Hong Kong’s Stanley

December 5, 2006
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I’ve always doubted the adage that you can’t go home again. It’s a matter of perspective: You’re bound to be disappointed, perhaps even depressed, unless you accept the reality that nothing remains the same.

Guided by that notion, I recently went back to Stanley, a village sandwiched between two bays, on a narrow promontory pointing

like a crooked finger into the China Sea from the southern coast of Hong Kong Island. I lived there for nearly a decade during the 1960s, when I was a reporter in Asia, and, returning after an absence of nearly 20 years, I savored the bitter-sweet taste of its change and continuity.


Like Hong Kong itself, Stanley has been a crucible of West and East, where a few Americans and Europeans with a penchant for local flavor have preferred to reside among Chinese rather than segregate themselves in enclaves. Thus it belies Kipling’s thesis that never the twain will meet.

My wife and I originally stumbled onto the tiny hamlet, then chiefly occupied by fisherfolk, while hunting for a house. We had ventured into the open market, situated in the square, where fishermen attired in black cotton pajamas and broad basket hats were proclaiming their catch of the day in singsong Cantonese. Peasants in similar garb presided over bins of fresh fruit and vegetables, which they had carried in on swaying shoulder poles from plots nearby.

Main Street, actually an alley, comprised a handful of small shops, among them a grocery, a tailor, and a barbershop. Eclipsed by lacquered ducks and joints of pork dangling from hooks, a butcher wielding his cleaver with the skill of a surgeon carved up meat and poultry, carefully saving such esoteric delicacies as gizzards, hearts, and lungs. A sweating cook in a filthy apron, his wok engulfed in the blaze of a roaring stove, served bowls of pan-fried noodles and steaming rice to customers seated on stools at outdoor tables.


At the tip of the peninsula stood Stanley Fort, whose rotating regiments, replete with bagpipes, symbolized the last British bastion in the Orient. The Union Jack flew over a minuscule police station, and Chinese constables – the surrogates of Britain’s imperial presence – patrolled the village in starched khaki shorts, nominally maintaining the peace in a place, I later learned, where the only disorders were intermittent squabbles between neighbors.

The little port then was packed with sampans, and out at sea we saw high-sterned junks cruising lazily among faraway islands, their battened sails silhouetted like the wings of giant moths against the misty horizon. The vista could have been a classic Chinese painting, and we instantly fell in love with the spot.

I might add that its name, my own, also appealed to my ego. In actuality, Stanley was so christened to honor an English peer who, as secretary of state for the colonies, oversaw the war between the British and the Chinese, which resulted in the takeover of Hong Kong in 1842. The Chinese called the place Chek Chue, which for some obscure reason signifies “crimson pillar.” The name has also been linked to the term for “pirates’ lair,” memorializing buccaneers like the fabled Cheung Po Tsai, who reputedly sallied forth from Chek Chue to prey on ships and settlements in the region. Periodic expeditions to retrieve his treasure, said to be concealed in a grotto in the vicinity, have proved to be futile.


We found a dream house tucked into a quiet lane at the edge of Tai Tam Wan, or “big bay.” The view of the water framed against a background of verdant slopes was breathtakingly beautiful. Stone steps curled down between boulders to a private cove. A gnarled flame tree shaded the garden, which was blooming with pots of plants and flowers.

The rent was right, and the owner, an amiable Chinese dentist who chose to be near his office in town, was versed in ancient wisdom. As we sipped a ritual cup of tea after signing the lease, he confided to us, “You are very lucky. The feng shui is perfect.”

Baffled by his cryptic remark, I hastened to bone up on feng shui, literally “wind and water,” a concept that has pervaded Chinese thinking for centuries. It stems from an ancient folk belief that the universe is dominated by the opposite cosmic forces of yang and yin, active and passive, male and female, hot and cold, light and dark. Kept in equilibrium, the two yield a harmonious environment.


Our house, as the landlord suggested, fit the idea admirably. Its perch over the bay presaged a fortunate balance of wind and water. The elevation was healthy, and the windows faced the dawn, a portent of renewed life. Several other features were favorable: a clump of bamboo on the lawn augured stability, and a turning staircase would discourage evil spirits, which travel in straight lines.

On the advice of a Chinese friend, we installed wind chimes, which also deter demons. The address, 29, though not ideal, would have been worse had it contained a 4, or shih, the Chinese homonym for death.

All this may sound like incomprehensible mumbo jumbo, but I did feel an indefinable harmony in the atmosphere. It gave me the energy to work around the clock. Or, sipping a sundowner on the veranda as dusk dimmed the hills in the distance, I would gaze at the fishing boats, their kerosene lanterns flickering like the reflection of fireflies on the water below. My wife, children, and even our amah, a jewel of a woman despite her bossiness, shared my sense of tranquillity. Natural or supernatural, the years in Stanley were radiant.

