This month is something of a milestone for me. 20 years ago, on my 40th birthday, I moved into the village of Hoi Ha at the far end of Sai Kung Country Park. With a baby on his way from Mother’s Choice, we couldn’t stay in the tiny apartment we were renting at Floral Villas because our bed filled one bedroom and our wardrobes and desk the other – there was nowhere for a baby’s cot. We couldn’t afford a house on the estate, and were ready for a change as we were somewhat fed up with the mild steel pipes rusting through regularly and finding our sodden carpet in several inches of water. The termites, of course, had a field day and even ate the parquet floor once they had finished with the kitchen units. The day we left, we cheerily waved goodbye to neighbours who were lined up outside with buckets, waiting for their daily ration of water. We were moving to a village that didn’t have water at all – well, not Government water. With village water coming off the hills, no green minibuses or TV reception, and situated 16 km from the nearest shop, we were considered rather eccentric.
Our arrival coincided with a really cold Chinese New Year. As temperatures plunged to 4 deg C, and neighbours continued to eat outside as it was exactly the same temperature inside as it was out, we wondered how on earth we would keep the baby warm. We wrapped him up like Bibendum, the Michelin Man, and thanked the stars for oil-filled radiators, while pulling wooly hats down to our noses, and investing in fingerless gloves from which blue fingers emerged as we keyed in the news on our Amstrad word processor that we were now Proud Parents – no internet in those days.
The village then was very different from what it is now. Few people lived there, some expats and a few indigenous who, even then, were in the minority. There was a handful of villagers, just 3 families, all with the surname of Yung. Ah Ling up at the top was a wonderful gardener and would share cuttings with me and her knowledge of medicinal plants, pointing out the one that is used in the treatment of childhood Leukemia. She had a small restaurant where you could sit surrounded by her flowers, and eat juicily tender squid.
Sadly, she and her husband both died from cancer within a short space of time. Mrs Yung down at the bottom end of the village kept chickens that she’d slaughter outside our kitchen window before the Bird Flu scare, and became very fond of my son. She warned me when he arrived that Chinese children do not drink orange juice and I should be sure to give him plenty of congee; she’d check up regularly that I was heeding her advice. I crossed my fingers as I reassured her. She gave him his very first haircut. I came home one day to find him perched on a stool, with a copy of the Racing Times wrapped round his neck as she carefully snipped away with her scissors. The other indigenous lady we always called Paw Paw. The 3 ladies divided up between them the agricultural land in front of the Temple and grew their own vegetables, Mrs Yung always wearing her Hakka hat with a red tassel on the side to depict that she is a married lady. The ladies would go down to the beach together carrying baskets suspended from bamboo poles which they filled with starfish to use as fertilizer. Nobody farms any more, and the agricultural land has been sold off to developers.
In February 1996, Hoi Ha was already a Site of Special Scientific Interest, an SSSI. Growing up a ‘townie’ and having worked in concrete jungles, I’d wake up in the mornings and look out over the bay, totally blown away by the thought that seahorses were out there. Just weeks after moving in, I became involved in environmental action for the first time – husband was away, of course. An action-packed joint Canadian-Hong Kong film was being made on the beach.
Actors dressed as soldiers were firing blanks, and a speedboat was filled with explosives and positioned near the jetty ready to be detonated. I pointed out that they couldn’t do that as they were very close to the coral, the bay was an SSSI and was on the point of being designated a Marine Park. I contacted the WWF for help who rang the Police, and the actors started shooting at my feet to scare me away. Not deterred, I rolled up my trouser legs and, wading out towards the explosive-filled boat, defied the technician to drop the plunger. I waited, the Police didn’t come, and as there was little point in seeing who would rust first, I reluctantly left the water, was given a pair of ear defenders by the film crew, and the boat was blown sky-high. The Police did turn up later that night and stopped the filming – I later heard that a few bottoms were kicked over the incident as they should have responded and stopped the detonation in the first place.
With the Rule of Law not quite extending as far as our village (still the same today), big bangs during Chinese New Year were common place. The villagers would buy massive fireworks, more like missiles, from a lady from the Mainland who arrived by boat. There appeared to be a particularly propitious place outside our house which was used as the firework lighting ground. Mrs Yung would warn us to cover our son’s ears and the explosions seemed to rock the house. It was the ones in the middle of the night that would wake us up, our hearts racing, and terrify our young son. The older villagers would shed years as they took great delight in bashing tunes out on the gongs kept at the Temple. The music hasn’t changed but the fireworks certainly have.
Dynamite fishing was commonplace when we first moved into the village. The biggest explosion of all, though, was a couple of years after we’d taken up residence. Dave had been repatriated from Sri Lanka, where he’d been injured when the Tamil Tigers blew up the World Trade Centre in Colombo. He was just settling down with his injured leg comfortably raised when, as he ripped off the pull tab on a can of beer, there was an almighty explosion that rattled the windows, and raised his blood pressure so much that blood spurted out of his wounds. Villagers ran around the village, thinking that a gas bottle had exploded. It turned out that the police had found a cache of dynamite on the other side of the Bay. The Bomb Disposal Squad decided it was unsafe to be moved, and blew it up in situ. Oblivious to the fact that sound travels particularly well over water, they hadn’t alerted the residents of Hoi Ha, assuming that we wouldn’t hear the explosion. Dave had a succession of apologetic senior policemen visit and telephone him over the next few days. An ex-Fighter Pilot who had survived 17 years in the RAF without anything worse than a snowball being lobbed at him, it wasn’t until he joined Cathay Pacific that he was injured in a war zone – to be caught up in 2 explosions in one week was quite something.
When we first moved to Hoi Ha, there seemed to be more smugglers than tourists. A handful of hikers might pass through occasionally at weekends, stopping off at the View Store for fried rice and bottles of HKDNP-stamped Tsingtao beer (Hong Kong Duty Not Paid), but few people had heard of Hoi Ha, and there was no public transport to the village. All that changed during the SARS outbreak in 2003. The Government urged citizens to get out into the countryside, and suddenly the village and road were gridlocked with people. Tour operators spotted a gap in the market and coaches, as many as 30 a day, would drive to Hoi Ha, blocking the road. Thousands of tourists arrived wearing surgical masks, which they even wore while swimming and then discarded on the beach. Shortly thereafter, the WWF opened their Hoi Ha Wan Marine Education Centre with extensive advertising and suddenly sleepy Hoi Ha was on the tourist map. AFCD figures one year quoted the figure of 96,000 visitors to Hoi Ha. There still isn’t the infrastructure to cope with tourists, and no safe access into the Marine Park.
DHL hasn’t changed much. They will not deliver to Hoi Ha because we are, apparently, so remote. We may only be a 45-minute drive to Central via the Western Harbour Crossing tunnel, but there is a psychological barrier; we may as well be living in the Outer Hebrides or on Planet Mars. We were rather taken aback when documents were returned to our Landlady in Singapore with the message that Hoi Ha is a restricted area that DHL cannot access. We wrote to the company pointing out that their current advertisement campaign showed them delivering to the North Pole, so why not to Hoi Ha? The documents were duly delivered the next month, addressed to the Newberys, Hoi Ha Village, North Pole.