● If you’ve ever liked any of the poetry I’ve posted on this site, you have Hong Kong to thank. It was my first trip there in 1998 that really got me writing again after a bit of a lull. What do I remember about Cheung Shue Tan? There was an old woman who made wonderful scarecrows out of modern-looking dolls with very Western faces: well, they certainly scared me! And there was the crab that stayed up one night to greet me in the moonlight after another hard day at the office at nearby CUHK. It had one big, white-tipped claw that shone at me through the dark. And of course there was Mr Yeung’s sandalwood incense, burnt at dawn and dusk to appease the ancestors and, in the process, bringing a hint of true fragrance into my life . . .
Oh, and before I forget, there was the huge python that crossed the road as a file of us were making our down from the bus stop. You know that feeling: human beings standing very still, hardly daring to move, while waiting for danger to take our breath away.
Love walks the lovers down the hill with practised elegance until — aaai! it looks like an insect got her right in the eye (they’ve got me too this way and no doubt you as well . . .). There’s, she’s fixed. They walk off again down the asphalt road, the dark patch there banana trees actually by daylight still busy with small fruit this time of year (autumn). I say hello to “my” dogs like signposts along the way: the timid one that lies in front of careless traffic — canine death-wish (I think to myself) — home-life must be bad, and the wicky black one with the black tongue to match his friendly bad manners. I’m always moved by the endurance of these creatures, their doggedness (sorry . . .), patient through endless rounds of gates, locks and fences, all the human words for NO! banging in dog-ears. (Oh, the lovers have just turned off. Why do I always take my eyes off the lovers?) Here’s the giant grape-fruit tree (the tree itself largish) on the corner that smells of shit worse somehow after dark. I say a few soothing words to the mutt in the Plexiglas kennel, the one that gives me that gitouttahere growl every time (I’d give me that growl too cooped up in such “space”) and there looms home unlit on the first floor above Mr Yeung’s flat with the two glaring door-gods pasted squarely before me on his glass sliding-doors to ward off evil.
大抵每個山友都有一份行山路線名單。這份名單，或長或短，或詳盡或簡略。 Nearly every one of my fellow mountaineers has their own wish-list of hiking destinations. This wish-list may be long or short. It may be highly detailed or little more than a sketchy outline.
最近朋友分享了她的行山名單，當中概分了遠程、短途、陰天和晴天路線。我也有類似的目的地清單，簡略分作九龍、港島、西貢、新界及大嶼山等區域，以配合行山當日的天時地利人和，從中篩選一條合適的路線：天晴時挑選風景較佳的地點，天氣不佳時則選取以歷史文化為主的行程。完成目標後，將它們從名單中逐一剔除，再不斷刪減增補。 Recently, a friend of mine shared her wish-list with me. It was roughly divided into long journeys, short trips, and routes for clear and cloudy weather. I myself have a similar list of destinations, simply drawn up in terms of the different areas of Hong Kong: Kowloon, Hong Kong Island, Sai Kung, the New Territories and Lantau Island. From this list, I choose a suitable route in order to fit in with the season, geographical position and the availability of people to accompany me. If the weather is fine, I select a location with exceptional scenery. If the weather is not particularly good, I pick a route for its history and its culture. As I complete my objectives, I tick them off my wish-list one by one, constantly crossing off and adding things as I go.
或者生活繁忙的城市人都很精於計算，每事都考慮機會成本，衡量付出與收獲。在有限的假期和時間裏，我們都偏好探索新的景點，甚至在可行的時間內多跑幾個山頭，而且從不重複，務求提升效率。此舉原也無可厚非，但與之同時，個人對達成目標的渴望，也多多少少揭露了一點功利主義。 Given their hectic lifestyles, the people of this city tend to be very adept at calculation and, in everything they do, weigh up pros and cons, as well as consider outlays and gains. Since our time in general ⸺ as well as holiday time ⸺ is limited, we tend to explore new vistas, even where feasible making our way to the top of several mountains, never going to the same place twice, to ensure that our effectiveness improves. Such behaviour cannot really be criticized but, at the same time, this individual thirst for achieving goals reveals more than a hint of utilitarian self-seeking.
