Hong Kong’s Moveable Island Feast

December 5, 2006

For centuries the South China Sea was infested with pirates,” my old friend Arthur Hacker says, “who hid out on Hong Kong’s hundreds of small islands.” He lights a cigar with a wooden match, takes a puff, and continues in his droll, measured way. “And there are still pirates here.” Another puff. “Only now they’re called smugglers, and they take stolen cars and luxury electronic goods to the mainland.”

My wife, Marnie, and I are listening to Arthur’s tales of pirates and ghosts while sitting on the plaza in Discovery Bay, on Hong Kong’s Lantau Island. The wet, leafy remnants of a typhoon add a tropical touch to the high-rises that loom behind us. Marnie and I lived in Hong Kong for a dozen years, three of them here in Discovery Bay. Now, after eight months away, we are back for a visit, and I can think of no better way to kick it off than to listen to Arthur talk about local lore and favorite hideaways.

With his baggy shorts and rubber thongs, Arthur looks more like a beachcomber than a scholar. In fact, he’s a writer, cartoonist, designer, and raconteur who knows Hong Kong better than most expatriates. Over coffee, Arthur rambles on in his British colonial accent, recalling obscure bits of Hong Kong island history.


“Remembah when that newsman reported that the rock outcroppings near here were Russian submarines? He was fond of a drink, ya know,” Arthur says, chortling. He looks at the coffee cups, raises an eyebrow, and asks solemnly, “Shall we switch to bee-ah?”

After a quick trip to a local grocery store for three large, green bottles of iced Tsingtao, Arthur continues: “Of course, this whole place, Lantau, was once the island of prayer. Some 500 monks lived here, in more than a hundred Buddhist monasteries.”

Huge, hilly Lantau has changed a lot since then – at least some of it has. Discovery Bay has become one of Hong Kong’s modern bedroom communities, and the city’s new airport occupies an islet just off Lantau’s north shore.


But Lantau is only one of about 260 islands – many of them mere rock outcroppings – that dot the waters of the glittering metropolis. Maybe several dozen isles are inhabited, each with its own personality. Arthur seems to know them all.

Tiny Cheung Chau, he tells us, not even a mile square, was a strict Buddhist island, where no meat was served. According to legend, there was also a cave where the infamous 19th-century pirate Cheung Po Tsai once hid out.

“It’s still there,” Arthur says in his mock pompous way. “Old ladies rent flashlights to tourists who come to see it.


“Now, Lamma,” he goes on, referring to another, sparsely populated, mostly rural isle, “Lamma has two fine temples to Tin Hau, the goddess of the sea, one at each end.”

As for Po Toi, a rocky, barren isle southeast of Hong Kong Island, it’s always been considered the Ghost Island by many locals. Arthur says he’s recently discovered a new theory for the nickname: “In the 1950s, British naval intelligence posted observers there, to monitor ships going to China. It was the presence of these white people, these gweilos – Cantonese for ¿white ghosts,’ ya know – that gave the island its reputation.”

Arthur’s words bring back all the trips Marnie and I have made to Hong Kong’s outer islands over the years – the long walks in wild settings, the remnants of the past, the beers and seafood shared with friends at simple restaurants. His stories will provide a theme for our visit, I decide – inspiring an itinerary of day trips during our stay.


A few days later some friends join Marnie and me on the ferry to Po Toi. It’s a weekend morning, and with us are Betty Fu and her husband, Jon-athan Sharp. They are good companions for this trip: Betty can act as translator. Jon, a Reuters correspondent, shares my taste for a Tsingtao now and then.

As the ferry pulls up to the pier, I recall that John le Carré used this pretty little cove for the climax of his 1977 spy novel, The Honourable Schoolboy – a dramatic night scene of reunion, betrayal, abduction in a helicopter, and the protagonist’s death by gunshot.

On this fall morning, though, no helicopters are in evidence. There’s no drama, no commotion, just a shining sun and a quiet beach. A sign in Chinese points our way to the rugged southern peninsula. With Betty in the lead, we head down a muddy path between two old buildings. We follow her through a thicket of bamboo, high grasses, ferns, and vines still wet from recent rains. The tangle of vegetation reminds me of the “haunted house” I saw some time ago on this island. A crumbling relic overgrown with weeds, it was really just a summer house built on a mountain path more than 50 years ago. But it had never been occupied, and its reputation kept superstitious Chinese away for years.

“I never believed it was haunted,” Betty insists. “I just thought it was mysterious because it was so far away.”

The path is slippery, and the footing tricky, so after a few minutes, when we arrive at a farmhouse shop offering soft drinks, “cooling tea,” and packaged snacks, I’m tempted.