The village has flourished during the decades since, as I gathered on my journey back, and it occurred to me that its auspicious feng shui may account for much of the prosperity – just as, I would submit, a magical quality partly propels the extraordinary dynamism that has made Hong Kong one of Asia’s economic miracles.

But a few reservations nagged at me as I observed that vitality during the drive to Stanley one morning not long ago. The landscape was almost unrecognizable. A freeway has supplanted stretches of the scenic road that once snaked around the hills. Bulldozers have leveled nearly every inch of terrain, even precipitous cliffsides, to erect skyscraper apartment buildings – and more are being constructed. Giant towers blight Repulse Bay, formerly the site of a splendid British colonial hotel dating back to the 1920s. Aberdeen, whose harbor had pulsated with junks and sampans, is now a canyon of factories. Stanley, when I finally arrived there, was a massive traffic clog.

More tourists, most of them lusting for bargains, visit Hong Kong than any other place in the Far East. Every day and especially on weekends, thousands converge with typhoon velocity on Stanley, where Main Street, the sleepy alley of yore, has become a hub of frenetic consumerism. Struggling through the throngs, I discerned a cacophony of languages, from English, German, French, Arabic, and, of course, Chinese, to the unadulterated American of a quartet of sailors from a U.S. aircraft carrier. Shops and stalls sell nearly everything, and the jostling crowds seem determined to buy it all – silk ties and scarves, robes, jackets, shirts, blouses, suits and frocks, perfumes, suitcases, tennis rackets, golf clubs, jogging shoes, and such gimcrackery as bogus antique snuff bottles and counterfeit ivory statues.

As touted, the merchandise is cheap. The overwhelming majority of it is made in China, where increasing numbers of Hong Kong companies manufacture goods to take advantage of low labor costs. I didn’t encounter stylish logos, since true Herm¿s, Gucci, Ralph Lauren, and Louis Vuitton articles are only available at downtown Hong Kong outlets – at Paris, New York, and Palm Beach prices.

Instead I found brands apparently contrived to convey an impression of chic, like purportedly designer dresses bearing such unfamiliar labels as Louis Philippe and Lefevre.

Targeting either the myopic or the illiterate, one hawker was flogging Rolon watches. My wife, who has tracked down deals around the world, gave the bazaar a mediocre C.

“Seoul and Beijing are better,” she sniffed.

Predictably, the old market had vanished except for a couple of vegetable stands and a sweaty cook, perhaps the son or nephew of the one I recalled, frying noodles over an outdoor stove. I searched in vain for fishermen, but was informed that most are either retired or dead, and their children had spurned the vocation as unprofitable. Besides, nobody wants fish from the surrounding polluted waters.

But if its quaint past has faded, Stanley has acquired a trendy, offbeat personality. Young entrepreneurs, artists, and free-lance journalists inhabit Main Street flats, whose rents are moderate compared to those of the skyscraper apartments occupied by corporate representatives with fat perquisites. Consistent with its new yuppie character, the village has a disco.

In contrast to my era, when dining out required a trip to town, there are four or five creditable eating places. In an unadorned Chinese restaurant, a lunch of chicken with bamboo shoots and a shrimp omelet costs six dollars. The fancier Oriental is eclectic Asian, with a menu that includes Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, and Indian dishes, and a pastel view of Stanley Bay that, apart from a few sampans, reminded me of the Mediterranean. At Lord Stanley’s Bistro, an English-type pub, you can snack on fish and chips to the din of a jukebox.

The upscale restaurants belong to a group of partners, among them Rory Nicholas, a portly Oxford graduate who has made the village his home since 1974. As we chatted over a beer late one afternoon, he described Stanley as Hong Kong in microcosm. “Both took off in the late 1970s, when the colony’s economy soared, business boomed, and property values skyrocketed. It’s cooled off a bit lately, but there’s no cause to worry.”

He was optimistic about Hong Kong’s future after 1997, when the territory

reverts to China after a

century and a half under British rule. Speaking with the confidence of someone who has thrived, he said, “There’ll always be money to be made here.”

Many villagers have done astonishingly well, as I discovered one morning, when to my surprise I ran into our old fah wang, or gardener, who had also sold us vegetables. A dwarfish figure with spectacles and a leathery face, he must have been close to 80, yet he looked remarkably spry. He greeted me with a grin and said proudly, “I’m still working.”

