If buildings and metropoles rose solely by the turning of winches and gears, then Hong Kong’s revolvement is operating on turbo speed – easily one of the most versatile cities in Asia, if not the world, new shards of glass emerge every day from the jagged topography and ascend ladders of steel framework, each taking a jab at reaching the heavens and modernity.
Forgetting something? Beside contemporary aspirations and the avant-garde desires for upward movement, Hong Kong does have a history – and quite a rich one too.
Not all terracotta tiles, stone-carved inscriptions of traditional calligraphy and fuming incense sticks are asphyxiated in the clench of an increasingly modernised Hong Kong; neither is its past, from tranquil fishing port to colonial trading power, entirely forgotten.
Recreation of the old
Even though much of Hong Kong’s old architecture has been swallowed by newer stratigraphy, the concept and building methods prevailed. Dotted sporadically throughout the urban landscape are recreations of gardens, gazebos and even mansions as public spaces, for a frequently nostalgic populace.
Few are gorgeously authentic enough to be sourced as filming locations for period dramas. The Lingnan Garden, behind the residential district of Mei Foo in Kowloon, is one of them.
Complete with a large fish pond contained by an encasement of sheltered corridors, the spot compiles the best of showcases of southern Chinese building styles and landscaping – Lingnan being a geographical area in Southern China – and displays them in an open-space villa-esque complex inside the larger Lai Chi Kok Park.
Such genuinity extends to the purpose of the gardens: rather than another one of those do-not-touch-exhibit tourist-empowerment historic sites and museums, the Lingnan Garden seemed primarily to be serving the local population as a recreation site.
In perfect unison, the synchrony of arm-and-leg coordination in tai-chi mobs are performed by nearby residents; so are they who tread barefoot on a trail embedded with edgy pebble stones – improves blood circulation as believed by Chinese medicine – locked in stalemates in games of Chinese chess, and mused the meanings of Archaic Chinese upon the inscriptions amongst bonsai trees.
It presents an enactment of local life with a local cast playing their unscripted, unrehearsed and unfeigned roles. Easy it is for one to lose track of time, despite the constant reminders from the modern clothing and rising edifices, and take that rare glimpse into how life could’ve been in the past.
Living relics of the past
The whole pig – freshly delivered from the abattoir, I could only assume – roosted on the trolley, carelessly blanketed with a flattened cardboard box. The man, amid his stall equipped with meat hooks and a giant cleaver, appeared idle even in such abundance of meat.
“I’m waiting for the family as they visit their ancestral tombs,” he said to me, in a twanged variant of Cantonese indicating I was in the heartland of Hong Kong’s New Territories; “when they return I’ll butcher the pig.”
Naturally, I had to stick around to catch a slice of the gruesome festivities.
When my friend Victoria asked me if I wanted to accompany her to Ping Shan Heritage Trail to capture snapshots of it for Cathay Pacific, I simply couldn’t refuse – after all, I’ve never been. Like many of my generation’s true city dwellers, the walled village communities Hong Kong once mainly consisted of have been reduced to an urban mythos – even if several inhabited walled villages still exist in north, ‘rural’ Hong Kong, they have somewhat acquired Atlantis-status.
Lesser-known still they are to foreign visitors.
These villages still very much exist, as well as function as semi-isolated communities rooted in their ancestral lands. Just as the sudden appearance of a meat-craving assembly at the local six-stands-strong marketplace proved so, where possibly one of the only grocers within ten miles was now weighing pork in an antique balance and dispatching them.
Stunningly preserved ancestral halls, temples and studies aside, heritage is best observed through human behaviour – unlike the empty dioramas and vague descriptions, this heritage trail gives a much more vivid of how life was lived – is lived – obligatory to old ways and traditions.
All around the village of Sheung Cheung Wai – an early encounter from the trail’s starting point – red lucky charms are pasted upon walls and doors, whilst its temples are dedicated to numerous deities and legendary characters in Chinese history. Incense sticks still burn at the shrine of ‘She Kung’, the Earth God.
Even though Hong Kong strikes as exclusively urbane, with its historical elements diminished to nothing more than glass-framed relics, faces of old Hong Kong still prevails and breathes – and it requires no suffocating effort to discover them and experience the city of vogue and advancement on its retrograde side.