Wednesday, 29 January 2020

journey to the west: the outer limits #2

For reasons that I outlined in Journey to the West: the Outer Limits, I didn’t expect to carry out any more exploration around the furthest point of journey to the west, but a few days after Christmas, Paula was away, and with nothing better to do, I just thought “what the heck!”

It turned out that none of the paths leading off the paths that I described in my earlier post led anywhere, but I did venture down another path that I’d noticed ages ago but never got around to checking out. That did provide a through route, although there are no tight turns or steep ramps. It’s easy, in other words.

Although I explored the path at the end of December, we’ve only just got around to shooting a video, which does show a few points of interest. The first video still shows the start of the new path and perhaps provides a hint as to why I’d never checked it out before:

The semi-permanent half-barrier is clearly there to prevent the entry of motor vehicles, although the road goes only about 30–40 metres before narrowing to a path, so why anyone would want to drive up there is beyond me. Incidentally, the elaborate gate on the right is a prime contender for ‘the gates of delirium’.

The next two stills convey something of what goes through your mind when exploring a new path, given that the vast majority of the paths I venture down turn out to be dead ends. The first shows the point where what had been a comfortably wide path narrows to a conventional width and becomes more broken. The second shows where that path then becomes a mere dirt path.

In both cases, the unavoidable impression is that the expected dead end won’t be long in arriving.

However, the dirt path soon transitions back to concrete, which suggests that this section was developed from the far end. In other words, there must be a through route:

And the path soon leads to a narrow road:

A complex network of narrow roads leads eventually to the road from which I started, just further along:

Then what’s the point, you’re probably thinking. It’s more fun this way.

Although I took several photos of firecracker vines during the same ride on which we shot this video, it was only when I watched the video that I realized that because I was so intent on remembering all the turns, I failed to spot what appears to be an incredibly spectacular firecracker vine:

I’ll have to wait until next year now to take a photo! Although I rode up the road on the left when I was exploring the area back in December, the vine hadn’t started flowering.

And this is the video:

The video ends a short distance before the start of path #1. Incidentally, I number related paths in the order in which they were originally explored, so as far as this bike ride is concerned, the sequence in which they are ridden is #3, #1, #2.

Saturday, 25 January 2020

rat à 2e

I imagine that there has been a sharp drop in the conception rate among prospective Chinese parents over the past nine months, because we are now at the start of the year of the rat, and I cannot think of an animal that is more reviled, in both Western and Chinese culture. Who would want a child to be born in the year of the rat, the carrier of bubonic plague and other nasty diseases?

So why would the rat be assigned a role in the Chinese zodiac in the first place, given its fully deserved reputation? Well, the Jade Emperor, the ruler of Heaven, challenged all the animals to a race, and the first twelve animals to reach him would be assigned a year in what is a repeating cycle, first codified during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220), although it had originally been formulated four or five centuries earlier. The sequence would be determined by the order in which the animals finished the race.

Towards the end of the race, the animals had to cross a river, and the rat and the cat teamed up to persuade the kindly ox to carry them across on its back. However, just before the ox reached the far side, the rat pushed the cat into the water and leapt onto the bank, thus becoming the first in the cycle.

The dirty rat!

Incidentally, this folk tale explains why there is no year of the cat, because the cat never made the cut as a result of the rat’s treachery.

I expect the new year celebrations to be somewhat subdued this year. For a start, we won’t be having any firecrackers in our village. Firecrackers have been illegal in Hong Kong since the 1967 riots, which were inspired by the Cultural Revolution then taking place in China. Apparently, activists were taking the gunpowder from firecrackers to make booby-trap bombs. However, despite the illegality, we’ve always had firecrackers at Chinese New Year. The police appear to have turned a blind eye to what might be termed ‘legitimate’ uses. Not this year though! The ongoing unrest in Hong Kong has inspired a crackdown. I have to say that it’s probably just as well that there don’t appear to be any chemists among the ranks of the protesters. As someone who made large quantities of gunpowder as a teenager, I reckon that I could still do so using freely available materials. Naturally, this wouldn’t involve the traditional Chinese formula, which produces a low-grade form of gunpowder, but I’m not about to provide any more information on the subject.

And the firework display in Hong Kong’s harbour has, sadly, been cancelled this year, presumably because of the dire consequences of any unrest breaking out among the large crowds that normally attend. I’m disappointed, because it’s something I look forward to every year. There can’t be many places that produce a better display than Hong Kong. When my cousin stayed with us last year, he told me that he’d been advised: “if you want to see fireworks, go to Disneyland for the fourth of July”. He’d assigned a rating of 95+ out of 100 for the display he saw, but once he’d seen the Hong Kong version, he had to mark the Disney display down to 50/100 in order to give a realistic mark to the display that he watched here.

At least I still have a lion dance to look forward to. Over the years, we’ve had a variety of different lion dances, and I’d been wondering whether I’d see something new this year, or merely a reprise of an already familiar form.

