Chapter Eight

Fisherfolk, Mountains and Monasteries


Upon this path of inclined stones

the pallid moon our hurrying shadows throws

the broken-headed mountain bows its head in night-plume mists

and grass and gossamer go grey with dews.


The moon has chased the golden crow to bed

a black arch spans the hillside path ahead,

beyond this point the eastern mountain lies

where smoke the unquenched candles of a quietened world.


Now wait and watch and you may see

one petal of the precious lily



Lantao Island and fishing village, August 30th 1953

Roger and I had planned to visit the island of Lantao, staying the night high on the mountain in a Buddhist monastery. Unfortunately, the torrential rain made us decide to postpone this expedition and we stayed the night at the Yacht Club sleeping without cost on newspapers spread on canvas campbeds in the large changing room overlooking the sampan harbour. At four a.m. I was awoken by a great volume of sound, thousands of cockerels crowing in unison! I suddenly remembered that, at the stern of nearly all the sampans, there was a little cage containing some chickens. The cocks therein awoke before dawn to produce a sensational alarm clock for the boat people.

It looked brighter on the Sunday morning, so we decided on a trip to the coast of Lantao Island. We rushed to the ferry and scrambled aboard without bothering to breakfast. We were bound for Tai O situated at the southerly tip of the island, the most characteristically Chinese of all the fishing villages.

As we sailed along, we came across many signs of the fishing activities of the coastal people. The big junks trawl with big heavy nets which are often to be seen hung from the mast tops to dry. Smaller craft carry out bright light fishing at night with seine nets. They work in pairs. One boat has the lamp burning over the water, attracting fish, while the other moves out and around in a circle, so entrapping them. Both trawling and bright light fishing are carried out at night – the latter mainly in the summer season and the former beyond British waters in the winter.

As the ferry moved out of Hong Kong harbour, the colour of the water changed noticeably, becoming muddier, and we saw shoals of enormous white jellyfish floating past, trailing yards of stinging tentacles from their foot-broad disks. The silty water showed we were within the floodstream of the enormous Pearl River, coming down from the interior beyond Canton. It washes past only the southern shores of the colony beyond which the jellyfish are less common.

As we passed the inshore end of Lantao Island, a white wall of rain approached us blotting out the hills, the islands and the sea itself. Soon it hit the ship and the air was filled with the roar of tumultuous rain, elephants and donkeys falling from the sky, thick with the heaviness of the downpour. The little waves, so lately jolly in the morning sun, were beaten flat by its power. As it cleared, we peered through drizzle to make out the steep shores and hills of Lantao on the port side, a view quite Hebridean on this grey morning.

About a mile offshore, we passed a line of nets suspended from great posts in the tide run. The high tide courses through these nets, allowing them to filter out the fish as it does so. This filter fishing can be very profitable but also risky, since a typhoon could sweep them all away in a few hours. The nets we saw were said to be the only ones in use in the colony. Some sampans were gathered around the poles, their crews repairing nets and sitting with the rain running off their great wide hats. They must have been soaked to the skin.

Along the Hong Kong shores, we often saw extraordinary fishing devices set on poles a little offshore. Four great bamboo masts suspend a square net between them and these are in some way hinged to the sea bottom so that they can be raised and lowered. A long rope runs from the tops of the masts to a little onshore platform, where there is a winch worked by a man with his feet. As the rope is winched in, the net, which has been lying on the sea bed, is raised vertically through the water encapturing shoals of fish. Stake nets of this sort are set in the corners of cliffs, on sandy beaches and well out in the estuary at Taipo, where the winch is erected on a separate bamboo tower placed in the water.

Tai O pier was set some way from the village which lay about seven hundred yards away up the small estuary of a stream coming down from inside the island. Several large junks and a host of sampans surrounded us. One of the latter transported us up the estuary to the village. On either side of the narrow channel where the river met the sea, lines of wooden shacks built on high stilts stood above the water. We passed up the little stream as if moving along a high street between rows of houses. In fact, that was exactly what we were doing. The shacks had wooden platforms in front of them and steps for descending into boats alongside. As the mad dogs of Englishmen paddled along in the rain, the kiddies on the platforms waved and grinned “Allo, allo, bye, bye”. When the shore appeared at last, the stilt houses gave way to others perched on the edge of a steep, muddy and slimy bank. A small ferry was being punted to and fro across the stream connecting the two halves of the village.

Once ashore, the cobbled streets wound crookedly between single-storeyed wooden shops displaying their surprisingly fresh and clean goods for sale. In one shop, the owner showed us a little black bird like a starling, standing with a jaunty look upon a table. This was a talking bird, a crested mynah. Everyone tried to make it talk to us, the owner announcing, “This bird make small talk Chinese!” However, in spite of whistles, encouragement of all sorts, cajoling and bribery, the bird remained resolutely silent. I could swear it had a naughty Chinese twinkle in its eye.

