Nebula; Or a Trip to the Peak
About one week after my arrival in Hong Kong, on a punishingly hot and humid Monday in late August, I began making my way towards the Peak, the highest point in the western half of Hong Kong Island, of which I knew little except that it was the exclusive residential area of the western merchant and administrative elite in an earlier part of the British colonial period and that, today, it houses a well-heeled elite who reside with a battalion of overseas domestic helpers in mansions and tony apartments, which, as is tirelessly repeated by the media and by common observers with an incredulous shake of the head, command some of the highest property prices anywhere on our planet. I set out around noontime from the old Wan Chai Post Office, perched on the corner of the bustling Queen’s Road East and the quiet scenic trail known as the Wan Chai Gap Road. The pleasant and unassuming post office building, which had now been singled out for heritage preservation, was once a recognisable point on the old Queen’s Road but stands today dwarfed and encircled by modern tower blocks.
Climbing up the winding path of the Wan Chai Gap Road means proceeding through the upper edges of urban sprawling, until the city slowly releases its grip and gives way to a thick tropical vegetation that spreads across the hillsides. One need only walk a short way up the hiking trail before the acrid air of exhaust fumes trapped within the maze of city high-rise is replaced by dense, tropical, damp air. On the trail that morning I saw rather few people, the majority of whom were in seniority, and half of whom, to my complete amazement, were walking backwards, struggling to maintain a steady walk and every now and again looking back over the shoulder to steer clear of obstacles. This peculiar sight, which one should not readily attribute to senior confusion or some infirmity of mind, is in fact the old practice of backward walking, performed in many Asian countries since ancient times. Proponents of this time-honoured exercise form speak of multiple benefits that include better cardiovascular and calorie-burning workout, prevention of knee osteoarthritis, relieving lower back pain, and the exercise of balance and cognitive control. However, as I went to sit in the shade in a small resting pavilion to the side of the trail to regain my breath, it seemed to me that the only major physical consequence to follow this most eccentric mode of locomotion were likely to be back ache and a severe stress to the neck muscles from the constant twisting to see where one is walking and avoid collision with others.
At this stage of the walking trail, no more than about 300 or 400 metres up the hillside and at a point where the gradient looked to become impossibly steep, I had finally managed to wriggle free of the upper edges of urban development, but concerted efforts to avoid exhaustion, measure my breathing, and to walk slowly, with an indifferent, metronomic motion, had all been to no avail, and the fierce, stagnant noontime heat had brought a trickle of sweat running down my forehead. The tamed, sporadic vegetation of the Wan Chai streets had given way to a deep, impenetrable green of trees and shrubs, ferns and bamboos covering the precipitous slopes on either side of the walking trail. A few signs along the route called attention to native woodland trees, such as the evergreen Chinese banyan, the deciduous Chinese hackberry, and the lofty red kapok, also known as the cotton tree, with its most appealing pagoda-like structure and comely crimson flowers (appearing in spring-time and thus too early for me to appreciate). The signs also helped me spot the Indian rubber tree, like the banyan tree another evergreen and one whose robust vitality is evident in its dense foliage, sprawling crown and profusion of dangling aerial roots. So dense and vigorous is this hillside vegetation that any person finding himself in the midst of it must assume its existence here since time immemorial. Yet as I know from my perusal of numerous photo books of the coffee table book variety found in the city’s bookshops and museum shops, the peaks of Hong Kong Island were uncultivated in the early days of the colony. As can be readily gleaned from these volumes, with their mesmerising black-and-white pictures of the landscapes, buildings, and peopled streets of old Hong Kong, efforts to plant the mountains and hillsides gained momentum from the late 1870s onwards. Before then, the hills looked more akin to a lunar landscape, with their dark, rugged, cratered terrain strewn with rock fragments and rubble, and hence the earliest written accounts we have of Hong Kong Island, penned by western residents and visitors, invariably refer to it as a barren rock, a barren rugged island or some similar description (never leaving out the word ‘barren’).
