An Eye on Hong Kong by Keith Macgregor (1999)

Keith Macgregor: “Central 1990”

The Consummate Panorama

It was Martin Booth who once revealed that the view of Victoria Harbour regularly reduced friends to the verge of tears, either because they were moved by the magnificence of the vista or because they were only able to fit one-fifth of it into the view-finder of their cameras. In An Eye on Hong Kong, you feel that photographer Keith Macgregor is absorbed by this problem of the panorama and what it means for our understanding and appreciation of Hong Kong.

The urban panorama is the obvious place to start, and Macgregor understands its idiom perfectly. “Central 1990” captures the mixed ruthless geometry of the harbour-side skyline set against a deep-blue sky only partially softened by cloud. This is one of the founding dreams of Hong Kong, in which no individual human being matters (you see none in this image) and where wealth and power solidify themselves with a breath-taking yet cold-blooded aplomb.

More lively and endearing are the nightscapes, often shot with long exposure-times to create vivid light-trails inscribed by ferry-boats and land traffic in motion. Colour here intrudes on the otherwise imperturbable architecture, and softens the harsh angles and plate-glass glare of the day-time city environment. There is a garish vitality to the light, as contradictory as the night itself with promises of leisure — if not pleasure — alongside our instinctive terror of the dark. Macgregor’s masterpiece in this type of photograph is the three-page fold-out “Island 1996”, taken from Hung Hom on the Kowloon side. It shows Victoria Harbour all the way from North Point to Sheung Wan, lit-up by neon and the complementary red and yellow lights of the boats. But beyond it all, under a late-twilight sky, the mountains on the eastern coast of the island remain featureless, forbidding, presences.

A different kind of panorama characterizes the Kowloon pictures. It is not horizontal sweep that matters but depth in a streetscape filled with what Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze calls “city poetry” — that is, the collage of signage that transforms main roads into textual fields. One typical example is “Tung Choi Street Market, Mong Kok 1994”. With the exception of the words “PARK’N SHOP in the foreground and an upper-case GROOVY in the middle distance, what follows down the length of the road is a galaxy of Chinese writing, much of it done in red, some it reading right-to-left, in other cases top-to-bottom. If you read Chinese, you could spend an easy half-an-hour deciphering what you see (I spied a shop-sign for a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant tucked in amongst the linguistic barrage).

Naturally, night scenes of a neon-lit Nathan Road lend themselves perfectly to photography, too. No language glows in the dark like Chinese does.

Once we leave the built-up centres of Hong Kong behind, we come to a third mode of panorama, this time composed of sea, mountains and sky, the whole unified by the light that transforms the blues and greens into jewel-like azure and emerald. The eastern New Territories is a favourite location for Macgregor in this regard, examples including “North Sai Kung 1995”, “Sai Kung Peninsula 1995”. Other shots have a tourist-brochure feel to them, but at their best they distil the overpowering natural beauty of the Hong Kong landscape and convince us that there must be something altogether remarkable about the feng-shui of the place.

Apart from the panorama, you will find many photographs in An Eye on Hong Kong concerned with the life of fisherfolk. Of course, pictures of junks are a stock item in many books on Hong Kong, but Macgregor goes well beyond this, with numerous pictures of working life at sea and of the dragon boat races. Like the wonderful Barbara E. Ward before him, Macgregor seems to feel a close affinity for the Tanka people, and has gone out of his way to document what he can of their seafaring lifestyle. Late in the book (pages 114-116), there are even shots of celebrations for the birthday of Hung Shing on Kau Sai Island, not far from where the locals have put up a plaque in commemoration of Ward for all the work she did for the local community, including the creation of a new Kau Sai Village in Hebe Haven.

