Island Life

On my flight back to home I re-read Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” and “On the duty of civil disobedience” which original tile was “Resistance to civil Government”. Thoreau, who lived from 1817-1862, embarked himself on an experiment to live remotely, from the labor of his hands and describes his observations and thoughts in his book, published in 1854. He also wrote widely on natural history, ecology and philosophy, was supporting abolitionism and is sometimes cited as an individual anarchist (which symbol, the circled A, made it recently into the uniformity of the sports wear company Adidas). I am far away from understanding the philosophical thoughts and movements behind this book, simply by having not explored the body of literature around it. However, I read Walden with sympathy, thinking that Thoreau’s experiment in some respects comes close to going on a very early form of what we might call “Sabbatical” today. Not every Sabbatical is equal though, but as mine is a bracket of experiments and also remoteness, I re-read the book with very different eyes than I did in Gymnasium (High School) times.

Living on Lamma Island since more than 3 years now, an outer island of Hong Kong in the South China Sea, is of course not the kind of remoteness Thoreau describes in Walden, but it is a place away from the buzz of what likes to call itself “Asia’s World City - Hong Kong”. The backsides of the island and really rural and in one of the scattered old fisherman’s village houses between a small wild beach and the jungle is a simple base.

When I came in 2007 to come from Shanghai down to Hong Kong, I did not know how long I would stay and the only plan I came with, was to think through my past experience, breed on new ideas, publish and teach. Obviously one way to do that was also to engage in the local Universities, which I did as a Professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and later at The University of Hong Kong. My move to the latter one was driven by the thought that a more comprehensive University would be a better base to explore interdisciplinary ideas than a mainly technical University and in many aspects this was right. For example, beside being a member of the Faculty of Business and Economics, I taught a course in the Masters in China Development in the Department of Geography, which brought me back to my origins as a geoscientist.

This time and this place gives me the opportunity to try out many things and reflect on many topics. Sure, there will be no book coming out of this, like “Walden”, but looking at some travel book entries about this island, I thought it might be nice to highlight some places and phenomena here, which can usually not be found in guide books. They are “my places”.

The old “Tuberculosis Clinic”: legends rank around an old clinic buildings which are located in the jungle between at the foot of the hill with a remote Barbeque Place (N22 14.042 E114 06.493). It is not easy to reach from the land side, but only a few hundred meters for a swimmer from a small beach bay. When you climb over the entrance gate, you enter a world which stopped perhaps 50 years ago - could me longer, only touched by some squatters who left a few belongings which inspire to think what people they were and which life they had. Some notes are left in Spanish and I was told that a Mexican Woman lived there with children. One building is burned out, others are nicely decorated in recent times. Scrap is tidily piled and sorted. Some books, an old piano, a water pond, old coal cookers and trays like they were used in hospitals. There is just wind, the sound of moving bamboo, some birds, mosquitos and when looking out of the window over the sea you can not help feeling that this is a place still some souls might be who spent or ended their life here.

The morning walk trail: From a small plateau at N22 13.865 E114 06.985 trails enter the most Northern hill side of the the island. It makes a very nice morning walk of 2 hours and covers incredible views on the South China Sea island world, the city of Hong Kong and the Ships passing through the strait. You can watch the pilot ships embarking and debarking from the container vessels to guide though the narrow waters. On the top of the hill Igor, a Russian Short Wave radio amateur, has set up an antenna to morse and talk to the world like in the “old times” when wireless communication still needed some skills and knowledge.

The model plane hill: Walking on unpaved trails from Yung Shue Wan to the South of the island, is a slope which can be seen from far, by the many eagles turing their circles there on sunny days in the thermic. The strong updraft at this point (N22 13.350 E114 07.311) has been also discovered by a group of model glider enthusiasts which are flying their remote controlled planes here sometimes even more acrobatic than the eagles. I like sitting at this place and watching it all, first of all because I was flying model planes myself many years ago and secondly because I enjoy seeing people which are enthusiastic about building and flying these planes. Enthusiasm on building things is very rare in Hong Kong, so this is not just a beautiful, but also a valuable last refuge.

