Life on a Small Island

So I’m back after a few years’ hiatus tied down to a desk. Jolly good it was, too, but it did rather suck all the words out of me.

Having fled for the wilds of an informal life once more, I’ve settled on a little island in Hong Kong. Most of my friends, if they had even heard of the place, worried about how I would survive somewhere so remote. It’s too small to bother with having cars – which, joyfully, means no traffic noise beyond the thudding of ferries and fishing sampans. Perfect for contemplation. Yet, contrary to their misconceptions, Peng Chau is one of the best connected islands in Hong Kong (shh, don’t tell everyone). In any event, I’m hardly on the hunt for a social life if I am to get down to the business of writing a book.

It’s not like there aren’t plenty of distractions even without a happening party scene. It took me years to appreciate the wonders of Hong Kong’s hiking trails, but the weather lately has been perfect to enjoy the hills. And because Hong Kongers love to get out of the urban jungle into the tropical one there are miles of paths. These range from concrete-covered to ribbon-marked, red streamers tied to bushes deep in the undergrowth offering the only sign that there is a way ahead.

I went to explore the island today, following a coastal path that hopped from beach to beach. Winding back into the village, it passed torturous flights of stairs you cannot imagine a resident contending with every day, let alone any removals man who might have carried their belongings there.

One problem with the ubiquity of the trails is that once you become used to exploring, you start to think every path will end at a hilltop viewpoint or a shady pagoda. In the villages these more often than not lead to a tucked away front door, or a vicious dog kept to deter the nosy day tripper who wanders too far into the houses. The wiser residents have posted signs advising of no through road – but I’m still tempted.

Despite the absence of normal cars there is some motorised transport. I’ve spotted a postman Pat-esque mini ambulance doing the rounds, and the rubbish is collected by people blessed with the sort of skills usually found at an all you can eat salad bar. A tiny flatbed not more than a couple of metres square can end up piled several metres high, the sides built out with scrounged doors and panels and the whole held down by a mattress topping. There is one regular vehicle: passing the fire station near the ferry pier the other day I noticed that alongside the three-quarters-sized vans we have a full-on fire engine. Hard to envisage how that would get to a disaster anywhere but the main square given the dearth of roads.

A slower pace prevails but we’re still in the technology age. Last weekend I passed a group of Buddhists releasing sea creatures back into the water, presumably to attain some sort of merit – and obviously ignoring the fact that the poor critters had to go through being caught first. Three monks sat shaded at a nearby table while the faithful lowered baskets of fish and crabs into the grubby water below. The two not on duty chanting the sutras through a pop-diva style microphone were fiddling with their mobiles.

Local activities revolve around tradition. Virtually every day during my first week here, small bands of musicians processed past my block, pipes wailing and drums and gongs clanging. During the second week the space outside the ferry hosted a makeshift shrine, and one day a lion dance followed me around the village, miraculously appearing several times around corners ahead of me. The island’s Tin Hau temple festival is an opportunity for rival societies and workers’ unions to take their drums and dancers out on show, and the whole village was involved in what turned out to be multiple dances. Nothing sleepy out here, just the swing of a more local life.