This affinity for the Tanka also results in some very special photographs of female heads, a minor strand in Macgregor’s work that serves as a tender counter-balance to all the sweep and impersonality essential to his panoramas. There is a full-page photograph in the introductory section of the book of a woman dressed in her best clothes and wearing a number of elaborate silvery ornaments in her hair, with all the vibrant colours of some temple decoration in the background. It is the epitome of festivity, summed up in a couplet I once saw in Tsz Tin Tsuen Village in Tuen Mun — 神人共樂, Gods and Human Beings, Enjoying Themselves Together. Of this type of image, the most memorable one for me is “Fisherwoman”, taken in Aberdeen in 1986. It is certainly not a photograph that leaps out at you the first time you see it, but there is something in the woman’s appearance and expression that is like an enigma, drawing you back again and again.

Keith Macgregor: “Fisherwoman”

Collages and contrasts are two other elements in Macgregor’s photography that diversify his appeal. Subject-matter for the former include temple decorations, smiling faces, various dry goods, aerial views, seafood, and salt-dried fish, as well as children taking part in the annual float procession held on Cheung Chau. Contrasts generally involve two photographs of the same scene taken at different times. The prime example is “The Harbour and the City”, which juxtaposes a panorama taken by Mee Cheung in pre-skyscraper 1948 with one by Macgregor taken in 1970. Quieter (and, for me, sadder instances) include the shot of a “typical old building in Eastern Street, Kennedy Town” from 1977 placed next to that imperious photograph of Central in 1990, as well as two pictures of Sha Tin, before and after it was new-towned out of existence into its present Legoland form, racecourse dominant in the foreground beside the extensive sewage treatment works.

And if this is not enough for you, Macgregor also includes some important images from the Sau Mau Ping Monkey God Festival. In one, a young male medium possessed by the Monkey King’s spirit prepares to dip his feet in a wok filled with boiling oil, while in another he sprints down a road made of hot burning-coals past the exclusive area set aside for VIPs.

The book ends on a glorious-sombre note, with a finale panorama entitled “Sunset over Lantau Island 1996”. From somewhere above Central we look out west over the darkened waters towards a yellow-gold conflagration of light and monumental cloud, beneath an expanse of sky still lit up enough to show faintly blue. An era has come to an end, it suggests, and with it, perhaps, an extraordinary way of life that will never be repeated anywhere in this world again.

You can see more of Keith Macgregor’s work at Keith Macgregor Photography and at Blue Lotus Gallery.

Meetings with Hong Kong Buddhist Nuns

My only close encounter with a Hong Kong nun is something I have never forgotten. I saw her on two or three separate occasions at Tai Po Market MTR station in the late 1990s. She would stand in a corner of the concourse at peak hour, sounding at regular intervals a small metal bowl she held in the palm of one hand. It was a beautiful gesture: a timely reminder to slow down and pay a little more attention to where we were and what we were doing. I’d like to think that not a few of the people who rushed on past her at the time, later in a sudden flash of recollection and understanding, got to thinking about that almost invisible woman dressed in grey.

I was reminded of the nun by several recent encounters in the pages of my Hong Kong books. The first, dating from the early 1950s, is described by Martin Booth in Gweilo, and happened when he was only eight years old. The setting is Ngong Ping, on Lantau Island:

There came a soft shuffling sound from over my shoulder. I turned to find myself being observed by two Buddhist nuns. They wore grey, long-sleeved, ankle-length habits and their heads were shaven, so it was quite impossible to judge their ages. Around their necks hung simple necklaces of wooden beads. Not sure what to do, and heedful of Mr Borrie’s warning, I stood up and stepped back on the path. They watched me go, impassive looks upon their faces. I sensed that perhaps they were young and wanted to talk to me, this strange, small gweilo from the other world of which they occasionally heard talk but had not seen for many years, nor perhaps ever would again. (“Hiking to Buddha”)

The visit to Ngong Ping left a profound impression on Booth, and he returns to the episode in both his novel Hiroshima Joe (1985) and in a section of his Hong Kong notebook, The Dragon and the Pearl (1994), where he tries to reconcile his idyllic memories of his stay in the monastery — marked by austere accommodation and timeless ritual — with the changes time has brought, particularly the colossal Buddha statue, said to have cost some HK$60 million. However, in neither of these alternate accounts does he mention that pair of silent nuns.

