All posts by Pete

Heritage walking in So Kon Po

If you have 15 minutes spare, you could listen in to a walk I took around So Kon Po with Radio 3’s Annemarie Evans. Most people only visit the area during the annual Rugby Sevens tournament but there are half a dozen things to see beside the stadium. As well as the headquarters of the Po Leung Kuk, an organization set up in the 1870s to combat the then-commonplace trade in slave girls, the quiet district hosts a monument to the Happy Valley racecourse disaster of 1918, the remains of squatter villages, a Confucius Hall and a surprisingly large and imposing chapel within the walls of St. Paul’s Convent, which is still run by the order of French nuns who founded it.

I also spoke to man-about-China Paul French (no relation to the convent) about local heritage preservation in general for his Ethical Corporation podcast, again listenable at the link.

The full So Kon Po walk is described and illustrated in The Heritage Hiker’s Guide to Hong Kong. I don’t have any images handy from this route, but below you can see some other spreads from the book. There’s a nice mix of modern and archive photography. Click to see at larger size.

New: the Heritage Hiker’s Guide to Hong Kong

Heritage_Hikers_Guide_to_HKAs the weather cools, I’m pleased to announce the publication of The Heritage Hiker’s Guide to Hong Kong – available from all local bookshops from later this week.

When I began to write the book which became the first in this series – a walking guide to Hong Kong’s high peaks and long-distance trails – I had no idea it would lead to an illustrated book about local history.

Before recent times, there was less call for a book like this. The accepted view was that Hong Kong people cared little for their heritage. Besides the clans of the New Territories, few residents had deep roots in Hong Kong; many had used the city only as a stepping stone between China and a more prosperous life overseas. And before the issue of 1997 had been settled, the future of Hong Kong itself was uncertain. Everything was seen as transient. Who would spend too much time worrying about a ‘borrowed place living on borrowed time’?

But since the protests against the demolition of the Star Ferry pier a few years ago, that has all changed. Hong Kong people – and especially young people – have woken up to the value of a connection to their past. Historic places, those which evoke collective memories, now have legions of defenders sworn to protect them at all costs.

This new interest in shared heritage is part of a wider trend towards protest of all kinds in Hong Kong: against delays in more representative elections, against reclamation of the harbour and other harm to the environment, against the profiteering of developers, and most vociferously against the perceived collusion between government and big business. Angry citizens are now ready to confront the government on every issue – a problem the colonial authorities rarely faced. Already it seems that their voices have been heard, and the tide has turned for the better on heritage conservation.

Hong Kong has been many things: a string of fishing villages; a centre of the opium trade; a refuge for revolutionaries; a freewheeling market where fortunes could be made; a prize of war; a window on China; a colony with an expiry date; a beautiful city. It can be hard to find reminders of ages gone by, but they still exist. I hope this guidebook will help you discover some of them.

Crossing Salisbury

As someone who makes a living partly from writing guidebooks, I was a natural choice to show a friend of a friend around on their brief stopover in Hong Kong recently. She was only in town for a few hours, so I met her at her hotel on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront and planned to take her on a brief tour of the district before going for lunch.

We had barely stepped out of the hotel before we got lost in an underground shopping mall which was the only way of crossing Salisbury Road. Narrow escalators, piles of merchandise, unmarked doorways, anti-intuitive routes out and a lack of exit signs made me suspect that a quick passage from one side of the road to the other was not the main purpose of this underpass.

We spent 15 minutes searching for the right exit from this subterranean maze. I could see my guest wondering whether I had ever been to TST before, let alone lived there and written articles about it. I made some explanation about it being part of a new network of subways. But really, removing zebra crossings is just an easy way for the government to hand street space over to cars while funnelling pedestrians – sorry, consumers – through a series of commercial malls owned by their developer chums. The same plans are in store for other districts.

Tsim Sha Tsui has been wrecked over the past decade by bad planning and endless roadworks. This is bad enough for local residents, some of whom complain frequently through the SCMP letters page, but it’s an added shame that it’s the part of Hong Kong most tourists see. As an example of poor planning, the old railway station next to the Star Ferry pier was demolished in 1975 and moved to Hung Hom. Then, less than 30 years later, it was found necessary to extend the line back again, requiring years of disruptive construction work with all the attendant noise and air pollution. Who are the fools who make these decisions? They can’t all be taking kickbacks from construction firms or lining up jobs after retirement with developers.