This is a selection of the photos I took today:

Everything starts with the lion costumes being laid out in readiness. And this is the lions waiting to be brought to life:

This is accomplished by dotting the eyes, activating the nose and ears, and carrying out various other procedures with red ink using brushes that are being held in the previous photo by the troupe member on the right. And this is the process in action:

My friend Tom Li once told me that he’d been the front end of a lion in his youth, and that he thought I’d make a good back end. However, as you can see, being the back end requires strength, an attribute that I no longer possess:

The last time I saw a two-lion dance, there appeared to be a confrontational element between the two, but this time there was no interaction:

Incidentally, there is a ‘musical’ accompaniment to the dance—a gong, three pairs of cymbals and a big drum. The ‘band’ can be seen in the background of several photos.

The dance ends with the lions unfurling scrolls with a simple message. It’s difficult to read this one, but it appears to be the salutation lung ma ching san (‘may you have the strength/vitality of a lungma’—a mythical creature that is a cross between a dragon and a horse):

The traditional salutation at this time of year is kung hei fat choi, which is the equivalent of the Western wish that someone will enjoy a prosperous new year and is the inscription on the scroll unrolled by the other lion. However, it’s easier to endure penury if you’re in good health than it is to enjoy prosperity if you’re always sick, so I shall conclude by wishing my readers lung ma ching san.

Thursday, 23 January 2020

jeepers creepers #2

Even if I don’t have access to a calendar, I always know when Chinese New Year is approaching. It’s the firecracker vines, which have been flowering this year more than a week earlier than in recent years. They must be onto something, because the new year this year is almost as early as is possible. According to my calculations, the theoretical earliest date for Chinese New Year is 19th January, and this year it falls on the 25th January (the latest possible date is 14th February). In case you’re wondering, the date for Chinese New Year was set by imperial decree centuries ago: the second new moon following the winter solstice.

In my opinion, this is an arbitrary ‘rule’ that invalidates the entire system of assigning personality types to people born during the years associated with the various animals that constitute the Chinese zodiac. And the behaviour of the Moon has absolutely nothing to do with the unit of time we call the year, which is the time taken for the Earth to orbit the Sun. However, we are about to exit the year of the pig, and the year of the rat will start in less than two days, so here are some of the photos of firecracker vines that I’ve taken over the past few weeks, with exceptions noted in passing.

I had always intended to follow up my report on firecracker vines from three years ago, but I didn’t see any new examples, apart from the first two photos, the first of which I originally posted in Photographic Highlights: 2017–18. It is located at the top of an alleyway that connects the Ng Tung River with Fu Tei Au Road, and it really belongs here:

…and this photo was taken last winter in an area east of Ki Lun Shan Au (Saddle Pass) that I’d only just started to cycle through. Paula rode past without noticing it:

The remaining photos were taken in the past few weeks and are presented in chronological order.

The first two photos were taken in an informal car-parking area in my neighbourhood:

…while the next two, also taken in my neighbourhood, are the result of my attempt to find a mysterious tower that I’d learned from Google Maps is located hereabouts:

You will notice that the colours appear washed out whenever the flowers are in direct sunlight. And I never did locate the tower: not for the first time, I discovered that the ‘balloon’ on Google Maps is in the wrong place! The purple counterpoint in the second photo is provided by bougainvillea.

The next photo was taken on a path that I imagine very few people know exists, even if they live in the area:

…while this is a photo of the same vine, viewed from the opposite direction, that I took last winter:

The next photo shows the entrance to Mr Lee’s garden from the inside:

This is the best that I’ve seen his firecracker vine. By the way, in case you’re wondering, the red Chinese characters on a yellow background read ‘Lee’s garden’.

I photographed the next example on the long and winding road a few days ago:

Although it is very striking as you come down the hill towards it, the bulk of the display seems to be facing inwards and therefore cannot be photographed.

The next photo was taken on the same day. It is located on Kwu Tung South Road close to the exit from swiss roll and is another example of washed-out colours under direct sunlight:

I included a photo of my neighbour’s firecracker vine in my previous report, but if you compare, this year it is much more spectacular:

All the remaining photos were taken yesterday during the bike ride I call ‘journey to the west’. The first three were taken at various points on the network of unnamed roads that lead, eventually, to Ki Lun Shan Au:

I photographed the third example for my earlier report, but I’ve included this follow-up just to show how much larger the vine has grown. Unfortunately, this photo illustrates another problem: when shooting into the sun, the effect is to darken the entire area you actually want to record.

The next photo was taken in the village of Shui Mei, close to the furthest extent of this bike ride:

…while this one was taken on the first of four consecutive narrow paths that we follow:

The final two photos were taken at different points along the Tam Mei loop, one of the detours that we follow on the return leg of journey to the west. Shooting into the sun was also a problem in the first of these, while I had to hold my camera over the top of a hedge and hope I’d captured what I wanted with the second:

The firecracker vines are fading now, so I don’t expect to take any more photos this year, but I’m sure that I’ll be looking to take more photographs next year, especially of those vines that I didn’t quite get this year.

Sunday, 19 January 2020

down by the riverside

Shatin is the largest new town in the New Territories, with a population of around one million, although it was just a small village 50 years ago. It is located on the north side of the ring of mountains encircling Kowloon and is a 25-minute train ride south from Fanling—or about 75 minutes on a bike.