G.S.P. Heywood came to Hong Kong in 1932 to work at the Royal Observatory. His book Rambles in Hong Kong (1938), is his very romantic love-letter to the countryside of the Territory. His encounter with nuns took place in Lam Tsuen, at the Ling Wan Nunnery near Kwun Yam Hill:

Some way to your left as you come down from the pass into the Pat Heung valley is a nunnery, standing in a wooded defile under the great rocky shoulder named Kwun Yam, the “Goddess of Mercy”. The white buildings, with their garden and lily-pond, were once hidden away amongst the trees, and had a wonderful air of quietness and serenity. One hot summer day, as I was passing by, the nuns courteously hailed me in, and provided me with water to wash in and tea to drink.

When I was refreshed they showed me round some of the buildings, of which they had good reason to be proud, for they were beautifully kept. I saw the temple, with its altar and images, and the reading room, and a belfry up in a tower, where an old nun sat with a great book open in front of her and every now and then chimed a deep-toned bell which hung from the roof above.

Many of the trees are now gone, and the belfry is only an empty shell; though some of the charm of the place has been lost, the nuns are still there, cheerful and kindly as ever.
(“Lam Tsun, Pat Heung, and Ping Shan”)

Here as in the Booth passage there is a quiet, nostalgic comparison being made between Heywood’s early visit to the nunnery sometime before the Japanese invasion in 1941 and a later one after the war, during which many of the sheltering trees had been cleared for firewood and the belfry had been damaged. Heywood himself had also suffered terribly during those difficult years as an internee in a Japanese prison camp, so those pre-war memories must have carried particularly poignant overtones for him.

An American, Christopher Rand first went to China in 1943 and later based himself in Hong Kong. By accounts, he was a great walker, and once wrote “I have theories about why one should do it — that it is good for the health, is conducive to thought, makes one able to observe things close at hand, etc. — and I think all these arguments are sound, but the main point is simply that I enjoy walking; I feel calm and happy while doing it.” His 1952 book Hong Kong: The Island Between focuses on the complex political issues concerning mainland China, but it ends with a light-hearted, lyrical sketch of Lantau Island where he spent a few months. He was actually staying in a place quite close to Ngong Ping when he had the following experience:

I never saw a wheeled conveyance on Lantao — not even a wheelbarrow. The fastest human you saw was a man or woman shuffling at the Chinese jogtrot, perhaps with a loaded shoulder-pole. Often you would see little figures like that far away on a hillside path. The paths were now level, now steep and flagstoned like dragons’ backs — gracefully curved, and at times appearing to hang out over thin air. Most people you met on the paths were good at walking downhill in the fast, bent-kneed fashion of mountaineers. Sometimes when going uphill you would overtake a little shaven-head nun or lay sister with two big bags of rice on her pole-ends. You could hear the hard breathing as you passed.

Sometimes it was so still you could hear water dripping hundreds of yards below. One of the nicest sounds was of nuns’ chatter combined with a splashing brook and wind in near-by trees. Most of the mountain’s convents were in a hillside area called Lok Wu, and when I walked on a slope that happened to face this, a mile or so away, I could often hear the nuns there talking intimately.

These three encounters by a trio of writers quietly suggest that the Hong Kong Buddhist nun lives life at a slower speed than the rest of us, unobtrusive, and closer to the natural rhythms of the world, and consequently capable of an unexpected and powerful intimacy. Here, by way of a conclusion, is the tiny poem I wrote as a fragile tribute to my own encounter:

At Tai Po Market Station, the Buddhist nun
performs still-points with her gong
in the avalanche of peak hour

Cantonese Shamanism by Jack M. Potter (1974)

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.

A sense of the milieu inhabited by these women is conveyed in the following short video about a Hakka-speaking female shaman.