An interview with local WWF chief Markus Shaw in last week’s HK Magazine matches my thoughts:

… frankly, we are making a mess of our city. We’re not planning our city for people, we’re planning it for the big property companies. We’re not trying to make it pleasant for ordinary Hong Kong people.

The feelings toward our heritage are stronger among young people because they are the ones inheriting this city. For people growing up in the 1960s, their life’s ambition was to move into a high rise. Today, this is the only life most people have. It’s all big estates and people are starting to think that maybe they don’t want to spend the rest of their lives in shopping malls.

We have huge projects such as Kai Tak and West Kowloon right now. They will determine the future of Hong Kong, so we have to get them right. Government ministers have begun to speak the right language—but they don’t necessarily understand what people want. They don’t use public transport, so they have no idea how hard it is to cross Salisbury Road.

Hong Kong needs political reform. Not only to give voice to a broader range of people, but also to make our government work more efficiently.

Amen to that. My vote goes to the pro-democratic camp here, if only because without elections, we have no way of voting out the idiots who are ruining Hong Kong.

Book excerpt: The Great Walk of China

In advance of Graham Earnshaw’s talk at the Beijing Bookworm on Saturday, here’s a chapter from his new book, The Great Walk of China. After crossing flat country for most of the distance from Shanghai, Graham finds himself in the Dabie Mountains of rural Anhui Province.

Chapter 2: Drinking Games

The day’s walk was over and I returned to Chashui for dinner. I called Teacher Xu, who asked me to come to the school gates at 5.30pm. Arriving promptly, Teacher Xu led me inside to a conference room where I found a delegation of five men waiting for me, three of them in suits. Leading the delegation was Mr. Cheng Zhihua, secretary of the Qianshan County Communist Youth League, who looked about thirty-five years old. Accompanying him were his assistant, Mr. Huang, Teacher Xu and two vice-headmasters. Headmaster Chen, I was informed, was not available.

Mr. Cheng formally welcomed me to the mountains by saying, “This region is poor.”

“I think it is very beautiful,” I replied.

“We welcome people from all over the world,” he responded, so I asked how many other foreigners had passed this way. “There was an African man from Cameroon a few years ago, but apart from that, you’re the first foreigner to visit the region.” I said it was my honour.

“We are looking for investment – investors – and maybe you would be interested?” he asked.

“I am just walking through,” I replied. “I am not here looking for investments. But I do think the mountains are beautiful and there should be big potential for tourism in the long term.”

“We think so too,” he said. “There are several local hotel projects under construction, but not high class. There is no foreign investment in them.”

I suggested they should be cautious about developing lower level hotel projects to avoid the kind of damage to the scenery and environment inflicted on other places such as the once beautiful town of Guilin.

“Mr. Yan referred to a six-star hotel idea?” prompted Teacher Xu.

“I think such an idea would be great in theory, though in practice it would require a lot of patience and money and support from the local government. Outside investors are convinced about the future of China tourism, but the Dabie Mountains are very remote, and there would be a reluctance to invest.”

“Thank you for your frankness,” Mr. Cheng said. “Now it is time for dinner.”

“My treat,” I said. “Let us go to a local restaurant and have a simple meal.”

“I have arranged dinner at the best restaurant in town, a banquet for two hundred and fifty RMB,” Teacher Xu announced.

“Wow, two hundred and fifty RMB!” I said. “You have a Grand Hyatt here? I had dinner the other night for just forty RMB including beer.”

“Only forty RMB? Impossible,” Teacher Xu said.

“Our treat,” Mr. Cheng pushed.

“No no,” I said.

“Yes yes,” they said.

Continue reading Book excerpt: The Great Walk of China

The Serious Hiker’s Guide to Hong Kong: back in print

High ridges, sparkling waterfalls, lush fung shui woods and ancient fishing communities nestled in rocky harbours. Your mind refreshed, your limbs exercised, and your senses intoxicated, you wonder at the fact that only a few miles separate all this from one of the world’s most crowded cities.

The Serious Hiker’s Guide to Hong Kong — the bestselling guidebook to the SAR’s four long-distance hiking trails — is back in the shops in its sixth edition, with a new cover. Describing the Lantau Trail, Wilson Trail, MacLehose Trail and Hong Kong Trail, it’s been updated for 2010 and is profusely illustrated with maps and photographs. Available in all local bookshops.

