Britain's Opium Den:
Hong Kong’s Temples, Lasers, Daoist Riddles, and Giant Spiders
Date: Sunday, October 3rd – Friday, October 7th, 2016
The year is 43 CE, and things are not going well in the south of China. The area stretching from Guangdong well into Vietnam, which a century and a half before was an independent kingdom of non-Chinese, is causing problems. Specifically, in what is now Vietnam, two sisters are engaged in open rebellion. Han Chinese are forcing assimilation on the peoples of the former Nanyue state, crushing their language and culture in a way that future politicians will call cultural genocide. These two sisters, raised in a military household by a man who was prefect for a commandery of the Han Empire, and skilled in martial arts, have now conquered sixty-five cities in a rebellion that’s gone on for three years.
Their names are Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị, complete with all the Vietnamese accentation. Trắc is the elder, while Nhị is the young one, though their exact dates of birth are entirely unknown. They are Yue, an ancient people living in this southern China and northern Vietnam area. The Yue, culturally different, living in houses on stilts, heavily engaged in shipbuilding, cultivating wet rice and raising water buffalo, were once a great people, though now their way of life is being destroyed by ethnically Han Chinese.
[Footnote 1: In Chinese sources their names are Zheng Ce and Zheng Er, respectively. At least I know how to pronounce these.]
You can picture two 95-pound Vietnamese women, dressed in silk martial artists’ robes embroidered with phoenixes, recently proclaimed joint queens at the ages of nineteen and twenty. Maybe there’s an assassin in the night. Two hundred pound knife-wielding mercenary sent by a governor in Guangzhou. A creaky floorboard. Nhị has that superhuman awareness of an expert martial artist and hears it, her eyes wrench open, and suddenly she’s up the wall, defying gravity. The hitman is there, lunges for her, she smashes a vertebra in his neck with two fingers. She’s a good sister, has to warn Trắc. Grabs her guandao blade and races down the hall of the estate they’re staying in in what will one day be Hanoi. One quick swing and the door’s hinges are split clean down the middle. The door falls from the frame. There’s Trắc, in bed with three of her concubines (male or female, I’ll leave the decision to you).
[Footnote 2: In point of fact, the guandao – you can picture something like a Chinese naginata, almost two meters long with a sort of curved butcher’s cleaver on the end of it – is supposed to have been invented in the third century by General Guan Yu.]
“Uurgh,” says Nhị, looking away. “Can’t you keep it in your pants for one night? We’ve got a battle to wage in four hours.”
Nhị herself is not a saint, and has a favourite masseur, his name is Bao, who occasionally doubles as a courtesan, but is more regal, more... modest. Her interludes with him are not the subject of court gossip – not even Trắc knows that little secret. The same cannot be said of these tramps in her sister’s bed. Even their Chinese overlords know these concubines’ names – it’s in their propaganda.
“I’ll take some ginseng in the morning,” says Trắc, pulling the sheet up. “Enough with your purity, sis; this is how empresses act.”
A roll of the eyes from Nhị.
“Oh,” her sister adds, “and you should know, I appointed Long – you know Long; quiet girl, niece from the Ɖặng family – she’s our new minister of the harem. While you were with the war council. I gave her a signing bonus. If you could be a dear and approve the funds for that...”
Nhị sighes. Great. Of the two of them, she’s the imperial treasurer – a thankless task if ever there was one. Now she’s got a whole new ministry she needs to find a budget–
That’s when the other assassin appears, lunges from the shadows with a double-edged jian sword. Nhị dances back, twirls, the guandao tight in her grip. She plants a foot against the wall, pushes, flies, brings that blade up–
But this story isn’t about the Trưng sisters. It’s about a local garrison commander in Panyu County, living in a sleepy coastal village south of Guangzhou. We’re going to call him Zhang Xü. Xü doesn’t know that the governor sent those assassins. He doesn’t fully understand the extent of this rebellion. Frankly, he doesn’t much care. He’s ethnically Han, but has lived alongside Yue practically his whole life. He can speak the language. They’re good fishermen, and for the most part good people.
This is a salt mining area, and his family is involved in the trade. He has some money to his name, and has made a good life for himself, something of a local aristocrat. He’s overseeing the building of his tomb, a cross-shaped brick structure with a domed ceiling. But Xü will never be buried there. The governor in Guangzhou has called Xü into service. General Ma Yuan is marching south on special orders from Luoyang (the capital). These sisters need to be dealt with. Ma is raising and army, and the Guangzhou governor has just pressed Xü into service.
The tomb will be found in 1955 when the local government is excavating a hillside for new residences. Zhang’s name will never be known, neither will his fate. In fact, we don’t know exactly when the tomb dates from. Most historians place it in the Eastern Han period, as does the museum that now stands on that site, but the Southern Dynasties have also been suggested.
[Footnote 3: 420-589 CE.]
The tomb is now mostly preserved in northwestern Kowloon, in Hong Kong. A small museum is set up, with merciful air conditioning in the oppressive sub-tropical heat, that displays pottery and artifacts, and has a brief video that will play in Cantonese, Mandarin and English. Two thousand years ago, it would have been overlooking the sea, but now the water is two kilometres away after a series of land reclamations. Out the back door of the museum and you get to walk up to the entrance, the portion of the tomb damaged and opened during digging in 1955. They have lights and mirrors inside, and a glass wall set up to peer through, though you’re not permitted inside the structure. It looks almost Egyptian, like the subterranean tunnels beneath a pyramid. Up above, the outside of the tomb has been uncovered, dug down to the edges of the brick, now with a hard-shelled tent structure erected above to protect it from the weather.
Admission here is free. There’s a park to the west, with an attendant that doesn’t speak a word of English. It’s in a more rundown area of Hong Kong, where the apartments are less architectural chic and more projects. Tonkin Street, filled with crammed-packed stores selling electronic junk, shower heads and thin, hard mattresses, has almost no advertisements for the tomb. The park looks like a history museum entrance to me. I ask the attendant, “English?” She shakes her head. “Lei Cheng Uk?” I try, hoping I’m at least pronouncing it right in Cantonese. She nods, smiles, points. It’s right next door.
On the other side is a playground, along with public squat toilets where a gentleman spends twenty minutes hosing off his feet, and beside that is a primary school, a six- or seven-storey structure pushed vertically, like everything in Hong Kong. Then, across the road is Casa 338, a decent restaurant with a hundred different brands of beer, including New Zealand’s Zeffer Cider, Australia’s Moon Dog Mack Daddy and Belgium’s Delirium Tremens, and a Chinglish menu where their snacks (appetizers) section is listed under the heading ‘Snakes’.
[Footnote 4: I don’t really need to point out that the majority of the history here was fictionalized, do I? There was a rebellion led by two sisters (40-43 CE), it was a Yue reaction to Han assimilationist policies, General Ma Yuan did put it down, and their is an empty tomb on Tonkin Street in Kowloon, which probably belonged to a garrison commander, and which is traditionally dated to the Eastern Han period – though it is by no means specifically dated to the Trưng sisters’ rebellion. As for the sexual proclivities of the sisters, the assassination scheme of the Guangzhou governor, and the identity of the tomb’s owner, this was all fiction.]