山行的足跡，不過是山體形成的悠長時間裏的一個剎那的點。看着手裏的路線名單，一個個地點不期然被硬分成好幾個檔次，不禁會問：到某地急登短遊，又如何能讀懂一座山？一份名單，既是清晰目標，又是無形枷鎖。對山的體悟，不免會被名單所限，被地點所困，被數字所惑。不過，有多少人，還是執意走遍香港所有山頭，摘下台灣百岳，挑戰世界高峰。 The footprints we make walking over mountains amount to little more than a split-second in their long-drawn-out formation. With a wish-list of routes in one hand with its individual destinations rather arbitrarily divided into any number of grades, one can’t help wondering: how can we ever hope to understand a mountain in our rushed ascents and abbreviated excursions? Any list, no matter how explicit the objectives, is at the same time a set of invisible shackles. Any true personal insight into a mountain is inevitably limited by a wish-list, restricted by specific locations, confounded by numbers. But for all that, many people are still bent on walking to the top of all Hong Kong’s mountains, ascending all the well-known ranges of Taiwan and challenging tall peaks throughout the rest of the world.
愛山樂水不是難事。隨着個人的體能技巧、心理質素的提升、裝備的改良、步道的完善和資源的配合，逐步達到目標的人已不在少數。將目標一一達成，無疑能豐富一個人的閱歷，甚至能成就一名傑出的登山家，但是我相信，一個真正的岳人，不該只是一名計劃的完美執行者。他不以一張亮眼的履歷來定義自己，而是體現在對大地的感悟。他所展現的，是堅毅精神，是視野胸襟，是素養態度，重責任多於權利，尚集體利益多於個人得失。 To take delight in mountains and rivers is not difficult. With the increase in individual physical strength and skill, an enhancement of mental calibre, improvement of hiking gear, the perfection of pathways together with the coordination of resources, many people have eventually managed to reach their objectives. Undoubtedly, reaching your goals one after another enriches your experience, and might even make you into a superb mountaineer, but in my view, the true lover of mountains should be something more than a Perfect Executor of Plans. Such a person is not defined by a dazzling curriculum vitae but realized through true insight into the Earth. What such a person displays are resoluteness and spirit, vision and a broad mind, cultivation and attitude, with an emphasis on responsibility over rights, and the common good over any personal loss or gain.
他會懂得山的語言，與山對話，能夠在熟悉的環境中尋覓新鮮感，從平凡的景物中找尋趣味，在狹窄的小徑中感受大山大水。他的腳步，順心而行，他的路徑，隨心而寬。 People like this can understand the language of mountains, and so are able to converse with them, and have the ability to discover fresh new feelings in familiar surroundings, delight in mundane scenery, as well as experience mighty mountains and rivers on narrow trails. They walk where their own nature happens to lead them, and their paths grow wider along with their own hearts.
我總覺得，最難攀越的那座山岳，不載列在一紙名單上，而是懸繫在心頭。 At any rate, my feeling is that the most difficult mountain to overcome is not written down on any list but can only be found in our own minds.
When you died a second time and came back to life, I was worried you’d begun to make a habit of it. You never did, growing instead easily to become the biggest fish in the pond with a healthy curiosity for what lay beyond, overwater. As a fully-grown giant, you started fattening out sideways and would orbit your sphere round and round the perimeter — a trundling red planet truly at home in your girth. I guessed you were sick when you took to planting yourself upside-down in a clump of waterlilies, poor, demented mermaid headstanding in ocean and waving her gauze at some air-drowned mortal like me: Farewell! Each day you waved and each day, unfinned, I’d wave you my dry human wave in return — Farewell! — till existence inside you shrank to a speck and you sank through the wreck of your own dead weight
Prehistorically once flung from the mouth of a volcano, then frozen by time into this — dark glass. It must have been a fragment, I thought at first, of some antique rural bottle, but then it dawned on me that the only thing it could be was a whole fragment unto itself, an entire jigsaw puzzle consisting of only exactly one piece. Stupidly, I wanted it to show me another world, or at least something astonishing hidden in the seams of visual habit — after all, ours is an era of a myriad of transparencies — how we long to see through past the gloss of the surface to voluptuous promise o so expertly packaged within, but my toy showed me nothing — I might as well have been looking through a carrot for the moon — I was merely blinding myself better in the name of vision. My friend the carpenter goes out each day precisely to hit the nail on the head and to saw with his ruler down to the nearest millimetre planks of timber beyond all our wildest dreams. Perhaps this explained my newfound deep thirst for murk, for that which was never meant to excite the organs of sight, for that jagged lens which will make absolutely no spectacle of itself under any circumstances: optical point-blank refusal of all acts of seeing. Geologists, I know, have a word for it, drenched in Latin. They pronounce rather than say it: O-B-S-I-D-I-A-N.
Cindy Chea-Shuk-mei calls him in her introduction that “Great God of Meteorology” [天氣大神]. Professor 梁榮武 Leung Wing Mo was formerly Assistant Director of the Hong Kong Observatory and Adjunct Professor of Hong Kong Polytechnic University. He now hosts a successful TV program concerned with weather issues, and is a passionate advocate for action on climate change. This edition of Hong Kong Footpath, aired on 5 January 2020, was the first of this year’s programs.
You can listen to the interview on RTHK1 here. Scroll down for a transcription of the Cantonese with vocabulary notes (so far, I’ve only done the opening five minutes).
● Note that with verb-object compounds such as 退休 teui3 yāu1 = “to retire”, the aspect marker jó2 can be placed between the two components, giving the sense of “having retired”. ● 男神 nàahm4 sàhn4 = male idol; prince charming; dream guy
● The phrase 想都冇想過 is a common pattern, and many other verbs can be substituted for 想 séung. In idiomatic English we could say “it never even occurred to me” or “the thought never occurred to me”. ● 惆悵 chàuh4 cheung3 = disconsolate; melancholy ● 百無聊賴 baak3 mòuh4 lìuh4 laaih6 = be bored stiff
梁榮武：第一個機會係去 . . . 一個 um 做科教育工作機構 ah 四周圍去呢學校演講。
● 四周圍 = sei3 jāu1 wàih4 = on all sides. In the interview with Kwan Chuk-fai, the same expression is used to mean something like “all over the place”: 四周圍去食嘢嘅喎.
● As an aspect marker, 開 hōi1 can be used to indicate habitual action (see Matthews and Yip, Intermediate Cantonese Unit 12). Another example of this use of 開 in the phrase 後來慢慢識佢傾開計 can be found in the podcast A Postman’s Gaze (1). ● To me, Leung Wing Mo seems to pronounce the word for “climate” as 氣候 *hei yau. ● 延續 yìhn4 juhk6 = to continue; to go on; to last
● Here, the word 唔單止 = “not only” is paired up with 甚至乎 = “and even”, giving “you not only talk at schools and out in society [社區裏邊] but [we] even see you know on the TV”. ● According to Matthews and Yip, 呵 hó2 is used to check what is been said in the way English does with “isn’t that right?” (Intermediate Chinese, Unit 23). Sheik Cantonese defines it as “[final particle] huh – often used as a question tag to verify sth. while expecting confirmation”. ● 幕前 mohk6 chìhn4 = host (主持); literally “in front of the curtain”
● Leung Wing Mo uses 迷 màih4 here with the sense of “be crazy about; be obsessed with”. ● 嚮往 heung3 wóhng5 = to yearn for; to look forward to ● 勝任 sīng1 yahm6 = competent; qualified; equal to (the demands of a job) ● 初衷 chō1 jūng1 = original intention ● 吻合 máhn5 hahp6 = be identical; coincide; tally; be a good fit ● 等 dáng2 here means “to let; to enable; to make (sb. do sth.)” and covers the meaning expressed in standard written Chinese by 讓 yeuhng6. ● 學你話齋 hohk6 neih5 waah6 jāai1 = just like you said. According to Sheik Cantonese, 話齋 means “just as what (sb.) has said/told (indicating that what sb has said is worth noting)”, and also crops up in the phrase 俗語話齋 juhk6 yuh5 waah6 jāai1 = as the saying has it. ● 拍檔 paak3 dong3 = to cooperate; to co-star ● 主播 jyú2 bo3 = anchor; presenter (on TV)
● 正話 jing3 waah6 = just now; a moment ago (剛剛) ● 實知 = I thinks this means “(they) definitely know”, with saht6 in this context meaning “definitely; certainly” (Sheik Cantonese). By disclosing when Leung retired, listeners will, the host seems to imply, be able to guess his age.
● 擰頭 lihng6 tàuh4 = to shake one’s head ● 赤道 chek3 douh6 = the equator ● 舊年年尾 gauh6 nín4*2 nìhn4 méih5 = at the end of last year ● 峰會 fūng1 wúi6*2 = a summit (meeting) ● 力度 *lehk douh6 = dynamism; vigour ● 睇上嚟 tái2 seuhng6 làih4 = by the looks of it
● The opening words of this segment 少就少，不過係有嘅 can be translated as “True, there aren’t many earthquakes, but there are some”. ● 斷層 dyuhn6 chàhng4 = (geological) fault ● 板塊 báan2 faai3 = tectonic plate; continental plate
Lovers of Hong Kong may be familiar with the Heritage Trail at Ping Shan. You can wander down from the Tin Shui Wai MTR station to the three-storey Tsui Sing Lau Pagoda, move on to the charming Earth God shrine which, unusually, features a special flourish of shrine-building architecture known as 鑊耳 or “wok ears”, take in the glowing red sandstone lintel at the main entrance to the walled village of Sheung Cheung Wai, before proceeding to the grander buildings, the Yu Kiu Ancestral Hall, the Tang Ancestral Hall and the fine study halls of Ching Shu, Kun Ting and Shut Hing. In the 1960s, an annual group seance was held somewhere nearby this cultural-ritual precinct for all local inhabitants. Potter sets the scene in the following vivid manner:
“Hong Kong” and “shamanism” are probably two ideas not many people put together, but Jack Potter does so beautifully in his long essay “Cantonese Shamanism”, published in the book Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society. Potter is probably best known for his book Capitalism and the Chinese Peasant, but mainly to a sober academic audience. Fortunately for me (I have a strong, almost physical, aversion to most scholarly writing), I first encountered Potter’s essay in a wonderful second-hand bookstore in Brisbane by the name of Bent Books. Having dropped in one afternoon looking for magic, I found it, in this mind-bending piece which is ⸺ literally ⸺ spell-binding.
In 1962, at the time of the Moon Cake Festival on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, the three spirit mediums of Ping Shan held their annual free group seance open to all the villagers. At dusk the villagers, young and old, men and women, gathered on the cement rice-threshing floor in the open area west of Ping Shan’s central ancestral halls. As darkness fell and the full moon filled the sky with light almost as bright as day, the most accomplished shaman of the three, known as the Fat One, took her place on a low stool before a small, improvised altar table. As the incense sticks on the altar burned down, the Fat One, her head covered with a cloth, went into a trance. She jerked spasmodically and mumbled incoherent phrases. Then she started to sing a stylized, rhythmic chant, as her familiar spirits possessed her and led her soul upward, away from the phenomenal world into the heavens. Their destination was the Heavenly Flower Gardens.
Many of the villagers were less interested in the Fat One’s destination than in the ghosts (鬼 kwei) she met along the way. These were the souls of their deceased relatives and neighbours, who took advantage of this opportunity to communicate with the living. They asked for news, gave advice, and sometimes voiced complaints.
The first ghost the medium encountered spoke as follows: “It was not time for me to die. My head was severed by a Japanese sword. I am angry and lost because my bones are mixed with those of other people.” (p.208)
I find it interesting that all three of the Ping Shan shamans were women. Potter makes no mention at all of male shamans. As to the question of why these women became mediums, he provides a very surprising answer. According to the villagers, the ability to go into trances and to be possessed by spirits requires the possession of 仙骨sin kwat (“fairy bones”, although perhaps “occult” might be better in this context) and a 仙路 sin lou (“a fairy road”). Apparently, all of us have sin kwat, but they are supposed to be severed when a child is born. However, if individuals grow up with one bone left intact, their spirits retain a capacity to roam the heavens, a talent that makes them vulnerable to illness and attack from malevolent ghosts (the Chinese believe in benevolent ghosts, as well).
However, there is second, quite tragic aspect to this shamanic gift: women who become shamans do so because they have had children die young. The spirits of these children then haunt their mother, often making her extremely unwell unless she consents to becoming a spirit medium or healer:
The Fat One [ . . . ] had five daughter and two sons, all of whom died very young. Soon after the death of her last child, her husband also died. Her losses left her grief-stricken, depressed, and continually ill. Every night she dreamed of visits from her dead children’s souls. They taught her to “sing” in the rhythmic fashion characteristic of all professional shamans during conversations with the spirits, and then they asked her to become a spirit medium so she could help others and also earn extra money for herself. They knew that she had fairy bones because they had seen her call up spirits during the eighth month. They told her they had connections with other spirits and deities and would use their influence to help her deal with the supernatural world. (pp.226-227)
The experience of Kao Paak-neung, the second shaman of Ping Shan, was similar. As a young woman she had three daughters and one son, but they all died while very young. A year after her third daughter died, the daughter’s soul entered Kao Paak-neung’s body and asked her to become a spirit medium. But her dead son possessed her simultaneously, insisting that she become a curing specialist under the guidance of 華佗 Wa Dho. The struggle between the two spirits made her continually ill and almost drove her mad. She wandered around the countryside worshipping at all kinds of temples and altars in an attempt to free herself from their demands. Neither she nor her husband wanted her to become a spirit medium and curer.
After a time the spirits of her daughter and son compromised, deciding that she should become both a spirit medium and a curing specialist following Wa Dho. Her husband continued his opposition to the spirits’ demands until one day her daughter’s spirit entered Kao Paak-neung’s body and took he soul up to the heavens, making her appear to die several times during one long evening. Finally, at two in the morning, the husband relented and said she could become a shaman. Kao Paak-neung went wild with joy, jumping on tables and chairs, eating silver paper, incense and candles, and singing loudly.
