone monitor the situation for problems?

Soon after deciding to write about this phenomenon, I happened to see a public service announcement (PSA) on one of the local television channels reminding drivers that ‘we stop on amber’ and warning them that they faced a $500 fine (and five penalty points on their licence) for running a red light. In Breaking the Law, I highlighted the strange situation that exists on public minibuses, where passengers are warned that they face a fine of $5,000 (and three months in prison) if they fail to fasten their seat belts. Both warnings are equally often ignored, but it does seem bizarre that the authorities regard an act of stupidity that can only impact on the perpetrator as being ten times more serious than an act of stupidity that can result in someone else being killed.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

photographic abstraction #13

For my latest series of abstract images, I’ve increased the contrast and colour saturation of the original images well beyond the amount I usually apply, apart from Slime #2, which, unsurprisingly, comes from the same source as Slime #1 (Photographic Abstraction #11). I think you will agree that the effects are striking, although whether that is sufficient to validate these images as art is not for me to judge.

bright lights, big city


slime #2

red dwarf


recent posts in this series
Photographic Abstraction #9
Photographic Abstraction #10
Photographic Abstraction #12