“Hong Kong” is My Middle Name: Fragrant Harbour by F. D. Ommanney (1962)

Gold Coast Tin Hau Earth God Temple 2017

香港黃金海岸天后廟 Earth God Shrine, Tin How Temple, Hong Kong Gold Coast (2017)

Dick Ommanney is a real oddity: a writer who became a scientist and who through science was able to find a way back to his first love: literature.

Born in 1903, he was from the outset an introvert and a natural outsider. As a boy, he wrote poetry, and had dreams of becoming a great literary figure, but his father openly thwarted him in this (the example of Oscar Wilde was very much in his thoughts at the time) and eventually pressured the boy into taking an interest in biology. There was an obvious reason for this: Ommanney’s great-grandfather was Sir Richard Owen, the famous Victorian anatomist and opponent of Charles Darwin’s theories, and of course his family hoped that Dick would follow in Owen’s footsteps. As he recalls in his autobiography The River Bank, science was a real struggle for him, but he persisted in his studies and eventually became an (unlikely) expert on fish. This expertise eventually took him to many parts of the world, including Hong Kong.

He was always fond of “mooning about”, a typical introvert past-time. He describes his boyhood love of wandering around railway stations and spotting trains in the following terms:

The odd thing is that during the hours I spent mooning perfectly innocently about in railway termini no harm ever came to me. No one ever spoke to me or took the slightest notice of me. If anyone had I should have been terrified. The police never questioned me or moved me on. All they saw, perhaps, was the first of the loco-spotters, the shy pioneer of a vast army.

At the end of the Second World War, in August 1945, Ommanney found himself briefly in Hong Kong after its liberation from the Japanese, but it was not until 1957 that he returned there to work for three years as the director of a fisheries research team affiliated with Hong Kong University and as reader in marine biology. Ommanney’s response to Hong Kong is not the usual one: he neither tried to reinvent himself as an Old China Hand, nor did he develop a naturalist’s passion for the countryside of the Territory as you find in the work of contemporaries such as G. A. C. Herklots or G. S. P. Heywood (what an era it was for initials!). Instead, he began mooning about the place, and this mooning ⸺ coupled with his abilities as a writer ⸺ resulted in the unique compilation called Fragrant Harbour: A Private View of Hong Kong.

The subtitle is of vital importance. Ommanney’s book is both idiosyncratic and intensely personal, and there is an unusual freedom in his curiosity, a quality he is capable of focusing on anything of interest to him: the screening of a pornographic movie in 九龍 Kowloon, his attempts to communicate in pidgin English with his servant Ah Yok, his quest through the curio shops of Central to find a replacement teapot-lid, his oyster-breeding experiments in 船灣 Shuen Wan, hours spent hanging around Joe’s Bar in 灣仔 Wanchai, his devotion to Ah Yok’s two small children, his relationship with one of the Joe Bar girls, Linda, frequent visits to a Chinese bath-house, and his growing obsession (reminiscent of the Australian, Ainslie Meares) with the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, Kwan Yin.

In other words, the book is a terrific jumble, but you are sure to find something in it to shake you out of any complacency on the score of what a book about Hong Kong should be like . . .

And if you ever happen to visit Shuen Wan in the New Territories, not too far from the butterfly reserve in 鳳園 Fung Yuen, and if you can read Chinese characters, please keep an eye out for the plaque mentioned in the following passage:

A very muddy path led from the village to the high road. It was overgrown with nettles and deep in cowpats. It was the ambition of the village elders to have this pathway paved and they told me through my assistant, since I could not speak their language, that they were making a collection for this purpose. The thin old man in black tunic and trousers, whom I took to be a headman, explained all this and hoped I would help. I gave a donation and in due course I am glad to say, the pathway to the village was paved with square flagstones. On the wall of one of the houses past which the path ran a little plaque in Chinese characters was engraved, recording the gratitude of the villagers to the donors of the path. It gave a list of them and included ‘an Englishman from the University’. So I have a permanent memorial in Shuen Wan, and I pray that it may still be there, and the path may still be in use, long after ‘the Englishman from the University’ is dead and forgotten. (p. 127)


  • “Two Cities”

All these lovely things in Hong Kong windows fill one with an indefinable sense of loss, a sense that the civilization that produced them must have had something which we now lack and have forgotten. It must have shown in the daily lives of the people of those times. The same feeling of mourning for a departed spirit comes from contemplating the products of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe. They are as self-confident and self-assured as the products of similar periods in China. But with the Industrial Revolution degeneration sets in. It is as though self-confidence began to ooze out of the toes of people’s boots. Somewhere around the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century in Europe things began to become over elaborate, imitative and bogus. There seemed to be a striving to keep up, as though designers were conscious that what they were designing was not as good as it used to be. [ . . . ] In China much the same sort of degeneration seems to have set in about much the same period. In the big Communist department stores in Victoria or Kowloon you may see the results of the attempts which the People’s Government is making to bring back the lost spirit of Chinese art. About the middle of the nineteenth century Chinese ceramics and paintings likewise became artificially elaborate, self-consciously but not self-confidently, imitative and decadent. It was as though some disease, perhaps that of loss of faith, afflicted both East and West at the same time. Now the Chinese are trying to revive the lost spirit, but in vain. It has fled. The designs of the fabrics, the ceramics, the paintings which you now see in the Communist shops, seem feeble, striving after something which eludes them. What this something is you may still see in the smaller shops in the steep streets higher up the town. (pp. 22-23) Continue reading ““Hong Kong” is My Middle Name: Fragrant Harbour by F. D. Ommanney (1962)”

As one of the world’s most unequal cities, why aren’t Hong Kong protesters angry at the rich and powerful? 香港貧富懸殊於世上名列前茅,為何示威者並未遷怒於權貴?

Jennifer Creery_Occupation of Sha Tin New Town Plaza_Monday 5 AUG 2019

By Toby CarrollCity University of Hong Kong

托比 • 卡羅爾著(香港城市大學)

There have been many explanations for the turmoil in Hong Kong, which is now heading toward its 16th weekend. However, the powerful links between the economic and political elites in the city and the grossly inadequate system of governance they preside over are too often ignored.

In explaining the source of Hong Kong’s unrest, many leaders have predictably blamed the teaching of liberal studies in schools. The notion that students should gain a critical understanding of politics and society – not to mention actively participate in these – is simply too much for those who believe they must make the big decisions.

On the other side, the ire of many protesters is overwhelmingly directed toward China and the Hong Kong government, particularly Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Lam’s actions – first disappearing and then reappearing with equal measures of bureaucratic steeliness and obstinacy – have only made matters worse, as have the actions of a police force once revered by many as “Asia’s finest” and the posturing of Chinese forces. Indeed, the sum total of these efforts has been a hardening localist identity that has become more apparent among the protesters as the unrest has continued.

Moreover, mutual animosity has grown to such an extent that backing down by either side would seem unlikely. Indeed, for the last few weeks it has been much easier to imagine escalation than the opposite.

Decline without hope 有衰退,無希望

However, the most likely explanation for the unrest lies not in the education curriculum or Beijing’s influence over the city, but rather the nature of Hong Kong government and society itself.

Despite the way the Hong Kong government markets itself to the world – emphasising the rule of law and promoting the city’s high-quality business environment – the city has actually been in decay for decades.

Firstly, Hong Kong has been subject to the “hollowing out” processes that have plagued many former industrial economies – a situation in which industry leaves and nothing replaces it.
首先,香港同好多前度工業型經濟體一樣, 深受「空洞化」過程之痛,即各種工業撤走以後,並未有其他經濟活動填補空白。

Importantly, this has been coupled with an inability of those at the top end of town to recognise the vast inequalities this has contributed towards. According to government statistics, Hong Kong’s wealth gap hit a historic high in 2017, with the wealthiest households earning 44 times the poorest.
與此同時,本港嘅最高領導層根本無法意識到,此「空洞化」過程帶來巨大嘅貧富差距。據政府統計,香港貧富差距於2017年錄得歷史新高,最富裕住戶嘅收入係低收入住戶嘅44倍。 Continue reading “As one of the world’s most unequal cities, why aren’t Hong Kong protesters angry at the rich and powerful? 香港貧富懸殊於世上名列前茅,為何示威者並未遷怒於權貴?”

Blind Choir (Nam Shan Estate 南山邨)

Chinaman Creek

Nam Shan Tsuen

Between the concrete wall of a block of flats
and — flightless — concrete stairs
this was no place on Earth we’d ever expect
a Christmas choir. I was caught
as I think I always am
when the once-in-a-lifetime moment comes
in two minds twice unequal to the task.
By the way they looked crookedly through their song
I could tell they all sang blindly by ear
and I realized then how my thin sightseeing power
was stone-deaf to the sonic invisible.
The harmony of so many separate shared voices
none of which carried the main body of music
across the arid hubbub of human noise
braked my heart:
this was the concert of the fragment,
soaringly restored to charismatic wholeness,
rock-solidarity made possible by breath.

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Counting to One


A steady lack of success may eventually thicken into something not in the least
like failure.