In several shops, we saw the great bamboo hats the Chinese peasants and fisherfolk wear. We kept stopping to try them on to the great engigglement of numerous bystanders. There were several sorts of hat, each beautifully constructed from bamboo cane and leaf. The coolies use a conical version, often very broad, called the dai-mo. Boat women wear hats called tang-ka-mo, while country women have another type with a hole in the middle sporting a cloth skull cap and a cloth fringe all around its circumference. This is the shan-ha-mo. We tried on both the dai-mo and the tang-ka-mo but the problem was that the structures had no rim with which to grip the head. These can be separately supplied if wanted but there were none big enough for us.

Around the portals of the houses were pasted brightly coloured strips of paper on which were printed characters, charms or mottoes to keep away malevolent spirits and, near the landing place, we found a little brick shrine containing a fierce and colourful image – possibly the land god To-tei or else some divinity of the sea or river. Strangely, in this village of Taoist superstitions, we also located a small Jesuit school with a little white stone cross above a small hall.

We walked the length of Tai O, poking our noses into all sorts of odd corners; had a meal at a little café, watched by gigglesome children; saw the salt pans where sea salt is dried; stopped at the police station and were given directions for the coastal path to Tung Chung from where we were to take the ferry home.

The coastal strip below the hills of the roadless island was enchanting, although hard work with the path flooded and muddy in places. Mostly it was well paved and led up and down hillsides, along the shore, or across paddy fields. Repeated heavy downpours drenched us and when we came to a fast flowing stream, we could find no bridge. We went down to the shore, disturbing a vicious-looking snake in the bamboo along the way, and waded across at the shallowest place where it fanned out across the shore. In the heavy rain, the peasants were working the rich fields, wearing immense bamboo coats (Sau-yee) to keep off the downpour. Bamboo leaves comprising the coats were arranged like the feathers of a bird down which the water ran. The people looked like great ruffle-feathered herons stalking about the fields.

As we walked along this beautiful coastline, the peacefulness of nature and the natural peasant life surrounded us and I thought about some of the Taoist philosophical principles I had been reading:

“It is on the empty space where there is nothing that the usefulness of a vessel depends. We pierce doors and windows to make a house and it is on these spaces that the usefulness of the house relies. Just as we see what is, we should also comprehend the value of what is not.”

Returning to the city was quite a shock. What an extraordinary city this is; the incredible quantities of merchandise in the shops; the open street stalls with their quantities of trousers, shirts, towels, combs, tools, films, fruit, sun-dried herbs and fish, ropes or rattan furniture; jewellers; watchmakers; umbrella manufacturers; ivory factories; curio shops; silk stores; tea and wine shops; restaurants and eating houses providing Cantonese, Pekingese, Malayan, Hawaiian, French, Russian, English or American dishes; hotels; brothels; cinemas; temples and dance halls, rowdy or riotous, silky smooth or jazzy and jiving! The Circus Berlin is set up on reclaimed land at Causeway Bay, there is a Peking opera at Queen’s College hall. French, Japanese, Italian, German, British, Chinese and American films are showing in the cinemas and there is the ever-present gaiety of the street signs and lighting. Then there are the people; sweating coolies carrying huge loads on bamboo poles and wearing the great dai-mo hats; rickshaw runners pacing along or waving at pedestrians to get a fare; big American sailors smoking vast cigars with gaily dressed prostitutes in tow; elegant naval officers in rickshaws passing from cinema to night-club. Sometimes, we passed Chinese faces of such wantonness or cruelty that made the flesh creep. At other times, the beauty of the girls took one’s breath away. There were also British soldiers returning from captivity in Korea blinking in the bright lights. Once in a restaurant, we came across a party of them. It was sobering, they had a haunted look of men who had endured more than anyone should. A truck from the Cheero Club took us back up to our mountain retreat.

I wondered where, in all this pullulation of human needs, desires, joy, tragedy and idiosyncrasies, one could find a place from which to see the Taoist value of emptiness within the city.




The Ascent of Big Hat, November 25th 1953

Chris and I went for a walk in the New Territories, that part of mainland China ceded to the British lying behind the city of Kowloon and stretching up to our frontier with the Communists. We started with the intention of ambling quite gently around the Jubilee Reservoir, a large artificial lake set between towering, closely-wooded mountains. It is approached through a narrow, cultivated valley, at the top of which is an enormous stone dam as massive and impersonal as the strength and weight of the water it controls. We found an infantry supply post quite shockingly badly camouflaged and we remembered that we were walking into a full-scale military exercise. All the troops in the New Territories were on a large-scale deployment exercise, testing all sorts of equipment usually hidden in various regimental glory holes.