Although I do most of my cycling in the northern part of the New Territories, I mention the time taken by bike because all my regular bike rides include a lot of narrow paths and alleyways, and if I want to do a long-distance ride (100km+), then I need to head south, where I can comfortably maintain an average speed of 16km/hr almost entirely on dedicated cycle tracks.

And Shatin has an extensive network of these tracks. The town is split by the Shing Mun River, which runs north–south, and there is a cycle track running the entire length of the river on both banks. However, the cycle track along the west bank is dead straight for long distances and is therefore extremely boring to ride along, so I’ve rarely done so, because there are other (longer) ways to reach the same destination that provide more interest.

However, at the beginning of December, for some reason that I can no longer recall, Paula and I did follow this cycle track on our return journey north, and at one point I found myself riding past an elaborate mural:

We didn’t stop at the time, but I resolved to come back to photograph the entire work, because I couldn’t help but notice that it appeared to be depicting all the main points of interest in Shatin. I’ve now done so.

The following images are presented as they appear in the mural from left to right (south to north). You will notice that there are alternating zones of blue/green and red/orange, which represent night and day, respectively, although whether there is some symbolic significance in this I’m unable to say.

The first photograph is a depiction of Amah Rock, a freestanding rock formation on the summit of a hill overlooking the southern end of Shatin:

It resembles a woman carrying a small child on her back in a traditional meh tai, which you seldom see nowadays. According to Wikipedia, it is the wife of a fisherman who used to climb the hill every day to see whether her husband was on his way back home. Unfortunately, the poor woman didn’t know that her husband had drowned at sea, but Tin Hau, goddess of the sea, took pity on her and turned her into stone, so that she could be reunited with her husband in the spirit world.

Needless to say, I don’t believe any of this, but one thing does puzzle me. Why is this formation called Amah Rock? Amah is the Hong Kong word for a female domestic servant, who would have been responsible for any childcare.

The next photo is the first of several that includes an egret. These birds are extremely common along the river systems of the New Territories, but I’ve never seen one that is standing on one leg! All the egrets depicted here are of the lesser variety, because greater egrets, which according to my observations are equally common, have yellow beaks.

I’ve no idea what the yellow horn on the skyline is meant to represent, unless it’s a setting crescent moon.

The next photo shows Che Kung Temple, one of the largest and most visited temples in Hong Kong:

It is dedicated to Che Kung, a military commander during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279). This is the identity of the statue seen here alongside the temple, although in reality the statue is located behind the temple’s main altar. And it is huge, at least 15 metres high.

And here is another egret:

There cannot be many surviving traditional villages amid the urban jungle of Shatin. I know of only one, and that isn’t the one depicted here, because the one I’m familiar with has distinctively curved gable ends, not simple inverted V’s.

I’ve no idea what is represented by the next image, although the Christian connotations are obvious, and Paula tells me that she has seen a cross on a hill somewhere hereabouts:

My guess is that there are meant to be two diamond rings in the foreground, but there is a glaring error here that is probably only evident to a geologist. The crystals attached to the rings are hexagonal, but diamonds exhibit cubic symmetry. And however much you cut a diamond, you cannot transform it into a hexagonal prism as depicted here.

Yet another egret:

I’ve also no idea what the next image is intended to represent, although I’m certainly curious:

I do recognize the subject of the next image though, but I’m puzzled as to why it has been represented as a kind of ghostly outline:

There are a lot of bridges over the river, but all but one are utilitarian concrete. I included a photograph of this single exception in Photographic Highlights: 2018–19.

And yet another egret:

I think that the next image is a representation of the Thousand Buddhas Monastery, although I’ve never visited:

I do recognize the next image though:

Dragon boat racing first took place on the Shing Mun River in 1984. I know this because I took part—for the only time in my life. Back in 1984, the event was regarded by regular teams as merely a chance to practise for the ‘real’ races, but the traditional venues in Hong Kong have little room for spectators, so the races here are now considered the most important. I’ve already seen teams on the river practising. Incidentally, in case you’re wondering, paddling a dragon boat is bloody hard work, with a stroke rate of around 80 per minute.

There can be no mistaking the subject of the next image:

However, despite the background, it isn’t meant to represent run-of-the-mill cyclists like myself. This mural has been painted on part of the the wall surrounding the Hong Kong Sports Centre, which I believe contains a velodrome. Notice that the riders depicted here are wearing a kind of streamlined helmet that is impractical for general cycling.

Even more egrets:

I’ve no idea why the pavilion depicted in the last photo has been included. Structures like this are commonplace all over the New Territories, so there cannot be anything special about one in Shatin.

When the Hong Kong Jockey Club decided that it needed a second racecourse several decades ago, Shatin was the obvious choice:

I didn’t notice it when taking the photograph, but when I was processing the photos, I spotted what appeared to be the artist’s signature in the bottom right-hand corner. It reads ‘DIO 2019’. So this work is recent.

Finally, here is a view of the mural’s location from the next bridge downstream:

It is definitely worth going out of your way to take a closer look.