Saturday, 31 December 2016

literally literary

Some years ago, a friend asked me to devise a puzzle based on English literature for his daughter. The requirement was that it would require some research. If you find yourself with nothing better to do on the eve of 2017, or you want to numb your brain with something other than alcohol in order to forget the horrors of 2016, you might like to try this literary puzzle:
What is the connection between the following five clues? And on this basis, which is the odd one out?
•  Behaviour described by Gaveston in Act the first, Scene I of Edward the Second by Christopher Marlowe.
•  The last speech by Miranda in The Tempest by William Shakespeare.
•  A line from Samson Agonistes by John Milton.
•  The advice provided in Meditation XVII by John Donne.
•  A definition of ‘the infinite’ from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake.
All the relevant material is available online, if required.

If you would prefer something that doesn’t involve research, then you might like to try An English Question or Out of Order #2, the first of which has not had a correct solution submitted to date.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

from ridiculous to sublime

Ever since I posted The Three Immortals two years ago, I’ve been looking for examples of these tutelary deities to illustrate how widely they can vary in representation, and I’m now in a position to present a selection of photos of this trio.

I’ll start with a photo taken in the next village to where I live. The unusual aspect of this example is the uniformity in dress, although red is considered the lucky colour in Chinese culture:

However, each figure carries traditional accoutrements. Thus Fuk, who here is standing in the centre and who represents good luck, carries a small child, while Luk (on the left), the symbol of prosperity, carries a gold ingot and wears the winged hat of an imperial court official. It’s worth noting that the Chinese traditionally equated having a member of the family in the imperial civil service with prosperity, which in the modern era would be seen as corrupt. Sau, the old man, holds a peach, the traditional symbol of longevity, in his left hand.

I discovered the next set in the same place as the grouping I used to illustrate The Three Immortals. It’s appropriate to describe these three figures as a set, because the colours obviously match. Note that the figures are standing on a wooden bench seat, which would not be unusual in an indoor setting, but this location is next to a road junction, which may or may not be significant.

In this image, the three are in their traditional positions, although Fuk is not carrying a small child. However, he does hold a scroll in his right hand, representing the quality I have previously suggested he personifies: wisdom. Luk does not wear a winged hat here, but his headgear is obviously more opulent than that worn by Fuk. Sau carries the peach of immortality in his right hand, but I have no idea whether that is significant either.

I came across this next chaotic grouping in a completely unexpected location: on bare ground underneath an ornamental tree. These figures are the smallest in this collection, probably no more than 30cm high:

You should, by now, be able to identify who is who.

You may by now be wondering about the title of this post. Well, take a look at this next photograph:

This display was erected outside Belair Monte, a downmarket housing estate on the eastern edge of Fanling, for Chinese New Year in 2015. The phrase ‘cheap and tacky’ springs immediately to mind. The entire display was made from paper!

As for the sublime, a couple of weeks ago, I was cycling along Ping Che Road, focusing on where I was heading next as part of my explorations for The Final Frontier, when I spotted a remarkable sight just off the road to my right:

These figures are about 4 metres high, and their clothes have been fashioned from real flowers. In other respects, they are perfectly traditional, but note the size of the earlobes, an attribute that is highly prized in Chinese culture. At the time, I stopped only to take this photo, but I came back here on Boxing Day with Paula, who wanted to see these figures for herself, and we found that they had been erected at the entrance to what appears to be a Taoist monastery. The extensive grounds are a pleasure to walk around, so look out for a post on the subject in the future.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

poetry at christmas

I used to write poetry when I was much younger, and I still remember why I stopped: I’d decided that in order to improve, I should read work by established poets. Unfortunately for this strategy, one of the first poems I read was TS Eliot’s The Hollow Men, and my immediate reaction was “I can never match this!” However, I did succeed in getting a small booklet of my own poems published in 1971, and because most of the people who know me now are unaware of this fact, and also because I shall be out cycling with Paula over the Christmas period rather than spending the time compiling blog posts, I present three poems from that 1971 booklet. Merry Christmas.

occult incident
    It is midnight!
The churchyard is shrouded by a low mist
that flows endlessly over the tombstones.
A shrieking that only the occultist
hears, detached from the stimulus of fear,
a sound that shatters, like a telephone’s
shrill cry, rises from the unsmiling ground
and echoes—a certain sign of the near
approach of evil. After the strange sound
   a spectral light
flickers across the graves, reaching the wall
where normal living ends. For here the hand
of death works freely, here a demonic
apparition terrifies. And yet, the brawl
of sound and vision could well be a trick,
played on deluded senses by wind and
   misty moonlight.

shadows of the night
Black, prince of the night, lies hidden by day,
When sunlight chases the shadows away;
But, hidden or not, it is never quite dead,
Gathering when the last traces of red
Fade from the sky at the onset of night,
And shadows of darkness conquer the light.