Photograph: 香港錦田:刻有「喃嘸阿彌托」嘅石碑Stone inscribed with “Namo ⸺ Blessed Be, Glory to Amitabha” in Kam Tin, Hong Kong

King of the Hong Kong Kids: Hongkong by Martin Hürlimann (1962)

Martin Hurlimann Reader Image

My sense is that this book is really primarily about the people of Hong Kong. Since it was published as part of Atlantis Verlag’s “Städtebände” (city volumes), however, it features photographs of much of the typical hardware of the place, arranged in sections such as “In the Harbour of Hong Kong”, “On the Streets of Victoria”, “Around Hong Kong Island” and “In the New Territories”. Hürlimann handles such material expertly, but he only really convinces the reader-viewer of his excellence in the pictures he groups under the heading “DIE KINDER VON HONGKONG (The Children of Hong Kong).

Here, he hardly ceases to amaze with his ability to capture the absorption of children in their reading, in their games, or in the simple pleasure of one another’s company. He was able to do this because in the 1960s children in Hong Kong still lived a large part of their lives outdoors, gathering on the stairs, in the sheltered arcades of shops, or ⸺ as in the image featured in this report ⸺ in small bookstalls. As the relevant caption puts it: “Auf den Treppen der Pottinger Street finden die Buchstände eifrige Besucher”, that is: “Bookstores find eager visitors on the steps of Pottinger Street”.

I can’t read German and, if you don’t either, it poses no obstacle to a deep enjoyment of this work. The written material included here, just from my random sampling with a German to English on-line translator, suggests that it is all informational in type and, as such, can be found elsewhere in English. But if you know German, then it is clear that you will have a mine of Kongological information at your fingertips.

Two sections which particularly appeal to me are in den new territories (In the New Territories) and tempel (Temple). In the former, there are several images of impeccably kept fields near Clearwater Bay Road as well as Fanling, one of a walled village in Kam Tin (which appears to have part of its moat intact), and five images taken on the island of Cheung Chau, including a crowded market scene and an aerial shot (“wie sie sich beim Anflug Hongkongs von Westen her zeigt” = as seen from the approach of Hong Kong from Western [sic]).

The section on temples is tiny, with only two photographs, one of the ever-popular Wong Tai Sin Temple in Kowloon. The second picture shows the main Tin Hau Temple in Sai Kung, and gives you some idea of how things must have looked before the waterfront development took place. It is quite similar to the following image, taken by Bryan Panter in 1957.

Another special feature of this book are the photographs collected under the heading FLÜCHTLINGSSIEDLUNGEN (Refugee settlements), including a very ramshackle squatter village built on the side of a hill. As a contrast, Hürlimann also provides several photos of the new housing estates, often built side by side like wafer biscuits stacked inside their packet. This was the beginning of the massive urbanization that took place in Hong Kong after 1949, but at this stage the apartment blocks were still largely limited to six or so storeys: the residential sky-scrapers of today were yet to appear.

After having read-viewed Hongkong, I was intrigued enough to want to find out more about Martin Hürlimann, and was even more intrigued to discover that there is not a single photograph of him to be found on the internet. Is this something many makers of photographs do, I wondered ⸺ hide themselves in all the photographs they take of other people and places?

In many ways, Hürlimann’s work left me yearning for some lyrical evocation of Hong Kong. Actually, this is quite hard to find, and to date I have only come across traces of it in the writings of Martin Booth on the Buddhist temple of Po Lin (in three of his books: The Dragon and the Pearl, Hiroshima Joe, and Gweilo) and in G.S.P. Heywood’s Rambles in Hong Kong. But there is one colour picture captioned “Die Bucht von Sai Kung” (Sai Kung Bay) that makes up for the want of poetry elsewhere: taken from the top of a hill, it shows green fields running down to the foreshore, then blue, sparkling sea-water, numerous small islands covered in verdant foliage, and then the taller, darker mountains of the larger islands, that eventually dissolve into both sea and sky at the shimmering horizon line. Its impact is rendered all the more powerful in that it reveals something of the natural beauty of Hong Kong that is on the point of being lost to us forever.

