Luk Tei Tong (roughly translated according to Dad as “Deer Something Village”) is a hamlet nestled at the foot of the mountains in the larger town of Mui Wo, also known as Silvermine Bay, a rural beach town on Lantau Island in Hong Kong.
Lantau Island is the largest of the islands that make up HK but the least populated and has a huge national park—sad to say that this will probably not be the case 20 years from now given the rapacity of the real estate people here and the general disregard for the natural beauty of the island. Environmentalism and all that it connotes is but a distant idea, a downright foreign one to many—those who express their concerns are usually silenced by the wealthy and powerful. An example of this is the continual land reclamation—some chap who wanted to save the HK harbor was run out of town with death threats. Anyway, Lantau Island is known for the big airport (great, really), and yes, The Horror, The Horror--HK Disneyland! I reported a story on the building of Disneyland some years back and how it was destroying the habitat of sousa chinesis, the local pink dolphin, but clearly the story did nothing. HK Disneyland makes no money at this stage--I heard that there are no big kid rides, only Space Mountain and absolutely no lines ever.
Mui Wo has a population of around 8,000 (I think) and is a 25 (fast ferry) /45 (slow ferry) minute ride from Hong Kong Island. By all accounts, Mui Wo is a world away from Hong Kong Island as there is little here. Since you have to have a special Lantau driver’s license there are few cars on the road, only bicycles. There are two supermarkets, a bank that is open 4 days a week, one pub (Stephen played football with the owner some 15 years ago), one Turkish restaurant (in it was the same poster I had hanging in our flat in L.A. of the dancing Turkish woman from Topkapi Palace—surreal, really), a handful of Chinese restaurants, one shop that sells everything plastic you can imagine (The Hard and Soft Shop-no comment), a barber shop that sells a handful of books (read and get your haircut!), two antique stores, a fantastic municipal pool that is always empty, and a small traditional CLEAN wet market—veggies, fruits, flowers, and live fish. There is coffee shop for lattes and the like—but no lattes on Tuesday. That’s Tom the owner’s day off. There’s a beach and a playground. No drugstore or clothing shop. I have never seen a person in the post office, although I have used it several times. The River Silver runs through the town and still on the river are people who maintain fishing boats. There is one public or government housing block—most HK people live in subsidized government housing, and right across from them is the senior home with a restaurant outside. So the families stroll across the street to see their grandmas and grandpas and all eat together, smart planning. I see about seven cars a day other than a few buses, trucks or city worker vehicles. Mostly, the roads are filled with bicycles, and not really that filled, honestly. The only place there is bike traffic is right near the ferry pier.
Our particular village has about 35 houses—we’re connected by a little bridge to Tai Tei Tong, a neighboring village and the design of the homes are all the same. They are all three stories high and approximately 700 square feet per floor. The building is divided into two, really, more like the attached houses in the U.K., so long ago two extended families might occupy each side, but now there area plenty of Westerners and locals who simply live on top of each other—like any other city.
In the early morning I can step outside of my house and see the mist over the mountains and for a brief moment, I am reminded of Hawaii—the thick humidity, the bright shades of verdant green, the clear sounds of the birds gliding by against the sky (well, maybe not the latter in Honolulu). I think with wonder that I am living on an island in Southeast Asia and I am filled with a halcyon vision of my new potentially idyllic life…and then…the drilling begins.
I am not in Hawaii, but I am in Hong Kong where the merciless sounds of drilling is everywhere, even in the remote parts of Lantau Island, even in Mui Wo, even in lil’ ole Luk Tei Tong Village. No one ever mentions this sound, but the sound of the drill is THE sound of Hong Kong. Forget that weeei—aiiii Chinese opera stuff that they have in the tourism commercials and the Canto pop films, these damn drills are 24-7 as there always ways to get around building codes and no one cares about noise pollution. It’s amazing that the entire population is not deaf or hard of hearing. At least where I am living, there is an occasional silence, but we are not in HK proper. There is no way that you can have any semblance of a balanced audio perspective with constant drilling! Everything is stone and cement and bathroom tiles inside and out, throughout the house, so as to maximize the cooling effect of the building materials. This was fine before global warming, but it gets rather cold in the winter now, so the efficacy of such construction might be worth questioning. Then again, they’ve been doing this for some one gillion years, so who am I to question the practicality, never mind the aesthetics of anything? Who am I to question why the exterior of the majority of homes and buildings across Southeast Asia, are covered in bathroom tiles? My beef with bathroom tiles is not to be taken lightly.