Up beyond the dam all was peaceful and serene, the green hills shining golden in a warm sun, the rich fir woods along the shore and the restful blue of the water making a feast for the eye, while a light wind and the sounds of birds murmured in the fir branches. I had rarely heard so many bird voices at once in the colony. Perhaps it was because, along the whole length of the large valley, there was not a sign of habitation, not a single human being, no busy Chinese houses, villagers or bustling people. The valley seemed asleep, dreaming in its lonely beauty, a kind of lost world, aloof, wild and a little alarming.

At first the narrow path led along the lakeside through little pine groves, where Pallas’ willow warblers flitted among the branches and a small flock of golden-green white-eyes flashed along the banks to dance about the foliage, like little jewels so intense were their colours, in a search for insect food. We found a tumbling stream running with a bubblesome chuckle over a rocky bed and, where it crossed the path, we rested. Chris washed his feet in the crystal waters while I wandered up a small track beside it to see what I could find. At once I was in a thicket of swampy plants, the foliage so dense it would have been impossible to penetrate it. Great ferns with huge palmate leaves dangled from a dense growth of shrubs and grasses and tall pampas towered upwards among them. The scent of eucalyptus arose from delicate, white-trunked trees and a spongy bank filled the grassy bed of a little valley. Where the ground was firmer the jungle thickets began in earnest. I heard some snatches of birdsong coming from a large-leaved bush and, after a careful approach, routed a couple of bulbuls. Then I caught a glimpse, between the leaves, of another bird, larger than a thrush, its brilliant gold and black plumage leaving me in no doubt, an oriole. I sat transfixed to watch it. A female appeared, greener and browner; there were some more musical notes and then they hopped away and the density of the foliage hid them from my sight. I felt as though I had penetrated some secret of the valley and, indeed, I had, for the last oriole should have left the country on migration quite a month previously. I walked warily back down the track to the path and consulted the map.

To my surprise, I discovered that we were more or less under the shadow of Tai Mo Shan, Big Hat Mountain, the highest peak in the colony approachable easily enough by jeep on its other side but rarely visited from ours. We wondered whether we might be able to climb it.

We set off happily enough down the path but soon discovered that the further we penetrated into the valley the wilder and thicker became the jungle and the steeper the hills on either side. It was very silent there, with hardly a movement on the placid surface of the lake. The bird calls were fewer now and the great, green mountain leaned over us. One side of the valley was half in shadow from the sun, an ominous shadow for it was climbing higher upon the indented slopes with every passing hour.

We lost the path in a river bed, where a rushing stream cascaded over boulders, bounding in rills and waterfalls from ledge to ledge. Little rapids surged between the grey stones and, in dark still pools, it seemed that strange creatures may have been lurking. Certainly they were lurking in my imagination because the place had a mute beauty and silence, half inspiring and half full of a prehistoric fear. Tigers have been known to enter these valleys and, at this season, it would have been by no means impossible to meet one. Leopards, wild pig and barking deer are also reputed to enjoy this habitat. It was with a little trepidation and an overworked imagination that I proceeded. Afterwards, Chris, too, said that on occasions he had found the secrecy of the place alarming.

Again I consulted the map. Having lost the path, there was only one way forward. We would have to scramble up the river bed. Leaping and jumping from boulder to shelf of rock and from wobbly stone to pebbly shore, we gradually moved forward. The tumultuous music of the river seemed to draw everything into a daze of sound. The banks were increasingly steep and precipitous, with little cliffs and enormous boulders; the jungle behind so thick that only animals could have entered it. It was tiring work and more so for Chris, for the leather soles of his shoes would not grip the inclined surfaces as well as the rubbery crepe of my sandals. Passing through a narrow gorge, we ascended the higher reaches of the river. Below us now we could see the still, blue lake, while a range of mountains rose in front of us closing in a half circle about the head of the valley.

After another interpretation of the map, we decided to branch left, up a tributary leading steeply and narrowly between the arching trees and shrubs of the jungle. This would, we hoped, bring us out on a track halfway up the hillside. The going was tough and exhausting for the boulders were even larger and often partly overgrown by thickets and the slope was increasingly steep. Sometimes we had to haul ourselves up the smooth face of a boulder using finger and toe holds. Often I had to take a grip on the rock and haul Chris up after me. Several times we emerged on a ledge, from which we could see the whole length of the valley behind us and the trail of the river cutting through the trees to the lake. Once a great blue and red bird with a long lolloping tail flew screeching a rapid cry from one side of the stream to the other. Vanishing as quickly as it had come, I nonetheless recognised that dramatic Chinese woodland bird, the blue magpie.

