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Frogscript ● Bats
by Evette Kwok
The bats are here! The bats are here! The Chinese are very fond of bats and, taking advantage of homophony (“good fortune” and “bat” are both pronounced fook), the appearance of a bat is a sign that happiness is also on its way ― if a bat flies into your house, it is a good omen and foretells the imminent occurrence of a joyous occasion. Members of the older generation of people like to use bats as decoration, and if you take a close look at bowls, plates and metal implements deliberately designed to look old-fashioned, you won’t have much trouble finding images of bats. Some people even paste up pictures on their doors showing five bats, a reference to the wish “May All Five Happinesses Be Yours”, a very auspicious sign! And on the subject of bats, perhaps there are still a few people in Hong Kong who remember that the world-renowned Batman lived for a time in this very city!
Western culture takes an opposite view to China, and they have turned the bat into a symbol of all that is mysterious and frightening, an attitude possibly connected with the fact that some bats suck blood and that they only come out at night. For this reason, many movies and animated cartoons, consciously or otherwise, depict bats as rather enigmatic and malignant. But regardless of the culture, bats gives us the feeling that they are both full of mystery and creatures one rarely comes across.
At the age of twenty-five, I had never seen a bat. It wasn’t until I went to England to live for a time that I had my first encounter with one. One afternoon at dusk, I went for a stroll with a friend in the hills in Chatham and, after we have been walking for a while, he pointed to something flying in the air and said that it was a bat. What I saw before me was a brown-coloured animal flapping a pair of wings and, if he hadn’t told me, I would have thought it was a bird. Wanting to know how he knew it was a bat and not a bird, I asked him for more details. My friend told me to observe closely how it flew.
Indeed, in comparison to the birds I usually saw, there was something different about how this bat before me moved. Birds, because their bodies are streamlined, are able to reduce the amount of resistance when they fly and spend more of their time gliding through the air, hence their graceful appearance. But this bat was constantly turning this way and that as it flew. Although, like a bird, a bat flaps its wings, it does this in order to gain lift. The physical coordination of bats is very agile: although they are not good gliders, they can dash forward quickly and turn sharply.
Indirectly, this hints at the fact that bats are not birds at all but a kind of mammal: the colour of their body covering and their size are more or less the same as mice and, since they go out hunting for food at night, the Chinese also call them “flying mice”. Another distinctive characteristic of bats is that they hang upside down when they rest and it is for this reason that you can find images of upside-down bats on traditional buildings such as temples and ancestral halls. This again involves is a play on the sound of words, since fook dou (“the bat hangs upside-down”) sounds the same as fook dou (“good fortune has arrived”), implying that some happy event is imminent. Bats have another special feature, but it is not something commonly known. Since they go out hunting at night, their eyesight must be very good, mustn’t it? Actually, the opposite is true. Although bats are not blind, their eyesight is not their greatest strength, but they possess a kind of paranormal ability: sonar. Bats make sounds beyond the range of human hearing which, when they hit an “object” or and “obstacle”, bounce back to them; the bat is able to tell from these echoes what kind of thing or obstacle is in front of it, and so sonar replaces their eyesight. Amazing, isn’t it?
However, after that one sighting, I didn’t give much further thought to bats. Not till I went to work at Kadoorie Farm, where the person in charge of the animal section just happened to be an expert on them. Perhaps because he was also a foreigner, I had the feeling that only he counted as the true Batman, fighting on behalf of these creatures for the upholding of justice. In addition, I still remember a night excursion centred on bats that we did there. Holding in his hands an injured bat that was recovering at Kadoorie, Batman explained to the participants how to look after an injured bat, how to release them back into the wild when they had recovered, and then provided a brief introduction to the ecology of bats.
As it turns out, bats are not at all uncommon in Hong Kong and can always be seen in those larger urban parks such as Kowloon Park and Lai Chi Kok Park. However, you have to know what it is you are looking for: it is no use being like I was, seeing a bat and thinking that it was a bird! There is an electric light pole next to the village house in which I live, and at dusk the light attracts many kinds of insects, including mosquitoes, moths and a kind of winged ant, which go flying back and forth here. At this time, it is easy to get a glimpse of a bat: there are twenty-seven different species in Hong Kong, of which twenty-five eat insects, and their appetite is astonishing ― in one evening a bat can eat several dozen to several hundred insects. So, apart from the Winter when they go into hibernation, I have no trouble seeing bats near the light pole next to my house enjoying a feast. However, the neighbour who lives in a flat on the floor below mine had no real knowledge of bats. I remember once when we were chatting together I told her how busy we were with the night bat excursion and she asked me whether bats were difficult to see. All I had to do was explain to her that you could see bats nearly every evening where we lived. This shows what a limited knowledge of bats people in Hong Kong have.
Translated by Simon Patton