Hong Kong – the cheap seats

The Yuen Yuen Institute with cauldron for burning incense

After our tour of the gallery parts of Hong Kong it was time to take a look at the cheap seats. We signed up for a tour called ‘the land between’ – meaning the parts of the territory between the teeming streets of Kowloon and the border with China. It’s more generally known as the New Territories. We spent the day with three other people, all elderly folk from UK, who had just completed a holiday in Australia. I was the youngest passenger on the bus, and Pete was a pretty distant second-last. The tour guide, Andy, came across as having a chip on his shoulder the size of a tree. Before we reached our first visit stop, we’d learned he worked three jobs – tour guide, pizza delivery guy, and bartender – 6 days a week, 18 hours a day. Even so, he earned around HK$19k a month – which I thought wasn’t too bad, but he seemed to think was a bit off. The Government collects 15% tax, and then he explained he lived in one room, around 140 sq ft, which had a bunk bed, a place to cook noodles, and a recess for washing. For that he paid a fifth of his net income. I forbore to tell him that although apartments in Australia are generally larger, people pay a much greater percentage of their net earnings in rent, as well as a MUCH larger slice of tax. Hong Kong actually has pretty good social security for those in real need, but the Chinese way is always for people to support themselves. At the moment Hong Kong is kind of independent – although, as we know, the Chinese Government keeps a close eye on who is in charge. The territory will maintain its status as a separate entity for fifty years from 1997 – that is, until 2047. After that? Who knows.

First stop on the fringes of the city proper was the Yuen Yuen Institute, a religious complex incorporating the Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist faiths. The place was packed with people practising their faiths, lighting incense and praying.

Offerings for a funeral plane, house, furniture…

Funerals take place here. Mourners buy or bring paper offerings to burn for the dead to use. Items include whole paper houses – complete with servants, cars, and (especially) money. Our guide told us his grandmother, who was obsessed with mah jong, had recently died, and he and his sister had created a paper mah jong set for her as their offering. The temple complex doesn’t have a crematorium – the bodies are taken elsewhere. But people can buy wall niches here where they place the ashes, with a black and white photo of the deceased to mark their place. We were asked not to take pictures of the niches, or of people participating in a funeral. Fair enough. Andy also explained the Chinese zodiac that plays a large part in the temple.

I particularly admired the beautiful koi pond at the temple.

Back in the bus we drove on to Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong’s tallest mountain, with views back to the city. I was shocked at the murk down there, much more apparent from this distance. Tai Mo Shan is in a park with hiking and cycling trails, and is very popular on weekends and holidays.

Our next stop was the fortified village of Fanling, owned by the Pangs, one of the five clans in the area. The houses are only three stories high, and packed close together. Each house is owned by a Mister Pang, and there are only 99 houses in the village. There is a spill-over zone away from the village – and I think I’d prefer to live there.

The walled village of Fanling. The pool contains fish and tortoises, and you can glimpse a couple of cannon.

The entrance to the village. All the sreets inside are as narrow as this.

Just inside the entrance is a shrine to the ancestors, and a pair of protective warriors

The spill-over area outside Fanling

The rest of the tour was kind of a country drive. We saw the fish farming villages as we drove past, and the smog-enshrouded towers of the nearest Chinese city just over the border, we stopped briefly at Bridal Falls, a permanent waterfall that’s in need of rain.

Bridal Falls. The story goes that a bride was being carried across the top of the falls in a sedan chair. One of her porters slipped, and the porters and bride all fell to their deaths

On the way back to the city we spied a runway in the valley that looked in excellent condition. It was part of a British military base vacated in 1997. These days it belongs to the People’s Liberation Army. Despite Hong Kong’s need for housing, the accommodation buildings are empty. Andy clearly had a poor opinion of the PLA, muttering comments about 1989.

Fish farms on the Hong Kong side, Chinese Shenzhen on the other

We finished our tour in Mong Kok, heart of Kowloon’s shopping district, where we left our fellow tourists and went off shopping. But first, we needed lunch. We found a row of eateries in a narrow, crowded, street – tiny shops with a few tables and chairs. They say eat where the locals eat, and there were plenty of them everywhere. Menus consisted of pictures of the food with a name in Chinese and if you were lucky, in English – very few people here spoke English. We grabbed a table and perused the menu, looking for something familiar like a stir fry, or fried rice. I don’t remember much on the card, but one offering was beef tendons. Well, they do say Chinese food is famine food. Nothing goes to waste. Eventually we picked out the most expensive dish – a three-beef curry. One of the people at another table recognised our inability to make the lady serving us understand we didn’t want any of the colourful beverages on her chart, just Chinese tea, and translated for us. We expected a nice pot with jasmine tea and little china cups like we get in Australia. We got large mugs of very black tea, but it was drinkable.

The food arrived – a large mound of rice on a plate, and the curry in a side dish, all substantial helpings. The curry had potatoes, so that was okay. The beef… some of it look like well-stewed gravy beef. But some was obviously tripe, and the third component I couldn’t even guess. I ate the potato, and the gravy beef, then settled for rice with gravy. Pete did the same. I’m sure the locals thought we were very odd, and I have no doubt added our leavings back to the pot.

Peter was brave enough to use the toilet at this place. He told me the floor was covered with water, which he didn’t understand until he’d finished. The flush was broken, but there was a bucket of water in the ‘courtyard’ to do the job. Hence the wet floor. Fortunately, I wasn’t in need. Even if I was, I think I would have crossed my legs a bit tighter.

That was lunch done. Now to go shopping. But that deserves a post all its own. Join me next time, won’t you? Oh – and if you like my writing style, why not take a look at my books? None of them will set you back for more than the cost of a decent cup of coffee.

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