Back in the British drug-dealing days, they acquired a little piece of land across the water from the Portuguese trading port with China’s Qing Dynasty. This crown colony, and later British dependent territory, would reach its current borders with the Mainland with the acquisition of the New Territories (which are still called that today) in 1898, with a ninety-nine-year lease. It was handed back in 1997 when that lease expired, though there were some caveats the British attached to the deal. Now, Hong Kong exists basically as its own independent city-state, with its own currency, government, passports, international borders, domestic police and laws. About half the population speaks English. Ah yes, this looks like a suitable place to act as ‘the shallow end of Asia’.
[Footnote 5: The Opium Wars; 1839-42, 1856-60.]
It’s more than a fifteen-hour flight from Toronto, with free movies, booze and a five-hundred-some-odd-page graphic novel to pass the time. You fly out at 10 in the morning and land at 1:30 in the afternoon – local time, of course; in Toronto it’s the middle of the night. You’re on Lantau Island, the largest of the islands of the territory, which is comparably fairly green. You have to catch the airport express train, which takes you off Lantau, onto the peninsula, and then down to Hong Kong Island.
I was staying in Sai Ying Pun, which I affectionately referred to as the fish district because of the number of fish markets along Queen’s Road. Skewered squid hands in the windows, alongside storefront bakeries and cake shops, freshly slaughtered pigs are left in a bucket under a tarp on the sidewalk every morning outside the local meat market, and Thai massages are advertised near the subway entrance. Hong Kong Island is a little like San Francisco, with old, narrow streets that become steep hills very quickly. The bulk of the population on Hong Kong Island is in the north, facing Victoria Harbour. On the south of the island is a small colonial village named Stanley (which I didn’t see), and in the centre of the island is Victoria Peak, the highest point on the island, with a viewing terrace to see the incredible skyline along the harbour. We got off at Sai Ying Pun Station, and then walked for what was probably close to a kilometre underground before emerging on Queen’s Road. I’d been up now for twenty-two or twenty-three hours, and didn’t know what direction I was facing. Hello, do you need help? It’s a kindly older couple. They speak some English but not a great deal. I tell them the name of the hotel. They look at the map. They don’t know where it is, but they’re helpful enough to stay with us until they find someone who does know.
The first British acquisition was Hong Kong Island in 1842, following the First Opium War and the Treaty of Nanjing, the first of the so-called ‘unequal treaties’, wherein Western powers forced Asian nations into unfair agreements at the point of a sword. Further unequal treaties followed from there, and the territory gradually expanded thereafter. In 1860, following the Second Opium War, the Convention of Peking (Beijing) ceded Kowloon, the mainland peninsula on the other side of the harbour, to Britain, as well as all of Manchuria north of the Amur River to Russia (Russia still retains this territory today). The New Territories, to the north of Kowloon, followed in 1898.
Today, it’s home to about 7 million people, all crammed into a territory one fifth the size of Prince Edward Island or one sixth the size of Delaware. The incredible urban density is greatest on either side of Victoria Harbour. The entertainment district, with the famous neon mile and sprawling open-air markets, is Tsim Sha Tsui, on the southern tip of Kowloon Peninsula. Here stands a clock tower, a landmark in Hong Kong, not far from the Star Ferry terminal where you can catch the ferry to the island. The ferry, however, is not that impressive. It’s a relatively quick jaunt across the water, and it always seemed to bathed in a misty rain, with noisy kids running about between the hard wooden seats, and the windows packed with tourists. It’s connected to the local transit, or MTR system, and costs a quarter (US$). As such, it’s concerned with getting you from A to B, and deposits you (in Kowloon) within spitting distance of the clock tower, or (on the island) at a tremendous overpass leading to the mall at the International Finance Centre (IFC).
No, if you want a good tour of the harbour, opt for the Dukling Junk tour, which puts you on an old Chinese junk up and down both shorelines. Wine is served here, and you get to lounge about and relax for perhaps an hour as a young woman with a microphone runs through the various landmarks in fluent Cantonese, English and Mandarin. When we did it, there was a family on the opposite side, but otherwise the junk was empty.
Here in Hong Kong, the subway takes you everywhere. There’s a total of eight subway lines, plus an airport express and Disneyland transfer line, and some light rail lines up in the far northwest of the New Territories. It’s all operated by the Octopus card, which is a little like Ontario’s Presto card, only on steroids. The Octopus is accepted in restaurants and convenience stores, at the Star Ferry, the Peak and elsewhere, and getting to and fro is fairly cheap. A subway station can have exits spanning an entire neighbourhood, with corridors stretching out miles underground like tentacles (the Octopus card aptly named?). Central Station alone, which I passed through many times, has its own city down there, multiple layers stacked atop each other and passageways spanning miles underground, dotted perpetually with 7-11s, Maxim’s Cakes, advertisements for tourism in Hainan and Ningxia and the movie Operation Mekong, and breast cancer awareness campaign posters wherein the women hold up apples in front of themselves (in North America these would be melons). Here people will largely mind their own business, wearing headphones and cramming themselves in wherever they can. They’ll walk methodically for perhaps as much as two kilometres underground without looking up from their phones, where many of them sketch out the beginnings of Chinese characters into a typing app until the phone guesses what they’re saying and presents them with auto-completion options. Most people here wear their backpacks on their chests, and there’s more than a few people that wear disposable medical masks. There’s no eating or drinking inside the paid areas (including on trains), and there’s apparently heavy fines for this. As a result, everything is fairly clean. There are sliding glass doors here separating you from the trains, and overhead announcements in Cantonese, Mandarin and British-accented English, telling you to mind the gap, and place rubbish in the rubbish bins, and constant advisories about holding escalator handrails. School children as young as nine or ten will ride the subway unattended, dressed up their school uniforms – the boys in a dress shirt and tie, the girls in what looks like a nurse’s smock dress. People here are somewhat fashion-conscious, men with stylish, spiked hair and wearing three-pronged sunglasses, the women wearing faux overall dresses and platformed sandals. Pantylines are common here too, and at least some women don’t shave their underarms; one pretty young woman in a tank top had enough to braid. Sloganed t-shirts are quite popular, often in broken English, saying things like ‘Let me alone’, ‘I’m gonna be king of the pirates’, or ‘Chokemon: gotta tap ’em all’. And yes, I did even see one Chinese man with a tattoo in garbled English.
[Footenote 6: Struggling not to make an Asian small breasts joke...]
