Thursday, 30 May 2019

photographic highlights: 2018–19

I will be heading off to the UK for the summer in a few days, and as I’ve done for several years now, I’ve compiled a collection of what I consider the ‘best’ photos from the more than 2,000 that I’ve taken over the past few months. I don’t claim any particular expertise as a photographer; these images merely reflect what I’ve been up to and what I’ve found interesting.

As usual, I haven’t included any photos that I’ve used to illustrate other blog posts, with one exception, indicated below, that happens to be my favourite of those I’ve taken this winter. Also as usual, I’ve missed a couple of opportunities for what could have been sensational photographs because I didn’t have my camera with me (it was dark): (1) Paula and I had a close encounter recently with a porcupine on the Drainage Services access road that runs alongside our local river; and (2) while following the direct path between Fanling and our village, I spotted a centipede about 12cm long ahead. It didn’t scurry off, as we might have expected, because it was in the process of attacking a snail about 4cm in diameter. Naturally, we stopped to watch, and the centipede eventually dragged the unfortunate snail off into the undergrowth, where I imagine a gruesome fate awaited it.

All the following photographs are presented in the order in which they were taken. Don’t forget that clicking on a photo will bring up an enlarged version.

My first photo was taken near the start of the ‘detour de force’ and shows a flame tree that was damaged in Typhoon Mangkhut last September:

Unbelievably, I can still ride underneath the fallen branch, although the clearance must be tight.

This year’s goat photo was also taken on the detour de force, towards the end:

The next photo has an indirect connection with the detour de force, which is located between Taipo and Fanling. My friend Vlad had never cycled along the detour before, and we were on our way to rectify that omission when he spotted this imperial stormtrooper in the front yard of a house in Tong Hang, a village on the southern edge of Fanling:

I doubt whether anyone can interpret the next photo, so here’s the explanation: I’ve been trying to get a picture of cormorants taking off from water for several years, and this is my first success:

Unlike ducks and swans, cormorants don’t swim on top of the water. Only their heads and necks protrude above the surface, so it takes considerable effort to get airborne, which includes up to ten slaps by the wings on the surface. The problem is that these birds are easily spooked, and once they’ve started to take off, it’s much too late to take a picture. This photo is of the only fish pond along the frontier road that is located south of the road. I spotted the cormorants before they spotted me, and I sneaked up with my camera at the ready!

As you will discover as you read on, the frontier road is fertile ground for photography. The next image is of a fish pond directly opposite the junction of the frontier road with Ma Tso Lung Road. The two men in the photo appear to be in the process of installing a new aerating machine, which is why the pond has been drained, leaving what I imagine to be easy pickings for dozens of egrets. The high-rise buildings in the background are in Shenzhen.

Most Saturdays, we ride along the new cycle track that follows the Shek Sheung River. To the left is an environmentally sensitive area known as ‘the long valley’. Several times, we’ve seen large groups of photographers that appear to be in position just waiting for something to happen:

But what?

Whenever I’ve seen Buffalo Bill in the Shek Sheung River over the past few years, I’ve stopped to take a picture. The next photo isn’t particularly good, but it was taken the last time we saw him. We haven’t seen him for almost six months, and it’s likely that he is no longer alive. Gone but not forgotten.

I posted a photo similar to the next one two years ago, but I think that this one is better:

In case you hadn’t guessed, the birds on the powerline are cormorants, and the buildings in the background are in Shenzhen.

The frontier road comes to an end at a junction with Ha Wan Tsuen East Road. Part of the way along this latter road, I’d noticed what struck me as an unusual looking grave, so it was inevitable that I would eventually want to take a closer look:

The form of this grave is conventional, but I cannot recall seeing another grave that has been built with ceramic tiles. This appears to be three graves in one, which is also unusual.

One of the commonest names for Chinese restaurants in the UK is ‘Lotus Garden’, which I always find slightly amusing. Does this look like a garden?

