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A Childlike Trip to Lantau

22.08.2020
John Batten
John Batten

Thinking back on my own childhood and of long, leisurely summer holidays in the 1960s and 70s, I cannot imagine the impression that Hong Kong’s two recent summers will make on our young children and teenagers. Last year’s summer air was filled with tear gas, this year the fearful possibility of a virus. Loosely linking the two summers in common is face masks. Last year, the government banned their use to stop anonymity as protests escalated; this year, face masks are mandatory as a measure to halt the spread of the coronavirus. Last summer, protesters successfully stopped a law that would have allowed extradition to the mainland. This summer, the introduction of the mainland-imposed National Security Law reversed all that, and more: an international backlash against the new legislation has seen, with great irony, some western countries suspending and canceling their own extradition agreements with Hong Kong.

My impressions from childhood have a hazy background of rock music, distant international politics, including the worldwide 1968 streets protests, the Vietnam War, and of evolving social movements, such as feminism. I didn’t understand much then – that came later with maturity, reading and worldly experience.

Hong Kong in background, ferry to Lantau Island, Hong Kong, 14 August 2020 (Photo: John Batten)
Hong Kong in background, ferry to Lantau Island, Hong Kong, 14 August 2020 (Photo: John Batten)

So, what’s happening this year? There are similarities with my 1960s’ summers, proving that history, if not repeating, is cyclical. Street protests are happening around the world, including in the USA, Belarus, Thailand, Chile, Iran, Mali, and Lebanon. These protests range in their demands: the end of corruption, autocracy, institutional racism, and calls for better governance, better economic management, democracy and improved representational government. In essence, Hong Kong’s recent protests were not extraordinary. It is what people do when they perceive injustice, incompetence and want a greater say in the governance of their lives.

From time immemorial, people around the world aspire to be masters of their destiny: and this is articulated in movements for change; be it personal, social, or political. Just this week, in Egypt, women have achieved greater protection from sexual harassment and assault. To encourage the reporting of cases of sexual violence, women who make a report will now have their identities automatically protected under law. Progress can be slow and incremental. It can be lost and then reinstated. Change can also be regressive. Donald Trump’s presidency has been a shock, because American-style democracy is generally perceived to be incrementally progressive. However, the American federal system sees great diversity of political opinion, and, state legislatures contain all-sorts of politicians: good, bad, and mad! Oh, and just like in 1968, 2020 is an American election year.

Village house and garden, near Mui Wo, Lantau, Hong Kong, 14 August 2020  (Photo: John Batten)
Village house and garden, near Mui Wo, Lantau, Hong Kong, 14 August 2020  (Photo: John Batten)

Children might be oblivious to most politics, however it will be there, buzzing in the background. But, memory will play havoc as they get older, as their perceived knowledge (through watching historic filmed footage, listening to adults recall these days, reading) will be mixed-in with their own recollections of the time. What then will be imbedded in their mind? What moral paths will be consciously taken, or, subliminally chosen, from these last two unusual summers? What incidents will be recalled thirty years later: wearing masks, online school lessons at home? Or, a special breakfast, playing together in a park, and the walk there and back home, a child skipping alongside a father who is usually absent in summer at work? Hong Kong’s high-rise flats without access to a garden, the daily humdrum of being at home with TV and computer, the boredom that Covid-19 is enforcing, is not a recipe for great childhood memories of 2020.

Last week, I had a childlike moment that, surely, I would recall thirty years from now, if I were an eight-year old.

I spontaneously decided one morning to catch a ferry to Mui Wo on Lantau island. I hadn’t visited for many years. I wanted to visit the second-hand bookshop, and just have lunch. I sat in the open-air watching trailing terns feed for little fish in the wake of the ferry as it headed for Lantau. In the end, I stayed all day. I did have lunch at a dai pai dong next to the ferry pier; then, bought sourdough bread from the excellent bakery and admired the brutalist architecture of the local school.

New Territories Heung Yee Kuk Southern District Secondary School, brutalist architecture, Lantau, Hong Kong, 14 August 2020  (Photo: John Batten)
New Territories Heung Yee Kuk Southern District Secondary School, brutalist architecture, Lantau, Hong Kong, 14 August 2020  (Photo: John Batten)

I remembered the old village street near the Mui Wo Recreation Centre and found it, then did a circuit walk to the waterfall at the back of Mui Wo. The waterfall was cascading after recent heavy rain. I had stumbled on an almost Arcadian scene: young lovers lazily sitting on the rocks, cuddled, drying after a swim. The virus reality was also here: the small BBQ area was cordoned-off and padlocked, the tables forbidden to be sat at. Someone had graffitied ‘JESUS’ and my surprise at the closure was similar. Then, the walk back to the ferry in the soft sunset light past village houses with large gardens, frogs croaked, and bats were leaving their haunts for their daily nocturnal feed. The children I had seen that afternoon had been swimming in the sea, playing in the river, poking at insects, riding their bicycles, and running free on the carless Mui Wo pedestrian tracks as their grandparents/mothers/fathers/helpers tried to keep-up with their happiness.

Jesus in 'Arcadia' (lazing lovers, closed-off BBQ area next to waterfall), Lantau, Hong Kong, 14 August 2020  (Photo: John Batten)
Jesus in ‘Arcadia’ (lazing lovers, closed-off BBQ area next to waterfall), Lantau, Hong Kong, 14 August 2020  (Photo: John Batten)
Cycling on Mui Wo's main street, Lantau, 14 August 2020  (Photo: John Batten)
Cycling on Mui Wo’s main street, Lantau, 14 August 2020  (Photo: John Batten)

I read the news report that some Hong Kong parents, trying to keep their children busy, had bought caterpillars for their house-bound children to watch metamorphosize into butterflies. I think a day trip to an island to enjoy village life would be much better. A child free to run will fondly remember these summers.

Terns diving into the wake of the Lantau ferry, catching little fish….

Posted by John Batten on Monday, 17 August 2020

John Batten
John Batten
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