The last time we lived in Sheung Wan on Hong Kong Island, Stephen warned me against sitting on the inside of the apartment near our window ledge, which I thought was a nice little spot for some cushions and a cup of tea.
“Don’t sit there! It will break off and you’ll be dead—you’ll fall 21 stories, you idiot!”
“What are you talking about? I’m sure that they build plenty of buildings here, don’t be stupid.”
“They pay some poor guys from Mainland who probably have never worked construction 2 cents an hour to build these goddamn buildings!”
“Why are we living in this building then?”
No response. So much for his little speech about how the buildings owned by this particular company were always well-run.
At the time, I thought he was exaggerating. That was until I walked by the building I always walked by at least twice a day and noticed a heaping pile of rubble along with warning signs as the bathroom tiles had fallen off the the building onto the sidewalk and had blocked the length of the block. There were enough tiles should some poor sod had been walking at that moment s/he would have been killed. Luckily it happened in the middle of the night. No, I do not avoid walking near buildings with bathroom tiles. I could never leave my house if I did.
I digress…to return…Luk Tei Tong Village is approximately 2km from the ferry pier and about 1km from the circle and parking area which is the furthest that one can take a car. There is no way to approach the village other than by the cement bike path, which has been widened.
Apparently five years ago it was rather narrow and someone told me that her child was biking behind her and fell off the side and into the fallow rice fields which are more like bogs filled with huge lotus plants and all manner of lush tropical greenery and any number of creepy crawly things. She decided to move to another area of Mui Wo.
Given that I was rather shaky on the bike and had a few wobbly near misses with Keohi on the back, this cautionary tale served as a warning to be vigilant—never mind that I did not have training wheels and was not 5 years old. But without a bike, it would take 15-20 minutes to walk to town and while this might not seem too bad, in hot weather, a 5 minute cycle ride is much preferable. I put an extra belt around Keohi (my suitcase strap) and plopped a helmet on him (a sign his is an expat kid, the locals don’t wear them, for the most part) and was off. The first week I was here I was gripping my handlebars so tightly when I was riding and scrunching up my neck (as if that would steady my bike) in order to better control the bike. This results in sore muscles and poor steering. Poor Keohi was gripping onto the little handlebar in front with equal terror. I have since found it is better to relax, to imagine that one is zipping along a path and that there are not bogs on either side and that one’s 15 month old child is more safe on the bike as opposed to barreling down the L.A. freeway at 70 m.p.h. All true. While Keohi would survive a fall into a bog (unless he was attacked at that point by a deadly snake –there are many here according to my book on Hong Kong amphibians and reptiles or a Japanese Encephalitis/Dengue Fever ridden mosquito, the latter a grave possibility, I am sorry to say) and probably much better than a wreck in L.A.. Anyway, oncoming bike traffic was a little unnerving at first, so I have taken to stopping and letting others go by and my bike is so low to the ground that I can put both of my feet flat on the ground to steady the bike. Stephen has called my aqua women’s bike with child seat and little umbrella on the back a Dwarf Bike. It is rather small.