The old proprietor, wearing an undershirt and shorts, shuffles to the door, eager to do business. Jon and I eye each other expectantly. Could it be Tsingtao time? Our wives sensibly veto the idea, however, and we walk on without adding to the mound of empty beer cans piled by the path.

At last the dense foliage opens up at the rocky shore – to reveal our first surprise since returning to Hong Kong: Laborers in broad-brimmed straw hats are replacing the rough but well-marked trail with a concrete walkway.

Even paved, the next part of the path exacts its toll, and we are all panting and sweating in the humid, 97-degree heat, as we make our way past the island’s colorfully named natural landmarks: Monk Rock, Tortoise Rock, Buddha’s Palm Cliff. Under the pretext of trying to identify the namesake shapes, I happily take a break.

“There’s the thumb and the fingers,” Betty says, pointing to Buddha’s purported palm. I squint at the outline. It still looks like big, bare rocks to me.

Feeling revived, and with Arthur’s tale of the Royal Navy boat spotters fresh in my mind, I scramble over some huge boulders to reach the very end of the peninsula. Here on the windswept promontory I feel like I’m at the end of the earth. It’s exhilarating, mesmerizing. Far offshore I see ghostly outlines of ships piled so high with containers they resemble floating skyscrapers. And beyond that I can just make out the gray hull of a marine police boat, no doubt patrolling for smugglers from China – our modern-day pirates.

All island outings, like all activities in chinese culture, finish with food. Forty minutes after visiting the end of the earth, we are at the Ming Kee Seafood Restaurant. One of the joys of Po Toi used to be sitting at a table on the beach, our bare toes wriggling in the cool sand, but that area, too, has been paved over. Now, when restaurant owners spot potential customers, they roll out large, round tables onto the concrete slab, creating an instant alfresco dining room. With the precision of waiters at five-star restaurants, they stand ready to slide chairs under us, just as we arrive.

We’re an informal party compared to the expatriates who used to come here on weekends, on their sleek yachts and private junks with wooden hulls varnished the shiny dark brown color of roasted ducks. Only a couple of years ago, elegant ladies would sit around the bare Formica tables, dressed in fancy, floppy hats and sundresses more suited to London’s Ascot races than a South China Sea restaurant.

This day, however, only a few junks are anchored in the bay; we can see their din-ghies being dispatched ashore bearing Westerners clutching bottles of wine.

After discussing the day’s offerings with the waitress, Betty orders for us in rapid-fire Cantonese. Within minutes, large bottles of cold Tsingtao are plopped on the table, followed by a heaping platter of chili prawns, clams with black bean and garlic sauce, fish steamed with ginger and soy sauce, vegetables with oyster sauce, and steamed rice. It’s messy, eat-with-your-hands fare, and soon clamshells and prawn tails litter the table. Proclaiming the feast “ho sik” – delicious – we lick the last traces of chili sauce from our fingers, down our beers, and head for the ferry.

Just as we leave, a huge charter boat pulls in, disgorging hundreds of city day-trippers, who follow their tour leader down the pier and straight to the restaurant. Evidently on this island of ghosts, the Po Toi spirits are no longer quite so terrifying.

The next evening at dusk, Marnie and I set off alone, this time for the Chinese hubbub that is Cheung Chau island. For old time’s sake we forego the new high-speed ferry in favor of a battered triple-decker with worn wooden floors, plastic chairs, and the smell of old ropes and oil. We scramble for an open-air seat in back, where I can sit with a can of chilled beer (San Miguel, this time) and savor the view. We are gliding past one of the world’s most exciting skylines, a great wall of soaring glass and concrete – the hotels, banks, and business blocks of Hong Kong Island’s Central district. I’ve always loved being out in this harbor, edging through a marine traffic jam of cargo junks and sampans, police and fishing boats, yachts, freighters, and hoverferries hustling gamblers off to Macau, some 40 miles away. When I lived here, the evening commute was my favorite time of day – a cherished transition from frenetic, big-city commerce to the leisurely, laid-back, T-shirt-and-shorts life of an island expat.

An hour later Marnie and I disembark on Cheung Chau, our ferry pulling in to the pier at the narrow waist of the dumbbell-shaped island. Cars are banned on Cheung Chau, which has always been one of the most traditional (and most densely populated) of Hong Kong’s outer isles. Despite a few incongruous modern buildings – a McDonald’s, a 7-Eleven, a Wellcome supermarket – the waterfront remains the untidy but vibrant fishing town of my memories, with an array of Chinese shophouses and a chaotic maze of narrow alleys.

