When I have a chance to go back to my village, I always remind myself where I came from.
“What is a local village to you?” That’s what I’m trying to find out.
The minibus dropped the 13 of us off at a location, far away from the comfortable air-conditioners in shopping malls and convenience of MTR stations, right at Kau Kee Store, a famous store next to Ping Che. Despite the fact that Mangkhut, one of the largest typhoon in recent years currently looms in the proximity, waiting to devour Hong Kong by its force, not even the strongest of winds would extinguish our passion of visiting the elderly while performing the characteristic Fire Dragon Dance, a long-time tradition in other parts of Hong Kong which has been a prominent feature of Ping Che in recent years.
There could be nothing more complicated than knowing how to navigate the intricate roads in the New Territories. Luckily, under the leadership of Anson, one of Voltra’s staff and a veritable human encyclopedia on issues related to villages in Hong Kong, we made our way through the labyrinthine paths, all uniformly surrounded by identical metal fences and tightly-packed houses.
Anson got the ball rolling first by posing the question at the beginning, asking us to delineate our ideas of what a local village looks like. Silent ensues, as the rest of the members looked eye to eye with each other, struggling to come up with anything concrete. Walking past an empty pig sty and plenty of decrepit squatter huts, Anson outlined, in his orotund voice, that these houses are where”non-original citizens”, people who moved in after 1898, reside in since they do not have the legal rights to construct villas like the Aboriginals could.
Aside from a quick lecture on the history of these villages in the New Territories, he underscored some relevant legal and political issues which have been troubling Hong Kong recently. Having studied how the British government appeased the aboriginals by giving them special privileges since the colonial rule, Anson took the arguments on my textbooks even further as he pointed out how there had never been a concept of “Aboriginal Citizens” in the New territories prior to the implementation of the Small House Policy, where men from these villages obtain the right to a piece of land once they come of age. This policy, in recent years, has come under serious contention by the general public for it being unfair to the rest of the population, who have to live on a shoestring just to save for the down payment for the tiny cages we call flats. Balancing respect for traditional culture and modern interests of citizens has never been so difficult.
At the end of the concrete road lay a sea of viridescence. Making our way through the tall grass, Chun Kee Farm, a renowned organic plantation site in Hong Kong owned by Chun, an organic farmer, appeared in sight. The lustful meadows, however, failed to cover the charred remains of what once was a beautiful house at the center of the field. With a solemn attitude, Anson described how a tiny spark due to a short circuit two weeks ago started a disastrous fire engulfing everything, sparing only her and her pet dog. All that’s left of the farming equipment and the irrigation system were ashes and unidentifiable fragments. In spite of all this bearing down on her, she still insisted on giving us a warm welcome personally. The fire might have incinerated her tools of living, yet it has hardly damaged her will to bounce back. Holding back her tears, she swore to us she would never give up on her farm, that never would she let the metal scraps and charred wood stop her from bringing about the rebirth of her organic farm.
Stories like these often make me depressed for a whole day. One cannot, however, stay deflated for too long, as the picturesque sky and the lush ocean of plants and herbs quickly washes away any slivers of abjection. Reviewing the photos I’ve taken in front of the computer screen, I realized how the blazing heat made me underestimate how beautiful and lively Ping Che is even in late summer, as the verdant leaves show off their flourishing life force for the last time before they fade and wither at the arrival of Autumn.
Tight as the schedule may be, we had time to have a breather and dine at a famous location–Wan Chuen Sink Koon, enjoying imitation prawns and vegetarian pork appearing and tasting so authentic they may as well be misconstrued as the real stuff.
I couldn’t help but feel puzzled after lunch: after all, the “fire Dragon” we’ll be performing with seems nowhere to be seen. Seemingly being able to read my mind, Anson led us deep into the village until we arrive at a number of houses coated in exquisite drawings and brilliant colors. The Ping Che Mural Village in photos and postcards was already a pleasure to the eye, yet all pictures pale in comparison to seeing the liveliness and vibrancy right before my eyes.
Albert, one of my fellow participants, pointed at a table covered head to toe in delicate patterns and shapes along the path. Proudly proclaiming it was the masterpiece he helped create six months ago, he explained how he and a group of volunteers across the globe started painting the table from scratch, converting it from a plain utility one would see at any country park into an artwork.
The home of Mr. Wong, the master preparing the dragon for the event, stands in the vicinity of the Mural Village. With a big smile on his face, he vividly described how every part of the dragon is crafted and assembled. Even though the Fire Dragon Dance takes place on the Mid-Autumn Festival, he’s already been working on a miniature version which we’d carry and perform with at the Caritas Fung Wong Fung Ting Home, a nursing home where local elderly receives care and treatment from resident social workers and nurses. Pointing at the string of LED bulbs resting on the table, he indicated they would be the replacements to real incense used on the Mid-Autumn Festival, creating the illusion that the dragon is spitting fire.
Carefully weaving the metal wires around the frame, we raced to put the finishing touches on this magnificent creature while his hyperactive dogs kept running circles around us. We had little time to feel good about this minute achievement: under the glaring sunlight, following the beat of the gong and the drum, we practiced how not to lose our balance holding such a gigantic being in our grasp, or, if possible, how to effectively control the fire dragon and tilt its body in various directions like the professionals would. Granted the duty of directing the “Dragon Ball”, I was handed the sacred responsibility of conducting every movement of the fire dragon. Despite how I kept mixing up or forgetting my next move, the rest of the members were kind enough to encourage me to try again, until it’s time we get moving when we compromised that we should just improvise along the beat.
Marching along the interminable, uneven path to the nursing home with the fire dragon on our back, our exhaustion was exacerbated by the relentless weather, torturing every one of us.
We were almost drained as we managed to drag ourselves to the entrance of the nursing home. Fortunately, we made it just in time for the event. As the music started to ring in the dining hall, where a Mid-Autumn Festival party for the residing elders is in full swing, I led the march-in, swinging the Dragon Ball with all my strength while trying to recall which moves ensue. The rest of the volunteers followed me around the hall, replicating the movements Mr. Wong showed us half an hour ago, and for a moment I thought I was really in charge of the real deal.
There are rarely things that brings me as much joy as swinging a stick around unfettered in a Nursing Home while having others closely observing and following my movement. That being said, the jubilation emanating from within as the elders, surrounded by the staff and family, gaze like naive children at the fire dragon and our clumsy yet earnest body movements, some even trying to reach out and feel its straw body by their palms, was something simply unparalleled.
Knees weak, arms heavy, palms sweaty, shoulders suffering from sunburnt — if these are all I brought home, then no doubt the day would be a nightmare. Luckily, renewed friendship, a whole new perspective about villages, bringing joy and elation to elders… countless scenes and memories deeply engraved on my mind has already more than compensated me.
“What is a local village to you?” Well, I think I know now!
Related articles and links for reference:
藝術活化增值坪輋——修繪壁畫村, Sing Tao Daily, 30/8/2018
首辦工作坊傳承手藝, Apple Daily, 13/10/2017
【義工X村民】坪輋都有舞火龍！ 宣揚新界東北「被發展」危機, HK01, 15/9/2016