Programmes for the planting of Hong Kong began in earnest from 1873 when Charles Ford assumed the position as Superintendent of the Government Botanical and Tree Planting Department. In that year Mr Ford, looking out of the window from his office in Victoria, now known as Central, noted that ‘the modest number of trees planted serve only to remind one the more painfully of the glaring bareness of the surrounding hills’. However, with his incessant application of watchfulness and energy, a million trees per year were soon being planted, mostly the tall and graceful native pines and other hardy classes of plants. Obstacles to such an ambitious programme of forestation were numerous and included the devastating impact of typhoons, scourges of herbivorous caterpillars, illegal logging for timber and firewood on a vast scale, and fires caused mostly by locals who came to burn incense at the many ancestors’ tombs scattered around the hillsides.
In 1891 Mr Ford noted with contentment that areas of planted trees ‘have attained to sufficient dimensions to catch the eye from adjacent or distant roads’ and that they produce ‘a most marked and beautiful effect compared with the once barren and naked appearance of the hills’. Here speaks the superintendent of forestry, firmly planted in the proudest British tradition of horticulture and forestation, who takes professional pleasure, for both aesthetic and practical reasons, in seeing lush vegetation begin to cover the mountainous slopes of Hong Kong. But it is also the statement of a British civil servant in an alien territory who derives reassurance from seeing wild and craggy rocks transformed into a benign, verdant land. Indeed, the cliffs must have looked ominous to the early residents who inhabited a narrow rim of rocky land perched precariously between cliffs and sea. Looking to the north across the restless waves of Victoria Harbour they could see the peninsula of Kowloon and the high hills beyond which stretched the vast, dreamlike land of China, a land of terrifying threats and endless opportunity, vast and so little known. Looking towards the hills behind them they saw nothing but steep, wild and jagged peaks with no flesh, stripped down, their bones prominent and rocks sticking up fantastically. It is easy to imagine how, in some early day of the colony, in a fading twilight, a merchant in a more pensive moment (or maybe Superintendent Ford himself) would have gazed towards the points and precipices of Victoria Peak and felt they were staring into the black, scaly back of a mighty dormant dragon, which could awake from its slumber any moment, shake the houses off like ashes scattered to the wind, and, with one fabulous gesture, dip its head into the water to assuage itself.
The judicious selection of hardy trees and shrub, or what Charles Ford, with the habitual elegance of expression that characterised his annual reports for the government’s Botanical Department, referred to as ‘clothing the granite with arborescent vegetation’, was a process of great significance and one approached with extraordinary care and dedication in the final decades of the nineteenth century. It was also a process which was not entirely unrelated to the efforts of the Chinese villagers in the sparsely populated rural Hong Kong, who, on the advice of local geomancy experts, would cultivate native, lush forest on the slopes behind a village to enable sustainable, positive fung shui and a proper harmony of man and nature. However, as I was straddling my way up the unbroken steep incline of the Wanchai Gap Road I felt no such harmony of man and nature. Here in the early afternoon, the thermometer had soared to unbelievable heights and an enveloping blanket of sticky, humid atmosphere had drenched my clothes and body. At the same time, as I exhausted my last ounce of energy climbing the final stretch of the Gap Road, scattered mists had begun to sweep by that rendered almost entirely impossible any glimpse of the city below through the tangled green of the forest.
At the end of the green Trail I found myself on a plateau with a roundabout where a few cars and busses went by on their way up or down the Peak, and where, perched on a small hillock, its entrance guarded by an old artillery field gun that pointed out over an empty parking lot, was the Hong Kong Police Museum, housed in the former Wan Chai Gap Police Station. From here I walked along the Peak Road, which wound its way undaunted around some of the most precipitous hillside in the area, and then continued upwards and inland, past exclusive property scarcely visible behind the porters’ lodges and high walls that seem as much designed to keep secrets in as they do to keep strangers out. Passing the window display of a local realty agent, I noted a property add for a new luxury development, a ‘secluded enclave’ on the Peak with security staff trained by the SAS special forces unit of the British Army and the grounds ‘protected by the most advanced military use thermal and infrared detectors’.
From these gated residential communities, which offered the privacy and discretion that everyone desires for their own reasons, emerged cars. The only people here who appeared to be doing any walking were the domestic helpers, predominantly of Philippine or Indonesian extraction, who dutifully exercised the dogs of the eye-pleasing and thick-furred kind which residents seem so intent on acquiring and yet so averted to walking themselves. On the pavement a few meters in front of me a meticulously groomed but bewildered and uncontrollable Siberian husky – a dog selectively bred for both its appearance and its ability to pull sleds across the snow – was dragging a diminutive but broad-shouldered Filipino in her twenties dressed in high-waisted denim shorts and a Hollister T-shirt the colour of apricots, who was attempting to watch the latest instalment of some soap opera on her rectangular portal. Looking like it was at the end of its wits, the dog was clearly intent on escaping, perhaps confusedly following some primordial instinct or a faulty homing beacon which spurred him on in one direction one moment, and in another the next. A little further on, walking in the opposite direction, was another dog of the same breed, this one walking at an infinitely slow pace with its head bowed, as if contemplating its grim and inexplicable fate of residing in a serviced apartment on Hong Kong’s Peak till the end of its days, routinely pulling a Filipino dog walker along narrow pavements instead of hauling heavy supplies on a sled across the white icy expanse of the Arctic. In both cases, dog and walker found themselves in a place to which neither entirely belonged, but where they had been brought together by the random lottery of destiny which so often seems to decide our terrestrial existence and fortunes.
Partly to avoid the sight of thick-furred canines panting in the sweltering and clammy heat, but also to escape the surprisingly heavy traffic of private cars and double-decker busses taking visitors to and from the Peak, I decided to take a right turn up the winding and tranquil Barker Road, which, as my map indicated, carved its way around the hillside and would eventually land me on the Peak proper and the upper terminus of the Peak Tram, undoubtedly the city’s foremost tourist attraction. Barker Road, named after the commander of British troops in China and Hong Kong, George Digby Barker who functioned as acting administrator of Hong Kong for 217 days in 1891, is one of several wonderful old roads that run skilfully across the contours of the terrain, managing to run nearly flat at an elevation of 360 metres above Victoria Harbour. The road I walked on was almost entirely walled in by immense fern fronds, thick bamboos and trees that gathered in to meet overhead, creating the striking effect of walking through a narrow cavernous passage, completely cut off from the traffic and clamour of the city. An electric power line on the slope below hummed in the stillness. At a point where the road curves gently into land, I walked past the backs of some large residential blocks whose fronts faced onto Peak Road and Severn Road that run above. These vast, blind cubes of dwelling rising stark from the quarried earth, their industrial-sized air ducts and cooling units droning audibly, seemed utterly indifferent to their circumstances.
The scattered mists that had swept by on the upper reaches of the Wan Chai Trail had by now rolled themselves into an intensely dense mass. These low-lying fog clouds enveloped everything on Barker Road and every tree and shrub on the surrounding hillsides, and they reduced my visibility to a minimum. I felt like bottling up the mysterious nebulous atmosphere for future inspection. As I groped my way through the fog banks, my senses registered continual changes in the density and temperature of this dim medium, which mixed and vibrated with sunshine in different proportions. In this otherworldly environment I seemed to be walking backwards as much as forwards. The air was raw, yet not altogether unpleasant to breathe: it was in no way related to the dismal pestilential vapours that engulf so many of the industrial centres on the Chinese mainland, with its objectionable sulphurous sting and yellow-tinged appearance. This atmosphere was pure condensed vapour; damp, saturated, and with a slight yet sharp odour of ozone. It got in the eyes; it got in the throat: inside it every breath required an effort. With the sweeping fog came chilly gusts and a drop in temperature, a startling contrast to the hot humidity and motionless air from the lower levels. Also, a light drizzling rain had begun that drummed gently on the lush vegetation around me, and released the petrichor scent, the sweet, earthy aroma so common when light rain falls on arid soil and so oddly pleasant to the human nose. Within a few minutes this light rainfall had developed into a steady downpour that showed no sign of abating. I continued my walk, looking through the flickering screen of dense fog clouds and through glasses that had misted over, for a place that could provide shelter.