A short walk north from the pier in Tsim Sha Tsui and you can find the Museum of History and the Science Museum. I didn’t tour the Science Museum, but I did walk through the other one, which was a nice break from the sweltering heat and humidity. It’s here that I got many of those details on the the Yue people, the Nanyue Kingdom, and Hong Kong’s history as apart of Panyu County, though, admittedly, I don’t recall there being any details on our rebel queens. Working your way up the floors, you go through the various Chinese dynasties, with vases and pottery on display, as well as walk-in models of Chinese homes and boats. There’s a placard on an emperor taking refuge in Hong Kong during the Mongol invasion, and a display for traditional Chinese theatre. Entering the modern section, you see the Opium Wars and the influence of the British, and then there’s a large display on the Japanese Occupation. The final sections of the museum all deal with the gradual steps towards reuniting with China, the British handover in 1997. There’s a room with newspaper headlines from around the world, and a video of then-Governor Chris Patten. Tony Blair was present at the ceremony, as was Prince Charles, and so was Jiang Zemin, then general secretary and president. Before you exit there’s a gift shop, with little figurines, typical tourist stuff, and books on Hong Kong’s history and copies of Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Up the MTR’s blue line to Sha Tin, just inside the New Territories, where you’re greeted with a sign warning you about dengue fever. Here is the famous Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery, home now to over 13,000 golden Buddha statues. It’s a little hard to find at first, as the entrance is back behind a government building down an alleyway, where they have signs posted warning you not to give money to fake monks, and to beware of wild monkeys. It’s built into a hillside, with a tremendous staircase taking you through the dense greenery along that steep slope, with hundreds of golden statues of various Buddhas, until you emerge into a vast courtyard. Here is a multi-storey pagoda and an incense shrine, with fabulous views of the city below from its position on the green mountainside. Monkeys can be heard yelling in the distance, somewhere down in the trees. It’s early in the morning, so there are few people here; one family lights their incense and bows before the shrine, and a middle-aged woman sweeps the courtyard with an absurdly large broom. There’s a vegetarian restaurant to the side, which isn’t open yet.
Back out onto the path with the golden Buddhas, riding deer or elephants, swastikas etched into their chests, and the climb continues. There’s a small waterfall running down to a turtle pond. Here there are more than a dozen young people, as silent as the grave, all scribbling furiously in notebooks. This part of the monastery is less a court, per se, and more a collection of buildings and statues and terraces built into the up and down landscape of the mountainside, and so you can see these writers, their pens all moving without even a second’s pause for contemplation on what they’re writing, gathered here and there all throughout this dense, forested part of the temple; by the turtle pond, on the catwalk leading to the statue of Guanyin riding the dragon, on the steps of a couple shrines and buildings in the process of opening up.
[Footnote 7: What might be called ‘the goddess of mercy’, she’s a bodhisattva (one that reached the threshold of nirvana and yet, compassionately, turned back from it to aid others in getting there) popular in Mahāyāna Buddhism.]
We asked one young woman (the only one who wasn’t feverishly writing) what exactly was going on here. It turns out they’re apart of an overseas education program. She’s from Ontario, coincidentally enough, and these are all eleventh- and twelfth-grade students, here in Hong Kong for a period of three months. They’re writing on spiritual experience.
Heading back down the endless staircase of golden Buddhas – some of whom have arms coming out of their eyes or are in the process of punching a tiger – and now the wild monkeys, off somewhere in the hillside before, have appeared in the trees above. They appear to be fighting, shrieking at each other and bounding back and forth from branch to branch. There’s a few more tourists now, and they watch, their neck craned, as these howling beasts shake the trees in their passing.
10,000 Buddhas, in its almost hidden location, up in the mountainside, was, despite its fame with tourists, largely non-commercialized. Yes, they sold little bejewelled dragon figurines (don’t buy here, you can get much better deals elsewhere, as I’ll get to), but it’s very serene, calm, quiet – the loudest thing was the monkeys. The following day was quite a different experience.
Back to Lantau Island, where the airport is located, and also what is possibly the greenest part of the territory, as nearly half the island is a country park. Up at the village of Ngong Ping sits the Po Lin Monastery, and a Buddhist temple bathed in incense smoke. Free roaming cattle wander about the area, you come across spiders the size of your hand, and there are a dozen statues of famed Chinese generals. Shops line the sides of the walkway, selling incense, ice cream and traditional Chinese straw hats, with the written warning that there’s to be no pictures until purchase. Off to the side is the main attraction: the Tian Tan Buddha, a thirty-four-meter-tall seated statue of the Buddha Šakyamuni. Two hundred and fifty metric tons and able to be seen as far away as Macao on a clear day, it’s seated atop a stairway two hundred and sixty-eight steps up.
It’s accessible by bus, but also by glass-bottomed cable car, which departs from Tung Chung Station across the parkland for a distance of nearly six kilometres. There’s an outlet mall at Tung Chung, and then just across the road is the Ngong Ping 360 cable car entrance. For about US$10 more, you can upgrade to a ‘crystal cabin’, i.e., a glass-bottomed car. This, and the tram for Victoria Peak, were about the only places with significant lineups in Hong Kong (for Victoria Peak, we wound up taking a cab). We stood in line for nearly two hours, with too few swivelling fans to combat the heat, and signs posted declaring no pets or livestock, and who should I bump into but the Mexican couple I’d sat beside on the flight. Fidel and Anabel had spent five hours flying from Mexico City to Toronto, and then an additional fifteen hours getting to Hong Kong. They had a busy trip planned; departing Hong Kong the following day for Hangzhou, then Shanghai, Xian and Beijing – where I would bump into them once more on the Great Wall.
But before you get to the lineup, just outside the Tung Chung outlet mall, there are different pamphleteers handing out material – material which we were in no way going to take with with us when we left Hong Kong.
In 1999, Jiang Zemin, the Chinese president I mentioned earlier, criminalized the practise of Falun Gong, a quasi-Buddhist, yoga-like new age movement that arose in 1992. In doing so, he was granted membership in an exclusive club, one that counts among its members Idi Amin, Leopoldo Galtieri, Suharto and Kim Jong-un. Religious repression is par for the course in China, but this went a step above and beyond, reaching territory former Canadian MP David Kilgore said is “comparable to what the Nazis did.”
[Footnote 8: Quote taken from the documentary Human Harvest.]
Today the Falun Gong movement is at the centre of allegations of mass forced organ harvesting, with estimates somewhere north of 60,000 victims.
[Footnote 9: Estimates range as high as 1.5 million (which includes Tibetans, Uyghurs and Eastern Lightening House Christians), though precise numbers are impossible. Kilgour and Matas, authors of the report Bloody Harvest, estimated 41,500 organs between the years of 2000-2005. Ethan Gutmann, author of the book The Slaughter: Mass Killings, Organ Harvesting, and China’s Secret Solution to Its Dissident Problem, comes up with the number 65,000 in the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Gutmann, whose book came out in 2014, believed he was writing history, something that was dialled back in the run up to the Olympics, yet in a video update to Bloody Harvest, Gutmann said, “[W]e can’t come up with a clear number. What I can say is that the numbers we estimated previously ... at this point those numbers look very low.”]
The pamphlets – one citing information on Kilgour and Matas’ report, as well the international response, including the US Congressional H.Res.343, calling on the communist government to end organ harvesting; another Chinese propaganda decrying Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi as a cult leader – would be left in the hotel room before we left for the Macao Ferry, but not before photographing every page, emailing the pictures to myself and then deleting them from my phone.
Up in the mountains of Lantau, there’s miles upon miles of trails. You can see hikers’ trails weaving through the forest below from the glass-bottomed cable car, and only a handful of people braving the terrain. I’d been under the impression that this was going to be more of a religious site, way up in the parkland, with travel books advertising only a vegetarian lunch option (in concert with Buddhist views on the suffering of all sentient beings). However, when you get off the cable car, you walk into what essentially amounts to a Disney village, highly commercialized with shops and a dozen restaurants (I ate at a Middle Eastern kebob place with free wifi). Passing through this area, and, off to the right, there’s the Buddha Šakyamuni. The Po Lin Monastery is directly ahead, next to the spot where buses drop you off if you didn’t want to wait in line for the cable car.