So the night lowers its dark, deadly veil,
The calm, clear peace of the day to curtail;
And as sinister purple deepens to black,
The forces of evil mount their attack.

The light of the moon (a pale light, and cold)
Outlines the night and the need to be bold,
For darkness means danger to unwary men,
Danger, so deadly, from devils whose den
In the shadow of death, behind yonder wall,
Is fatal for some, a menace to all.

All through the night the dark demons will reign,
Seeking out victims till the light comes again;
For faint fingers of fire in the east have shown:
Light in the darkness dispels the unknown.

the garden of despair
The fruit is black, the trees are bare,
In the garden of despair.
An old man sits among the weeds,
His mind is sown with seeds
Of doubt: a dark course that leads
To the garden of despair.

The birds are poisoned by the air
In the garden of despair.
The gardener is sorely pressed,
There is never time for rest;
Peace is but a hopeless quest
In the garden of despair.

Yet can I hear the sound of prayer
In the garden of despair.
Or is it all becoming worse?
Is there life within the hearse
Of death? Or is life the curse
Of the garden of despair?

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

optional extra

When I posted The Final Frontier last week, I didn’t include a detour near the start of the route described, partly because it didn’t seem like an integral part of that route and partly because on my only previous attempt to follow it I’d been forced to put my foot down in a couple of places to avoid falling off my bike. However, on Sunday I rectified this failing, and here I present a photographic account of the narrow path for anyone who wants to try it.

The start of this exciting detour comes a short distance after the main route turns off Sha Tau Kok Road, just after the first speed bump on this unnamed road. Look out for the small impromptu shrine on the right of an obvious side road and the sign ‘yau lee’:

The first corner is easy enough:

…and so is the way ahead:

…but the next corner is slightly trickier, mainly because you will need to make sure that your front wheel doesn’t go over the far edge:

Take the right-hand option in this next photo:

This leads to a section between two corrugated iron fences:

Ignore the possible left turn in this photo:

…which leads to a straight (and straightforward) section:

However, the corner at the end of this is probably the trickiest on the entire path (notice the purple flowers on the inside of the corner, which I think would make a fine addition to an English garden):

But this is followed by more easy stuff:

Note the guard rail on the outside of the next bend. There is a sheer drop of about 3m off the side of the path at this point.

The red flowers on the bush on the left don’t actually look like flowers. They look more like red pom-poms! For reasons that I don’t understand, there are a lot of flowers about at the moment, which makes cycling in the countryside even more enjoyable at this time of year.

There is also quite a severe drop off the side of the path as it swings around the concrete wall on the right (I had to put my foot down here on my first attempt):

And the last obstacle is a short but steep down-ramp. Make sure your brakes are in good order:

You’re now on a rough but regular road, which you can follow back to where you started, ready to resume the main route.

Friday, 16 December 2016

the final frontier

Alert readers will recall that I used the title that I’ve given to this post three years ago to describe the bike ride that we now refer to as ‘the frontier road’. However, I didn’t anticipate that the Hong Kong government would open another section of the former ‘closed area’ a couple of years later, but it has done, and I’ve been exploring that area since the start of the year. I recorded my initial findings in June in Nothing to See, the title of which reflected Paula’s opinion of the route I’d worked out, but with the new sections that I’ve added since returning to Hong Kong in October, I can now confirm that Paula approves. Some of the additions are quite scary if your bike-handling skills are not too good. And in case you want to try to follow the route, I will be referring to photographs in Nothing to See (N2S) from time to time. I’ve tried to provide enough information while retaining a spirit of exploration for the first-time rider.

The basic route, which starts and finishes at the walled village of Kun Lung Wai, is not particularly interesting, but that is because it follows roads that are not a lot of fun on a bike. However, if you don’t follow Sha Tau Kok Road as far as its junction with Ping Che Road but instead turn left at the first opportunity, you will find this a better option. Both the aforementioned roads carry quite a lot of heavy freight traffic, especially the former, and it is advisable to use the sidewalk until you can turn off, although I do frequently see road cyclists who think they’re good enough to mix it with the heavy boys. Idiots!

The road that you turn on to starts by running through a mainly industrial area, but any industrial traffic is inhibited by speed bumps, which you can avoid on a bike, and areas of rough road that would slow anyone down. Just remember to turn left at the junction shown in the following photograph.