I soon made out a large banyan tree that stood on a narrow strip of lawn in front of a large building. Extending its branches over well-nigh a quarter of an acre, this majestic growth was a world unto itself: its expansive aerial roots bowed down as low as the lawn, securing a firm hold into the ground; crawling towards me along the ground were innumerable meandering roots that resembled plumbing drains or thick cables, immensely powerful and unyielding, capable, I could easily imagine, of uplifting houses. The tangle of roots immediately called to my mind a cautionary note in one of Superintendent Charles Ford’s early forestry reports from the mid-1870s, around the time when this banyan tree must have commenced its growth, with respect of the ‘damage which in course of time must accrue to sewers, pavements and foundations of house-walls by the banyan’s long straggling surface roots, which travel to great distances in search of moisture, and insinuate themselves between the joints of stones which they eventually upheave’. The tree that now provided me with shelter on the Peak was a particularly elaborate and muscular specimen, an entire ecosystem, so it seemed to me, which harboured numerous other growths like fern and ivy, all growing on its immense tangle of horizontal roots and upward thrusting branches. On this exact spot, for almost a century and a half, nature’s plenty had been patiently and willingly multiplying and joining and growing.
The tree did, however, prove insufficient as a cover against what by now had become a mass of violently descending water. Large raindrops that had accumulated substance in the canopy above landed on my forehead with extravagant, audible splashes – they seemed to contain an ocean! I walked across a driveway the approximately 15 metres up to the building, which was barely visible through the blanket of fog and rain, and here I found myself now under the arcaded roof of the open veranda that ran along the front. A plaque on the wall informed me that this was the maternity ward, completed in 1921, of the Victoria Hospital, on whose first buildings construction began in 1897 in commemoration of the Queen’s diamond jubilee. Fifty years later, following severe damage to the buildings and the establishment of the nearby Queen Mary Hospital, the main part of the hospital was demolished and the maternity ward was converted into quarters for senior officers of the civil service.
A comely and rather graceful building in three levels, this old maternity ward blended with the surrounding hillside vegetation in a peculiar congruence, and gave a good impression of how many mid-level and Peak buildings looked prior to the near-entire obliteration of Hong Kong’s architectural heritage in recent times. The hospital building proudly displayed a front façade of red brickwork and masonry in a neoclassical style, with a row of tall Venetian style windows on the first and second floor giving the serene building an Italian Renaissance appearance. Standing on the open veranda in front of the closed main entrance, and looking down through a corridor of arched columns with discrete plastered relief decoration, I noticed a small porter’s lodge and through its half-open door I could see the cold, flickering glare from a few black-and-white surveillance screens; presumably a human being was inside that lodge though none was to be seen. I was curious to see if I was able to lure out this supposed person so I stomped my foot into the tile floor and managed a few coughs, and promptly a lady appeared, short and in every respect modest of stature, wearing a navy blue uniform one or two sizes too big with metallic buttons that gleamed faintly.
The lady moved towards me rather hesitantly. ‘This is not public’, she informed me succinctly, and made a half-hearted, somewhat nervous pointing gesture toward the notice mounted to the side of the front entrance with the words ‘Government Property. No Trespassing.’ When I explained rather self-evidently that I had come to seek shelter from the torrential rain and had no intention to enter the building she seemed relieved. Her jacket was too long and she hitched up her sleeves. The lady, probably in her late fifties, had a rather melancholy demeanour and small fine-featured face with a delicate nose; her black eyebrows were thinned and with a peculiar obstinate and somewhat irritating lift. On the right upper jaw, just below her ear lobe, was a round mole the colour and size of a ripe blueberry.
