In need of a break from Hong Kong’s 7,650 skyscrapers, countless low-scrapers and scary hazy air, I got off the island this week – and headed to another of Hong Kong’s 236 islands, Cheung Chau.
I’ve been to Cheung Chau before many years ago but only as a ‘tourist’. This time I wanted to leave the waterfront and seafood cafes to the daytrippers and explore up into the hills where the locals live.
Some facts about Cheung Chau before we wander. A 30 minute ‘fast ferry’ ride from Central, the island is one of the oldest inhabited areas in Hong Kong, with estimates as high as 7,000 years. Fishing village originally and still is with a harbour full of boats and nothing over three storeys on land. Population swells by the thousands once a year during the annual Bun Festival. Cars are banned except for a few emergency vehicles. Name means ‘Long Island’ despite the fact it weighs in at a tiny 2.45 km².
Okay, let’s do it.
Part 1: Day 1 wander
Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was coming down with an upper respiratory infection when I first set foot on Cheung Chau last Saturday. Which explains why I wandered around in a kind of daze, my only thought being to explore beyond the waterfront.
I kept bumping into temples on my wander but the one that intrigued me most was dedicated to a feisty looking god, Kwan Ti. While I was there I thought I’d give the fortune sticks a go; you shake them while thinking of a question and the one that drops out of the container first gives you the answer. I asked how this year would go, shook the sticks in front of Kwan Ti, and waited to hear my destiny from a man behind a desk with lots of little papers. After consulting his big book I got the thumbs up – apparently 2012 is going to rock. No pressure but I’m counting on you Kwan Ti.
Leaving Kwan Ti to his business I resumed my wander. Just down the hill I stopped to photograph a pale blue wall. Mid-shot, its owner suddenly appeared. As I was explaining to Belgium-born Catherine that I liked her wall and er, would she mind me shooting it, two street-sweepers wearing the traditional Hakka hat strode up the hill. A rare sight, I gestured to them if I could take their photograph. Smiling shyly they shook their heads. Until Catherine uttered ten words of Cantonese and converted them into almost-willing subjects. Ah, what I’d do for an instant grasp of the local language.
Part 2: Eugen’s house
Catherine, who has lived in Hong Kong for 20+ years, 17 on Cheung Chau, told me about another long-time ‘foreign local’ and friend of hers, Eugen, who lived in an old interesting house, the only one of its kind on the island. Was I interested? Hell yeah.
So two days later I met Eugen and the 70 year old house he has rented for the past 20 something years. How was it? Let me show you…
The house belongs to a Chinese family and has been divided up into sections over the years, one of which is Eugen’s home. But at least it’s still standing and so much of it is still so original, like the many insets, high windows and stone floor. An ideal setting for Eugen’s blend of precious with lap sap (rubbish).
I also loved the ancestral shrine on the top floor of the house belonging to the Chinese family. Sure, the incense and candle burning has taken its toll over the years but what a lovely way to keep your loved ones alive so to speak.
Oh and the place has ghosts Eugen told me. They smile and play nice. How cool is that?
Part 3: Lin Cheung and other dearly departed
I’d heard of the Chinese custom of building and then burning 3D paper models of someone’s favourite things upon their death to ensure they have a comfy afterlife. Just never seen it. Until my visit to Cheung Chau when I stumbled on an almost full size car and other various objects made out of colourful paper. Peering into the models I noticed an ID card stuck to the paper – Lin Cheung, 85 years old.
The day after I’d seen that I was on the ferry coming back to Cheung Chau when I noticed little yellow papers being thrown off the back of the ferry. Turns out there was a coffin on board and relatives of the deceased were performing another ritual associated with death – offering paper ‘money’ to the ghosts in the sea to placate them and keep them from bothering the dead. Not entirely sure how the dead can be bothered (anyone?) but that’s approximately the story.
Now, fair enough, they didn’t want me to photograph the coffin or the procession of relatives that left the ferry and made their way to the square. But was this Lin Cheung I wanted to know? On my third and last visit to the island I made the long trek over to the far side of Cheung Chau to the cemetery there. I wanted to find Lin Cheung.
There was no sign of a newly installed headstone and as it was getting late I headed back. (Eugen later told me I was looking in the wrong area; the custom is that they bury the coffins in a certain area and then seven years later, the bodies are disinterred and organised into these smaller plots.)
Just before I jumped on the ferry I noticed a new lot of paper models had arrived in the square, this time for a man. Another dearly departed soul, a Merc driving, Mahjong playing one at that.
Why so many funerals I wondered. Turns out that Cheung Chau is considered an auspicious place to be buried because it has good feng shui. Not to mention great ocean views.
Part 4: Old Cheung Chau
Some of which I found on my trek to try and find Lin Cheung, some just when wandering around.
5: Surprising Cheung Chau
Very simply this is something I never expected to see or hear anywhere in Hong Kong let alone on Cheung Chau – bagpipes.
Part 6: Fishy Cheung Chau
On one of my visits to Cheung Chau, with some time to kill before a ferry arrived and Coco at my side, I decided to break with tradition and do something completely touristy – hire a little putt putt boat for a spin around Cheung Chau Harbour. Of course I was more interested in the old wood inside the boat than the scenery around me.
It’s pretty remarkable that chilled Cheung Chau is just 30 minutes from hyper Hong Kong. There are parts of the island where I didn’t see or hear another living soul for what seemed like an eternity. And for someone with a brewing chesty coldy thing, it was a welcome breath of fresh air. But most of all I enjoyed exploring an old house that has managed to escape the wrecking ball. I just wished I could have paid my respects to Lin Cheung. Never met the woman but may never forget her either.
On the ‘home’ front
Coco and I have both been under the weather this week. She with a garden variety head cold that passed quickly. Me, not so lucky. But I’m on the mend now and may resort to wearing one of those face masks you see everywhere here to ward off any more evilness. Be a good look wouldn’t it? Being asked by a woman wearing a mask and wielding a camera if she can take your photo?
See you next Friday.