The heat was oppressive, and the humidity high (not the best addition to a two-hundred-and-sixty-eight-step staircase), so it wasn’t quite clear enough to see Macao from the top, though I could see a tremendous bridge being built, multiple cranes and barges on a series of supports jutting out into the open water. This, I assume, is the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, the road link to Macao currently being built.
You can enter the pedestal upon which the Buddha sits. In there you see many pictures and written names lining the circular walls, a Chinese monastic burial practice where the deceased are memorialized. There’s also a small gift shop by the entrance. It’s swelteringly hot, so coming in here is a good way to escape the sun, though it’s not much cooler, the fans doing little. The entire pedestal sits on a circular platform atop that two-hundred-and-sixty-eight-step staircases. It’s quite busy, the crowds thick. Various statues of other buddhas, three or four meters in height, are arranged along the edges, all facing Šakyamuni. Swastikas are everywhere.
Over to the Po Lin Monastery, where stray dogs roam about the sitting area just outside. Incense shops are set up, and the place is bathed in smoke. It’s very crowded here, and warm. Through the main entrance, there are many small temples here, off to the side, but the main attraction is the large building directly in the centre. You’re not allowed inside, but you can view and photograph the three large Buddha statues therein – representing the Buddha’s past, present and future lives.
Crammed in here next to an intricately carved pillar in the design of fire-breathing dragons, my brother and I met an American woman, who said she’d been living in China for two years. At first she’d been living in Beijing, now in Hong Kong. We were lucky to come in October, she told us; the summer is unbelievably sweltering. She mentioned her time in Beijing, and we told her we’d there the following week. “If you’re going to go to the Forbidden City,” she told us, “get their early. The crowds are far worse than this,” motioning to the throng around us.
[Footnote 10: We did get there early. See The Harem and the Barbarian.]
On the way out, amongst the many jewelry stores en route back to the cable car, was a painting for sale, depicting Victoria Harbour, with a junk in the water. It was beautifully done, yet fairly small. HKD$380 (about $63 Canadian). It was nice, but this wasn’t the place to buy paintings.
At some point a year or so before this trip I had discovered a Chinese artist named Li Zhuangping, who had released a series of around twenty paintings called the Oriental Goddess series. This is how I heard of him, as this series drew a small degree of international controversy, for they were nude paintings of his stepdaughter. Nudity is more taboo in mainland China than in the West, and the Woody Allen angle was enough to reach a Western blog or two. No publicity is bad publicity, however, and I downloaded digital copies of the series, rotating the images as my cellphone screen art.
When I was in Cuba I had picked up three semi-nude (I say ‘semi’ because there were breasts and butts, but they didn’t feature a vulva; i.e. tasteful) oil paintings at the local market, where Cubans hock the typical tourist crap (a lot of images of Che’s face, unironically sold for a profit). In China I wanted to do the same, and went to the Temple Street Night Market and the Ladies Market looking for Li Zhuangping ripoffs.
The Night Market, in Tsim Sha Tsui, is your typical Chinatown market, folding tables and booths set up along Temple Street, running at night. So after the return from Po Lin, and a much-needed shower, I had a Pizza Hut dinner wherein they’d replaced the tomato sauce with thousand islands dressing, and then headed back out once more through the labyrinthine subway system to Tsim Sha Tsui. I arrived at the north end, did a quick walk through the booths, where you see the typical tourist crap: t-shirts proclaiming “I [heart] HK”; little brass statues of dragons, lions, rams and panthers; folding screens with images of the Great Wall, running horses, and tigers; hats, magnets, knockoff watches and cheap electronics. You get to the end of it, there’s a few other booths across the road, poorly lit, and you think this has been a little overhyped. Not that crowded, not that great of a selection. Check out those booths across the road, more statues, some calligraphy. Oh, there’s more down a little bit, along this sidewalk. It’s booth after booth of sex toys; dildos and blowup dolls and real-feel breasts. Perhaps I shouldn’t be going this way. Ah, here’s some fortune tellers over this way. Yes, these people were supposed to be here. Maybe it keeps going–
And then, it opens up. Here now are the packed booths you can hardly walk through, human traffic so dense it feels like you’re in a cage, tightly packed tables full of products. Its the same basic stuff – statues, silk screens, t-shirts, hats and the like – but more, and a better selection. I did a walk through, just taking it all in. It kept going and going for several blocks; you never see the end of it. It’s a mass of people, and at times you get stuck in a row of traffic and feel like a cow on its way to slaughter. People stand at the edges of their booths and hock knockoff watches and designer handbags. There are booths filled to the brim with t-shirts, including the ones that feature various animals splashed across the chest, as so many men in Hong Kong seemed to be wearing. Restaurants at each intersection have someone out there foisting a menu upon you. And yes, there’s paintings.
No, I wasn’t just looking for nudes. I actually went looking for a few knockoffs of famous Chinese paintings. There’s one that’s quite common, featuring eight horses of various colours in gallop. Another one, which I would have loved to have gotten a copy of, is Li Gonglin’s Pasturing Horses, painted circa 1085 during the Song Dynasty. This long, detailed panorama features hundreds of horses on a golden-brown backdrop, which, if I had have found a copy, probably would not have been too cheap. I did however find a copy of that first one.
[Footnote 11: The original is now at the Palace Museum in Beijing. I use a slightly altered version of it for marketing materials and collector’s items within my The Mongolian Book of the Sky series.]
“How much?” I ask the guy, just looking for a ballpark.
580, he says by way of typing it into his calculator.
Everything here is negotiable, and you can cut the price by as much as sixty percent or more in some cases. I did some quick math in my head. Six to one (roughly) exchange rate. Close to a hundred Canadian for that painting. It’s a nice painting, but it’s not worth a hundred. Okay, I say, and turn to walk away. I was just looking for a ballpark figure, after all. There’s still much more of the market to see. These people are very pushy, of course, and don’t take no for an answer. Many of them will actually grab you by the arm and hand you the calculator so you can type in a counter offer. He didn’t grab me by the arm, and I didn’t stop to offer a lower figure, and yet by the time I’d left his booth, he’d spit out a half dozen lower figures, eventually getting down to 400.
I saw the same painting again, same size (rather large), in another booth. Here now I had a little more time, I’d seen more of the market, and was ready to negotiate. This one started at 400, and was talked down to 300. Well, I’d better get a painting of the Great Wall, because, after all, that’s where I was headed in another week’s time. A small one. It’s a common image seen everywhere paintings are sold, three or four different shadings on the colour. I didn’t like the first one I saw, all green and sunny, a happy place. No, my vision of the Great Wall is the final frontier between civilization and savagery, the last line of defence against one of the barbarian hordes, so it shouldn’t look all bright and sunny. Next booth, ah, yes, grey and dim and makes it look foggy and foreboding. How much? 129, she types into the calculator, before clearing it and saying in broken English, “I give to you,” and types 110. There’s some negotiation, and I get it for 70.