As soon as I told her that I had first sought shelter under the magnificent banyan tree her face lit up. She led the way across the open veranda towards the tree as far as we could go without exposing ourselves to the rain slanting down in the driveway in front of us. From this slightly raised platform we had a fine view of the tree, and her fond familiarity with the perennial green quickly became clear. She said that a crew had come to cut the branches four days ago, and that a few had broken off in a typhoon the week before. Demonstrating an eye for detail that took me by surprise at that moment, she told me that she had counted at least eight different types of birds that nestled in the tree’s canopy and fed on its fig fruits. We stood in silence for a while and looked at the tree. The screen of rain and fleeting cloud banks robbed colours of their intensity and gave the sight in front of us a veiled, otherworldly feel. It seemed as if the tree had its roots upward and its branches down. At the same time, and in almost the same words, we remarked that the tree looked like it grew from heaven and down. Surprised at the synchronicity we exchanged a glance and laughed, hers a shrill, sincere laughter. Slightly pushing my luck perhaps, but feeling that some rapport had been established between us, I said to her; ‘you know the tree so well, it’s a good friend.’ Her reply was, as everything she uttered, succinct and, in every sense of the word, true. ‘No, it’s not a friend; it’s just a tree.’ I had an irresistible prejudice in the favour of this lady, who seemed disposed entirely toward consistency and clarity.
I looked at the tree again, which one moment appeared as a spectre in a dim, unnatural light, the next it stood as an entirely clear structure to be studied in its minutest details. No other tree, it struck me, had been more deeply enveloped in folklore, fables and myth. It was under the banyan tree, sitting in its shade for forty-nine days, that the Buddha attained enlightenment; in Hinduism, the thick, elliptical green Banyan leaves represent the Vedic hymns, while the god Krishna finds his transcendent resting place in a single leaf of this tree. Through the ages the banyan has embodied a lesson of the infinitude and vastness of things. For a brief moment, it seemed to me that the tree might be able to provide answers to our most pressing problems if only we understood how to read it, that we might somehow be able to divine, from the seemingly unending expansion of roots and trunks and branches, guidance and reassurance for a mankind who has lost its way in the world.
I was abruptly awakened from such fruitless and frivolous speculation by a thunderous metallic hammering sound that came from somewhere nearby. ‘Too much water’, the uniformed lady remarked, and pointed with a smile to a place a little further up Barker Road. It took me a while to realise that the sound came from a manhole cover that was being repeatedly pushed up by the cascade of water rushing through the flooded drains, the entire riverine infrastructure of the Peak running beyond capacity. The unnerving and persistent clanging of the metal cover demanded attention like the lid on a boiling pot and suggested mighty forces below. It made me wonder if I had chosen to come to the Peak on an auspicious day when demons come to roam the earth and a flood drowns the city. And immediately I beheld before my mind’s eye a strangely satisfying vision in which an army of demonic creatures and grotesques of the nether realm came out through their trapdoors, accompanied, not by the blasting of trumpets, but by the deafening hammering of iron. On this day of reckoning, the mighty banyan would shudder and groan, and fated men would look up towards the Peak in horror, as the army descended on the city below to dispense its justice on mankind in the proper way, ensuring that each is judged according to the moral value of their actions and the sum of their offending behaviour.
Standing on the classical arched portico of the old Victoria Hospital, a remarkable transformation was now acted out in front of us: the rain and mist cleared abruptly to reveal an awe-inspiring vista of the city under a full, blue sky. What one moment was blanketed in a dense vapour now showed itself with an unprecedented lucidity, and a robust and brilliantly crisp light appeared to interrogate everything that it touched. The clamour from the manhole had seized.
The uniformed lady and I walked out from the covered veranda and down the few stairs onto the lawn where the banyan tree reigned. As we walked past the tree, she gently pulled at a few of the countless thread-like aerial roots that dangled from the canopy. A few birds that had been silent during the downpour when they had their heads in the clouds now began to sing their tunes from somewhere inside the canopy where they remained invisible to me. From the lawn we had an unobstructed view. In the horizon, sailing through the strait between Lantau and Hong Kong Islands, a freighter stacked high with containers was making its way slowly but determinedly towards the open sea and foreign markets; it seemed a marvel it could stay afloat. Behind the hills of Kowloon a rainbow slipped into view but quickly faded and disappeared. From up here we seemed at the brink of infinite space, and it felt like terrestrial gravity was about to release us at any moment. Most remarkably, a heavy and impenetrable fog had now settled as a blanket on the central parts of the city below and only the tallest points of some skyscrapers were visible above the cover; modernist megaliths protruding from the dense mist. It was a transformation that was simply confounding. Together we gasped at this most striking of nature’s alienation effects, which suspended standard visual perspective and made an abstraction of the city.
