Into the woods
Early in December I received orders to ‘stand by’ to take a patrol into the mountainous county of the Sai Kung peninsula. I was at once thrilled by the idea and began examining the map. Sai Kung is a large lump of the Chinese mainland forming the northernmost area of the Colony’s New Territories, that parcel of land rented by the Chinese to us until 1997. It was totally remote, covered by range upon range of bulky mountains, split by steep-sided valleys and cut off from the rest of the colony by deep inlets of the sea. Between some of the mountains lay small plots of rice paddy and attendant hamlets. As yet there were no roads in the interior; footpaths wound up and down from col to valley cutting desperate capers with the contour lines.
I went to the Army HQ in the city for a briefing. I was informed of the area to be patrolled and told to visit all the villages within it, checking whether any returned deportees, communist soldiers or strangers of any kind were lurking there. I had also to check that no illegal wolfram mining or excessive timber cutting was going on and to prepare a report on the lives of the villagers, following certain specified lines of enquiry. Our mission was to provide a short-lived military presence among the most cut off villages of the colony where intruders could easily be hiding, to give medical treatment where needed and to establish friendly relations with the village headmen, showing that the Government had some interest in their welfare.
It took me a day or two to plan the operation and collect the men, signals and other equipment, weapons and medical supplies needed. I had a sergeant, two bombadiers, eleven men, a RAMC medical orderly and three Chinese police representatives, one of whom was my interpreter. We were to carry full “Korean” marching order, our food in heavy boxes, a jerry can of fuel for a fire, a 62 wireless set, two heavy batteries for the same, and a great camp kettle for brewing meals. I took a revolver and a few rounds, while the men had a rifle apiece, the NCOs carrying stens. We had enough ammunition to slaughter the entire neighbourhood!
I did not expect any trouble. There had been no reports of Communist infiltration into Sai Kung and the patrols were usually a matter of routine – a kind of scouts’ outing. Nonetheless the patrol of the previous month had spotted a party of deportees trying to sneak back into Kowloon. An exhausting forced march across the mountains had cut them off but the deportees then made for some junks on the coast and it seemed they might escape. Patrols are under strict orders not to shoot unless attacked but, on this occasion, the accompanying policemen thought differently. Their corporal grabbed a sten and fired a burst in the air. The lieutenant in charge was horrified but then delighted to see the deportees surrendering. He marched them back to Kowloon and the patrol was duly fêted by the authorities. Every few years such an incident occurred, so we, too, had to be prepared for possible excitement.
We started out the Sunday before Christmas and drove in a three-tonner to the small fishing village of Sai Kung, where the army had a battle school for infantry bound for Korea. We were taking the only road into the area – ‘Hiram’s Highway’, a miracle of military road-making, so narrow that traffic could only go one way at a time, with twenty minute up periods followed by twenty minutes down. The track twisted between cuttings, edged around vertical drops, looped the loop around little valleys and hurtled again up a rise. We reached the police station without mishap and met our policemen, three round-faced and grinning little men. Their inspector, who treated us to a drink, was no doubt the most influential person in the area.
It was a hot afternoon and under our heavy loads, sixty to seventy pounds each including badly-balanced boxes of tinned food, everyone was soon sweating and panting. The mountain slopes, dotted with small fir trees, alternated with sharp little gullies, where small rivulets bubbled and jumped over grey rocks, the water, fresh and clear, tasting sweetly. The track, paved with huge slabs of stone, led us into the hills. My men struggled up, weirdly bent under their loads, two of them carrying the heavy wireless set slung between two poles. Gunners were not so highly trained as infantry for this sort of task and we found it was slow work; the men, tired from their weekend debaucheries, needed frequent rests.
After a map-reading consultation with my new police corporal, an excellent man with good English, I decided to head for a dot on the map called Wong Chuk Shan – Green Bamboo Mountain. We paused along the way to test out our communications and, to the signalman’s horror as well as mine, discovered that the microphone was not working. The spare one failed too and the outlook was bleak – no contact with base. Nonetheless, I decided to push on as fast as we could to establish our base camp. I sent one bombadier, a man of vast strength carrying twice the load of the others, and the police corporal on ahead to talk with the headman and borrow a barn or some shelter to cover us during the cold night.
Late in the afternoon, we topped the crest of a ridge and gazed into a long valley sheltered from the wind by thick woods. The sounds of birds came up to us and, at the far end, stood a group of houses. I led the way quickly down through terraces for hill rice cultivation but, as we entered the trees, the path became precipitous and soon we were all stumbling about with fatigue, dropping the heavy boxes every few yards.
The school-room of the village had been given over to us for the visit and, as we arrived, the villagers stood around in a reserved but not unfriendly manner, while the children were wide-eyed with amazement. As soon as the tea was brewing, I set off with the constable and a gunner on a forced march back over the hills to the police post. We travelled light and soon covered the distance. Having borrowed another microphone, we scrambled back over the mountain in the failing light. It was dark when I got in to find my bed roll ready on the stone floor, a most inviting prospect.