Joining the crowd that swarms the area on foot and bicycle, Marnie and I jostle past food stalls crammed with seafood – fresh fish, seaweed, dried squid, and local delicacies I don’t recognize. Though we’re not far from the center of one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, the sights, smells, and sounds transport me to the China of decades ago. The air is pungent with the aromas of shrimp paste, cooking oil, candle wax, and Chinese herbs. I catch a whiff of incense burning on the sidewalk beside oranges and clumps of rice – offerings laid out for the returning spirits honored by the Hungry Ghost Festival. A woman in pants and tunic waves a fan-shaped handful of joss sticks as she prays. From an open-front store where barbecued chickens, ducks, and slabs of pork hang from hooks, there’s the thwack of a meat cleaver hitting a heavy wooden chopping block.

Soon we’ve crossed the peninsula and have emerged at Tung Wan beach – and once again into the modern age. Barefoot boys are playing soccer on the sand, and just offshore, teenagers are struggling with windsurfing sails. The sight of all that activity is making me thirsty, and we drop in at the Cheung Chau Windsurfing Centre for an early evening round of San Miguels.

An old friend is there, local resident Peter Morgan, who’s a long-time windsurfer himself. As we sip beer from the can and watch the kids fall off their boards into the bay, Peter reminds us that practice paid off for one

young woman who learned the sport on Cheung Chau. Windsurfer Lee Lai-shan won Hong Kong’s only Olympic medal, a gold, in the 1996 Games in Atlanta. This evening, though, it’s clear no future Olympians are in sight.

By dinnertime Marnie and I are back along the town waterfront, eyeing the ingredients in the tanks outside the row of seafood eateries. Fantastically colored fish swim in tile basins, along with crabs, clams, and oysters, lipstick-pink shrimp, wriggling eels, and sea creatures whose waving antennae seem to beckon us to a meal.

We take a sidewalk table at Hang Lok, one of our favorite places to eat in Cheung Chau – but not because of its decor, which consists of green and red plastic chairs and a string of bare bulbs hanging along the faded awning. The menu, with the ferry schedule printed on the back (along with the cryptic proclamation “No tea and mustard charge”), lists an array of dishes – in English – that is no less novel: “gold and silver egg with amaranth in broth, Zingiber sliced chicken, ducks web and cuttlefish in XO sauce, fish woman roast crab, oarsman cook fish head, and fried pork large intestines.” The possibilities remind us both of the more bizarre meals we’d been challenged by during our years in Hong Kong.

I recall drinking snake bile wine and eating snake. My Chinese friends claimed these warmed the blood. Of course, they said the dishes were aphrodisiacs, too, but I don’t think they really worked.

“Remember the wedding banquet where they served bird’s nest soup?” Marnie asks, warming to the subject. “And what about the sea slugs and fungi that we couldn’t face?” she adds with a grimace. “We went out for hamburgers afterward.”

Crunchy rice bird kabobs, elephant clam necks, sea moss, and jellyfish – we’ve tasted them all, but somehow their attraction has eluded us. So, this night we opt for the familiar: fried clams with chili black bean sauce, crab with butter and garlic, and seafood fried rice. The straight-from-the-tank seafood is superb, even more delicious, perhaps, in this simple, unpretentious setting. We polish off the last of the rice and, thanks to the handy ferry schedule, hurry to the pier with just enough time to spare.

Another day, another ferry – this time to somno-lent Peng Chau. Though the high-rises of Discovery Bay are visible across a narrow strip of water, this little horseshoe-shaped islet remains quiet and traditional. We linger in the warren of narrow lanes and poke around in the shops. There’s a place selling rattan furniture, a fishmonger’s stall, and a grocery of sorts, touting “100-year-old eggs” that resemble runny, but black, Camembert cheese. A faintly medicinal smell wafts from an herbal medicine shop crammed with huge jars of dried mushrooms, powdered antlers, and gnarled roots. Through one doorway we can see men around a knee-high table playing mah-jongg, slapping their green tiles down with showy gusto.

In Chiu Kee Porcelain, a woman sits with a dish of blue paint, hand-decorating a small rice bowl. Marnie browses among the pots, plant holders, tea sets, and plates with traditional patterns. A large blue-and-white vase adorned with peonies catches her eye; a few minutes later it’s ours, a souvenir of our journey back in time.

At the end of the street, the smell of incense leads us to a small temple with elaborate, dragon-entwined pillars. Dusty red tassels hang from lanterns; statues of gods and goddesses strung with fake pearls line the altar, offering their protection only to dozing dogs and prowling cats.

There is time for one last day-trip; Marnie and I decide on Lamma, a mostly country isle of farmland, marsh, and mountain – at least, that is how we remember it. Throughout our Hong Kong years we had a routine for our visits here. We’d take a ferry to one village, follow a path over the hills to another community, and return home by a different boat. We wanted to come back for old time’s sake – and to take a look at the temple Arthur had told us about and which we’d never seen.