But I was told by a local gossip that he had amassed “millions” from shrewd real estate investments – probably a gross exaggeration but, on the other hand, maybe true. For years, while doubling as a vegetable peddler, he had an arrangement with the cooks who customarily bought the food for their employers. He would pad the bills and give them a modest kickback, which they usually shared with the other servants. Known as the “squeeze,” the system has been practiced in China from time immemorial, and like everyone else we tolerated it rather than disrupt tradition.

A decade ago the British colonial government injected a dose of democracy into Hong Kong by creating partially elected district boards. The most active member of the local board, Chan Yan Yue, is a bouncy man of 47 who strides briskly through Stanley, a beeper his emblem of authority. Born in the village, he attended a church school there, adopted the alternate name of Lawrence, and learned to speak fluent if tonal English.

His father had sold kerosene and bottled gas, chiefly to fishermen. After his parents emigrated to Canada in 1984, Lawrence took over the business. It faltered as commercial fishing declined, and he opened a toy and gift store on Main Street, which he runs in tandem with his civic duties. Though no such title exists, he is widely looked on as mayor.

The district’s biggest problem, he says, is traffic, along with the smugglers who land boatloads of illegal Chinese immigrants in the inlets around Stanley and ship contraband like electrical appliances to China.

Lawrence’s own headache is dealing with the 4,000 squatters who have lived for years at Ma Hang, or “Horse Stream,” an area that lies beyond Stanley. Their houses are scheduled to be razed soon, and they will be moved to a government apartment project being built nearby, and Lawrence has had to listen to their concerns. One morning he invited me to accompany him on a visit to the community.

We climbed a path between clusters of bamboo, which I had frequently trod before, but the place had changed. Now, I noticed, there were no pigs and chickens, and the rice wine distillery, which had emitted an awful stench, was shut down – in both cases, Lawrence pointed out, on the grounds that they caused pollution.

The ramshackle wooden huts I remembered were also gone, replaced by sturdy cement or brick houses amid neat little gardens. Their doors were decorated with the icons of guardian gods with fierce expressions or bright red posters in Chinese ideographs that announced, “The Sun Shines on Our Prosperous Home” or “Health and Good Fortune.” I could hear the click-clack of mah-jongg tiles coming from one house.

Not all the squatters were poor, Lawrence explained. “Some made money from selling property in the village. Or they own shops that they lease to merchants. Naturally they are reluctant to transfer to the apartments, where they’ll have to pay rent. Here they live free.”

Most are elderly folk whose children, attracted by good jobs elsewhere, have moved away. Lawrence’s task that day was to assure them that all would be well. It was not easy.

We called on Koon Wai Fong, a shriveled crone in her 70s. Her house, one room with a tiny toilet attached, was furnished with bunk bed, refrigerator, television set, hot plate, ceiling fan, and a portrait of Buddha on the wall.

Unmarried, she had been a cook for a local family. She was cheerful but still fretful, even after Lawrence promised her that the apartment would be an improvement. “I’ll miss my garden,” she lamented.

Though resigned to their fate, other squatters voiced similar worries, and I wondered whether demolishing the settlement made sense.But this was Hong Kong, where nothing is allowed to stand in the way of progress.

Strolling back to the village, I paused at one relic that is bound to remain intact – the temple to Tin Hau, the patron goddess of seafarers, which was constructed in 1765. Legend has it that Tin Hau was a maiden who lived in the coastal city of Foochow during the 13th century and miraculously rescued fishermen from typhoons.

Stone lions crouch like sentinels at the entrance, and, inside, mythical warriors with scowling faces protect her statue, enshrined in a niche on an altar. She is a functioning deity, as evidenced by offerings of fresh fruit on the altar and the thick odor of incense pervading the air. In the past I had seen the faithful burning joss sticks and kowtowing to her image, or shaking a box of numbered sticks that tell fortunes. Worshipers flock to her annual birthday festival on the 23rd day of the third moon, which is celebrated with dances, songs, and boat races. But this time the only person in the temple was an old woman the sweeping the floor.

Still in quest of history, I trudged up Tung Tau Wan Road, our street, to the British military cemetery, which contains nearly 700 graves. They mark the deaths of only about one-quarter of the British, Canadian, Indian troops, and Hong Kong volunteers who died while resisting the Japanese attack against the colony in December 1941 or in captivity later.

Children were playing among the graves, which are separated by race – Westerners in one part, Asians in another. Some tombstones date back to World War I, like one inscribed “Coolie San A Kim,” for a member of the Chinese Labour Corps killed in France on December 22, 1914. Those were the days when the sun never set on the British Empire.

On my walk back I stopped to peek into our old house. I was let in by a Filipino maid who told me that it is now occupied by a British executive and his family. Drastically modernized since our time, it had a spacious kitchen, gleaming bathrooms, and central air-conditioning. The feng shui, I am happy to report, is undisturbed.


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