Although these flowers are pink, you do occasionally see white lotus flowers among the pink:

I wonder whether this is an aberration, a form of albinism. When I lived in London between 1978 and 1981, I had a pass to the reading room of the British Museum, where Marx and Lenin did their research, and I spent quite a lot of time researching Chinese secret societies. One such society was the ‘White Lotus’, and I now wonder whether the name reflected something unusually distinctive about white lotus flowers.

I took the next photo in the village of Kwan Tei, a couple of kilometres east of Fanling, I have no idea what these two huge devices are used for, although I suspect they are for cooking (on an industrial scale). Oddly enough, I came across them in a public area rather than in the grounds of someone’s house.

If I were to suggest a caption for this photo, it would be ‘Mr and Mrs’.

The next photo has to take this year’s surrealism prize. It was taken from the Drainage Services access road running along the Ng Tung River and shows a two-storey house with a footprint so small that the staircase must take up a significant proportion of the floor area—unless, that is, a ladder is used to reach the upper floor.

And what about that gate? It is clearly a sturdy gate, well able to keep out intruders, or it would if it wasn’t possible to simply walk around it!

When I posted Brick-a-Brac in January, I didn’t include the following photograph in my account for the simple reason that it lacked context. However, as an abstract image, it is probably the best that I took at that location, which is why I’ve included it here. Unless I tell you though—or you have read the earlier post—you would probably never guess that this is a small section of a vertical wall:

…with almost no mortar! I’m not aware of the remains of any brick kilns anywhere in the vicinity of this wall, although I can’t imagine that these bricks, obviously handmade, were transported any great distance. I’m also unable to say whether the clay used came from different sources, or whether different additives are responsible for the variations in colour.

I encounter hundreds of dogs as I explore the New Territories, and almost all of them perform some kind of security function. However, the next photo was taken in my own neighbourhood, where I encountered four dogs that had come rushing out to confront an intruder (me):

The problem, for the dogs, is that this kind of behaviour doesn’t scare me. I just stood there and took a photograph, while the dogs looked utterly nonplussed. Incidentally, I suspect that all four came from the same litter.

Abrupt contrasts between rural and urban are a common sight in Hong Kong. The next photo shows land being cultivated in the foreground, with high-rise residential blocks in the background. The three towers on the left are part of Regentville, while the three on the right comprise Green Code, the newest residential estate on the eastern edge of Fanling.

The next photo was also taken in my neighbourhood. I’m not sure why this apparently brand new sofa has been left outside what is probably a squatter dwelling, or what the teddy bear is doing loafing about, but I thought that it made an amusing juxtaposition:

Bonsai may be thought of as quintessentially Japanese, but I suspect that the idea came originally from the Chinese. I took the following photograph in Wun Chuen Sin Koon, a Taoist monastery several kilometres east of Fanling:

Every Japanese dwarfed tree that I’ve seen has been an evergreen such as pine or juniper, but this is a banyan, which I assume is considerably more difficult to miniaturize.

I don’t often venture west of the main railway line in Fanling, but when my cousin Dave was visiting in February, one of the places that I showed him around was the Fung Ying Seen Koon temple complex just west of Fanling station. I took the following photograph as we returned to the station:

It shows the steps leading down to the subway under the expressway, which runs parallel to the railway at this point. I just like the symmetry.

The only remarkable thing about the next image is the strangeness of its subject:

The path on the right leads to the Shuen Wan Temples, which I featured in More Door Gods #3. Notice the stubs of spent joss sticks; I suspect that this is connected to animist beliefs about evil spirits, which people have been attempting to propitiate.

The next photo is of a footbridge over the Shing Mun River in Shatin. I rarely come this way, so I don’t think I could ever be there to capture the moment when the surface of the river is mirror-smooth, but this is another image that I’ve included because I like the symmetry:

Since discovering the serendipity alleyways last winter, I’ve been trying to improve the options available for cycling through the area. As part of this exploration, I came across this grave:

I don’t think I’ve ever seen another grave with bas-relief panels. I don’t intend to offer an interpretation, but this is a closer look at the right-hand panel:

Whoever is interred here was obviously important! And it’s possible that the panel depicts scenes from that person’s life.