When I first came this way earlier this year, there was a sign just after this junction that read ‘Road Narrows Ahead. No Through Road to Exit’, but this was manifestly untrue, and the sign has now been removed. Just before this road reaches Ping Che Road, there is the option to turn left, which you should take. There are two further opportunities to turn right towards Ping Che Road, but if you continue straight ahead, you will eventually come to the village of Ha Shan Kai Wat, location of both the dangerous dog and the ‘no cycling’ signs referred to in N2S.

I’ve passed this way nine times in the past two months and not been stopped by anyone, but it should be obvious that turning up in a large group will seriously annoy the locals, who I’m sure would prefer that no cyclists whatsoever pass this way. However, if you follow the outskirts of the village on the right, you will come quickly to the start of the first of the narrow paths pictured in N2S. This leads to a typically quiet rural road that winds through fields before eventually reaching Ping Che Road, but about 50 metres before this happens, there is a public toilet on the right with a narrow path leading past it. If you follow this path, you will reach Ping Che Road exactly opposite its junction with Ping Yuen Road, which is where the route goes next.

A short distance along this road is the entrance to ghost alley, which is shown in the following photograph:

This detour brings you back eventually to Ping Yuen Road—just remember to take the path to the right of the painted house—and, a short distance later, to the village of Ping Yeung. I take a rough dirt track around the western edge of the village before doubling back towards the southeast corner, where the following photograph marks the start of the second narrow path recorded in N2S:

Shortly after passing the traditional Chinese house seen in the first photo of this path in N2S, you will reach the following junction:

I originally turned left here, but I’ve since found that the right-hand path is a far better option because it avoids the need to pass through the construction site. The next four photos, in sequence, provide a flavour of this path:

The route eventually emerges on Ng Chow Road, but it then takes an immediate U-turn along this Drainage Services access road:

At the end of the access road, the route crosses the stream via the footbridge shown in N2S and turns immediately right. There are several options as you ride downstream, but you will need to recross the stream at some point, after which a series of paths, followed by a road, lead back to the junction of Ping Che Road and Ping Yuen Road.

From this point, the route then follows Ping Che Road for several hundred metres to its junction with Kong Nga Po Road, at which point the latter is followed for about 100 metres to an obvious side road on the outside of a left-hand bend, which is signposted to the village of Lei Uk. One of the most exciting sections of the ride begins here. This is the start of the narrow path from Lei Uk to the village of Chow Tin:

The next section is the most nerve-racking on the entire route, and, for obvious reasons, you should not be coming this way as a member of a large group. The path starts with a series of rather tight turns, including this one:

This is just an appetizer! In the background, beyond the fire hydrant, the path takes a 120-degree turn, following the rail visible in the previous photo:

Don’t make this turn if you can’t back off should a cyclist or pedestrian be coming the other way. If this happens—and you won’t be able to see them coming when you set off on the path—the other person will almost certainly be unable to back off, and it’s highly likely that they will be a local, which in my opinion gives them the right of way. The next two photographs give some idea of the difficulty of this admittedly short section:

Phew! You’ve made it to the footbridge across the river, which leads to the next village, Chow Tin:

Be warned that the location of this village is not where Google maps claims it to be by at least a kilometre, although in terms of navigation it doesn’t really matter. You’re looking for the start of another path, on the western edge of the village:

There are no streetlights on this path, which is about 600 metres long, and I therefore suspect that it was built merely to provide access to graves on the hillside. It is level to start with but climbs steadily towards the end. Just make sure that you turn right at the junction shown in the first photo:

The path eventually joins an extremely rough dirt track, which is followed to a junction where there is a choice of turning left or right. The left turn leads, within a very short distance, to the start of the switchback described in N2S, but the route can be extended by turning right, to the north, at first on a dirt track:

…followed by a good concrete road as far as Lin Ma Hang Road. This road is followed to the right as far as the junction with Ping Che Road next to Ta Kwu Ling police station. There is some scope for confusion here, because although the route turns left, it is still following Lin Ma Hang Road! After about 600 metres, there is a turn to the right, which the route now follows past the entrance to the village of Chuk Yuen.

A short distance further on, at the top of an obvious hill, it is possible to turn left along an indistinct track (the ‘cart track’ pictured in N2S). This is another location where there are a lot of graves, and once the first group of these is reached, the track becomes much easier to see and follow. It leads to the village of Tsong Yuen Ha, from where it is possible to double back along Lin Ma Hang Road to Ping Che Road.

