Monday, 28 November 2016

bamboo garden

When I posted South Side Story last year, I included the photograph on the right as a typical example of a traditional Chinese house, accompanied by the following text:
The house in the following photo appears to be abandoned, but there is a secure fence around its grounds, so closer inspection is not possible. Like many similar houses, it has painted friezes underneath the eaves and plaster mouldings on the gable end under the roof, but also like many other such houses, these have not been maintained and have faded badly.
However, having been thoroughly drenched while out cycling on Saturday, I decided that a quiet walk would be a better bet yesterday. And because Paula wasn’t familiar with all the narrow paths and alleyways on the south side of Sha Tau Kok Road, this would be a good opportunity to enlighten her.

As part of our itinerary, there was one particular path that I wanted to check out. It had been blocked, illegally, last year, as shown in the following photo:

The streetlight indicates that this is a public right of way, but the concrete wall (seen in profile) has been moved to the left. While I was explaining to Paula that I’d lodged a complaint with the Lands Department, a man with a barrow came along and overheard what I was saying. He was extremely aggrieved, because the rudimentary path that has been created to get around the obstruction cannot be negotiated with a barrow, even if the barrow is empty. He had to carry his!

Anyway, this path also leads past the house pictured above, and when we reached the entrance gate, there did not appear to be any impediment to gaining access, apart, that is, from a considerable amount of undergrowth. And that was never going to stop me. I hadn’t noticed it previously, but the characters over the entrance proclaimed the name of the place:

Bamboo Garden

My first aim was to get a closer look at the friezes under the eaves on the front elevation of the house. There are three doors on this frontage, and the next photo was taken from in front of the middle door:

The doorposts and lintel are of an igneous rock that is commonly used in the prestigious buildings around here. Without chipping a piece off, I can’t say definitively what type it is, but judging by the colour it is probably diorite (even though it is described as ‘granite’ where its use is noted in the gatehouse of Kun Lung Wai).

The next photo is of part of the painted frieze above the left-hand door and gives some idea of how elaborately decorated this house must have been in its heyday:

I might have been happy with the last two photographs, but to our surprise the middle door was bolted from the outside but not locked. Naturally, we wanted to see what was inside:

The previous photo is of the room behind the right-hand door. What you see here is just a thin wooden partition. I went through the right-hand opening and found another door leading to the outside. I found myself in a narrow passage between the main house and some kind of annex (shown in the next photo), and it was only after we’d returned home and I’d looked at the photos I’d taken that I realized that we hadn’t taken a look upstairs in the main house.

At the end of the passage and around the corner, there was a stone staircase leading to a balcony that ran the full length of the first floor of the annex. And at the far end of the balcony, there was another staircase leading to the flat roof of the annex:

…from where I was able to take this picture of the roof of the main house, an excellent example of traditional Chinese roofing:

Having seen all there was to see here, we then descended to the open area next to the gable end of the main house so that I could take a look at the plaster mouldings. The first photo is a general view of that gable end, while the second is a closer view of the mouldings at the apex. I’ve no idea what kind of creatures are flanking the central plaque, but I’ve seen them before on other buildings. They look like weasels to me, but the tails are reptilian.

The next photo shows how the main house and the annex are connected, although I would not have included it if it weren’t for the curious rooftop connection to another building:

That building is relatively modern—from the style, I would estimate that it was built in the 1960s—and it too was not locked. Of all the things that you do not expect to find in an abandoned building, I would imagine that a harmonium would come very close to the top of the list:

The two framed scrolls on the wall opposite the harmonium might reasonably have been expected. There is a reference to the Buddha, and a date of 1st September, although the year has been recorded in the arcane system that links them to the reigns of particular Chinese emperors, so I can’t provide the Gregorian equivalent.

The harmonium and the scrolls should probably have given us a clue, not to mention the octagonal window on the first floor—eight is the lucky number in Chinese culture—but I reckon that nothing could have prepared us for what we found upstairs:

There was only one more thing to check out: the other gable end of the main house. Because of the trees and other vegetation, it wasn’t possible to stand back to get a better view of the mouldings, so the final photo was the best I could do. It appears to be a torch or similar symbol:

Despite the length of time I’ve spent in Hong Kong, the territory still has the capacity to surprise–and delight—me. And it’s just done it again.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

the long way home

Although I could catch a minibus from Fanling station to my home—and as the holder of a senior Octopus card it would cost me only HK$2 (20p; ¢26)—I’m more likely to walk. After all, it’s only 3km. And, in any case, there is just one minibus every 30 minutes during off-peak times, so if I have to wait more than 15 minutes for the next one, I will beat it home.

However, if I’m not subject to any time constraints, which is most of the time, I usually take a longer route, because there are a lot of points of interest along the way. I start by following the road north, parallel to the railway and alongside a dedicated cycle track. There are such cycle tracks leading from the station to both north and south, but this one comes to an abrupt end, meaning that cyclists are forced to ride on the sidewalk or the wrong way on a dual carriageway if they wish to continue:

Fortunately, it is possible within a very short distance to turn into a side road, which leads past the Tsz Tak Study Hall:

This hall was built in 1846, and it functioned for many years as a school for local village children. It is also reputed to double as an ancestral hall for the Pang clan, although I’ve never seen it open and therefore cannot confirm this statement.

A short distance further on, I come to the rear entrance of Fanling Wai. Two women can be seen approaching this entrance in the following photograph.

Wai is the Cantonese word for ‘enclosure’, which generally implies a walled village. In this case, however, almost nothing of the original walls survives. The following photo shows the main ‘street’ of the wai, which is narrow, dark and gloomy:

But if you thought the main through route was dark and narrow, then check out the side alleys. So little light reaches the ground level here that when I tried to take a photo, the flash on my camera kicked in automatically:

The following photo shows the ‘front’ of the wai, with one of the original corner guard towers on the left and the main entrance to the right.