The China Sex Museum at Danxiashan

Further to last month’s post about the Danxiashan national park in Guangdong, it’s worth mentioning that many of the rock formations bear uncanny resemblances to human sexual organs. (I have no photos of those, but Wikipedia does). Ancient Confucians probably avoided the area for these reasons, and it’s still very much off the beaten track, but modern China has few sex taboos and the local authorities have now erected — ahem — noticeboards explaining these interpretations of the sandstone monoliths.

“From a distance, it looks very much like a male genital!” exclaims a sign near the 28-metre Yangyuan Stone, abandoning the euphemistic language we have come to expect from Chinese literature. But it does, and there’s a complementary Yinyuan Cave nearby which does a good impression of the female anatomy.

Outside the park’s main entrance, then, there’s some logic to the existence of the China Sex Museum, which displays a collection of Chinese kama sutra texts, herbal aphrodisiacs, erotic jade carvings, Qing-dynasty sex toys and so on. The tittering girls at reception wouldn’t let me take photos of their explicit exhibits, but here are some pictures of the sculpture outside the museum. You get the idea.

Chongqing’s “Love Land” sex theme park was demolished earlier this year, so if you want to learn more about Chinese attitudes to sex throughout the ages, just take the train up to Shaoguan.

Chinglish in the mountains

IMG_4076Hiking recently in Shaoguan, in northern Guangdong, I was grateful for the handy suggestions offered by the local authorities, and I fell down the hillside paying the proper attention to health and safety.

The Danxiashan region of the province is a weird landscape of forest punctuated by dramatic red sandstone formations and divided by meandering rivers. Some of the hilltops are dotted with shrines, fountains and old Zen Buddhist temples. It’s been declared a national nature reserve but has not received the fame accorded to Guilin — a good thing probably, since you can enjoy the peace and natural beauty without the nuisance of tour groups.

There is a cable car up to the peak with the best view, but it’s relatively expensive and all the locals choose to take the steps. And why not? As long as they all slip with care, of course.

 

Hong Kong hiking: Victoria Harbour from Devil’s Peak

It’s hot and sticky but we’re going through a period of unusually clear skies in Hong Kong, so the heat doesn’t deter us from hiking. This week we followed a trail from Tseng Lan Shue on Clearwater Bay Road south across Black Hill and Devil’s Peak to Lei Yue Mun.

Standing on the high points of this ridge, you can look westwards directly down the length of Victoria Harbour. Click on the photo to view it at full size. Kowloon is on the right, and Hong Kong Island on the left. You may be able to pick out IFC Two, the Peak Tower, the Wanchai Convention Centre, Green Island, and the North Point ferry pier. Behind Kowloon, the twin summits of Lantau Island are just hidden in cloud. There are some days when you cannot even see Lantau from Kowloon, so this is exceptional.

We started walking through a lush green valley crossed by farmers’ aqueducts and full of dragonflies. Then, in the forest above Ma Yau Tong, we passed a tiny temple to Kwun Yam which is guarded by an army of garish cement statues — Chinese gods, Japanese soldiers, dancing girls, monkeys and tigers. I learnt from Phil at Oriental Sweetlips (a blog, not a Wanchai curtain bar) that these were made by an 84-year-old local gent a decade ago in his spare time. The Trumpton-like statues are crumbling now but the shrine is still tended. Continue reading Hong Kong hiking: Victoria Harbour from Devil’s Peak

Victoria’s Secret: the Pokfulam prison with no name

I head to Victoria Road in leafy Pokfulam, with a dozen members of the Royal Asiatic Society’s heritage volunteers group, to investigate an overgrown compound of white buildings stretching down the hillside towards the harbour. These abandoned buildings have no name, and no street number. What are they?

The answer may come as a surprise even to people who live nearby. In 1967, Hong Kong was seized by a burst of pro-Mao agitation as a knock-on effect of the Cultural Revolution taking place over the border. Chanting rioters confronted the police and picketed the gates of Government House, bombs were planted on the streets, and transport networks were paralyzed. Fearing chaos, and even invasion by China, the colonial government went on the offensive. The Hong Kong police force’s Special Branch (the unit responsible for gathering intelligence) rounded up prominent leftists, and these buildings were used as a secret detention centre for them. Choi Wei-hung, the secretary of the Chinese Reform Association, was incarcerated in a tiny cell here for 18 months. Continue reading Victoria’s Secret: the Pokfulam prison with no name