Another perspective from our spontaneous series on Hong Kong.
So AGAIN(!!!) I ended up being covered by huge red spots of painful, itchy and infuriating mosquito bites, this time also on my elbows.
The main reason, all apart from me not wearing long sleeves or anti-mosquito protection, was of course my insatiable tourist curiosity.
It took me to the New Territories, closer to the Chinese border, to see the area to which centuries ago the Tang Clan moved from the Mainland to what today is Hong Kong. It has become one of the five powerful Hong Kong clans.
Dispersed through the area, one can see traces of what then for sure amounted to fortress-like cities, but what today are called villages at best. My guide said 400 people lived in Kat Hing Wai at the time of this article’s writing.
By then I had seen three examples of such walled-in settlements in various stages of inhabitation and transformation (do not miss it while following the most enjoyable “Ping Shan Heritage Trail”, MTR West Rail Line/Light Rail, Tin Shui Wai Station).
The Tang built walled-in rectangular settlements from handsome grey brick. Their fortress-ness consisted of four observation towers positioned on the corners, and by a surrounding water barrier.
One narrow street led from the single entrance to the opposite wall, adorned by a temple. The streets (anywhere between 4 and 6) departing from this central axis were even narrower, their ends touching the side walls, so that to reach the next street one had to go back to the main axis. A variation of the same theme had courtyards connected by one or more narrow passages (see Tsang Tai Uk near the MTR station “Che Kung Temple” at your own esthetic risk).
An enemy would find forcing its entry difficult and could be easily contained in such a grid, a fact that the travel guide omits.
Instead, they warmly recommend having a look at the inner temple, strolling about a bit and then shifting attention to the beautiful decorative wooden panels adorning the entry doors and the roofs of (more or less!) adjacent study halls and temples. They do not mention the canals running under the streets and the unbearable stench they spread in most such streets.
While I was taking pictures in the one-room temple across from the only entrance to the entire compound, I could see mosquito squadrons zeroing in on me, but did not leave immediately, so keen was I to take at least a couple of good pictures. Hence the gigantic skin explosions and much pain.
This walled-in city I visited the other day gave evidence of a transformation spurt that is long over. It has left behind a few pale yellow, pink or green houses incongruously sticking out and overshadowing the grey wall. A splattering of new houses nearby testifies to that the construction bout continues, only on the outside.
This was, by the way, the last walled-in city I am going to visit. Not just because of the venomous mosquito bites.
Their stinking narrow streets, danger signs posted next to the unprotected octopuses of electric cables, and chaotic assemblages of things piling up and hanging outside nearly every house as well as ruins of the abandoned houses, filled with garbage and plants growing wild, speak a clear language of poverty and squalor – although I am fairly sure that there are also very wealthy people living in these compounds, since quite a few houses have elegant, shiny metal doors to secure the property inside and at least one such compound had extremely expensive cars parked outside.
I thought back to a friend who refuses to travel to exotic destinations, so anguished is she about coming in touch with discomfort and poverty. She spends her vacations in the Netherlands. I thought back to my own noble discomfort at treating the poverty of others as a tourist attraction.
But this is not exactly what I felt the other day about the walled-in city in Hong Kong.
It did not offer the “beautiful poverty” for which most tourists fall, and which they gladly seek out and photograph. The stench in my nose and the itch on my skin made me realize that I hate squalor. The stench and the excruciating itch made me feel justified in thinking there is no reason to admire either glorified poverty or a life that is short, nasty and brutish, whether in a tourist mode or not.
It might even not be true that the life in these compounds is nasty and brutish, and therefore short. It might be very long for all I care. I just want none of its stench.
Reflecting on my route further, let me note that my (contrary to its claims) outdated National Geographic Traveler (from now on: “Naughty” or “NGT”) – with which I had by then developed a love and hate relationship because it guided and infuriated me in turns – turned out to be oblivious to the subway’s expansion over the previous decades. It already made me, quite unnecessarily, take a bus from a subway station and travel km after km watching the rape of land, heaving under numerous skyscraper towns and incessant housing construction.
I was sure this bus ride used to be enjoyable at a time when the valleys were still green. Even on a rainy day like this. But now it was just depressing. In fact, it felt oppressive seeing one construction site after another, the closer to my destination the bus came. When I finally got off the bus, I merely took note for later of a nearby MTR sign, my irritation with an under-informed “NGT” and “wasted (tourist) time” mounting but under the lid.
After the walled-in settlement, I wanted to press on to see Shui Tau Tsuen with its many temples and study halls. “Naughty” said that after seeing the walled-in village one should go west and then right, and – I was really looking forward to that – through the green fields on which buffalo feast.
Buffalo my ass!!! Do pardon my expression. First an old, stinky, dilapidated one street village, with a huge electronic sign HOTEL spelling it slowly, letter by letter high above the street, and then a huge highway left, right and ahead. I was furious!
The land and house speculators, both domestic and foreign, are not leaving anything in peace. And politicians roll out the red carpet for them.
If it is not a highway or a record long bridge, it is a housing construction. Apparently the speculators buy land and build, but then do not sell or rent in order to feed apartment prices and rents. There was a debate raging at this point because in this artificially created housing shortage, politicians just decided to put some overpriced yet craved for housing units on the market. (Quite by chance, I stayed nearby and wondered about the huge lines in front of the Hong Kong Central Housing Authority – TV news kindly explained the same evening!)
They received much criticism for this stop-gap measure. Directly afterwards, a group of developers proposed to take undeveloped land, dislocating several villages in the process, to “provide much needed housing”. Their opponents responded with much needed critique.