Okay, but what about Li Zhuangping. I’d brought out my phone earlier with a pushy artist and showed him some images, but he spoke no English and shook his head. This woman with the Great Wall painting spoke pretty good English, and while taping up the painting I’d just bought, was very pushy with, “Anything else you like? You like this one? This one?”
I’d already bought a dragon statue, and now two paintings, and I was about ready to head back to the hotel. Hey, why not ask? I bring out my phone, go to the Li folder. You have anything like this? Excited, she opened up her cabinet and hefted out a huge roll of a couple dozen paintings. She unrolled it – the first one being a duplicate of one up on her wall – and then hurriedly flipped through until she found what she was looking for: a somewhat voluptuous (by Asian standards), posed model, topless and with a folded thigh just covering her crotch. Another customer appeared and she left me momentarily to deal with them, and I flipped through. Long story short, while she didn’t have any Li knockoffs, I picked up that posed model, as well as a small-breasted water bearer in a flowing skirt. I offered the rest of the cash in my wallet, which she hemmed and hawed on for a long time – stressing the detailed pencil crayon work in addition to the paint – before agreeing (I paid about forty percent of the asking price).
[Footnote 12: The ‘tasteful’ prohibition on genitalia I mentioned earlier, while it applied to the two I picked up here in Hong Kong, did not translate to a purchase in Beijing. See Sleeping on Scissors.]
The following day was Lei Cheng Uk, the small museum mentioned in my intro, as well as the Ladies Market, likewise in Tsim Sha Tsui, which, despite the name, now markets equally to all comers. That, and another temple – this one Daoist: Wong Tai Sin Temple. You take the Island Line to Central, transfer to the Orange Line, and then transfer once more in Yau Ma Tei to the Green Line. Departing at Wong Tai Sin, the first thing you see is the Temple Mall, a multi-storey shopping centre where many shores were just opening up. My eyes were painfully dry, so we ventured in and found a pharmacy, where I got some eye drops, which I’m pretty sure were just water in a bottle. But they did (if you have to use them excessively) do the trick.
Wong Tai Sin, also highly commercialized, was similarly bathed in incense smoke. It’s a very large Daoist temple, with multiple statues of various Chinese deities and mythical figure throughout, tiger-headed, rooster-headed or ram-headed anthropomorphized figures wearing monks’ robes. They all had large red bows on them, in honour of a festival going on that day.
Although it’s hard to find information on, the festivities were likely in celebration of the Nine Emperor Gods, a yearly festival in the ninth lunar month and lasting nine days. Originating from Fujian and Guangdong, the mythology of the Nine Emperor Gods comes from the Yue people, the ethnic minority absorbed into the Han state two millennia ago, and which gave us our rebel queens Trưng Trắc and Nhị, and their rebellion. The Nine Emperor Gods were said to be the sons of the goddess Dou Mu, mother of the Big Dipper constellation, which, in Daoist belief, controls the fate of individuals and the welfare of the state. Today, the festival is most prominent in Singapore, and Chinese overseas communities in Malaysia, Burma and Thailand.
Carved dragons are everywhere; in the staircases, the pillars, the temple walls. Tremendous skyscraper condos or apartments (I guess, with their British-accented English in Hong Kong, they’d call them ‘flats’) can be seen poking above the trees on the horizon in any direction. The temple, likewise featuring women burning incense and bowing reverently before shrines, gives way to a peaceful, contemplative garden in the back. Here there’s a turtle pond, with turtle dragon (or longgui) statues spewing water in a fountain, and bridges and gazebos crisscrossing the water. Scholars’ rocks, shaped something like coral reef, are everywhere as well, as are statues of rams and a sage, perhaps Laozi.
[Footnote 13: Perhaps better known in Wade-Giles as Lao Tzu.]
Here, in this back garden, it’s a bit more tranquil than the festivities up front, and you can sit and ponder, and walk about the gardens, contemplating the nature of the Dao (or the Way, the primeval foundation of, and permeation through, all reality), or on the nature of yin and yang, or on Zhuangzi’s butterfly allegory.
“To protect your trunks, your sacks, your cabinets from thieves who would break into them, rifle through them, bust them open, no doubt you will bind them with seals and ropes, secure them with latches and locks. This is what the conventional world calls wisdom. But when a great thief arrives, he will take the cabinet on his back, shoulder the sack, and make off with them – fearing nothing more than that the seals, ropes, latches, and locks are not secure enough. So this thing you’ve been calling “wisdom” – is it anything more than the piling up loot for the greater thieves?”
[Footnote 14: Chapter Ten: Breaking Into Trunks, of Ziporyn’s translation and commentary on the Zhuangzi, the ancient eponymous book by the Daoist sage; pg. 62-63.]
That night, I went to Victoria Peak, the highest point on Hong Kong Island. The tram ride had a tremendous lineup, so we opted for a cab. The cabs in Hong Kong are all small Toyotas, the odometer having rolled over at least once on most of them. They drive on the left (i.e. wrong) side of the road here, and when they pull up to the hotel, the driver will open the rear left door with a lever next to his parking brake, connected to a bar and a hinge in the back seat. Moderately convenient, yet this contraption takes up a huge part of the back seat. Leaving the luminescent skyscrapers in Central, all other vehicles on the road became cabs as well, climbing steep, winding roads towards the Peak. Here are about the only places in Hong Kong with sizable estates; large, rich places up in the hills, resembling something like a wealthy executive’s place in the Hollywood Hills.
Through coiling, serpentine streets we climbed ever higher, until finally we arrived in a parking garage at the Peak. Here too the crowds were tremendous. You emerge into a posh mall, overpriced shops and pretentious pastry places. Outside is a courtyard, and across the way is Peak Tower, an elaborate viewing deck resembling something like a rowboat atop a central tower. To the left is the vast lineup for the tram ride back down, and to the right is a restaurant patio. It’s just a few minutes before sunset, and from next to this patio you can get a halfway decent view of the amazing skyline below, the plethora of banking towers and other skyscrapers crammed into Central, the prime business district in Hong Kong, which seem to be built right on top of each other, and end right when the green mountainside begins to rise.
The sunlight is vanishing by the second now. I want to get to the viewing deck atop the Peak Tower. I walk around. Yes, this mass of people here are not in a lineup for the tower, but rather the tram, going back down. Good. I enter the tower next to them. There’s a Burger King right inside, and overall the atmosphere is not too busy. A set of stairs. I take them up. There’s a sign for a washroom up here, but it seems like I’ve taken a wrong turn in my quest to get to the top. Here’s a door. Is this where I’m supposed to go? On the other side is an almost industrial hallway. But the door isn’t locked, or marked. I find the washroom, use it. Not sure if this is a public washroom. Take a wrong turn coming back out. I definitely think I’ve gone the wrong way. It’s completely deserted back here, and this doesn’t look like it’s open to the public. Here’s an elevator. I take it up to the top. Still more back hallways. I emerge through a solid door into a very public area. There’s a Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurant, and a huge lineup at an escalator. I realize I’ve just butt into this lineup, coming up from a lower escalator. You can use your MTR Octopus card for admission, so it looks like I haven’t bypassed that fee.
