I travel countries, but what I seek is to travel time
In 1960s Hong Kong the journey from duty-free shopping to imperial China only took a matter of hours.
Off the beaten track, in the New Territories, were walled and moated villages, fortified against pirates, rival clans and tigers.
It was not far past dawn when my friend Gerry and I explored. The early light still thin, the sun soft, a lull before the summer heat solidified. We had to go early because by mid-morning, we needed to be rigging our boat for sailing in a regatta. Gerry already had one eye on the weather. A wisp of grey cloud ahead had an olive tint.
We parked my mini tardis some distance away
In the wall of the fortified village was a plain entrance, like a door frame, and we passed through to a narrow winding alleyway that squeezed in on us. At first we thought the village deserted, left to robust pigs rooting the rubbish in company with small-time chickens.
Curious, we wandered on, past rows of closed grey-black houses flat-facing the path.
The crones appeared
Some old crones appeared in front and behind and blocked us in the confined space. They started to pat my pockets and held their hands for coins, good-natured cackle rising and persistent.
Then, from nowhere, a terrible utterance broke over us. A shockingly deformed man leapt at our little convocation and the women scattered shrieking with laughter and melted into the walls.
I took fright and grabbed Gerry's arm. No part of the man was complete, his face contorted, his body twisted. Gerry smiled and extended his hand. The man hooked a withered arm, beckoning us through the village, past closed doors, and little temples, scruffy and littered, back to the entrance and pointed to a decrepit notice board and a money slot. In English the faded writing asked for donations for the upkeep of the village.
Gerry had slowed his pace to match the man's gait
They talked as they went. What about, neither of them knew, for they had not a word in common, but between them was a communion of souls that I could not enter because I could not fully overcome my horror.
In those villages only the old and infirm held on, scratching an existence, the young had long gone, sometimes far, far away, to America, Europe, blown off by the winds of change and opportunity.
Hong Kong's deserted villages spring to life
I thought back to that early morning expedition when I read in an article that Hong Kong's abandoned villages, deserted for decades, may be about to get a make-over. Some descendants see an opportunity to repopulate, farm the land and create an eco-tourist opportunity - to let visitors glimpse a living history.
Some villages hadn't been lived in for thirty years
As I read, my heart beat with conceited superiority; after all I'd been there in the old days. Then I remembered that crippled man.
Destination heritage village
But part of me still felt irritated. Are our imaginations so blunted that we can't just walk the ruins? Must everything be presented hygienically to be tourist-correct? I suspect the planning authorities will insist on a prescribed number of toilets and rubbish bins, fatuous notices about step-minding, a souvenir shop and a car park.
And yet ...
Raymond Fung, once a Hong Kong government architect, sees no need to build more tourist attractions. "We need to showcase the quality of our city - and that's our countryside and our culture." For an architect to say a city is overbuilt is so encouraging, but he went further. "The quality of a city's brand is not derived from shopping." Let me repeat that, because when I read it, I did just that:
"The quality of a city's brand is not derived from shopping."
Fung made me think. If the choice is between another Disney Land or Water World and a revitalised Hakka or Punti village, then I know which I'd rather. What I think Hong Kong might get though is a Disney Land Hakka village in all its commercially viable glory.
Time travel can be a selfish satisfaction
And in the scheme of things, I have effortlessly travelled time. Hong Kong's duty-free shopping in the 1960's offered cutting edge technology - a transistor radio, a View-Master, a cassette deck - all so coveted! All so old hat!
If you'd like to read more, here are the articles I enjoyed: