Tai Long Wan Tales from a vanishing village
by Keith Addison
Tai Long Wan village, Shek Pik, Lantau, Hong Kong, 1983-85
Tai Long Wan
May 1, 1983
Every day, after the midday meal, Fung Pak (or, occasionally, his wife) emerges from their house carrying a bowl of rice and table scraps, and ambles (the Basketweaver saunters, the Father of Twelve wanders, but Fung Pak ambles) towards their chicken hutch, at this end of the third row of sheds.
On the 1st of the month, hearing this cry, we prepare the rent to give to him on his way back. It takes him a while, since he stays there to feed the chickens, tidy up a bit, and collect the eggs.
Today, when he reached our house, I pushed aside the bamboo blinds shading the door and stepped out to pay him. The old man, wearing only a baggy pair of shorts and the ubiquitous plastic flip-flips, was gazing about him as he walked, absently holding three eggs in his right hand.
I greeted him and held out a $1,000 note. He looked at it vaguely before focusing, and then took it, smiling: "Ah, thanks!"
I watched him shuffling off, the note not pocketed, still dangling from his free hand as though it was something he'd found under a chicken.
Back to basics
Illustrations by Christine Thery
Three years before we arrived, when the last of the older men died, our landlord, Fung Pak, at 75, became the village elder. There were women in the village who were older -- one was 83, and full of life. But women didn't qualify.
At first I thought he may have been injured during the Japanese occupation, a terrible time. There was starvation in the village -- one desperate couple sold their only son because they could no longer feed him. There were guerrilla bands in the mountains, and the villagers found themselves sandwiched between the guerrillas and the soldiers. They were forced to give the guerrillas food, and the Japanese punished them for it -- they executed the village headman and took three villagers hostage, and then killed them.
But Fung Pak had been hurt before the war. He was beaten up, twice, by pirates, heavily armed and evil men who swept in from the sea in their sailing junks and forced the farmers to pay protection money -- $7 each for a year, Fung Pak said. This was a lot of money, but if you couldn't pay you'd get your head beaten with a rifle butt. Or your back, or your left thigh. The second time, Fung Pak fled when he saw the pirates coming, but he fell, and they caught him and beat him. His leg had hurt ever since.
So when he and Fung Paw came home from the pineapple terraces in their main orchard, each with two big fruit baskets on a carrying pole, her baskets were often much fuller than his. It was she who took their nightsoil to the fields, in two heavy buckets, to fertilise the vegetables, 500 yards from their house over a rough path.
The little woman, less than five feet tall, her bald patch hidden by a bamboo hat (all the old women had bald patches), would peer down at the path through her thick-lensed spectacles, moving slowly, taking care not to let the buckets sway and tip her over, and a rich smell wafted briefly through each house as she passed.
Her sight was failing. The year before she had had an eye operation and spent two weeks in hospital, but she still didn't see well. She had missed her footing and fallen in the orchard some years earlier, smashing her left wrist. The bones had set badly and now her hand was twisted, and her arm weak.
But, just as the couple used her back, when she needed two strong arms, his were there, and, though his eyes were also starting to fail -- and the hospital had told him an operation wouldn't help -- they were still better than hers. Together they could conquer the years for longer than either could manage alone, staving off the day they could no longer fend for themselves.
It was different for their parents, and for the 15 generations of village ancestors before them. Sons and their families (daughters married and joined their husbands' families) steadily took over responsibilities until the old people were at last left free of the land's demands, to work or not, their needs filled regardless until they died.
But the talisman failed -- the children born to Fung Pak's generation grew up and left the village. The succession was broken.
Fung Pak and his wife had five children, two sons and three daughters. Four had left the village for the city, and for other cities.
"My eldest boy works in a restaurant in Birmingham," the old man said. "He earns a thousand dollars a week. He spends it all, he doesn't send any of it here."
But he admitted that the "boy" was himself on the point of becoming a grandfather and wouldn't have had much to spare from a thousand dollars a week.
Fung Jai, Fung Pak's youngest son, who was 30, still had a foot in the village. He visited at weekends, and when he was between jobs driving lorries or buses on the island he helped his parents work the land. But the main burden of it was still theirs. And Fung Jai had been coming less and less often.
Now Fung Pak was the only man left in his family. There were no cows any longer, nor pigs. More than half the old couple's fields lay abandoned, and creeper weed scaled the trees in their orchards.
Fung Paw gathered wild herbs on the mountainsides to make medicinal tea to ward off sickness, and they were seldom ill. Despite the shortage of strong young limbs, they coped. But not without problems.
One problem was fertiliser. Since they'd sold the last cow and with only a few chickens left, their main source of fertiliser had been their nightsoil, as well as wood ash from the cooking fire and the bath and from burnt weeds and crop wastes. Without the nightsoil, most of the fields would produce only weeds.
The ramshackle row of old squat "chi-saw" toilets the villagers used was more than 200 yards from Fung Pak's door, behind the cowsheds, up a steep and unlit path with 20 steps that were often slippery with cowdung. It was a peril on a rainy night for the limping old man and his short-sighted old wife.
Many of the villagers shared this problem, but it was not solved when government workers had come to the village three years earlier and built a new communal chi-saw, much closer to the houses, with water taps, lights and separate sections for men and women.