The uniformed lady told me that she had worked as security staff at this former Victoria Hospital on the Peak for eleven years; ‘I like to be up here’, she said, ‘it’s quiet and I like the nature, not too many people’. Here on the Peak, she said, typhoons were a common occurrence and the thick fog was a frequent visitor, even to the point where sometimes she could hardly make out the contours of the banyan tree on the lawn just across from her porter’s lodge. When I asked her if she had seen the city below so shrouded in mist she answered in the affirmative, and added with a smile, ‘but not often, this is special. You’re lucky’. Her talk was characterised by precision and the short, lapidary statement. She had composure, a great stillness; her eyes were alert and acutely observing. On a few occasions in our brief conversation she gave way on the slightest provocation to a short, somewhat uncontrollable laughter, which I took to suggest some initial unease with speaking to a stranger or with English being our means of communication.
Hers was a bird’s eye perspective on the city. And above all it was a view of the predominance of water, the water that the pedestrian is prone to forget when walking through the labyrinthine infrastructure of the city, walled in by reflecting glass facades and tower blocks, which themselves have been erected on land reclaimed from the sea. She could observe the diligent Star Ferries criss-crossing between the Island and Kowloon, and the turbo ferries taking people to shop and gamble princely sums in the opulent pleasure-domes of nearby Macau. But from this vantage point the city of Hong Kong itself became an abstraction, a testament to human industry, engineering, and corporate might, all accompanied by the constant subdued, monotone humming from traffic and countless air condition units. From up here, everyday human dramas were shorn away. Here one was removed from the busses and trams busy at it along their preordained routes; removed from banks opening and closing and fortunes made and lost; here was no trace of the smell of dried seafood wafting from the street markets. Out of sight were neon and urbanity, horses galloping round the race tracks, and thousands upon thousands of overseas domestic helpers who on one day in the week – their one day off – move into the city’s public spaces only to vanish again in the blink of an eye. Scarcely noticeable from up here would have been the gathering of the youth of Hong Kong, who for nearly three months in a not very distant past peacefully occupied the main thoroughfares of the city to campaign for democracy and fair elections, and for the briefest of moments received the attention and sympathy of the entire world. Also invisible to the observer on Barker Road were the masses of impoverished elderly amassing recyclable cardboard or plastic for a meagre but essential income, all the while affluence and pleasure roll off the assembly line in a perverse and dazzling city. Should one ever go down to the lower world?
And here we stood, in the silence of a wonder. Beneath us was a marvellous melting fata morgana under a fully exposed blue sky that stretched away to infinity; it was a sight that seemed to evoke in terms of space something like what eternity may evoke in terms of time. In the city far below, a few vast edifices protruded from the dense cover of low-lying fog, like mirages of desert islands. The impenetrable fog now appeared like a thick primordial soup, from which emerged a few forebodings of our capacity to wreak an inordinate amount of havoc on our surroundings. It felt, for a moment, as if the uniformed lady and I were the sole survivors of a species – two individuals who had sought elevated terrain and thus managed to survive a deluge. Gently, the lady leaned forward into the warming rays of the sun and the strong scent of lush, wet vegetation. ‘And now there is so much sunshine’, she stated simply.
It was time for me to continue my walk. I intended to proceed further up Barker Road and then arrive at the upper terminus station of the Peak tram and the Peak Tower from where I could take a bus down into the city centre. All was clear according to my map, but I still asked the uniformed lady for directions to the Peak station. To my surprise she shook her head, ‘I’m not sure. I only walk that way’, she said and pointed down the road whence I had come. It became clear to me that she had never contemplated walking onto Barker Road and turning left in the direction of the Peak Tower; when leaving the old Victoria Hospital, for more than ten years, she only ever turned right, down the peaceful road with the dense overhanging vegetation and running streams, where drifting aqueous vapours would sometimes make it difficult to retain one’s senses, and down to Peak Road from where she could connect to the public transportation that would deliver her to a residence somewhere in the city. That I had a world of my own, a destination did not seem to have been conceived by her. It struck me how our encounter was singly in and of that moment and made meaningful by the shared observation of nature’s wonder and transformation. I knew nothing about her; where and how she lived, if she was married and had children; I could never know how she felt when looking from the city below up towards the old hospital on the Peak to see if even the minutest part of it could be glimpsed through the covering hillside vegetation.