“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)”

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)

Special Books on Hong Kong: Economic Man in Sha Tin by Göran Aijmer (1980)

Peter Varney_Paddy Fields East of Yuen Long_1 JAN 1958


The ritualization of the lineage ideology and the ritualization of the rice cultivation are inseparable in that both are focused on dead forefathers. Giving up rice production will for traditionalist villagers mean a break-up from a social situation dominated by traditional lineage aspirations and goals. The cultivation of rice has formed, to a very great extent, the essence and rhythm of life in the villages. The intimate connexion between the calendar, the cycle of festivals, and the process of rice cultivation gives a meaning to the rhythm of life which reaches far beyond what can be measured in terms of production and other economic categories. The transplantation of the first crop cannot be done before the Qingming festival; Duanwu precedes the first rice harvest and the sowing of the second crop. Chongyang precedes the second harvest. These important festivals are entirely isolated from the context of vegetable gardening which does not in the same way provide a fixed, seasonally repetitive pattern of activities. Through the use of many different species of vegetables, which can, in accordance with their ecological requirements, be introduced into a year-round production, the market gardener lives in a uniform and constant progression of acts concerned with his land. There is no peak season and no off season. There is nothing particular to look forward to, nor anything to talk about in retrospect on dry and cool winter days with fallow fields. (p. 89)


Photograph: Paddy Fields East of Yuen Long by Peter Varney, 1958

“Kwan Yin” by Ainslie Meares (1969)

Tai Tseng Wai Koon Yam

香港横洲大井圍天后古廟 Tin Hau Temple in Tai Tseng Wai, Wang Chau, Hong Kong

Ainslie Meares (1910-1986) was a well-known Australian psychologist with a particular interest in the use of meditation to relieve pain. Among his many books, there is an unusual work with the title Strange Places, Simple Truths, a collection of short prose pieces about his travels to various parts of the world in search of knowledge about alternative approaches to pain. Although Hong Kong is not one of his destinations, the book ends with a short text about the author’s very personal connection with the place.

Ainslie Meares (1910年至1986年)係一名知名嘅澳洲心理學家,對於以靜修達致舒緩痛楚嘅方法特別感到興趣。喺佢眾多著作當中,有一本頗為獨特,名為《陌生國度,簡單真相》,係一本小品集,講述佢遊歴世界各地,尋找處理痛楚嘅另類方法。雖然香港並唔係其中嘅目的地,但係該書最後一篇寫到作者同香港擁有十分獨特嘅聯繫。


Since I first started to write about these experiences, I have wanted to say something about Kwan Yin. But somehow it has seemed too difficult. I think I have fallen in love with her, and that of course makes it hard.

It must have been on my first visit to Hong Kong. In a curio shop I found a beautiful stone figure. This was some time ago, and then I did not even know the name of the lady who has come to steal my fancy so completely. She was standing at ease, about two feet high, clad in the flowing drapes of the classical Chinese, and with that mystique of expression which communicates the indefinable. I knew I had to have her. I bargained and bought her. And since then she has stood on the bookshelves in my study.

When one falls for a girl, a single picture is never enough. On my next visit to Hong Kong I spent the whole of my time in search of another. Do not be mistaken. Do not think of the hundreds of factory made figures of Kwan Yin with which the shops abound. No. My lady is not like those. The fact remains that each time I have been to Hong Kong I have come home with a stone figure of my lady. It has become a family joke.

One of the strange things about her is that she was originally a man. He was a Bodisatva, one who has attained Buddhahood, a kind of saint; and his saintliness was concerned with the depth of his compassion. Bodisatvas are always rather sexless. Perhaps all that is spiritual within them leads to something beyond sex. Then with the spread of Buddhism from India to China, Kwan Yin became worshipped as a female deity. It may be that compassion is an attribute of woman rather than of man. People think of her as the taking-away-fear Buddha. To Europeans she is known as the Goddess of Mercy. I know nothing of China, but I have seen her worshipped widely by Mahayana Buddhists in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan.

