32. Dolphins, drones and…dogs

It’s bad enough being a toxic bachelor but in the next couple of years there is almost certain to be a rubbish incinerator located not far from this beautiful island, as reported in the latest edition to Cheung Chau’s print media (pictured). I guess I better enjoy the natural world alongside my preternaturally single status while I can?

Incinerator news

Fortunately, it seems for now at least dolphins are willing to come and fish, in some numbers, off Cheung Chau. I’m no scientist so can only speculate that the trawling ban around Hong Kong, combined with unusually clear waters, tempted them towards the southwestern shores of Cheung Chau over Chinese New Year for a rare visit.

south by southwest

These weren’t the blighted pink variety of which we hear so much – and see so little – around Lantau (a memorable dolphin-spotting trip some years back ended in my ex-wife and I pleading with a floating plastic bag, disguised as a sentient mammal, to transmogrify and forgive us our human sins) but big, muscly, grey-backed things, powering themselves through the water as a handful of tourists and scattering of insouciant fishermen looked on.

Adding to the experience, the two rare beasts I call my parents were beside me, all signs being that the island’s spookily good behaviour (too cold for snakes yet a tree-climbing lizard obliged us by munching on a fat fly in clear view) would continue for the duration of their visit.

Which made the next episode all the stranger. Not used to seeing dolphins whilst I’m floundering around the island, I’m even less used to seeing drones, but the delicate-looking dervishes are as identifiable as they will soon be omniscient, and I had no doubt what type of creature was welcoming us to a usually isolated beach near our viewpoint, a camera slung under its exoskeleton.

While most Hong Kong couples settle for walking, or wheeling, a beloved pooch around at weekends, here we came across a man in his mid-20s taking his drone for an airborne stroll. Unable to fuss over the thing, or adjust its tartan onesie, his partner – sporting impenetrable shades – appeared less than thrilled with her suitor’s devotion to it. Or at least to the giant remote control he was clasping. Because despite the pilot’s concentration it wasn’t completely clear who was master and who was mastered as the mechanical menace hovered around the edges of our photos and videos, emitting a kind of embarrassed whirr as its altitude fluctuated. Perhaps the youngsters looked embarrassed too. The sunglasses, and lack of opportunity to pet their…pet robbed us of any chance to exchange niceties, despite the mutual view of ancient coastline.

Just then a scraggly pack of the island’s much-maligned wild dogs appeared on a rocky outcrop high above us and began to howl, though whether in an effort to reclaim this ownerless territory from man or machine I can’t be sure. Either way, I’ve never been quite so happy to see them.

To find out more about the threat posed to Hong Kong’s islands by the proposed waste incinerator you can visit:

Living Islands Movement

Time Out article, July 2014

31. At last, a home for the cowboys of the sea

There’s definitely a novel to be written about Hong Kong’s outlying islands. Of course I would say that, wouldn’t I? While it’s tempting – for me at least – to play on the men-as-islands metaphor, that risks distracting from the very real characters who live, or once lived, around these parts – individuals far too vivid in reality to be converted into vessels of authorial whimsy. Some of these determinedly eccentric men and women made their home The Sea Ranch, a once-decadent beachside housing complex situated on a secluded part of Lantau Island, and accessible from Cheung Chau via a residents-only chugboat.

This charming short film by Piotr Zembrowski sheds light on what it was like to live at The Sea Ranch during its glory days when yachts danced on a glittering sea and champagne glasses twinkled on broad-brimmed balconies ahead of evening naughtiness. It’s a near-perfect bittersweet tale of Bacchanalian privilege, Ballardian decline, snobbery, reverse snobbery, and the love we can invest in our manmade environment when it segues so successfully with nature and memory. Why spoil a good story by making it fiction?

Back on Cheung Chau, The Garden is one of two pubs to be found on the short stretch between ferry pier and main beach. The newer hostelry is Austrian and offers extra-strong beer to Chinese tourists wanting some bang with their bratwurst. While the bierkeller expands at a rate unrivalled by anything on CC bar the pipeline-in-progress near the pig slaughterhouse (another, darker novel is buried there perhaps), The Garden appears pretty much the same as it does in this aged photo from Travel Head’s blog.

The Garden pub

What I find most intriguing about these slightly scrambled old school blog entries is the story of The Garden’s former landlord Joe. According to a friend who regularly delivered his magazine to the bar some years ago, Joe was an aspiring B-movie actor and ferocious drinker who passed away aged around 40. Although many of us are drawn to those with larger-than-usual appetites, drinking tales often lose their appeal when we find out the habit helped cut short the life of the participant. However, I think this extract from Travel Head’s blog is worth reading, if only to illustrate that even if Joe’s actions were exaggerated by booze he was often impassioned for a worthwhile reason.

The Garden Pub had an outdoor area right across the walkway, so we all hung out there. Intermittently, we’d hear Joe yelling or smashing things. He was rather upset, as it was the 10-year anniversary of the Tiennamein [sic] square massacre on June 4th. So every now and then, he’d break in to a rage about it, and then calm down. You had to let him calm down on his own. If we tried to talk to him, he’d say that not being Chinese, we didn’t understand, and I guess he was right. Although we knew of the injustices that took place, perhaps it had a much deeper meaning for him. Although I’m sure a lot of it was the alcohol talking as well.