I pass this statue of Farmer Catt, which is located at the start of the path from Fanling to the village where I live, almost every day, but I’ve only just got around to taking a photo:

The significance of the various feline motifs in this area, of which this is by far the best, is explained in The Cat Man’s Hut. They are all the work of the same group that was responsible for the artwork that I featured in Art Promenade.

I’ve included the next photo because, although I used it in Year of the (Wild) Pig, it is one that I was particularly pleased to capture. Although I have seen wild pigs in Hong Kong on many occasions, I’d never previously managed to photograph them:

The frontier road isn’t the only place in Hong Kong where you can see egrets. The next photo is of a small artificial island next to the cycle road between Taipo and Shatin:

Although I cycle through the village of Chau Tau regularly, I’ve never done so when the fish pond there has been mirror-smooth. This is the best I could manage:

The colours are provided by bougainvillea.

The village of Ho Sheung Heung (‘village above the river’) clearly has some heritage. For a start, there is an ancestral hall that is a declared monument. It also has a local festival in which a principal attraction is an itinerant Cantonese opera troupe. Performances take place in a temporary theatre that can accommodate an audience of several hundred and is constructed from flexible metal sheets on a bamboo frame:

This structure can be built and dismantled in just a few days! In this photo, not everything has been completed, because the ramp you can see is the main entrance, and it will be covered by a red carpet.

Lions are frequently employed on guard duties for doors and gates. Elephants are also given the job occasionally (see the grave above), but asking a fierce tortoise to take on this task does seem far-fetched. This one was photographed guarding a grave just off the Hok Tau Country Trails:

There are a lot of quasi-industrial premises, of questionable legality, east of Fanling. I took the next photo outside one such site:

Despite the Christmas-style baubles, I don’t think this display has any Christian connotations, although the silvery animals might just be meant to be reindeer. The significance of the large clock next to the right-hand reindeer, if there is any, escapes me.

I photographed this exotic bird on the same day as the previous photo in the village of Ping Che Yuen Ha, several kilometres east of Fanling:

Actually, it’s an equally exotic flower!

We’re back on the frontier road for the final photo in this collection. There is a general water flow at one point from the south side of the road to the north, and there is usually a build-up of scum where the stream flows into the marshy area on the north side:

You might wonder why I spotted this instead of focusing on the road ahead! Quite simply, there is almost no motor traffic, which is why the frontier road is so popular with cyclists.

previous highlights collections
Photographic Highlights: 2015–16
Photographic Highlights: 2016–17
Photographic Highlights: 2017–18

Thursday, 23 May 2019

toad in a hole

There was an old toad called Nigel Farage,
Who couldn’t get his car out of the garage.
 He blamed the EU
 For this silly to-do,
Saying, “I’d rather have a cart than a carriage!”

Sunday, 19 May 2019

more door gods #4

Although I haven’t posted any photos of door gods for almost three years, this shouldn’t be taken to suggest that I’ve lost interest. I continue to photograph them wherever I find them, and the delay merely reflects the fact that I don’t discover many new ones nowadays. I originally explained the origin of the door gods in Leaping Dragon, but to save readers the trouble of checking out this link, I reproduce the explanation here:
The models for these fearsome warriors were two of the first Tang emperor’s most loyal generals, Qin Shubao and Yuchi Jingde. According to the legend, the emperor was being harassed each night by an unruly ghost and was thus unable to sleep, so he asked that the pair stand guard overnight to protect him from this unwelcome visitor. Apparently, the emperor subsequently spent a peaceful night, but, not wanting to impose further on his generals, he ordered his servants to hang giant portraits of the generals to perform the guard duties. It was a practice that caught on quickly with ordinary Chinese keen to ward off evil spirits and attract good luck.