Our flat is in the newest building in the village, at the very front as one approaches our hamlet on the bicycle path, a tan brick village house with a big green lawn spotted with rosebushes and a few mini papaya plants and plumeria trees. Like all village houses, it is divided into three stories plus a rooftop. We have the bottom flat, and our landlord Mr. Lam and his family occupies the two top floors, along with his amah (or helper) Mabel. Fortunately, the Lam’s spend most of their time on Hong Kong Island and are only here during the weekend. The other half of the village house remains unoccupied, the owners of that side will move in later this year. As we are, I believe, the only village house with a rather suburban U.S.A. looking garden, and a new expat couple with a blond Asian child, I think our presence has been duly noted. There are numerous Western families here—but the place still has a very local vibe.
There seems to be an old lookout point—maybe from a fort or something—it is right near the local temple that remains shut and deserves further investigation. In the morning Keohi and I take a walk to the temple. We wave and greet the early AM daily trash collectors. They are all elderly women who push large trolleys heaped with black plastic garbage bags. They wear straw rice paddy hats, long blue sleeve uniforms and black pants, and long rubber gloves, and often boots. It is hard work. Hong Kong is interesting like that—I’ve seen only one female sanitation worker in the U.S. in my entire life, but here females are the norm for such labor. We wind our way down the path past the houses and a junkyard heaps on the side of a few houses. The temple is still active with incense burning and offerings of fruit, gold and paper cut-outs, pictures of bereaved relatives, and colored decorations of gods and dragons. No people, except if a few, like Keohi and myself, happen to be wandering through.
There are a few cats (without tails) lounging on top of the tables. Someone told me that there were two kinds of cats here—the kind with tails and the kind without tails. Then I heard that many old locals think that the tail of the cat should be cut off for some demonic reason or other. And then I remembered when we lived in Korea in 1971, how Mom wanted a cat to get rid of the mice and had a difficult time trying to get one WITH a tail as people would cut it off by wrapping the tail with rubber or something until it dropped off. This blather about the two breeds of long versus short tailed cats I am rather suspicious of. It will require further enquiry.
Keohi screams “dog” at the cats and “ball” at the oranges and apples and has a wander about the lunch area and the exterior of the temple and bangs on the painted wooden stands and grabs for the incense and plastic apple tree and buckets that have caked dirt on them and I usually chase him around a bit. I asked a few people if the place served lunch or food as there is an empty but working kitchen in the back. Sanitation questionable, of course, but it could be an interesting experience. It’s all open, no locks, no guards, no one there. Then we look out at the lovely vision of the fallow rice fields and the mountaintops and take in the serene calm of the AM, slightly punctuated by the drilling of course, and cast our eyes to the panorama of a sleepy village that has a certain charm interrupted only by the ugly large 1972 4-door rusty car that is perched on a bunch of trash and stones. This is not an installation art piece, though it could be. There is an odd juxtaposition here, with the car—contrasted with the solitude, the green, the temple in all of its dusty splendor, but really, it’s pure Hong Kong.
Wildlife, Mammals, and Creepy Crawly Things
Despite our village name, I have yet to see a deer. Our first morning however, was perfect: outside our door was a herd of yellow cattle. These are now feral, abandoned by folks once they gave up the agricultural life and headed to the city for work. There is a herd of around 70 here. While the cows with the white herons perched on top was a vision of picturesque timeless village life to myself, to the grandma upstairs this was a great embarrassing reminder of the agrarian past. So she proceeded to yell and shoo the herd away. It’s not as if you can call the cattle to come and stay and hang out for visually aesthetic purposes and you who can’t speak Cantonese can’t explain this either to the non-English speaking grandma either. So that was the first and last time I’ve seen the cattle.
Mangy Looking Dogs
There are many and they are to be avoided. People dump their dogs and abandon them on Lantau quite frequently. The other evening, I saw a basset hound crossing the street and then a woman came running after it, asking about it and saying that she thought it had been dumped. I think people just leave them at the ferry pier. Lantau is dog-friendly, so there is a vet clinic and there are many dogs here—a good many of them rather flea-bitten and mangy looking. Lots of poi dogs, although it is hard to challenge the appearance of some of Hawaii’s poi dogs, there are some mighty funny looking dogs in Lantau.