Ainslie Meares c.1974_8 MAY 2019

Ainslie Meares, Melbourne, 1974 (?)

I have found my stone image brings with it a sense of beauty and repose. But more than this, there is such a sense of mystique that it seems to have captivated me. So I continue my search for another. I have searched around the dust of old shops in narrow streets where such things are sometimes found. I have sought her from lush curio shops of the great hotels, where the Rolls-Royce and the rickshaw wait outside. One very hot day there was an old rickshaw man squatting on the foot-board of his rickshaw as is their custom while waiting for a passenger. He was very old. He was half asleep, half in a stupor. He was a worn-out man; his body almost gone, his mind insensitive to the noise and bustle that was all about him. I had just bought half a dozen mandarins to take to my hotel room. I quietly put one by his side, but he awoke from his stupor, and his eyes looked at me. Then arms stretched out from all directions, and I had to be off. Then, by strange coincidence, twice in the next few days I saw an old rickshaw-man wave to me. It was he again, not asking for more, but still bowing his thanks. And he seemed stronger. Strength that could not have come from my miserable mandarin.

In my search I have passed women in the briefest mini skirts I have ever seen, women in the traditional garb of the Chinese, women in rags, women like Chinese film stars with neat dresses and trim figures. And women with chubby babies strapped to their backs, and women with emaciated children begging for a few cents. I have been to shops where they would discuss nothing until I was seated on a china stool, and had had a cup of green tea. In others they cared little if I came or went, and in some their anxiety to sell me something spoke of their need of basic necessities. A thousand times I have asked ‘Kwan Yin, Kwan Yin’. But they could not understand my pronunciation. ‘Goddess of Mercy’. But they could speak no English. So I have rummaged  around their shops. I have examined hundreds of stone figures of Kwan Yin, but none has had the strange quality of the first one which I so happily stumbled on.
喺我尋覓嘅過程中,我經過身穿短到冇得再短嘅迷你裙嘅女人。我亦都見過穿著傳統服裝嘅女人,衣衫襤褸嘅女人,穿著稱身衣裳、身材苗條像中國明星般嘅女人。另外我又曾經見到孭住肥嘟嘟啤啤仔嘅女人,同埋抱住瘦蜢蜢細路仔嚟乞錢嘅女人。而且,我去過好多間舖頭:有啲要等我坐低瓷櫈仔上飲完一杯綠茶先至問我想買乜嘢;有啲服務員對我都漠然不關,愛理不理;而有啲,好似要賺錢養家過活,所以急於賣嘢俾我。我到而家已經喺舖頭講過「觀音,觀音」過千次,但係佢哋無法聽明我嘅發音。用「Goddess of Mercy」亦都唔得,因為佢哋唔識英文。攪到收尾我喺佢哋舖頭裏面揾嚟揾去,曾經仔細咁觀察過好多好多嘅石制觀音雕像,但係都揾唔返好似第一次偶爾揾到嗰座咁、擁有特有嘅氣質——遇到第一座嘅運氣未曾重複。