At last we found the path and, with lighter steps, walked rapidly along the side of the hill. As the trees cleared we emerged into a marshy, highland coombe, with the mountain on one side and the river some three hundred feet below. The vegetation changed again; from the damp soil sprang great clumps of different types of pampas and other delicate grasses that towered over us on either side of the path. There were more of the delicate eucalyptus trees and we rubbed the leaves in our hands scenting their fragrance. It was open country now and a light breeze hummed in the grasses. We began to climb the steep hillside at the end of the coombe and met some Chinese in hunters’ clothes. There were four or five men, a couple of youths and three boys who had come over the hills from Taipo with dogs and guns looking for barking deer.

It was then that we made a mistake for, instead of turning left and scaling the steep, grassy hillsides to the rock-strewn slopes of the summit, we pushed on along the path which, to our annoyance, dived again into the valley, crossed the river, now only a mile or two from its source, and led us up the slope on the wrong side of the valley. To correct our error, I judged we should climb vertically to the higher ground and make for the hill pastures at the valley head. This became the most gruelling part of the trip; we had an unhappy feeling that night might fall before we got out of the valley for it was obvious now that it would catch us in the hills. I was trusting we would reach the jeep track before dark and be able to trace it safely down under the light of the moon.

The hillside became pitted with holes and ridged with what seemed to be the remains of some ancient attempt to cultivate the highland. It was cripplingly steep and the shadow of the hills had crept up the sides of the valley, leaving only the peaks in sun. At last, after what seemed an hour of scrambling over banks and half-hidden walls, we were able to walk freely along a tiny track to the head of the valley. Successfully above the jungles, the rocks, the swamps and the horrid, last clamber, we strolled light-heartedly breathing deeply of the hill air and rejoicing in the springy mountain turf.

At the head of the valley we reached the grassy crest of a ridge and peered over the side. A craggy valley without trees dropped some 2000 feet to the head of the Lam Tsun valley, winding its narrow way through the lower hills to Taipo and the sea. Looking west, over hills strangely called the Cotswolds on military maps, we could see the far-off hills of China. A group of shining, modern factories and the white observation towers of the border villages stood out clearly and, beyond them, a deep blue haze covering the land mass that reached all the way through Mongolia, Tibet, Siberia and Russia to Europe itself. We lay for a long time couched in the soft grass, gazing into that unfathomable distance, each locked in his own thoughts.

I became aware of a new sort of silence, not the shuttered, secretly oppressive silence of the valley behind us, but the silence of a great open space. The wind spreading little waves over the grasses seemed to come out of an immense nothingness, a huge fullness of sky reeling away domed over the world.

We examined the map again and set off up an easy incline to the summit ridge, disappointing because visitors coming by the jeep track had left their papers and fruit peel behind them. Even so, the view was overpowering in its vast distances. The whole of Hong Kong Island was visible, the city crawling up towards the Peak and the palaces near its top. The mountain of Lantao Island looked across a strait at us, its broken head seeming to nod in familiarity, and then, way out, we could see the shadows of other islands floating like clouds for the horizon was lost in the haze.

We tore ourselves away at last and, in the failing light, walked briskly down the jeep track. It was dark when we emerged from the silence of the hillsides into a collection of lamp-lit huts. We found a sign reading ‘Officers’ Mess’ and were about to approach it when voices, broad Yorkshire and Scots, came out of a bush. It was a camouflaged bivouac. The mess was empty, although eighteen places were laid for dinner and, rather relieved, we entered the OR’s cookhouse where a welcoming corporal served us a mug of piping hot, sweet tea. It was a homely and cheerful place and we enjoyed the men’s friendliness greatly.

We had stumbled unknowingly into a Regimental Headquarters. The Regiment was on the deployment scheme and secrecy had been enforced. Even so, in fifteen minutes, we could have discovered most things about the dispersion of the troops in the area. I imagined none of the officers had supposed a spy would come over the mountain to find them out! If there had been any sentries they must have been entranced by the view for we never saw one.

A friendly jeep driver, by a rare coincidence the same one of whom we had asked the way earlier in the day, bumped us downhill to Tsun Wan. Dropped at the Regimental Aid Post, we walked on, comforted by the thought we had only three miles to go before reaching a bus stop. After a quarter of an hour, we thumbed a passing car and, to our surprise and shock, found ourselves seated with a staff officer, a full colonel, on his way back from a visit to the frontier. He was a keen bird-watcher and a great shot, an enormous Scotsman, wearing a huge tammy and kilt and a great pullover to keep out the night air. He was quite impressed by our exploit and conversation flowed most amicably all the way to Kowloon.

I found myself admiring these characterful infantry officers, so different from the technically-minded, office-bound majors and the pompous brigadier we were enduring in the Heavy Ack-Ack. Perhaps, even in war, flesh and blood are superior to remote control – more human, somehow.




The Monastery in the Mists

Orange blossom golden and white

falling from tight-lipped flowers

their fragrance is hidden in the song

of a tumbling stream.