I later found out that this was a typical tug-of-war in which the regular people and the environment have for long been losing.
As a tourist, I know, I have no right to be presumptuous and demand that things stay still, so that I – a capricious, itinerant visitor – can enjoy the food, the people, the sights I once discovered and loved. Or which others adore because the travel guides define them as “must see”.
I have nothing against things changing, but not in a Hong Kong way or pace.
I already had suffered much frustration on my first day, when I could find neither the traditional Chinese dinner nor the frozen yogurt I remembered and craved for. But then I felt I had no right, even though I suspected that I was not alone in my dislike of chain cosmetics and boutiques taking over.
However, my anger about what happens to the land is justified. It is not just about frivolous tourists – come today, gone tomorrow. The violent transformation of the land into one huge housing park for speculative purposes seems to be reminiscent of what the very first onset of industrialization must have been and felt like.
I think this says I am like a Tory was then – physically revolted by what was happening to the forests and green pastures. Only then the land was ripped up to make place for factories, while now it is cemented over and nailed down by skyscrapers.
A Hong Kong sociologist, Odalia Wong, cooled my seething anger by pinpointing that actually building skyscrapers is an act of generosity, while building villas is selfish.
Hong Kong is very small and has very little rainfall. Carefully calibrated nature parks that at this point, according to experts, should not become even an inch smaller, secure the much needed rainfall, while skyscrapers provide the much needed housing.
But otherwise I can give free rein to my anger.
A few years ago, the Hong Kong government finally intervened, compelling real estate developers to build more. These then built more apartments for sale but smaller and at much higher prices. An external survey states that Hong Kong has the highest real estate prices in the world. (Just to offer a single other point of reference: minimum wage is HK $ 34,5 per hour, which is anywhere between 3 and 5 EURO, depending on the exchange rate.)
One consequence of the skyrocketing real estate prices is that young people marry later (men at 31, women at 29) and presumably fight more. Hong Kongers speak derisively of “nano flats” and “mosquito-sized units”. As Odalia Wong pinpoints, in their sky-high priced shoebox apartments, there is not even enough space for one, so if a couple decides to have a child, it implies even more conflicts and even divorces – and this in a society that centers on family life.
Cynical real estate developers say these apartments were inspired by dorm life. But, as Odalia Wong also points out, a student’s effective space includes the campus and its facilities: the library, swimming pool, tennis or basketball courts, and many meeting places. This is not the case with the nano-flats, and, I would add, with Hong Kong in general. In fact, apart from a few bigger parks and a few tucked away small “resting areas” reserved for skyscraper tenants, there is nothing for free.
Sitting down in Hong Kong is a privilege, with a high price attached.
Back to my route: Having crossed the highway, I saw a bit of an idyllic neighborhood – green grass, a river, old fashioned villas. This was a first since I arrived – did not think there were any left.
Then I had a brief look at an “ancient” study hall in the first scattering of houses – not mentioned in the guide. A plaque said the hall was re-built from its ruins in the early 1990s. At a distance I saw what seemed like a temple situated in a large green field near a river bank.
I continued up a regular street. A private yellow mini-bus was stopping to let small children disembark into the arms of waiting granddaddies and babysitters. It was very hot. A rare sight – a group of white young people – were drawing their excursion to its conclusion, leaving. I was just starting.
There was a long wall of a study hall to see, but it was closed, and “Naughty” said to continue, taking the street between the two study halls. But where was the other? I went to the right and saw only some ruins of the Tang houses left in-between one- and two-story houses.
I photographed whatever I could put my tourist eye on, figuring I otherwise made a long trip for nothing.
I was again getting annoyed. No buffalo and also nothing else to see.
And then – surprise! – I saw a very, very pretty little temple. Behind me was a lake and on its other shore more highways and skyscrapers. The temple ahead of me was located on a sort of roundabout. It had a proper space in front and was left undisturbed by surrounding buildings. A narrow road took a curve behind it to reach the lake.
The temple shone against a darker background of palm trees and bushes. But then – what else! – more houses under construction! Beyond these – a sense of relief – again a few palms, their long silhouettes dramatic against the cloudy sky, and fields opening up to show distant hills.
I realized I went full circle. This time I walked straight ahead. An entire complex of 18th or 19th century buildings in Tang, grey brick style, with pretty panels on and beneath their roofs came into view. Some roofs were bottle green, others had light green long shingles.
A temple and a study hall were there. They were both closed. I reached them too late.
My efforts at being a good tourist despite my own ineptitude and the imprecise “NGT” were rewarded by a lady in a hat. She was waiting for a bus. She let me – graciously – take a picture.
The lady smiled in this not-quite-sure-what-it-is-all-about way.
The hat has a huge rim, and hanging from it is a fairly massive dark wall of fabric. It also has a hole at the top, so that a scarf one wears peeks out. The “NGL” says it is a traditional hat only the Tang wear.
I was also rewarded for my tourist’s labors when, with no further ado, I jumped into what turned out to be the right mini-bus that took me quickly to the nearby MTR Kam Sheung Road Station. Some hours later, back in my guest room, I put ointment on my burning mosquito bites but still spent a sleepless night, itching.
In a way, I am grateful to the Kat Hing Wai mosquitoes. They awakened me to the fact that I feel cantankerous not just about the beautiful but also about the ugly, bad-stench poverty put on the tourist market for everybody to see and photograph.
I owe also a few insights to the out-of-date, misguiding “Naughty.” The buffalo-less route allowed me to link my basic tourist quest for a bit of undisturbed beauty with a legitimate defense of the Earth against a gang rape.
By Helena Flam