Cheaply printed posters of the generals in highly stylized poses are widely used in Hong Kong, especially around Chinese New Year, but the generals portrayed here have been rendered in meticulous detail (and are considerably larger than those seen on a typical poster). Note that the pair are shown facing slightly to one side. This means that Yuchi Jingde (the dark-skinned one) must always be posted on the left-hand door, and Qin Shubao on the right. If this is not done, both guards will be facing away from each other, which would allow an intruder to walk between them unseen, and for good luck to slip away unnoticed.
The first two photos are of ancestral halls in Shui Mei, a village in the Kam Tin area, about 30km west of Fanling:

There are two points to make about these images: (1) both figures carry ‘standard’ weaponry—a halberd by Yuchi Jingde and a pole sword by Qin Shubao; and (2) Yuchi Jingde was an ethnic Uighur, but although in the second image he is portrayed as having darker skin than Qin Shubao, his features are obviously Han Chinese. This is a common mistake, as you will see below.

The next photo is of the King Law Ka Shuk Ancestral Hall in Taipo, which I came across entirely by accident because I went the ‘wrong’ way:

Qin Shubao has a more pronounced beard than usual, but the weaponry is standard.

I described the recently developed cycle tour around the village of Chau Tau in Easter Island, in which I didn’t mention an obvious public building, possibly the village office, a short distance away from the route:

Once again, Yuchi Jingde has darker skin, but I don’t think that anyone would perceive an ethnic difference here. However, the most intriguing aspect of this pairing is the weaponry. Or, rather the lack of effective weaponry. I took the next photo six years ago when I was trying to develop a circular route through the area:

 These doors no longer exist, but they were probably part of an older building that was in the same location as the previous image, because the ineffective weaponry is the same. I wonder why! There must be some esoteric significance.

I visited San Tin for the first time this winter. Two of the village’s historical buildings do not feature door gods; however, this is the entrance to the Man Lung Fung Ancestral Hall:

Unfortunately, this hall, despite being a declared monument, is not well looked after. Damage to the door gods is obvious in this photo, but elsewhere in the building, plaster mouldings are being obscured by large quantities of black moss.

During my initial visit to San Tin, I also came across a few minor halls, including this one:

Here, there is no attempt to establish a difference in ethnicity, both guards are holding pole swords, and—do my eyes deceive me—both are holding nunchaku in their other hands!

I consider the final image to be the most astonishing in this collection:

Part of the reason for my assessment is that this pair are not guarding an ancestral hall, temple or other historical building. I photographed them on the closed gate of quasi-industrial premises in an area east of Fanling that I was exploring at the time. The two guards were quite widely separated, but it is the style that I find especially intriguing. These are not Tang Dynasty soldiers; they are characters in a Chinese opera! And they are holding iron cudgels with which to beat you to a pulp if you dare to cross them.

Notice that although they are facing inwards, they are not standing firm, like traditional door gods, but are walking away from each other. I assumed that they must simply be stuck-on images, but when I looked closely, I was surprised to discover that these figures had been hand-painted. On an industrial site! Wow!

earlier posts in this series
More Door Gods
More Door Gods #2
More Door Gods #3

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

a splash of colour

Luen Wo Hui is a district in eastern Fanling bounded by the triangle of Sha Tau Kok Road to the south, Fan Leng Lau Road to the west, and Ma Sik Road to the north and east. Ma Sik Road has precisely demarcated the eastern boundary of Fanling for as long as I’ve lived here, although construction work started recently east of the road, and if I live long enough, I expect to see development extend as far east as the Ma Wat River and as far north as the Ng Tung River.

I walk into Luen Wo Hui almost every day from the village where I live, a distance of just over a mile. At one point, the path takes me over a footbridge across the Ma Wat River, and I always look over the upstream side of the bridge to check out the confluence of the main river with a small storm drain coming in from the side.

The reason for my curiosity is that for as long as I can remember, hundreds of fish have used this point as a spawning ground, lining up nose to tail facing upstream. However, a couple of years ago, large quantities of mud began to be deposited where the storm drain runs into the river’s winter channel (all the rivers in this area have been canalized to prevent flooding, so the limited flow that occurs during the dry season is confined to a narrow channel).