The small feel-toll of “empty” hours,
each one waiting for the wait to commence,
and the constant, constantly renewed frustration
of all and any expectation — this, too, is a quality
akin to achievement’s svelte felted unsung underlay.
In the long run,
the sum
of so many indefinite zeroes adds up —
not with addition’s conventional mathematics
by any stretch of the imagination but
by a stretch of the imagination beyond the reach
of all or any of the twenty-six letters in the English alphabet.
Crows likewise
learn to make music of their garbled black noise,
readjusting the settings of a marathon rasp
to accommodate the work night does before dawn
to the tune of a billion years
and then to the tune of another billion years
as evertheless they go on summoning from the sky
the flash of that one instant meteor-rite’s song.

Repairing the World

Earth from the Moon

We need to be basically broken in ourselves
to be able to heal
nearly everything else on this Earth.
Strange ⸺ that the deepest flaws call forth our doctoring touch!
Strange ⸺ that affinity
amounts to no more than fragilest finity
born of experience sore-raw.
Damage of course universally is a matter of course
and where we meet it
we greet it with unsuspected talents for repair, to mend
or assuage all that has come unwhole.
In this, we can’t always fail
and at least by diverting our fractured attention outwards
a span,
we may manage to outgrow despite ourselves in-growth,
and by knitting back the tissue where the tissue is undone
do for a lifetime of “strangers”
what by nature we cannot do here for ourselves.


San Sam Gaai 3_Chinatown Pai Lau


• 「冇山冇金嘅大金山」




唔知點解,阿綠啱啱好喺黎明之前突然由夢境中醒過嚟。成架飛機好似一條又長又幽暗嘅地下走廊,不過走廊人影都無隻,所以帶俾佢一種陰陰森森嘅感覺。阿綠轉過頭望窗口——呢一刻眼前嘅景色令佢驚歎十分!雖然飛機下面依然陷於黑夜之中,但係飛機上面嘅天空已經轉為蔚藍色:係一種喺日頭冇可能見到嘅微妙藍色,就好似係單純、希望、復興、奧祕等等嘅象徵。阿綠凝望住呢片景象,對於四圍嘅環境已經冇嗮感覺,刹那間彷如頓悟一樣。而且,一道橙黃色嘅光線喺藍天同黑夜之間懸浮,光線如絲般細又亮,係屬於黎明嘅顏色,亦都係屬於太陽嘅顏色,同樣係微不足道嘅人類嘅徽章。「哇﹗」阿綠心諗,「原來每一日都可以睇到曙光㗎喎!一生人錯過咗咁多天光嘅時刻 . . . 我為夜生活付出嘅代價究竟係咪值得呢?」








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相約嘅地方係另一間意大利咖啡室,名字叫做 Ti Amo’s,阿綠一見到就忍唔住發出一陣苦笑。當然,阿綠嘅父親應該唔知道呢個意大利名就係「我愛你」咁嘅意思!不過,阿綠深深意識到佢阿爸有咁嘅選擇就係為咗滿足佢個女,唔係嘅話佢唔會去啲咁不設實際嘅地方,絕對唔會囉。




「阿爸,其實我有一件事想同你傾吓. . . . . .」 佢小心翼翼開始講,但係父親即刻就打斷咗佢。



「你 . . . 你點知呢件事㗎?究竟係邊個話你知嘅?」阿綠連忙提問,呢一刻嬲到全身揗揗震。



Special Books on Hong Kong: Rambles in Hong Kong by G.S.P. Heywood (1938)

Evette KWOK_Mountain & Building RESIZED_8 APR 2019

• The World is a Good Place

It is said that one of the greatest of the Chinese Emperors caused a miniature mountain to be built for him in an empty room in the Imperial Palace. When affairs of state prevented him from spending his leisure among the Western Hills he used to sit for a while on his own little mountain for rest and meditation. He knew the right place, and there we too can find refreshment for body and spirit. A rucksack and a pair of nailed shoes are a passport to the mountains where our life is fuller and our friendships warmer, and we realize that after all the world is a good place, very fair to look on.


Photograph: Evette Kwok (2019)


Albrecht Durer_Das große Rasenstück

Sun shines face down in dirt.
Rain sleeps: only
rare dreams of cloud
turn a wind’s dry whine
into water. Parched air
conditions impatience. Heat waves break
against the endless bitumen mirage.
Proud Aussies — with their black
calm bands of coal —
now turn their backs
on that truest True Blue,
on their one and only Great Piece of Turf.

Image: Albrecht Dürer, Das große Rasenstück (1503)