I have sought her through all the turmoil that makes Hong Kong one of the most fascinating cities of the world. Through the bustle of it all; but no jostling, no pushing, that is not the way of the Chinese. Through the smell of narrow streets, where the stench of it would be enough to stop my breathing. Passed beggars who made worse their deformities, and those who sat in the gutter quietly awaiting death to take them. Passed old men who looked as if they knew what it was all about; passed women whose gaunt eyes told that they had learned to accept what it was. Stepping over gutters of filth and children. Passed police whose impassive calm and efficiency makes them some of the finest in the world. Groups of jabbering tourists on their world cruise bent on buying junk from the Kowloon factories. Children playing in the streets whose widest horizon is the gutter of the next alley. And through all this nobody interferes. And it goes on late into the night. Women and girls come who would lead me to another love, but my desire is elsewhere.
香港嘅凌亂令佢成為世界上最為吸引嘅城市之一,而我正正喺係呢種凌亂之中去尋找觀音。雖然人多混亂, 但係當中冇人擠湧,冇人撞你――推撞唔係香港華人嘅風土習慣。我又經過氣味難聞嘅狹窄巷仔,要忍著唔透氣。我又行過急於討吃嘅乞兒,其中有啲故意將身上殘缺畸形嘅部分整得更加嚇人,又見過另一種乞兒,佢哋粒聲唔出坐喺坑渠旁邊,好似等待死亡嘅來臨。另外,我又經過洞悉世故嘅老伯,經過眼神空洞且呆滯嘅婦女,見到呢啲眼神就知道佢哋已經接受現狀,聽天由命。我亦大步跨過污糟邋遢嘅坑渠及其週圍嘅細路仔。又經過冷靜無情嘅警員,佢哋嘅高效水平令佢哋成為世界優秀之列。又經過一班班嘰里咕嚕嘅外國遊客,佢哋坐郵輪嚟香港,一心想買到九龍工廠粗制濫造嘅產品。又經過喺度玩緊嘅細蚊仔,佢哋嘅生活範圍唔可以離開呢度至下一條橫街窄巷嘅坑渠位置。冇任何人會企圖改變呢啲狀況,種種嘅凌亂會一直繼續到夜闌人靜。呢個時候,女人同埋少女們會出現喺我面前,佢哋想將我帶進另一種愛情,不過我所渴望嘅係喺別處。

And now I have several stone figures of my lady-love. They are all different, each reflecting the craftsman’s own idea of the nebulous quality which finds expression in the concept of Kwan Yin. But as in life, none has the same mystique as the one which first so captivated my fancy.

羅榮輝 • 《獨行》/ Teddy Law • “Solitary Walking”

Teddy LAW Cover 1

Translator’s Introduction

The following extract is from a wonderful book on the wild places of Hong Kong called 《咫尺山林》by Teddy Law 羅榮輝, first published in 2016 by EDGE/Roundtable Synergy Books. If you love hiking in Hong Kong and you can read Chinese, I think you’ll find it hard to resist this practical-poetical account of twenty-nine Hong Kong hiking journeys. But if you can’t read Chinese, here’s a small taste of Teddy’s take on heading off into the hills on your own. I think you’ll find he manages to distil a lot of rich thinking in a very short space.


As a way of coming to appreciate nature, solitary walking is absorbed, candid, naked. Making foot-contact with the Earth, gradually you merge with the natural world until ― without even noticing it ― there you are: part of it. This direct, unobstructed dialoguing with nature is even more conducive to finding a way into the deepest parts of a person’s inner life. At that moment when nature allows the solitary walker to take delight in its scenery, there is also then consolation and a new chance to get to know oneself. From this knowledge of self, the solitary walker begins to appreciate herself, to believe in her own value, and thus to bring to light the goals and meaning of her life. This may provide solitary walkers with a key at a particular stage in their lives, opening the gate to a self they have been searching for. We all do this: it is just that solitary walkers do it in their particular own way.

However, society’s views on solitary walking are quite different. Out in the broader community, not only is solitary walking regarded as being undesirable; it is even considered to be a form of irresponsible behaviour. When hiking accidents are reported in the media, the coverage tends to attribute most of the blame to walking on one’s own. Opinion is also directed at what happens after an accident: the social resources that are wasted in rescue operations, and the risks to their own safety run by rescue personnel in carrying out such operations. Solitary walkers are criticized for generally thinking only about their personal pleasure, engaging in a form of behaviour that benefits them at the expense of others. Solitary walkers also often give people the impression that there is something gu-pik or “uncommunicative and eccentric” about them. The community may therefore nurse certain prejudices, believing that solitary walkers are lacking in basic social and/or communication skills, or that their behaviour reflects some kind of psychological imbalance.