I was up before first light and, while my sergeant and a bombadier prepared breakfast, I shaved in the cold water of the village stream. With the men fed and ready, we set off. I took the main patrol with the police corporal, while the sergeant led the others on a rather easier route. My plan was to cover the northern area in one long day’s march travelling entirely around a large mountain, Ma On Shan, and visiting a sizeable iron ore mine.
Carrying only our personal arms, ammunition and water bottles, the going was easier and we made good speed. At a solitary little hillside farm called Ngong Ping, a farmer greeted us with a smile and twinkling eyes. Out came the little benches we were soon to know so well together with bowls of Chinese tea, delicately scented and refreshing. Every house along the way seemed to be keeping a kettle continuously on the hob to greet a weary traveller. In one village they called the tea ‘Italian’, although why I could not find out.
I questioned the farmer through the police corporal. Had any strangers been seen in the vicinity? Was there any sickness on the farm? Was the harvest good? Have you a police rifle? How many people live here? He was most obliging and seemed happy to entertain us.
We approached the small shantytown of the iron ore mine down a narrow valley. Ugly community sheds clung to the rocks. Huge boilers were heaped with steaming rice and hundreds of Chinese, looking very different from the villagers, stared blankly at us. The hillside had been carved into cliff-like tiers, five galleries running round the sides of a quarry in the hill. Along each of them ran a rail track and men could be seen riding on wagons up the slight inclines. Rock was being hacked from the cliff faces and piled into the wagons. More rails, vanishing into three great holes below the hillside, revealed the entrances to underground shafts.
I had a long chat with the chief clerk in the main office. There were many workers employed here, mostly refugees from south China, Hainan in particular. They received five dollars a day (six and three) for their labours. Their families lived in the little shantytown and the men rarely left the desolate hill for a visit to the brighter lights of Kowloon. There was an excellent dispensary, staffed by a doctor trained in Europe. The manager arrived, appearing charmed to see us. In excellent English he said “Ah, but, of course, you may see the mine! Here is my foreman. May I introduce Mr Chung. He will show you around.”
I set off with the police corporal, my medical orderly and Mr Chung, leaving the patrol relaxing under the watchful eye of a lance bombadier. On the floor of the chasm, men were sorting rocks into three piles, good, medium and poor ore. This was determined by estimating the ore weight, by swinging the rocks in a basket slung on a short length of rope. The heaviest rocks contained the most ore and were blueish in colour, bright and shining. Entering the shaft, we moved forwards into darkness with drops of water dripping from the roof all around us. There was a strong smell of cordite. The far end of the shaft was lit by electricity and we inspected the boring device. The technique was to bore a narrow hole into the rock at the face and insert an explosive charge and fuse. The 140 foot shaft was then evacuated and an explosion set off. In this way some forty tons of ore could be mined in twelve hours at one face alone. The manager gave us a truck to take us downhill on a private, gravel road to the coast, where the ore was being loaded on to a small steamer from a jetty. Along the little waterfront stood a number of warehouses and dwellings; once a month a steamer sailed direct to Japan. We took a sampan and began a series of visits to the villages of the flat coastal strip bordering the wide Tolo harbour.
Wind and water
The villages of the interior were lively little places filled with friendly people, whose welcome never ceased to delight us. Around them spread the paddy fields, in mid-winter freshly ploughed but, in spring, filled by a glue of wet mud and water, brilliant green with the sprigs of newly growing rice. The village plan was almost always the same, the houses placed together in a characteristic pattern expressing the beliefs of the villagers.
Several rows of houses stood one behind the other, all opening the same way, away from the hill behind the village and out towards the open view. Often only the front houses actually had a view, the others peering into the backsides of the row in front of them. All apertures opened forwards and the back wall of the village had no windows. Often a group of houses were clustered together to create a minute hamlet of several homes, again with a windowless rear and opening on to a small courtyard. Behind the village, there was almost always a thick tanglewood or a steep well-forested hillside. Sometimes, where the gradient of the hillside was steep, the houses were spread out along a contour with the track running along in front of them. The tanglewood behind the houses was especially important, we were told, even lone houses being positioned in this way. The idea is to prevent the entry of ghosts.
Just as cats rarely cross an open space but prefer to run with their sides to a wall, so the villagers like to have a wood behind them as a protection. This is because ghosts can only move in straight lines. In the tangled wood they soon get thoroughly confused and withdraw. A frontal approach leading to entry to a building is foiled in another way. Wide screens are placed inside an entrance, so that an approaching spirit, being unable to turn aside, is reflected back out again. Often these screens or the doors themselves carry paintings of the Door gods, protectors who, likewise, eject an approaching demon or ghost. Mirrors, too, are especially protective, since ghosts see themselves in them and get terrified. Dragons on the eaves of the houses counteract the effects of bad siting and scare away evil beings.
The view in front of the houses must be as perfect as possible with Dragon or Tiger shaped hills poised in the scenery, ensuring peace and protection. All these features produce the most marvellous landscaping effects; houses and villages beautifully positioned to take advantage of surrounding natural features. We were encountering the practice of Feng Shui meaning ‘wind and water’. Specially trained geomancers are called upon to study the landscape around any building project.