Up top, now it’s completely dark, and the viewing deck is packed. You barely have room to stand, much less move around to get a better look. But you can still see it, the business district and Tsim Sha Tsui across the harbour, the meandering shore of the Kowloon peninsula, the entire thing bathed in the myriad lights of dozens of skyscrapers. This is the postcard image of Hong Kong, one of the grandest skylines in the world. It was marvellous, breathtaking.
Coming back, the tram wait was too long, so it was a cab once again. There’s a waiting area, and a wait of about fifteen minutes. The cab pulls up, and the driver, in heavily accented English, blurts out “No English, no English.” We’d just waited fifteen, and I was pretty tired, so I didn’t want to swap places with people behind us, but I didn’t speak any Cantonese. “Sai Ying Pun,” I tell him, listing the name of the subway station. I can find my way from there. He nods, and begins the winding descent down these coiling roads.
[Footnote 15: A small amount of Mandarin, but no Cantonese.]
Where he dropped us off, I have no idea. Perhaps it was Sai Ying Pun neighbourhood, but I think he was far closer to HKU, the next station down the line. This was a neighbourhood I had not walked, and the pocketbook map I carried didn’t list any street I spotted the name of. So here I was, wandering through darkened, unknown streets, with more seafood restaurants selling giant crabs in oversized aquariums at every corner. The goal here was now to make it to the water, specifically Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park, which was just to the north of our hotel on Queen’s Road (‘Queen’s Road’, I should mention, was not a phrase recognized by the Cantonese cabby). 8pm was fast approaching, and I wanted to see the Symphony of Lights – the second postcard image of Hong Kong – wherein forty-seven buildings along the harbour engage in a light and laser show. Sun Yat Sen Park seemed like a good place to observe it from. This was a wide-open space along the harbour, where people gathered to exercise in droves at both 6am and 8pm.
There’s no obesity in Hong Kong – none at all. I think I saw three overweight people the entire time I was there. Likewise I saw no homeless, and no crime. I did see a few policemen on patrol one morning, out walking around the neighbourhood of Sai Ying Pun, yet they seemed relaxed and comfortable. Even petty crime, like pickpocketing or graffiti, was virtually nonexistent. I think I saw one graffiti tag in all of Hong Kong, a little south of Queen’s Road into the hills; en route to a lovely restaurant named Jaspas, one power box was tagged in black with the phrase 7” COCK, but no other, even in the somewhat rundown areas, such as when trying to find the hidden Lei Cheng Uk Tomb.
Anyway, I did make it to the park at around 8:05. People were exercising, the statue of the Dr. Sun Yat Sen was shrouded in darkness, and you could clearly see the illuminated skyline on the north side of Victoria Harbour, but there were no dancing lights, no lasers, no spotlights, and no crowds either – despite the people jogging.
It turns out, the hotel concierge would later explain, that you need to be in Tsim Sha Tsui, looking south to the island, not on the island looking north to Kowloon. I had one full day left in Hong Kong, with two more temples way up in the ass-end of the New Territories, and my brother wanted to go to a gay bar listed in my pocket travel book. So we agreed: we’d stop by Tsim Sha Tsui for 8 tomorrow, then circle back to the Sheung Wan area (between Central and Sai Ying Pun) to go to the bar. The day after was the ferry to Macao.
So on the Thursday, I was going over the travel book during breakfast, when the concierge, with some language difficulties, tried to steer us away from the New Territories for temples. He was suggesting Po Lin, which I’d already been too, and when I brought up the picture of the subway map on my phone, pointing to the very end of the line, Tuen Mun, he shook his head, not aware of any temples up there. His English wasn’t great, and he didn’t recognize ‘Castle Peak’, so I tried to Cantonese name: Tsing Shan. He still shook his head and apologized for his ignorance.
Despite this, the two temples up this way were probably the most rewarding of all the temples on this vacation.
Back to the subway, down the Island Line to Central, onto the Yellow to Nam Cheong, then onto the Purple, where it looped up and into the New Territories. At some point the subway emerges from the underground, and, for the first time since I’d been here, depopulated enough that there were actually seats available. Even out here, in the ‘suburbs’, are collections of skyscrapers, probably at least forty or fifty storeys in height, in clusters of twelve or fifteen. You see one when the train first emerges to ground level, then some green, a highway with a tractor trailer on it, then another cluster of buildings. The Purple Line loops around, up near the Mainland Chinese border, and heads back south, to Sui Hong and, finally, Tuen Mun.
You’re advised from here to jump on the light rail system, which bounces back and forth between the last five stops on the Purple Line, Tuen Mun, Sui Hong, Tin Shui Wai, Long Ping, and Yuen Long, as well as making a sort of figure eight further to the southwest from Tuen Mun. This was where Castle Peak was located; about a mile past one of the light rail stops in this figure eight. The problem was that, where the standard MTR was simple – Purple Line towards Tuen Mun, Blue (Island) Line towards Kennedy Town – the light rail was a mess of five- or six-digit numbers. Helpful locals gave conflicting advice as to what train we should be on, and so, departing the station, we instead opted for a cab. Out in the New Territories taxis are cheaper than in Kowloon or on the Island. After the cabbie typed it into his phone, getting me to verify on a Google Maps screen all in Chinese, we were off. It wasn’t that far – away from the station, down this way, off the main road, then up a side road in the brush, climbing a steep hill. The Toyota, a car easily dating from the 1990s, struggled to climb this hill, which was a one-way road. There was the odd person walking up it, and the odd person walking down (walking backwards, I should say), and they would slowly amble off towards the trees as the rattling engine of the cab approached. The driver had already shut off his air conditioner to give the engine more power, and I wasn’t alone in thinking that if one of these pedestrians took too long to move over, we’d be dead on the roadside having slowed down for them.
Finally we arrive at the faded yellow arch over the entrance of Tsing Shan, or Castle Peak Monastery. It’s essentially atop a mountain, surrounded by dense subtropical forest, and, when you round the small parking area and the first dirty shrine, you’re presented with a mountainside view of the New Territories. It’s a little more rundown here... but perhaps the better word is non-commercialized. It’s also far less crowded. In fact, walking in the front gate, I was almost hesitant, unsure if this was open to the public. Like Po Lin and the 10,000 Buddhas, this too is Buddhist, and you see many different Buddhas represented here, including a many-armed Indian-style Buddha, Chinese-style warrior Buddhas carrying guandaos, and a red-faced angry Buddha. Yet here as well you can see the taijitu (yin-yang symbol), a Daoist incense shrine, dragons, lions, qilins and xiezhis. Local gardeners sweep the pathways here, and a dog wanders about. A turtle pond is here as well.
Heading into one of the air conditioned shrines and it’s like walking into a spa; pristine white tiles everywhere and sliding glass doors. Here you can head upstairs to a balcony for a better view of the New Territories, or head inside to a meditation room where there are hundreds of small golden Buddha statues perfectly arranged.