And so these shamans who have lost children are, in a sense, reunited with them, thereby producing a most unexpected psychic healing in the women who have suffered more than any fair share of life’s misfortunes.
Another important aspect of Cantonese shamanism explored by Potter concerns the Four Heavenly Flower Gardens, a supernatural realm “where every living person is represented by a potted flowering plant”. The is one garden for each of the main compass points: the North and West Gardens are small, containing the plants of children who have recently been conceived. The East and South Gardens are large, for it is here that the plants of all people are transplanted between the ages of twelve and sixteen. At this time too, the Hong Kong Chinese believe, people are paired with their future life’s partner, their plants being placed alongside one another. Two deities preside over the Gardens, namely 李伯 Lee Paak and 十二奶娘 Zap Yih Nae Neung, a title which roughly translates as “the woman with twelve breasts”.
Shamans seem to base their fortune-telling abilities on the ability to travel to the Four Heavenly Flower Gardens. It is the final destination reached by the Fat One at the end of the group seance. Potter describes the shaman’s procedure in some detail:
The medium journeys to the Heavenly Flower Gardens in order to inspect the villagers’ flowers. This “inspection of the flowers”, or 診花 chan fa, is a form of fortune-telling. The medium examines the condition of a person’s flower: are there yellowed leaves or spider webs on the plant, does the flower seem in poor condition? The medium examines the flower to see how many red flowers (representing daughters) or white flowers (representing sons) are in bloom; unopened buds on the plant represent future offspring. If the pot contains bamboo, a woman will be barren; if it holds tangerines, she will have many children. The condition of a villager’s flower tells the medium important things about that person’s future. (p. 214)
Potter also reveals that traditionally, a few weeks after a child was born, a fortune-teller was generally consulted by the mother at the nearest market town. These fortune-tellers could tell her the names of the child’s “flower mother” and “flower father” ⸺ parents in its previous existence ⸺ as well as which of the Heavenly Flower Gardens it had come from. Shamans also made the journey to the Gardens to recover the souls of young children that had been kidnapped for ransom by malicious ghosts in order to obtain offerings of food and gifts of paper money.
“Cantonese Shamanism” is filled with the kind of details that could only come from personal attendance at seances and extensive interviews with these extraordinary women and Potter is careful not to intrude any scepticism with regard to the supernatural practices he relates. Nevertheless, he tactfully offers some interesting conjectures about the “structural” role shamans may play in village life. The idea of 契 khay or “fictive kinship” is important here. Shamans were often engaged by villagers to provide occult protection to sickly children, a condition associated with a loss of soul; parents who had a history of losing children early would also make fictive kinship bonds with subsequent children in the hope that it would ensure their survival. More vitally, the ghosts of young unmarried women were a real anomaly for village society: they did not belong to their father’s family, and had no husband to perform the proper rituals for them. Moreover, people were reluctant to keep commemorative tablets for such women in their own homes for fear of their being haunted. For this reason, villagers often used to engage a medium to take care of the souls of such women. For example, beside the altar belonging to Kao Paak-neung, five dresses were hung for the spirits of the girls in her charge.
Although the usual word for “shaman” in Cantonese is probably 巫婆 mòuh4 pòh4, two quite unusual terms are used by Potter. The first is 問醒婆 maan seng phox, that is “old ladies who speak to spirits”, although the character 醒 séng2 can mean “to wake up” and “to give guidance”. The other term is 問米婆 maan mae phox, “ask-rice woman”, the origin of which he explains as follows:
The rice is essential for a medium’s contact with the supernatural. After the medium has gone into a trance with her head covered by a cloth, the spirit that possesses her tosses handfuls of rice around the room at any of its relatives that are present, thus helping to identify itself. (p.219)
(Incidentally, Potter also makes the intriguing point that the villagers considered incense to be “the spiritual equivalent of rice”, a kind of supernatural food.)
The appeal Potter’s essay is firstly that it transports the reader into a world where disbelief is temporarily suspended and secondly that the writer demonstrates the kind of fundamental courage Rainer Maria Rilke once called for: “to be brave in the face of the strangest, most singular and most inexplicable things that can befall us”. And as the poet goes on to say, the fact that human beings have been cowardly in this sense has done endless harm to life. Perhaps Potter can help us let go of some of this modern defensiveness and even make us a little bit bolder in accommodating the full range of human experience.