No villager ever used it.
They were told the new toilet was more hygienic, but it was always infested with flies and mosquitoes and the standing water in the big soakaway tank under the bowls stank. Worst of all, the vital nightsoil vanished into the soakaway, never to return.
There were no mosquitoes at the old toilets, and no smell. Each had a tub of ash which was scooped into the bucket after use, suppressing both smells and flies. Later the nightsoil was collected, mixed with urine and fermented for quite a long time. Then, diluted with water, it was sprinkled under the plants, to be consumed by billions of soil micro-organisms which converted it into plant foods. The smell quickly vanished.
This practice had stood the test of time. Nightsoil recycling had always been basic to the ancient and highly productive Chinese farming system. Were it unhygienic, the Chinese would have discarded it long ago.
Since the 1970s, when environmentalists damned the modern Western flush toilet as the most wasteful gadget ever devised, variations of the traditional Chinese peasant toilet had been in increasing vogue amongst the environmentally aware in the West, with various "earth toilets", "composting toilets", "waterless water closets" and even a "Tao Throne" on the market at high prices.
In fact the city planners and engineers were wrong, and the illiterate old peasants right in their contempt for the dirty and wasteful "government chi-saw", as they called it.
With two sets of toilets, neither adequate, Fung Pak bought some building materials, and one weekend Fung Jai built the old couple a new toilet, 10 yards from their front door at the edge of their second orchard, near where they kept their big earthenware nightsoil fermenting urns.
The brick walls were built without the aid of a plumb-line and it showed, but it was nonetheless a sturdy affair with a strong wooden door and a leakless corrugated iron roof. Instead of a hole in the cement it had a porcelain bowl, with a place for one's feet on either side, but there was the usual tub of ash and a scoop, and a trap at the back to remove the bucket.
This solved the problem. But there was another problem: the new toilet hadn't been officially rubber-stamped.
The year before, government teams had appeared all over Lantau equipped with maps and charts, lists, clip-boards, tape measures and pots of red paint. They said they were conducting a survey, and they measured everything with walls and a roof, were it a house, a broken-down chicken hutch, a two-foot-high village shrine housing a porcelain deity -- even derelict cars. Then they painted cryptic graffiti such as "POKT/GPA6/47-25x22x11-ACC" in four-inch-high red letters on at least one wall.
In fact there were no squatters on Lantau, they were all in Hong Kong. But that didn't seem to matter.
A few weeks after Fung Jai completed the new toilet, two government men arrived in the village carrying a list and a supply of forms. The new toilet, near the village entrance, was one of the first things they saw, and it bore no red letters. They checked their list, pasted a form on the wall and continued through the village.
The form gave seven days' notice for the "unlawful occupation" of the "illegal structure" to cease, pending demolition. This did have its ludicrous aspect, considering the nature of the structure, though it was certainly one way of controlling squatters.
The notice also stated that the toilet was on unleased land, though Fung Pak and his wife, angry and upset, insisted it was definitely on their leasehold land. They agreed that the lease was for agricultural purposes, not for building on, but then the chi-saw was put there for agricultural purposes as much as for "occupation".
They didn't know what to do about it, so they decided to wait and see what would happen.
Later that morning, with four days of the official notice still to expire, two government vans drove into the village and 10 strong men wearing plastic site helmets climbed out.
Fung Paw, hearing their shouts, went out to see what was happening.
"We're going to destroy this illegal structure," they told her. Ignoring the old woman's protests, they took their sledge-hammers, marched into the orchard, and smashed down the toilet.
Christine and I were in the city that day, and only discovered the chi-saw atrocity when we returned to the village that evening.
The next morning I got on the telephone to the Squatter Control Division, but got nowhere. So I wrote a detailed complaint to the official who'd signed the eviction notice, bits of which we'd retrieved from the rubble.
A week later the men in hard hats returned, with cameras, and were taking Polaroid pictures of the site when Fung Pak approached and asked why they'd destroyed his chi-saw. They wouldn't answer and an argument started, with several other villagers joining in.
"Don't come back!" they shouted as the men left in their van.
I received a reply to my letter, of sorts. The action to demolish the illegal structure had been correct, it claimed. It had been necessary to effect demolition four days early to "protect the public interest", as there had been "numerous complaints against the sanitary nuisance and the offensive smell and flies and mosquitoes caused". But there had been no complaints, there was no nuisance and no need -- on these grounds, they should have knocked down the government chi-saw, not Fung Pak's. (In fact some months later when there was a malaria scare in the village, it was traced to the government chi-saw, where one of the city kids who came to camp on the beach during the holidays had got bitten and went down with malaria.)
"It's useless," we told Fung Pak when we showed him the letter. He agreed, and thanked us for trying. But the old couple weren't beaten yet.
A week later Christine was walking among the big lung ngan fruit trees at the top of the Fungs' second orchard, the scene of the crime, towards our orchard on the other side of the valley when she noticed Fung Paw on the terrace below.
It was a secluded spot, and she hadn't seen Christine. The land fell away below her to reveal the whole sweep of the valley, the beach and the sea, out to the small offshore islands and beyond to a glittering horizon and a big sky. Her black trousers down around her ankles, Fung Paw sat peacefully on one of the big earthenware urns, admiring the view.
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