Gerd Heinz Balke’s grave: A few minutes walk South of the model plane hill, there is a graveyard in the bushes. It is not one of the traditional graves, like there are also many on the island, but one of these more compressed ones. I do not know Gerd Heinz Balke who died here in 2000 at the young age of 51, but I was surprised to find a German name. I found that he was a German engineer and the author of the books Paradise fermenting and Skull dance. He lived in Po Wah Yun and the title picture of his book Paradise fermenting, a tattooed dragon, was taken by Bob Davis. I bought the book for my Amazon Kindle and tried to understand and see the world though his eyes. Gravestones are like memorials for small people and sometimes I sit down here and wonder about what possibly brought him here and how he lived - of course not without thinking where I might still go and where the journey might end.

Behind the Lamma Winds: “Lamma Winds” is the name of an experimental wind power plant run by Hong Kong Electric on the island (N22 13.523 E114 07.249). Downhill the way which was formerly used to bring in material for the plant, there is a remote village which faces Aberdeen on the other side of the Lamma Strait. At the entrance of the village is a hand drawn bill board in Japanese nailed against an old tree. It enquires about a Japanese boy who lived in this village and went missing in 1945 and gives a local phone number to call. It looks like somebody is waiting that the man who was this boy, one day will revisit this station of his life and find an old friend. 

The overhanging Rocks: On the Southern part of the Island after crossing over the top of Mount Stenhouse, partly breaking through thorny bushes, there is a granite stone structure where one rock is reaching out, held by another one on it. I sometimes brought student group up there on a weekend hike (the few which can handle a steep slope). The structure itself is amazing and usually after the excitement, they turn quiet sitting there and watching the ships passing by on the glittering sea.

Turtle beach and the ginger flowers: One of the most beautiful beaches here which is accessible from the land side, is on the Southern Side of Mount Stenhouse. Passing trough old villages, an remain of a school building and plains of ginger flowers and gardens you reach this bay. Here sea turtles are breeding and from June until October the access is prohibited to protect the habitat. This unfortunately does not stop some Yachting Hobby Captains to enter into the bay from the water side and even sometimes blast pop-music into the scenery to have what they call “a good time”. But most of the time, outside the protected period, this is a wonderful place to be.

Main Villages: The island is connected to Hong Kong Central and the Aberdeen Port by three rather frequent ferry lines by Piers in the villages Yung Shue Wan, Sok Kwu Wan (N22 12.381 E114 07.871), and Pak Kok (N22 14.195 E114 06.598). The first two of these villages have made it into travel guidebooks and on weekends are flooded with tourists, but Pak Kok still remains a silent refuge. Yung Shue Wan has many small shops for daily supplies, a bakery (N22 13.608 E114 06.680), a post office (N22 13.605 E114 06.635) and a little clinic with nice staff and excellent health services for all the small things which can happen. I avoid this village on weekends, because of the tourists and on weekdays because of the intensive construction works with which the Drainage Department follows its obvious mission to convert the world into a public toilet (which was a good mission is days when there were non). Another reason I avoid Yung Shue Wan is that, even there are no cars allowed, the construction and shop logistics is kept up by village vehicles which are noisy and frequently operated by careless drivers. The only reasons to pass by Yung Shue Wan is ferry access and to get some basic supplies. On the Southern part of the Island, the main village is Sok Kwu Wan (N22 12.381 E114 07.871), which is connected by ferry to Central Hong Kong and by land via a concrete trail to Yung Shue Wan. Sok Kwu Wan is famous for seafood and dominated by a group of restaurants called “Rainbow”, which also operate their own ferries. The food is neither specially good, nor specially cheap, but somehow it became a tourist attraction. Pak Kok Village is still much more remote. Inconvenience in access and getting supplies attracts a certain kind of people, which appreciate quietness and nature. Other villages are scattered over all the island, which have different characters. Many of them are too dense build up to live there, but nice to pass through on a walk.