So, when we pull into Sok Kwu Wan village, we ignore the aromas of steamed clams, ginger and onion, soy sauce and sesame that waft from the waterfront restaurants, and hike around the edge of the bay to the temple to Tin Hau, Queen of Heaven and Goddess of the Sea. The shrine is the size of an American family garage, but with its dusty idols, red silk banners, and faded lanterns, this hundred-year-old building has a somber, cathedral-like aura. In the main shrine, beyond the red screen that keeps out evil spirits, are tiny statues of the goddess. Coils of incense hang from the ceiling, and only their smoldering tips indicate that anyone has recently worshiped here.

Leaving the temple to its spirits, we turn inland, past a marsh scented with wild ginger, where white egrets search for food and frogs sing in a croaky chorus. The climb uphill is easy, and at the top we are rewarded with a magnificent view – Sok Kwu Wan harbor with its fish farms and pleasure junks behind us, the West Lamma Channel and the high, green mountains of Lantau ahead.

From this vantage point, I can envision the Lamma of the past. Years ago I used to see farmers wearing straw hats and watering their small plots from huge cans that dangled from bamboo shoulder poles. Morose-looking water buffalo grazed in the fields, and flocks of white ducks swam in ponds. That bucolic landscape is now being encroached upon by three-story houses, the result of steady Hong Kong development.

Still, the path we take through vegetable patches is bordered by feathery pampas grass, brilliant purple bougainvillea, and vivid hibiscus. It ends at Yung Shue Wan, a bustling village that’s one of Hong Kong’s main expatriate communities. The place is another throwback – not to old China but to San Francisco during the Summer of Love. For years this part of Lamma has been a hippie haven, a home to Western backpackers and others attracted by its cheap rents and communal atmosphere.

Sure enough, Marnie and I encounter my old friend Nick, a long-time Lammaite, sitting in front of a restaurant, selling used paperback books. He’s wearing shorts but no shirt or shoes, and his long beard is a bit grayer than I remember it.

“Have you been away on a trip?” he asks, as though nothing has changed. In fact, Lammaites measure time not by days or weeks but by decades, and my eight-month absence barely registers. Nor has Yung Shue Wan changed in the dozen or so years he’s lived here, Nick maintains, although there is a new street market in summer.

“It’s the Portobello market of Hong Kong,” he says as an afterthought, returning to his paperback.

The village is as untidy and bedraggled as I recall, but the air no longer reeks of dried fish and shrimp paste. The factory that made them closed down some years ago. If the smell of incense fills the air, it’s from hippie pads not Chinese temples. Along the main street, handicraft boutiques sell beads and bells, baskets and bracelets. Barefoot girls with toe rings and long-haired young men in tie-dyed shirts sit for hours at the Deli Lamma caf¿ and the Book Worm vegetarian restaurant. Happily for us, there are also a couple of more traditional establishments, and Marnie and I repair to the downmarket – but functional – Island Bar for a Tsingtao while we wait for the next ferry.

We spend our last island afternoon in hong Kong as we spent the first – on Lantau. But this time we’re in the Mui Wo neighborhood. The occasion is a reunion with friends – for drinks, of course, at a seafront table outside the China Bear bar. It is a casual affair; spouses come and go, and children chase each other as we while away the hours.

We are swapping typhoon stories: The storm that welcomed us back last week?

“That was nothing like the big typhoons of the 1970s,” one friend insists. “They were really frightening.”

“Hong Kong novels always end in an incredible typhoon,” a literary friend chimes in.

The conversation turns into a bragging match, with each islander fiercely defending his or her community.

“Cheung Chau has a better class of expat,” one Cheung Chau resident sniffs, while hoisting his pint. “With a Lamma address, you’re branded as a hippie.”

A Lammaite counters that his home isle is the most convenient: “It’s the closest to Hong Kong Island. With only 5,000 people, and a thousand expats, we have more of a community,” he goes on. “Cheung Chau is crowded. It’s just a big holiday camp.”

“There’s more to do on Lantau,” pipes up a Mui Wo resident. “We’ve got hiking, biking, and the beach.”

“Here, there are open spaces wherever you look,” boasts another Lantau islander, trying to restrain his romping children. He waves his arm at the sea, the hills, the huge yellow moon beginning to rise above the harbor. The lights of the city are now visible just a few miles away.

We leave the expats still debating the merits of their islands, and board the old, slow ferry back to where we’re staying. Sitting out on the open deck under the stars, feeling the South China Sea breeze, we sip our last San Miguel. As the ferry nears the bright lights of Central, I can feel the pace quicken. We’ve left the outer isles behind us. The excitement of Hong Kong Island lies ahead.


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