Gail Walter

Shall I say what I mean?
Editor’s Pick
NOVEMBER 30, 2010 9:11AM

When In Hong Kong -- Get Out!

Rate: 17 Flag

Well, what can you do with an island? It just floats there wanting nothing much from you. It’s possible it doesn’t even need you, that’s how unequal the relationship is. If it shrugged you’d fall in the sea. But if it’s a small one, like Cheung Chau, there are edges everywhere and you can walk right around it, circumvent it, tickle the edges so to speak. In the end you’d be back where you started and that’s not easy on one of those continent things.




And Hong Kong’s deadly crowded. There are people down the front of your shirt, in your nose, tucked behind your ears. Escape is necessary. You’ll need a ferry to get off the bigger, taller, more vertical island, away from the masses. Unfortunately a large percentage of the masses have their fashionable young heads filled with the very same idea. You start to get that feeling at Central ferry station. Well, at first there are just a few of you, a couple of plastic moulded seats and some giant antiquated looking fans aggressively attempting to make tiny dents in the heavy, wet heat while simultaneously blowing the hair off your head.


Then the city takes a ragged smoggy breath in and as it exhales a multitude of daytrippers tumble past the blow of the fans to join you as you wait weakly imagining your escape, toying with the idea of making something else the object of the exercise. There is the mere seed of the idea that maybe something else needs to be the object, as getting away from it all is starting to look like going towards it.




The ferry arrives and an impossible number of us pile on as though there’s a war and we’re evacuating. We bob and weave our way to a place at the window. Fifty five minutes pass, fifty five minutes of deep blue South China Sea, the strewness of hundreds of little land masses and the sheer fabulousness of being passed by the more expensive ferry, the faster one that flies by on a cushion of nothing. If you were on it, I tell myself smugly, you’d not know just how fantastic you were.


Less than an hour from the bustling verticality of Hong Kong we’re back in China how she used to be. Not a highrise in sight, flocks of old fishing boats, serious ones, the kind that really catch fish and are not just for show. It’s only as we pull into the dock that we notice that the surface of the little island, with it’s quaint settlements along the waters edge, is moving like ants on a muffin crumb, crawling with merry making tourists.



Cheung Chau is known for two distressingly disparate things: suicide and buns, an almost mystical association beyond the grasp of the ordinary mind. The first half of the last decade saw an alarming spate of macabre ‘charcoal burning’ suicides in vacation rentals on the island; death by carbon monoxide poisoning.


And then there’s the contrasting conviviality of the annual Bun Festival. My companion for the day assures me that then there are real crowds… and 60 feet high towers of buns. At this point I begin to feel a little like I do about Christmas trees and easter bunnies; murkily mystified and just a little roughed up. The place is alive and positively festive, I can’t imagine what it would really be like when it comes alive during the bun festival, I can’t imagine it as a suicide destination either for that matter.




We dodge through the weekend crowds and head out on the path along the water past the long, low profiles of the resting dragon boats. We join the people attacking the walk with gusto. Occasionally we wind off the path and curve up into the hills, through the suburbs, along roads so narrow the main modes of transport are feet or bicycles. Up here its another world, quiet and lost, a little like we become, even with our Hong Kong born guide. We try this road then that, not panicking because we can see the edges of the land we just can’t find a road that leads directly down there.


We pass solemn cemeteries and deserted stone benches under glowering banyans. It is impossible to imagine the masses of eating, jostling, laughing escapees down in the village.




But they’re still there even when the sun isn’t any longer and when we finally wend across the last small crescent shaped beach with our flip flops in our hands. And the crowds leaving are much bigger than the crowds were arriving. Fifty five minutes across the dark South China Sea and we’re back home safe and sound in the relentless and familiar chaos of Hong Kong.

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Beautiful writing, as usual. Suicide and buns are a combo I would never have dreamed up, but that's what's so wonderful about travel: the unexpected, the clashing, the bizarre, the familiar -- only not really.
What you describe sounds like an abandoned theme park, only bizarrely crowded with ticket holders! I got claustrophobic just reading about all the people. I'm glad there was some beauty too, not just tales of suicides and buns!
Thanks for including the photos, they speak volumes as well. It's amazing what is right around the 'corner' sometimes.
I just love these posts of yours. What a treat to wake up and find a new one from you(although I often go back and look at the old posts just to give myself a bit of peace). Honestly, just lovely prose and photographs - excellent!
~Lea I love it when a real travel writer visits. The more I see of the world the more weird and wonderful it seems.
~Bell there are definitely aspects of that and perhaps my own aversion to crowds stops me from portraying this objectively. The hill neighborhoods are surprisingly peaceful.
~Gabby, thank you. Going around all the corners gets you back where you started. Must be something to that.
Kate~ what a delight to make a difference to your day. My pleasure.
Really well done, both the words and the pics. I love your descriptions and I've been fascinated by this part of the world ever since reading Clavell's books on it.
Fascinating~ all of it. And you tell it beautifully.~r
My god but they do sunsets well there don't they ?

Laughed and loved this Gail. Hey.

Hey now.
Interesting. Although all the speculative, mystical stuff is boring. If you talked to people more, these rather mundane things wouldn't seem so mysterious.
Do the buns have an ingredient, perhaps, that in an as yet unspecified ways stimulates suicidal impulses? Are buns ever or often a last meal before suicide? Sounds like a novel waiting to be written.
Wonderful journey, beautifully written--and I love the photos. It sounds difficult, but worth the trouble.
~Ah yes, Harry, remember Tai-pan.
~ Thank you Joan
~rjheart, what an amazing experience. I love the way you have to do weird and wonderful things with your framework of reference to accommodate and assimilate such different frameworks.
~Kim, Hey now. You make me laugh and I do, I do, love Crowded House so I don't know if you're singing along or if CH was quoting you.
~Boko, interesting, yet boring. Hmmm...Seems to be my style.
~ Hawley when I wrote this I was a bit concerned that my juxtaposing the two in a sentence bordered on insensitivity. I'm still not sure, athough I lean dangerously towards a casual irreverence.
~ Oh Sophie, every time I see that pic of yours I wish you'd stand on your toes so I could see the rest of that little face. Thanks for accompanying me on the journey.
so crowded
a jolt to the senses
Your ability to bring the world to our feet and spill it out before us is just awesome. Next best thing to being there.