The three white circles are said to enhance the fung shui of the wai, but regular readers will know that I regard fung shui as a system for parting the gullible from their money. However, if there is anything in the idea, then the fung shui of the houses in Fanling Wai must be absolutely abysmal. Incidentally, village houses are restricted by law to three storeys, but as these photos show, the law is widely ignored.

A little further on, my route home passes the Pang Ancestral Hall, which was moved to its present location in 1846 to improve its fung shui and rebuilt in 1884. I’ve never seen this building open either, and it is almost impossible to get a good photo, because of the cars parked in front:

The next landmark, on the far side of the only main road I need to cross on the level, is Sam Sheung Temple. I have no information on when this temple was built, but despite being cut off by a main road, it is clearly associated with the Pang clan and Fanling Wai.

Note the dragons on the roof tree, and towards the gable ends, two fish. The significance of fish in Chinese culture stems from the fact that the Chinese words for ‘longevity’ and for ‘fish’ sound the same.

The temple is at the top of a slope down towards a typical pedestrian/cyclist underpass. I’ve included the following photo as a kind of salutary warning against being impulsive, which is possibly my biggest fault:

I only rarely come this way on a bike, but last winter, because of unusual circumstances, it was necessary for me to ride through the subway and turn left. Knowing that once I’d turned the corner I would have a slope to contend with, I didn’t slow down for the bend. Unfortunately, I took too tight a line around the bend, and my handlebar smacked into the metal railing, throwing me across the track. The really silly thing is that I could have managed this slope in top gear from a standing start, but I was trying to be too clever.

Anyway, once I’ve used the subway to cross to the other side of a busy road, it isn’t long before I can turn off through a squatter area:

There are several different paths that I could take through this section, but if I turn left at this junction, I will soon reach the local river:

The previous photo was taken from a footbridge across the river, from where my goal is a road bridge in the distance. I get there by following the Drainage Services access road in the final photograph:

And that leads me home.

Friday, 18 November 2016

get lost

Yesterday, the BBC News website carried a story under the following headline:
Dementia game ‘shows lifelong navigational decline’
As someone who is 70 years old, and who prides himself on his navigational prowess, I was naturally intrigued. However, my reaction after reading the story can be summed up in one word. Bollocks! Of course, there were statements in the article with which I could not disagree, such as ‘Getting lost is one of the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease’. But then, as someone who has tried to teach the elements of map-reading to hundreds of people, I know that most are hopeless at navigation to begin with. When I lived in London between 1978 and 1981, I was constantly amazed by the number of visitors who couldn’t find their way around the Tube network, despite the clear signposting.

Apparently, the research described in the BBC report involved using a smartphone to play a video game that involved ‘sail[ing] a boat around desert islands and icy oceans’. According to the report, 2.4 million people had downloaded the game, and the research team, from University College London (UCL), had analysed the results to conclude that people’s navigational skills began to decline from their teenage years onwards.

One of the set ‘tasks’ in the game was to fire a flare in a particular direction, and it would seem that average accuracy fell from 74 percent for teenagers playing the game to 46 percent for players aged 75. The UCL researchers claim that this ‘suggests the sense of direction declines consistently after the teenage years’, but I would suggest that all it shows is that teenagers are better at playing video games than older people.

There were other findings, including that men scored better than women, although that too could be down to boys being more adept at video games than girls. Perhaps the most intriguing of the interim results reported was that people from Nordic countries scored consistently above the global average. There was reference to a ‘Viking spirit’, although no explanation of why this might be so was offered.

Of course, anecdotal evidence does not automatically invalidate rigorous scientific research, but I would have no hesitation, as someone who has navigated successfully across featureless deserts and routinely through miles of thick fog, in claiming that my sense of direction is better than that of the average teenager, although my ability to play a video game is probably crap.

A more accurate test of a person’s navigational skills would be to take them along one of my bike rides here in Hong Kong, then ask them to retrace their steps exactly. My prediction is that very few people would be able to do so. Although I do this all the time when traversing new paths for the first time, I don’t consider it easy given the dozens of places where it is possible to take a wrong turn.

So what do I think of the conclusions of this research? Will it eventually result in the development of a simple diagnostic test for dementia? You can probably guess:

Get lost!

Sunday, 13 November 2016

zoological garden

I’ve not been in the habit of doing any cycling on Sundays, mainly because there are too many people who hire bikes for the day but have woefully inadequate cycling skills, chief of which is a total lack of awareness of every other road user. However, since I started to explore the area northeast of Fanling earlier this year, I’ve found that not many cyclists come this way, so today I was out on the route I’ve already established (Nothing to See) to see whether I could improve it.

Regular readers will be aware that when I’m out in the Hong Kong countryside, and I pass the end of a road, track or path leading off the road I’m on, I want to know where it leads. In most cases, that road, track or path is a dead end, but sometimes even the dead ends reveal something that makes the detour worth while. I’d ridden past the road in the following photograph several times, but today I decided that it was time to check it out.

It was yet another dead end, but the wall on the right was quite a surprise. It looks as if the following images were painted quite some time ago, because they’ve faded, and the occasional streaks of blue and orange suggest that these were once elaborate paintings, but I thought that even in their present state they were worth recording.

There does seem to be something of a culture in the area of painting walls in this way, because Ghost Alley is no more than half a kilometre away, and I took the following photo between the two sites:

I have not yet checked out where this particular path leads, but it probably has a few secrets to reveal.