There are also some nasty dogs. One family who has a compound here keeps a bunch of dogs. The drag about this is that the footbridge that would also lead to Luk Tei Tong is supposedly public and another access point, but the family clearly wants exclusive use of it, so their dogs hang out in the middle of the bridge, and they are not friendly. Everyone must use the other bridge to get to Luk Tei Tong.
There are four big dogs that often sit underneath the awning of the only medical clinic and post office when it is hot. I have not mailed anything on hot days. I hope I do not get sick on hot days. Given the size of the scab on one dog’s back, I really am not going to challenge the dogs’ right to hang out in front of the post office.
Creepy Crawly Things
The bog features a veritable chorus of bullfrogs. I’ve seen several flattened ones on the path. I daresay I think that I squished one myself whizzing down the bike path one night, but I avoided looking down—just saw something cross my path.
I saw a Great Green Snake writhing about in the middle of the road. I was biking and biked right on past. It was a bright green and in my Hong Kong Amphibians and Reptiles book it said it was not poisonous. Two hours later I passed it and it was squashed. It was by the garbage collection building. Stephen, who hates snakes, wanted a detailed description of it and said that locals would just kill any snake, poisonous or not. He sounded almost disappointed about it getting squashed. Me, I have no sentiments about the snake. Okay, okay, they are good for getting rid of small rodents. But I really am not going to campaign to save any snake.
I’ve thrice spotted the Bloodsucker lizard here. It has a long tail and a red throat. It is exceedingly ugly. The bloodsucker lizard was blocking my path on the way out the door. I was on the phone and suddenly stopped talking. I must have sounded like an idiot to the person as I suddenly yelled: “It’s a lizard! A big lizard! Oh my god!” I mean, I didn’t even know the person. Oh well. Keohi was on the back of the bike and the mossies were starting to swarm so I had to choose between getting bitten, having Keohi get bitten (again, visions of Dengue Fever, malaria etc…), and biking closer to the lizard and I chose the latter, hoping it would move and that I would not squash its tail. It moved.
The second spotting was not nearly so traumatic as I was speeding along on my bike and it moved out of my way.
The third—I dinged my bike bell to shoo it out of the way. I’m not sure if was the bell or the bike charging in its path, but it darted into the bog.
Nothing like a bike to make you feel really omnipotent – facing the elements and wildlife…
Geckos and monitor lizard in Bali—a big one, right next to the swimming pool scurrying into a hole in the grass does not count as HK wildlife but the general amphibian and reptile viewing over the past few weeks has made me regretfully conclude that while I like the idea of seeing the Komodo Dragons in all of their fascinating splendor, and undoubtedly support all efforts to preserve such creatures, I will not miss this event if it does not transpire during my lifetime. I will be perfectly happy to view photos of Stephen’s expeditions…
My misery has been the plethora of mosquitoes and tiny grass flies. A cursory glance at my legs would leave one to think that I was suffering from measles or a disgusting skin condition—I am. It’s called sustaining over 80 mossie bites. The first 60 were due to a frolic with Keohi on our lovely green lawn the third day I was here. Today I figured out today the only way Keohi can enjoy the lawn before November is if I follow him around and spray him with the hose.
We have a half dozen varieties of mossie spray and lotion on our shelves. Keohi thinks it is really funny as I have taken to dashing around the apartment whacking away with newspapers and my trusty tennis racquet shaped mossie zapper trying to kill them. The mossie zapper is a brilliant HK invention. It’s shaped like a tennis racket and electrocutes the bugs with a sizzle and a snap. It’s the electric chair death for bugs. I am a merciless terminator when it comes to these things. I was so desperate to kill one mosquito that I smashed our ceiling lamp. Now every night there is a small bunch of dead bugs on the floor under the lamp. Must replace the glass…My furious scratching and slapping of my legs means that Keohi has also taken to slapping my legs and scratching them, a rather unfortunate habit.
Big concerns are the earthquake and the Olympics. More on that later.