I walked onto Barker Road and turned left. Having walked a short distance I looked back: the uniformed lady stood in sunshine on her little platform under the delicately vaulted roof, erect and solitary, belonging to the sunshine, the weather, and to the mighty banyan; she seemed entirely of that place. The comparatively miniature and graceful proportions of the building stood out in the bright sunshine, all was framed by greenery and overarched now by a radiant blue sky. The lady stood like a signora of a Venetian palazzo filled with unfathomable treasure. And then she waved. It was an attractive wave accompanied by a smile, fingers outstretched, moving from side-to-side heartily, not too quick a movement, just right, but it seemed somehow like a breach of decorum, incongruous, or perhaps even frivolous, for she seemed, after all, a person who could not startle a butterfly, her manners, like her speech, restrained, even to the point of being self-effacing. I found her kind, like she had grasped the awful need for kindness. I returned the wave and walked along Barker Road, having taken the left turn.
As I walked here in the sunshine, in startling contrast to the violent downpour of an hour ago, I was immersed in a stillness such as is scarcely to be found anywhere today in the orbit of our civilized world. Not a breath of air seemed to circulate or a leaf to move; clearly all the atmospheric elements were pausing to meditate on what should be done next. I crossed the tram line a little further up the road, from which point, at the charming little Barker Road intermediary station, passengers could board the funicular railway for the ride into Central, or, less likely perhaps, continue the less than 150 meters uphill to the Peak Tower terminus. I stood for a while looking at the two thick steel cables that moved the ascending and descending carriages in near-perfect counterbalance and I found that they moved with such speed that it was impossible for the human eye to tell which pulled up and which down; from where I stood, no carriage was yet in sight up or down the track.
Walking a little further uphill from the Barker Road Station, I was soon delivered to the back of the Peak Tower, the strikingly designed shopping and entertainment complex whose lower level houses the Peak tram station. I walked around to the plaza in front of the Tower and went into a convenience shop to buy a cold beer to enjoy in the sunshine, while contemplating the inevitability, most befitting the ethos of Hong Kong, of constructing a commercial mall in one of the most attractive natural sites that this land has to offer, and then to promote it as ‘a major tourist attraction’. The Peak Tower is a disturbingly incongruous and eccentric construction erected into a natural depression in the green landscape, the Victoria Gap, towards which the Peak Tram, as the first funicular tram railway in Asia, has been making its way since the year 1888. Completed in 1997 and its shape famously described as a wok, the Tower consists of a building in semi-circular shape with a large viewing terrace on top, the entire structure raised aloft on four towers with two outdoor staircases leading up to the floors above. At some stage in the building’s short history, the large open space beneath the suspended ‘bowl’ was glassed in, the inside filled up with floors and escalators to maximize the amount of retail space, and the front dominated by large advertising banners, everything about the building in its current form suggesting an entire commercialization of space. That we have been able to sanction such ugliness surely betokens mankind’s fall from grace. I immediately thought of the tourists in their thousands who every day step off the tram (truly a worthy icon of the city and one possessing a certain grandeur) and into this unbearable building; unbearable, that is, from the very moment they step off the tram and are whisked into this ‘design icon of the city’. Once inside, where everything stinks of mechanical money pleasure everywhere, the immense throngs of consumers jostle for space and are goaded up escalators and led round brand shops, overpriced eateries, and souvenir boutiques in which immense quantities of rubbish are palmed off upon the public. Intentionally absent or misleading signage keeps visitors inside for a maximum time. Here, it seemed to me, we had an outstanding representation of the circles of hell, but laid out in an ascending order.