People: The Island is estimated to have about 3-4 thousand residents, most of them living in the main village clusters. This number seems to vary a lot, as a large number takes it as a hub for some months between other travels. Lamma Island has the reputation of a hippie island, where Cannabis is grown in the herbal garden and all kinds of drugs find their way to the end consumer. Even there is a significant group of now increasingly elderly citizens which can not let go from what they think is the “good old 70s and early 80s”, the island is not a hippie refuge any more. This group of the island community seems for me to have established a “live and let live equilibrium”. In terms of drugs, I guess the only over-proportional consumption of them seems alcohol. But I might be wrong. When blood alcohol level drops to being close to sober in the morning, comes a period of vomiting, usually followed by a round of rock music and then already time is coming for another drink. In the Centre of Yung Shue Wan there are a few bars forming the social centre for the “ever drunks”, but these places are avoidable and I can not even recall their names.

Another group are people who work in Hong Kong and fortunately of all kinds of backgrounds. Increasingly also ethnic Chinese move in and appreciate a bit of village life as a strong contrast to the crowded and over-urban Hong Kong. All over Lamma Island is a colorful place in terms of attitudes and in my eyes a place where diversity works very nicely. The indigenous residents are traditionally mainly fishing people and now run small shops and restaurants, partly as a source of short term supplies for residents and partly targeting at tourists which come into the villages in large crowds on weekends. They work hard and take life a reality. 

Tourists: The tourists coming to Lamma Island usually do not leave the main paths and they are a significant income source for many shop owners, food shops and restaurants which retail along their ways. The main kind of tourists coming are unfortunately very unpleasant people and far too many. Noisy and rude - they stick to their Hong Kong manners, even they face a bit of nature and stay “plugged in”. One disadvantage they speak the local dialect of Guandong Province which is called Cantonese. This language seems originally designed to ensure basic communication by shouting over from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon and it has not adapted to the world of mobile phones (even this technology is quite overused in the region). They shout at each other from distances of 3 feet, like they would have to bridge a mile. Cantonese also seems to be a very colloquial language, which did not develop a significant body of literature or any special vocabulary which is outside the semantic fields of pop-stars and computer games. But I might be wrong, because my Chinese language interest focussed on Putonghua (Mandarin Chinese). Fortunately, the physical dysfunctionality coming from their lifestyles, does not allow them easily to leave the villages or the so-called Family Trail connecting Yung Shue Wan and Sok Kwu Wan. But sometimes they can not be avoided on the ferry.

Artists: Lamma Island is sometimes quoted to be an “artistic environment”. There are a few people around, who found a way of making a living out of some simple handicraft and assignments as a photographer or journalist, designer or writer. There are only very few outstanding examples but also they seem to be stuck in the passage of their life when they were good and missed the developing their skills, thinking and experiences further. Alcohol and a certain concept of rude and careless individualism, which is a mistaken for “freedom”, makes it largely impossible for them to develop further refinement. On the other hand, here is a place, where people receive appreciation for their doings and are happy to be recognized. Where else in the world can a “painting housewife” be a celebrated artist?

Dogs: There are many dogs on the Island, which are mostly companions of non-indigenous residents. The dogs are peaceful and used to people. Only outside the villages, there can be some vicious dogs found. But also those rarely attack. If they, it usually is a result overestimation of abilities and at this point I refer to Korean dog meat recipes. However, I do not   encourage actively hunting dogs for meat, because many island residents have very emotional relationships to their pets here.

Snakes: Legends say that during the Second World War the Japanese were running a snake farm for experimental purposes on Lamma Island. I would not be surprised if this is just a local myth. But as a matter of fact there are many snakes on the island, including very venomous ones like the Chinese Cobra, the Bamboo Viper and even the Banded Krait, which I have all seen here myself. The most surprising one though was a Burmese Python in the bushes behind Mount Stenhouse.