“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)”