Out back is a garden, which is far more Buddhist in its aesthetic than Daoist (serene, contemplative, secluded; no scholars’ rocks or gazebos). From here you can take a set of stairs further up into the mountain, where a guardrailed terrace overlooks the garden and the rear of the temples. It’s all very green here, and overgrown, with a thick canopy above you shading you from the sun. Climbing that set of stairs, an official at the monastery passes us on the way down and politely says hello. We stop to talk for a minute, and it turns out he lived in Canada for a brief time; he lived in Edmonton for a few months and has a brother in Victoria he’s visited. Moving on, we make it to the walkway up above. There’s a cardboard cutout of Bruce Lee up here, as this monastery was used in filming one of his movies – this, honestly, next to a burnt out shrine in the back of beyond up above this garden, was the only thing touristy about this monastery. There’s supposed to be a mountainside walking path that leads you, circuitously, back down that steep slope the cab struggled to climb. The cabbie told us we wouldn’t be able to get a cab back up there to pick us up, so perhaps this Tsing Shan Monastery Path is a nice scenic way of getting back to the main road. There’s a path branching off at the end of this mountain terrace, perhaps this is where–
Sweet nirvana! There’s another one of those spiders literally the size of your hand. Black and yellow with a legspan of a good six inches or more. It’s in a web just behind the handrail. I’d looked it up after seeing that abomination at Po Lin; it’s called the golden orb spider. And now that I’m conscious of them, I spot two more in the next two minutes. And there’s overgrown trees all around – and above – me. I suddenly don’t think it’s such a good idea to be pushing my way through a subtropical forest path where it looks like a machete might be handy.
Coming back down, we pass by the garden on the opposite end, and come around another shrine (this one looks less used) with another of these invidious creatures. Just up ahead is that gentleman we were talking to earlier. He waves at us, we go up to him. “What are these things?” we ask. I show him a picture I’d taken. “Are they venomous?”
He kind of laughs a bit at us novice Canadians (the most venomous thing we have to deal with is a polar bear). Asking once more if they bite, his face changes and he shouts, “Don’t touch!”
He invites us into his office, where he says he can try calling for a cab if we would like, and has something to give us. Most of these monasteries have a little pamphlet or calling card they give out, but he comes out of the back room with four laminated sheets, with intricate designs of Buddhist imagery. “Tibetan Buddhist,” he explains. There’s Chinese characters written up and down the side, and no English on it. We thank him, and decide the morning is still young, so we’ll walk down to the main road (avoiding the overgrown Tsing Shan Path and the demonic things you might stumble into the web of en route).
Walking out of the office, I consider for a second, then turn and walk back in. Holding up the Tibetan Buddhist literature he’s given us, I say, “Next week we’re going to Beijing. Is there anything in here...” politically unsafe for the Mainland? I began.
He caught what I was saying immediately. “Perfectly safe. Just about Buddhism.”
Back down on the main road, we hailed a cab. “Ching Chung Koon,” I said. This one was back one subway stop, in the area of Sui Hong, but, like with Castle Peak, it was off along the light rail some distance from the station. Easier just to take a cab. It wasn’t far, and the cabbie swerved up to the entrance, pointing, not long thereafter. Like Castle Peak, this one was far less commercialized, and, too, I briefly wondered if it was open to the public. Walking in, you’re greeted with a plethora of shrines and buildings surrounding a large courtyard.
Ching Chung Koon is Daoist, specifically the Dragon Gate Sect of Complete Reality Daoism, a sect that began, somewhat alchemist in nature, in the twelfth century in northern China. It should have been just another run-of-the-mill alchemy startup, but in the 1220s it gained a patron that saw it elevated to the upper echelon of a global empire. The top adept at this time was Qiu Chuji, better known by his Daoist name Changchun, who, while actually aged seventy, was alleged to be over three hundred. This, and the accompanying rumour that secrets to this longevity could be taught, caught the interest of a particular upstart dynast. Changchun had already declined an offer to come and kowtow and converse with Ningzong, the emperor of China’s Song Dynasty, yet this new invitation prompted a different reaction. So, for four years, Changchun travelled 10,000 kilometres up and around the Tibetan plateau and down into Afghanistan.
[Footnote 16: Also Changchunzi, or Master Changchun.]
John Man, author of Genghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection, picks up the story of Changchun and Complete Reality Daoism:
The [Complete Reality] sect, rooted in a combination of high-mindedness and eccentricity, was founded by Wang [Zhe], nicknamed Wang the Madman, to whom the doctrine was revealed in 1159 by two mysterious strangers when he was out walking. ... One of Wang’s two main contributions to [Daoism] was to insist on extreme, mystical, fakir-like asceticism, which included sleeping as little as possible, an abstention known as ‘smelting away the dark demon’. Inspired by this insight, he dug himself a 3-metre pit in which he remained for two years, later changing his abode to a hut. After four more years of isolation he set fire to his hut, and was found dancing in the ashes.
[Footnote 17: Man, pg 194.]
Wang had come from a wealthy family loyal to the Song Dynasty. Two years after he was born, the Jurchens (forerunners to the Manchus in Manchuria) rebelled against their Khitan overlords (Khitans being another Manchurian people), beginning a war that would ultimately see the end of the Khitan-led Liao Dynasty in Manchuria, Mongolia and a small portion of northern China. The Jurchens were backed by the Song Dynasty, wanting back from the Khitans the ‘Sixteen Prefectures’ that had been ceded to the Liao in the tenth century. But during the Liao overthrow, the Jurchens realized the military weakness of the Song, and decided not to honour their deal, instead sparking a new war with their benefactors and pushing the borders of the dynasty they went on to found – a new-and-improved Manchurian dynasty called the Jin – further south towards Kaifeng. Wang thus grew up in Jurchen-occupied northern China, where he took up a military career, and, supposedly, planned on sparking a rebellion against his Jurchen overlords. Before he got the chance, however, he met the two mysterious strangers that turned him into a monk.
[Footnote 18: An area south of the Great Wall in the area of Beijing through Tianjin, and the northern parts of Hebei and Shanxi.]
Complete Reality would incorporate elements of both Buddhism and Confucianism, with Daoism as its spine. Wang went on to practise an ‘inner alchemy’, and trained disciples, one of whom became Changchun, founding the Dragon Gate sect and lecturing to Genghis Khan about immortality and harmonizing oneself with the Dao.
Right inside the gate is a qilin statue, and a hall with an elaborate mural of dragons, tigers and sages riding them. To the right is the main hall, Pure Yang Hall, with a garden out front and an altar stamped with the words ‘Universe Purification’, the lid of which is held by three elaborate dragons and stamped with an elaboration on the taijitu, featuring the yin-yang superimposed atop a latitudinally- and longitudinally-gridded globe, a Chinese jian (sword) and what looks like a mop tucked in behind in an X.
Ching Chung Koon, or Green Pine Monastery, was built in the memory of Lu Dongbin, a Daoist ‘immortal’ from the Tang Dynasty, and one of three that supposedly visited Wang the Madman during a spiritual experience. Wang would die in 1170, and a couple sects would branch off from his original, one of which being the Dragon Gate sect.
“[Qiu], now aged 22 and styling himself [Changchun] (‘Everlasting Spring’), was one of those who spread Wang’s word. He was therefore well versed in [Dao’s] huge body of alchemical literature, and the belief that certain substances – jade, pearl, mother-of-pearl, cinnabar, gold – could, if made artificially, be used to make a life-prolonging elixir. ... [Changchun] was more interested in the symbolism of alchemy – this was about spiritual transmutation – than a practical application.”
[Footnote 19: Man, pg. 196.]