This is followed for about 200 metres, to a point where it crosses the Ping Yuen River, where you will find a narrow path along the southern bank. You should follow this as far as a turn through the trees on the left:

…which leads back to the village of Lei Uk. By backtracking along the road that brought the route through this village earlier, you will reach Kong Nga Po Road—and the start of the hard work. There is an isolated hill, about 600 metres in length, before you reach the switchback, and some extremely rough sections, but this road leads eventually to Man Kam To Road.

There is a lot of heavy freight traffic on this road, and my advice would be to ride on the sidewalk, although it is extremely narrow, there are no dropped kerbs to make it easier to cross the side roads that access various industrial premises, and there are quite a lot of tricky obstacles to negotiate. Fortunately, however, you are unlikely to encounter any pedestrians.

The final section of this exciting route follows the Drainage Services access road along the northern bank of the Ng Tung River and is peaceful and relaxing after all the earlier tensions. For me, the biggest plus point about this ride is that it can be done on Sundays. It is a long way from anywhere that hires out bikes for the day, so although I do see quite a lot of other cyclists, there is an implied minimum level of competence in the fact that they are so far from an urban area and are almost certainly riding their own bikes.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

the witch’s house

During my initial exploration of the cycling route that we now know as ‘journey to the west’, perhaps the most bizarre discovery—and nothing to do with cycling—was a strange house that we passed on the outward journey. At the time, it reminded me of the story of Hansel and Gretel, in which, if you recall, the two children are abandoned in the depths of a forest at the behest of their evil stepmother. They come across a house made from gingerbread and other sweet things, and being hungry, they start to eat. However, it turns out that the house belongs to a wicked witch who likes to eat children. This is the photograph that I posted in Journey to the West: Part 2:

It was taken on 15th February 2013. I mention the date because the open space in front of the house is our first stop to drink some water whenever we pass this way, and I’ve been taking photographs of the house from time to time since then. I should emphasize that the owner of the house may not have heard of Hansel and Gretel, or the western tradition of wicked witches, but the decorations I’ve recorded are not in a conventional Chinese style either. Decide for yourself.

I’ve included the next photo, taken in December 2013, only because some kind of work is being done to the left of the house, the results of which will be seen in later photos.

I didn’t take any photographs of the house in 2014, but on 7th February 2015, I shot the following three images:

The first two are close-ups of the jadeite animals on either side of the door. They may be dragons, but I suspect that they are other mythical beasts. The third image is a close-up of the door. The Chinese words for ‘fish’ and ‘longevity’ are homophones, which should explain the presence of these metallic pisceans. An approximate translation of the writing on the right is ‘harmony at home will bring blessings and good fortune’, while that on the left translates as ‘whatever you wish will come true, and good luck will arrive’.

The next photo was taken on 21st March 2015. Note that the construction area is now a neatly planted miniature garden with Christmas tree decorations that are hanging from the plants. Note too that the colour of the painted ‘chimneys’ has faded away. The string of red paper cylinders topped by an octagonal box is a fake string of firecrackers and is a traditional decoration at Chinese New Year.

I didn’t take any more photographs of the house until January this year. The next two images were taken on the 2nd and 30th of the month, respectively. The second photo marks the first appearance of a huge ceramic teapot atop the post on the right-hand corner of the house.

The two previous photos were taken before Chinese New Year, while the next was taken after the festival, on 19th February. More decorations have appeared, including on the government notice boards on the left:

The next photo, taken on 25th March 2016, marks the first appearance of two ceramic birds on the ledge above the door:

A closer view of the ceramic birds, teapot and other features is provided by the next image. The flowers and creepers on the diagonal wires above and right of the teapot are fake. The writing on the teapot alludes to luck and blessings coming true, while the two characters to the right of the window appear to be someone’s name.

I was prompted to write this post by Paula’s recent comment, that the overgrown mini-garden on the left of the house had been cut back, and we could now see the table and seats. It was only when I was looking through old photographs for ones that I needed for another post I’m working on that I realized the table and seats are a new addition.

You will see that the miniature garden remains overgrown, and the right-hand side of the house has been engulfed by mile-a-minute, a particularly invasive vine. The rock table has a Chinese chess board engraved on its surface, but I don’t plan to stop off for a game. I learned many years ago never to play Chinese chess in public, mainly because most onlookers cannot believe that a gweilo would know how to play and therefore feel obliged to offer advice on what move to make next. That advice is invariably wrong. The same principle applies to mah jong, which most Chinese know how to play, but very few know how to play well.

I feel sure that it will be necessary to update this post at some time in the future.