I’d love to know more about The Sea Ranch, Joe, and Cheung Chau’s recent history. Please feel free to share your stories below. I don’t know if people living on islands are much different to those living in urban areas, except perhaps that they have wider horizons and starrier skies to contend with. Could this be the source of their inspiration, and madness? Might explain why I’ve started looking for escaped pigs in the twilight…

9. Coust to Coust

By no means a real diver I do, however, have a genuine passion for the sea. There is a sheltered bay a decent hike from my place where I recently tested out my brand new snorkelling gear (visibility: zero; sea colour: green). Now that the weather is getting cooler I will doubtless turn once more to my Jacques Cousteau DVD box set – surely one of the most magical and romantic documentary series ever made (premise: Princess Grace launches the Calypso from Monaco – you and the crew proceed to sail and dive around the globe, several times, re-supplying yourself with local hooch and pipe tobacco at friendly ports en route).

Grub's up

One of my favourite episodes involves not a ‘real diver’ in the sense of a workaday industrial diver (and God knows, they take enough risks) but one of those aquatic mavericks to which us landlubbers are so often drawn. In season 1, episode 31 of Cousteau’s odyssey we meet Recco, a gruff, middle-aged coral diver who – with scant regards for the bends, or indeed any of Radiohead’s work – plunges into the abyss off Corsica each day to retrieve tokens for his bikinied partner, Nadine, who is responsible for keeping his equipment maintained and spirits up. We see her waiting patiently for Recco to surface, selecting decorous pieces of petrified plant-life for posterity. Sometimes she jumps into the water and they blow bubbles at each other. It is a touching tale, but one you sense can only end in tragedy. Will Recco’s health give out? Will he drown while chipping away at one last chunk of lucrative seafloor? Perhaps Nadine will find a younger diver to hang out with? No, in his hypnotic tones – tones that reverberate sonorously over almost anything worth detecting above and below the waves – Jacques informs us at the end of episode 31 that Recco has just been killed by a neighbour in a dispute over a garden fence…

Before you buy the DVD set – and you really, really should buy it – you can watch The Coral Divers of Corsica here, albeit broken up by regionally appropriate adverts.

Free dive

These days, the organisations Cousteau helped inspire (let’s not forget that he both co-invented the aqualung and, like David Attenborough, advocated world population control for the sake of the planet – two very different forms of life-saving) take a dim view of coral collecting for profit. However, one activity that is growing in popularity is free diving; and it isn’t restricted to those born and raised on remote coastlines, or with the mythical lungs of the pearl divers of Hawaii. You may have seen this moving piece in the New York Times, about Nicholas Mevoli, a gregarious native of the city who lost his life in competition two weeks ago. There are no huge profits to be made in this business – no massive sponsorship deals (at least not yet); Mevoli scrimped and saved to fulfil his dream of challenging for a world record. Like others before him (though the organisers insist the sport sees few casualties) he is likely to have succumbed to nitrogen narcosis – a potentially fatal drunkenness that affects decision-making at depth. In many ways, Mevoli sounded like a typical New York hipster – of the type I strive to emulate (despite consistent denials mixed with the irreversible aging process) – yet he dared to do far more than exhibit in Greenwich Village, or recite some beat poetry on the Lower East side; instead of trying to encapsulate his love affair with the sea, he simply embraced it, and it him, and not an irate neighbour in sight…

6. Nature Boy

Run down an isolated path through pristine jungle to reach a sheltered beach to find…oh…it’s covered in washed-up plastic crap and bulging bin bags of household rubbish. Strangely, for someone with such a pronounced selfish streak, I find the realisation that humanity is quickly choking itself to death less disturbing than the sickening thought that this stuff is likely to outlast the species by hundreds/thousands of years. Am I becoming a real hippy after all my years of pretending? Why should I care about the planet we leave behind? If I had to take a wild guess I’d say it’s because, for the first time in my life, I’m surrounded by nature.

Hint: this wasn’t the beach I ran to

Hint: this wasn’t the beach I ran to

I tell a friend about my encounter with oblivion later in the pub. This is the same islander with whom I marvelled at the praying mantis (‘Monty’) who gusted onto my rooftop the first night I spent here. By this point I am wearing flares made of jungle palm and smoking a conch shell pipe. “You should have cleaned it up yourself,” he tells me. He has a point. Twelve months down the line, Nature Boy may respond to such instincts; although knowing him (i.e. me) he will have already moved on to the next fleeting obsession in his contrary existence. Fortunately for him, you and me there are several ongoing beach clean-up campaigns in Hong Kong that remind volunteers when and where to take action, providing a special boot up the fronds to those who would rather moan (albeit in an extremely eloquent way) than get on with it…

The Naked Islands Project

Hong Kong Cleanup


1. First dip

If you followed my last blog you’ll know, at least indirectly, that I’m a big fan of Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, the Russian-born novelist whose prose is more imaginative than that of any native English speaker I’ve read (now there’s a conundrum for any word diver, straight off the bat). Our Vlad also nailed a tale about the destructive power of sexuality in Lolita (though from lingering aversions some fifty years on you’d think he’d nailed her). Less controversially, in his leisure time Nab nailed (or rather pinned) countless butterflies as a notorious lepidopterist.

snowdenus exilus

snowdenus exilus

Too effete even to rise to that small brutality I thought I’d share some photos of those that often accompany me on my short and sweaty runs here in Hong Kong, identified in the Latin with the help of Google’s new Nature Translator, designed for those who thought they saw something flapping but ‘…it might have been a drone or something.’

cyleungus flappus

cyleungus flappus

Gentle reader, if only I could promise you that this blog will seek only to entertain you with such mild fancies, but as I try to nail the writing career that has eluded me thus far, there is always a chance I might get radical, rude or rapacious. You have been warmed…

bugus everywhereus

bugus everywhereus