You walk through hall after hall, each with a fan or two to combat the heat, and each filled with small white cards containing a person’s picture and name. Behind each card is a small compartment containing the ashes or a small bone of the deceased, similar to the situation under the Tian Tan Buddha at Po Lin. At the back of the property is another garden, with scholars’ rocks and a pond, little boardwalks spanning it. There’s a small island in the pond, with a secluded gazebo next too what you might call a cliff face amongst the rocks. There’s a section you can climb, past a nest of birds that eye you cautiously, but won’t fly off unless you get closer than twelve inches to them. Up here there’s a small waterfall streaming down into the pond below, the gazebo just to the side. Here you might ponder more Daoist wisdom, like this gem: “Just as the sun slants as soon as it reaches high noon, all beings are dying as soon as they are born.”
[Footnote 20: Zhuangzi – Chapter Thirty-Three: The World Under Heaven, Ziporyn, pg. 124.]
Finding our way to Sui Hong Station, we were overdue for lunch. Here at Sui Hong is a failing mall, quite rundown. There are a few restaurants inside, but nothing fancy. Menus are posted in the windows, no English. To me, that’s not much of an issue, but the pictures don’t look too appetizing. We decide to press on, board the train.
Our line transfer is at Nam Cheong. Let’s find a place to eat here. Here too is a mall, a little more upscale than the pet food shops and Chinese dollar stores at the last place. Here’s a restaurant here. Again, no English on the menu. “English?” They don’t have an English menu, but bring a gentleman from the back who can translate. A big but friendly guy, with slicked-back hair in hipster fauxhawk style, his English is okay, but not great. The Chinese character menu is not a great help, so he suggests a few dishes. Curry chicken is mentioned. I’ve learned my lesson from the last time I ordered chicken – there’s no such thing as boneless here.
At a place called Uncle 4 in Tsim Sha Tsui, not far from the history museum, I had ordered a Hainanese chicken that came with some sort of cheese sauce. This was on the first day after landing, trying to delve into the local culture. It was okay; rice, an interesting sauce, a bit of spice, and when I could get meat off the chicken bone, it all went well together. But the chicken was ninety percent bone.
I simply ask if they have... I don’t know, beef curry instead? Yes, yes, he’s eager to agree with a smile. His English is really not great. He takes our menus and hurries away. We have to trust that he’ll deliver us, sight unseen, something edible.
That night, up the narrow San Franciscan streets, past the packed cheap electronics convenience shops and fish markets, to Jaspas, before heading out to Tsim Sha Tsui to see the lights. It’s overcast an begins lightly raining. No worries, assures the waitress, in a heavy accent. It will soon clear. “There’s an expression in Hong Kong: never trust Hong Kong weather, women or work.”
Off to Tsim Sha Tsui we go, down the Blue Line and then across the Star Ferry, where the rain is still lightly misting. By the time we dock, however, it’s stopped, and the pier is filled with hundreds of people. Lasers are shooting in synchrony from multiple buildings across the way, and the intricate lights of skyscrapers dance. A hundred selfie sticks are extended and the clock tower, just over there, lit up spotlights, is crowded. There’s a lot of young people here, giddy and smiling, making peace signs as friends snap photos with Victoria Harbour in the background. The water here is calm, and the incredible lights on the far shore are reflected in a near mirror image off its placid surface. The splendid skyline is tremendous.
It was a beautiful last night in Hong Kong.
Back across the Star Ferry. The rain is threatening again. Across an incredibly long overpass and into the IFC (International Finance Centre), an elaborate and posh mall. Now it’s perhaps 8:30, it’s long been dark out, and the mall is looking depopulated. Where in the hell do you get out of this place? With weak wifi signals, we search through some of the smaller streets in the area; streets not named on my pocketbook map. Okay, we go here, then here, then here. I have to make several screenshots of the map on my phone.
We finally find out way to an exit, go down these smaller streets. Finally to Jervois Street – this must once have been the French quarter, as there were a couple of French-sounding street names around here – a small, old world street, serpentine as it slipped through the neighbourhood. The whole thing looked like turn-of-the-century Brussels or Copenhagen (not that I’ve been to Europe). Now the rain comes in a downpour, like a waterfall. My brother and I take shelter under an awning outside a small, old storefront. Let’s wait a moment for it to pass. Four or five minutes later and it only looks like it’s getting worse. Do we try to make a run for it? More than twenty seconds in this downpour and we’ll be drenched like we fell off the Star Ferry. Hmm...
[Footnote 21: Yet...]
Hey, it’s literally right across the road.
The Zoo Bar is said to be one of the main gay scenes in Hong Kong. It was all black and purple inside, and was heavily overdone with Halloween decorations, fuzzy spiders and skeleton imagery everywhere. The entire place was one room, about the size of my living room, with a bar to the left and maybe six of seven tables surrounding... do they qualify this as a dance floor? I don’t even think there’s a bathroom in this place – no, I’m pretty sure there isn’t. There’s a bartender here and a host, and no one else; the place is utterly abandoned. Apparently on Friday or Saturday nights the place can overflow onto the street, but throughout the week it’s quite dead.
I ordered a house specialty they called the Zombie, made with a mix of light rum, dark rum, Bacardi 151, Grand Marnier and a few fruit juices. Still a little sweet for my taste, but you can start to feel it before too long; the 151 doing its work. One other gentleman, perhaps middle-aged, in a business suit, showed up briefly for a drink, but then went out for a cigarette and didn’t come back in.
By the time we left, the rain had stopped. Sheung Wan, not Central, was the closer subway station, which shouldn’t be far from here. We wandered through these small, Old World, French-style streets for a block or two. The MTR sign is posted here and there with arrows. Here’s a storefront DVD shop the size of a small convenience store. I poke my head inside; there’s a handful of Chinese TV shows, the titles of which I can barely remember at this point, I wouldn’t mind getting my hands on, but the prices here don’t seem any better than ordering it online. Where exactly is Sheung Wan? A helpful passer by says (with limited English) to follow her.
[Footnote 22: Legend of Yuan Dynasty Founder on Kublai Khan, Xiaozhuang Mishi on the concubine Dayu’er and Prince Dorgon of the early Qing, Taiping Tianguo on the Taiping Rebellion, to name a few.]
The following day, our bags packed, we descended the elevator that continuously played a Victoria’s Secret runway segment on its TV screen down to the third-floor lobby. We checked out of the hotel on Queen’s Road, summoning a cab to take us to the Macao Ferry Terminal, not far from Central, where, en route, a cockroach crawled around the door handle. The literature on Falun Gong was left unfolded on the hotel bed. At maybe eleven that morning, I boarded the bright red, high-speed ferry, bound for China’s other Special Administrative Region.
Hong Kong was a densely-populated enigma – half Old Europe, with small, winding streets and British-accented English, and half south China, with fish markets, wild monkeys and bamboo scaffolding that would cover twenty floors of a building under construction. It was the perfect location to wet my feet in Asia; to dip my toes and begin a world expedition. Hong Kong kicked off my first trip outside of North America. I’m so glad I went for it and ventured out to experience a place so rich and vibrant. To quote Zhuangzi, “You cannot discuss the sea with a well turtle...”
[Footnote 23: Zhuangzi – Chapter 17: Autumn Floods, Ziporyn, pg. 69.]
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