The origin of the mud is small-scale construction upstream. And when the water in the storm drain hits the water coming down the winter channel, it is held up, so the mud can no longer remain in suspension. A similar phenomenon occurs about 100 metres downstream, where the Ma Wat River joins the Ng Tung River. Despite the former nominally being the tributary, it is the latter that is backed up by the force of the flow in the former, which is probably a reflection of the relative gradients in the two channels.

Although a small amount of mud washes downstream, the rest is dumped here, but despite this less than conducive environment for the fish, they seemed to be persevering with their spawning activities. Perhaps there haven’t been quite as many fish, but it hasn’t been possible to accurately quantify such an assertion.

However, a few days ago, I was crossing the bridge, and before I’d even looked closely, I could sense that something was amiss:

Some kind of hydrocarbon pollution was washing down the river (top to bottom in the photo). Upstream, the river passes through Fanling’s industrial zone, and it isn’t difficult to guess the origin of this material. What is less certain—although it’s an assertion that I feel confident in making—is whether the discharge into the drainage system was accidental or deliberate. I say deliberate, although it would have been through ignorance rather than malice. The same could probably be said of the mud. Washing it down the drainage system rather than trying to contain it on site is probably being done because it doesn’t occur to those responsible that they may be creating a problem.

Obviously, there’s nothing I can do about any of this, apart from complaining publicly, but regular readers will know that I often use hydrocarbon pollution as a vehicle for a kind of abstract art. This is what I came up with on this occasion:

I took several photos at 10–15-second intervals as the pollution washed past. Obviously, I’ve cranked up the contrast and the colour saturation, and this is the best I could do.

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

cycling the hok tau country trails: part 2

As I pointed out in the first part of this report, trail #1 starts—with a short incline—precisely where #2 ends:

The start of the real Hok Tau Country Trail is passed at the top of this incline. As you can see, it isn’t remotely suitable for bikes:

In fact, the ‘balloon’ halfway along trail #2 on Google Maps includes a photograph of this starting point. I’ve reported the error to Google and received an acknowledgement, which informed me that my suggested change awaits ‘verification’. It has yet to be amended.

There is a considerable drop off the first part of the path—hence the guard rail, which wasn’t there when we first discovered this path:

I don’t think it’s necessary!

In fact, there are no significant difficulties for cyclists anywhere on this path:

About halfway along the path, it emerges from the forest into an extensively farmed area:

Next to the house seen in the distance in the previous picture, there is a choice of which way to go:

The right-hand option is followed on the return journey (see below).

Did I write ‘no significant difficulties’ just now? Shortly after the left fork, the path is shattered and broken:

In this still, I’ve just ridden over a drop of about 10–12cm. You can hear the clunk on the video as Paula rides over it. However, it’s uncomfortable rather than difficult. I did once try bypassing the drop on the right, but the fairway here is only about 15cm wide, and if you can’t hold the line, there’s a good chance you will crash. I aborted my attempt before it was too late!

The remainder of this path, which emerges eventually onto Hok Tau Road, is quite straightforward.

This is the video from which these stills were taken:

I have two videos of the return journey, one shot at the same time as the previous video with me in front, and a second, taken last winter, with Paula in front. The following stills are taken from both.

The first six images show the section of the return path before it reaches the fork that is pictured above:

The previous image shows Paula approaching the house next to which the fork in the path is located.

The final five images show sections of the path after it has left the farmland and entered the forested section:

You can see in the last image the reason why the authorities decided to install the guard rail along this section, although as I stated above, it isn’t something you would even notice when cycling along this section.

These are the videos from which these stills were taken:

One final comment: although I regularly cycle along trail #2 on Sundays, when Paula goes to church, trail #1 is best avoided at weekends because you are likely to encounter a lot of hikers. However, both #1 and #2 are enjoyable routes in a pleasant environment with—I think you will agree—some picturesque scenery.