The forms of the hills, the directions of the watercourses, the positioning of roads and bridges were all held to influence the ‘breath’ or ‘Chi’ of the landscape, the flow of universal chi moving through a location. Feng Shui is the art of adapting the residences of both living and dead to the local currents of this energy so far as possible. It is the geographical expression of the Taoists’ search for harmony with the Tao of things, the ‘way’ or nature of the universe. The positioning of graves, which form a focus for ancestor worship, was equally significant. The overall result had clear-cut material benefits; these hamlets were marvellously sheltered from cold, wind and typhoons, while their inhabitants enjoyed the most wonderful of views. To us visitors, every arrival was a joy.
The open space in front of a village is the equivalent of a village square in England and, on arrival, we usually gathered with the villagers there. I always asked the police corporal to lead the way into the villages, since the arrival of a Chinese face naturally palliated the shock of what was to follow! Amid scenes of enthusiasm, the police corporal would call for the village headman.
Dogs barked madly, young men came forward, some eagerly, some shyly, to greet us. Often women and children ran to hide in the darkness of their houses but some of the kiddies always ran forward in delight, whooping and laughing, so that the others would soon follow. The arrival of the headman was always a sign for more respectful behaviour and, since his house was often the largest in the village, benches would be brought out of it and bowls of tea, “cha”, served for myself, the police corporal, the medical orderly and sometimes for the men as well. Seated on the bench of honour, with the corporal on another and the headman facing us, I would then initiate talk to obtain our information.
While we were talking, the medical orderly got to work. If he spotted a child with sores or anyone with cuts, boils or skin infections he would treat them at once. He had a reassuring manner and, as he clowned about with the children, he revealed a jollity which amused everyone, laughter following him around wherever he went. The police were soon swapping stories expansively with the young men and bashful maidens tentatively approaching the MO with questions. Our meetings were gay, little affairs which everyone seemed to enjoy.
Sometimes we came across terrible conditions; a little girl with a scalded leg, with the skin broken open and suppurating; a man in Wong Chuk Shan with gangrene from the ankle to the knee, the whole leg black and peeling, with two angry purulent sores. He was quite ignorant of the seriousness of his condition and three times I got the corporal to make him promise to go to the Sai Kung dispensary within three days. There was a handsome little boy with swollen neck glands, to whose father I gave a chitty of introduction for the dispensary and an old lady, with such a twinkle in her eyes, whose feet were cracked and swollen with fluid, in a manner that led us to suspect gangrene.
In all villages there were complaints of malaria and one little lad was very seriously ill with it. I had to explain several times that the disease was spread through mosquito bites and emphasised the importance of using nets at night for sleeping. Although we often saw them in the villages, it did not look as if many people used them. Often we left behind a quantity of Paludrine tablets. Since many of these would end up being sold on the black market for a profit, we gave them only to actual sufferers and to the headmen themselves for communal use.
On the second day, we arrived back in Wong Chuk Shan in good time and it was a delight to rest awhile in this pleasant spot. It was so high in the hills that the houses were more spread along the contours than those lower down. The headman occupied the highest house and we were amazed at how his attitude and that of the villagers changed, as we started handing out some of our excess food as “gumsah”, gifts. Tangerines, brilliant orange against dark lanceolate leaves, were in season and a couple of lads climbed a tree bringing down handfuls of fruit for us.
A mountain stream tumbled down a narrow gorge between the houses, where we washed in a pretty pool overhung by great ferns and shade-giving trees. As it got dark, little salamanders appeared from under the stones and swam about in the light of our torches. One of the gunners was keen on biology, so he and I caught some and put them in our mess tins, to the extreme amusement of the men when they awoke in the morning.
We had set up our base camp in the local school, itself part of a miniature village, the buildings forming a square, with a narrow court in the middle and a wood behind. The school-room itself was the central room in the front, facing out over a valley of paddy fields. The other rooms were the homes of families all opening onto the central court. In the middle of the back row of rooms was a small temple, inside which two apparently identical images faced the entrance, surrounded by a miscellaneous assortment of disciples. After some discussion with the villagers the corporal told me it was Ngai Ching but sadly I failed to discover anything about it. Perhaps the deity was the local village god but the collection of disciples made this unlikely and, anyway, we found a similar shrine in another village. At either end of the narrow inner court were two cow byres. Every morning, out would come the animals to feed in the outer court on great bundles of rice hay from the stores (see diagram overleaf).
Every morning and evening, we set up our wireless in the outer court and, surrounded by gaping children, listened to the whistlings, buzzings and screamings that accompany any attempt to communicate in this way. The hills made reception difficult so, one night, I sent two signallers up to the top of the hill overlooking the village. It was dark and they had not returned, so, with another gunner, I set off to give them a hand down the dangerous paths in the darkness. The set and its batteries were very heavy and any slip could mean disaster to equipment or limb. We went warily up among the hillside trees flashing our torches along the ground and into overhanging branches for fear of snakes. The fireflies played with us all the way, cruising