Anyone who contemplates such dreadful abomination for much more than a few minutes will surely be overcome by a severe vertigo; so, relaxing in the warm, swimming light, I leaned back on my bench and had a last sip of beer, closed my eyes and resigned myself to a light slumber. In that intermediate point between sleep and wakefulness, I saw before me the uniformed lady, this solitary sentinel, this custodian of the mighty banyan, who, as she walked down the stairs to the old maternity ward and passed the tree on the lawn, had to touch this tree, had to pull at some of its hanging aerial roots that came down from heaven, like a handshake almost, with discernable affection and as if to test their strength. On that raw afternoon when nature wore a great deal of white, I had first groped my way through the dense fog on Barker Road, where I felt like a pioneer navigating the North-West Passage, and then, only a little later, in silent recognition, the two of us, strangers to one another, stood and looked, transfixed by the whirlpool of mist that had descended on the city beneath the dome of an infinite sky. Like everything that is wonderful it had a touch of the surreal and ghostly about it.
When some of the early nineteenth-century colonialists valiantly scaled this summit of Hong Kong Island and observed the terrain around them they must have thought that they inhabited fragments of land seemingly disjointed from the continent by some sudden violent convulsion of nature. For them, as we know it from several early written accounts, it was exceedingly difficult to imagine a genesis, a settlement of residences, warehouses, and offices in this rocky and inhospitable terrain. However, for us on that day, when the city seemed obliterated, it was impossible to imagine anything coming after; it felt as if we were bearing witness to the vanishing point of human history. I say ‘we’, but of course this was mostly, perhaps I should say exclusively, a manufacture of my own imagination, for I could never know what went through the mind of my companion on that day. Yet this seemed of little consequence. She was a lady of few words, to be sure, but also, I felt equally certain, an amiable person who was capable of full and intense observation. As regards myself, I speak here as a common observer, not as an aesthete or philosopher; I observe surfaces and the reflection of surfaces, and I know how what is observed makes itself felt on my nerve endings, so to speak. On that day, as on so many days since, I walked around with my eyes wide open, always ready to be side-tracked, entirely open to the serendipity and to the variable and discordant assembly of sensations and perceptions that the unplanned walk can offer.
With all this in mind, it now seemed clear to me that this lady had to be unable to offer me directions. The lady had never even contemplated turning left on Barker Road; for years and years she had never contemplated taking that left turn. Rather, invariably, she turned right, down the longer part of Barker Road, where so often the stagnant air is thick with a fierce, hot, spiced moisture, where all one’s senses are roused, a path of pure substance. I think it cannot be put any other way than that, for her, as well as for me as I now understand, the right way was indeed the right way. On her path she met only people who were behaving natural, even including those determined souls who chose the eccentric mode of backward walking; but had she turned left on Barker Road to end up at the Peak Tower she would have encountered people who behaved unnatural because they had been inserted into a place so utterly inimical to the mind, the intellect, and to the human spirit. The Peak Tower, it stands to reason, is the antithesis of all that is natural, being the very excrescence of a mindless and unimaginative age.
Imagine if one day, in a rare moment’s absent-mindedness, the lady accidentally turned left – this lady for whom to take the left turn, in fact to take the left turn, had never even crossed her mind – and she was absorbed into the maelstrom of day-visitors, much contrary to her will, only to be forced through this utterly repugnant consumerist maze. Dumbfounded and perturbed, she would perform an about-turn, turn in her tracks as it were, and run away in extremity of haste, it being a running of panic, undoubtedly surprised at the physical abilities she never knew herself to possess. All the people on the Peak would turn their heads and gasp in awe at the nimbleness and sheer power of this uniformed lady who was of small stature and evidently in the autumn of her life. Or what if, once inside the Tower, she simply could not get out and was forced to further confront, and that in excruciating detail, a sight that was dismal or dreadful – or rather dismal and dreadful – and then eventually she would end up on the outdoor viewing platform, the so-called Sky Terrace, where she would be asked by hired photographers in a tone of feigned politeness not to stand in their way as they take people’s holiday or wedding photos for exorbitant sums of money. Finally, as one merciless coup de grace, the lady would find herself standing on this viewing deck face to face with that ultimate horror of modern urban self-expression, the railing with the inscribed padlocks put up by lovelorn backpackers and enamoured teenagers, who believe that their pathetic love-lock ritual can mitigate against love’s fragility, whereas, in fact, the locks only remain until rust corrosion takes its course or the locks are taken down by the authorities who rightly view them as vandalism on a par with graffiti.