To be sure, walking alone involves some degree of risk. Apart from unforeseeable factors, however, the occurrence of accidents involving solitary walkers can to a large extent be put down to certain factors that lie within an individual’s control such as hiking experience, preparation for the walk, knowledge of path conditions, one’s physical condition, weather, and skills in responding to emergencies. Such commonplace notions ― the most basic things even to consider when going on a hike ― are often the easiest things to overlook. This is because the biggest difficulty facing solitary walkers is not having appraised the risks with sufficient modesty and not having acknowledged with complete honesty any inadequacies in one’s physical strength. To define solitary walking as a high-risk activity is a great pity.

No matter whether you set off for the sake of freedom, more personal space, the challenge to yourself or to get close to nature, undergoing such an experience can help a person to understand themselves, thereby transforming hiking into a quest for the self. Walking on your own is, I think it is fair to say, gu or “solitary” but not pik or “weird”, an opening out and not a narrowing down. Solitary walking has a positive effect on both the soul and the spirit: it moulds a positive way of thinking as well as a positive set of values, leading to a transformation in both one’s life and one’s behaviour. Cherishing the value of our lives does not mean reducing everything to our narrow existences and remaining indifferent to any pursuit of the spiritual; proper regard for the reasonable use of public resources cannot be reduced to the mere waste of such resources in the event of an accident, thereby depriving us of the enlightenment that solitary walking brings to an individual’s thinking and behaviour and the positive influence this in turn has for a society.

Solitary walking has its good and bad points but, in itself, there is nothing terrible about it. The terrible thing is to interpret it in a manner that is only one-sided or negative. To be indifferent to the essential nature of solitary walking and to write off its deeper significance is to obliterate one route to our finding of ourselves.

It is my wish that one day solitary walking will no longer be something people resent or avoid as being harmful.

Translated by Simon Patton

Chinese Festivals by Joan Law and Barbara E. Ward (1982)

Taoist Priest by Joan Law Mee Nar

Taoist priest in his usual red ceremonial robes. Photo by Joan Law Mee Nar

From Sai Kung, it takes about three quarters of an hour to get to the island of Kau Sai Chau, but if you’re lucky, the skipper will make the time pass more quickly by pointing out some of the features in the coastline along the way, such as the gaping Elephant Trunk Cave. Once on land, in the vicinity of the very fine Hung Shing Temple near the village, you can visit the memorial to English scholar Barbara E. Ward. Ward, an anthropologist who first went to Hong Kong in 1950, spent much of her life studying the local boat people or Tanka. She devoted herself to improving the lot of this marginalized group and, in the process, gained an enormous amount of knowledge, involvement and personal insight with regard to both the people and the territory. You couldn’t wish for a better a guide.

In Chinese Festivals (subtitled ‘in Hong Kong’), Ward distils something of her rich, first-hand experience for a general reader. Together with her gifted collaborator, the photographer Joan Mee Nar Law, she has created a book which sheds much needed light on Hong Kong’s most important festive occasions, and which encourages readers to become well-informed and actively curious ‘festival-watchers’ in their own right.

Why do many people from the English-speaking world develop such a fascination for a place that was once described as a ‘barren rock’? I think Ward goes some way to providing an answer to this when she reminds us to think of modern Hong Kong as “a centre of Chinese traditionalism” (13), a fact that is perhaps more conspicuous in the New Territories. I count myself fortunate in my own connection to the place: on my first visit in 1998, I lived in Cheung Shue Tan (‘Camphor Tree Beach’), a village located down a very steep slope on the road between Sha Tin and Tai Po. Having prepared myself for towers, shopping centres and crowds, I found myself instead in close proximity to nature, ritual, and a lingering echo of village life yet to be entirely eradicated by waves of industrial revolution. In other words, I was given the opportunity to experience a rhythm of life that my own culture had largely abandoned by the middle of the nineteenth century.

Continue reading “Chinese Festivals by Joan Law and Barbara E. Ward (1982)”