Sai Wan Swimming Shed is merely a 15 minute walk from the nearest MTR Station in Kennedy Town. Yet, it looks like decades away from all that Hong Kong is thought to be. Say Hong Kong and people across the world get images of a city of skyscrapers, of concrete and glass, of neon lights lit harbours.
And here is that beauty from the 1960s that must have seen thousands of hardy swimmers take a plunge into the South China Sea. This is also a place that gets perhaps the best sunsets in the city. Almost Always, a rarity in Hong Kong with its crazy and cloudy weather full of thunderstorms, and of course typhoons.
Once there were many in the town, scattered around city’s really long coastline. Then came the swimming pools and they started disappearing with Sai Wan Swimming Shed being the only one left. Hopefully it will survive as it has both: it’s loyal swimmers from decades and a new group of lovers: Instagrammers. Yeah, the modest swimming shed has become such an instagram sensation that one has to queue for hours to reach get a chance to walk over the beautiful shed.
Yet, the effort and the wait is absolutely worth it.
Pro Tip: Choose a weekday and you may cut the waiting time shorter by at least an hour. Pro Tip 2: Respect others, specially the swimmers as they have the first right to the shed. Also, do not take more than 15-20 minutes at the actual walkway as it inconveniences others. Also, do not peek into modest changing huts.
You can add to the adventure by adding a 2 hour long hike in the adjacent Mount Davis Hiking Path strewn with war time relics from the World War II. The place also marked the city boundary of the City of Victoria- the official name of Hong Kong then and you would find milestones marking that, old Army Batteries, structures, a private cemetery of the Euroasian community in Hong Kong (Bruce Lee is from the community). The hike is easy and rewarding especially on clear day for reflection pictures. A detailed post on that later.
Getting there: Take Exit B from Kennedy Town MTR station, then hop on any of the buses No.58, 58A or 59 and get off at Caritas Jockey Club Hostel Mount Davis. Then look for the Entrance as in the picture below. You can also walk along Victoria Road from Kennedy Town MTR station if you have time for taking in more views. It takes around 15-20 minutes.
And at the end, do not forget to bow down to the God Of Land, curiously blessing visitors in a swimming shed!
You have been living in Tai Po for over a decade, even I have not lived here for so long- said Mr. Cheung, the boy from Babhnan’s new landlord. They both smiled with cheers- he emigrated to Scotland long ago and lives there only. But for the coronavirus lockdown, he would have been back weeks before. 7 in one village, She Shan Tsuen, the boy added.
Tai Po is home far away from home he left behind in the Gangetic plains. When he first landed in Hong Kong 13 years ago, he knew that he got to find his hideout in this jungle of glass and concrete. He knew that he would not survive in the matchbox sized flats in the heart of the city, just like those incense trees which gave this city its name. Yeah, they, also called Agarwood, were the mainstay of city’s economy 400 years ago. Their aroma gave the city its name- Heong1 Gong2 (香港) – the Fragrant Harbour.
The boy soon found Tai Po- so part of the bustling city yet so different. An area which still sustained farming in one of the world’s finance capitals. A place which still had walled villages- reminiscent of the times gone by. One where most of the villagers know one another sheerly by the long term associations.
Ping Long in Lam Tsuen was his second home in the city, first in the area. Soon the real first, in Kak Tin village was just a pleasant memory- at times longing for the short walk to the nearest superstore from there. Now the nearest one is almost 4 kilometers and a 20 minutes bus ride away. He remembered his village some 3,300 kilometers away. It doesn’t have a superstore nearby even today. The good grocery shops are all at least 3 kilometers away there as well.
So are the roads, dividing agricultural fields on both the sides. And the greetings, the language barrier might have ensured that you don’t know each other by the name, but you both have lived in the village long enough to sustain a wave, and a conversation with gestures.
Tai Po, in fact, is much more than the Lam Tsuen. One part of it is an industrial area, with hundreds of factories. Many of them, of course, abandoned with most of manufacturing shifted to mainland China over the decades. Yet, quite a few chimneys still blowing smoke in the skies, one of the biggest signs of civilsation.
There, then is the Lam Tsuen river which walks you through to the sea. A river just about 5 kilometers long, originating in the Tai Mo Shan, the tallest peak in the city and emptying itself in the Tolo Harbour. Even Manvar, the river that flows by his village is much longer, the boy remembered. He remembered Tai Mo Shan too- a hike with over 5 waterfalls, unbelievable for the most who know his city only by the post cards they get and the channels they watch. This is a hike which brings people from all over the city. Also the one which took him over 5 years to take upon as the base of the hike was just about 15 minutes walk from his home- would do someday!
And the islands that technically fall under the district despite many of them being over an hour and a half away by ferries. At least two of them, Tung Ping Chau, the abandoned island and a geopark of world importance and Tap Mun are far more closer to the mainland than the city. The boy had to know, once he got a super inflated phone bill after all. When he inquired with the service provider, he was told that he was using roaming data from China. He had seen Shenzhen on the other side of the sea, he had forgotten to turn off roaming though!
And then there is the Wishing Tree- 10 minutes from his home where the whole city descends during the Chinese New Year making wishes and throwing mandarins up in the air. Wishing, also, that they get stuck on the tree, and guarantee that they come true. Just like the Peepul tree back in his village people flock to. Languages, cultures, rituals- all may be different. Yet, there are a few things that fundamentally unite the humanity and the humans.
It was a beautiful, sunny, and oh not so humid morning of March 2007 when a bright streak of light woke the boy from Babhnan with a start. He looked out of the window and it felt like the plane was about to land on water! He looked around, a little startled, saw everyone composed and so did he. A red eye flight, his first international one, he had taken 7 hours ago from Delhi had brought him to Hong Kong, the city he would soon call home.
Hong Kong. That was a full 6,000 years after humans first set foot in the territory. 2200 years after it became part of the Chinese Empire for the first time. 500 after the first European came here, Portugese Jorge Álvares.
Hong Kong: a jungle of concrete and grass. Where the East meets West. The financial capital of the world. And the Disneyland and the Ocean Park.
Local tip: If you must, go to the Ocean Park, it is so much better than the Disney.
The village boy was a little nervous, but he was armed with his most trusted weapon: a well rehearsed abandon bordering on disdain. Whole buildings of glass, so what? It is just the glitter. The Khadi kurta, rugged jeans and Hawai Chappal- the JNU uniform that got him many stares- from immigration to immigration was part of that abandon, a carefully rehearsed one, though.
He followed the crowd running to the immigration, pretending he was not, as if he had been clearing immigration since he was an infant. A faint smile ran through his cheeks. The memories of entering glass buildings when he had first come to Delhi were back. That careful look- on people behaving ‘normal’ and imitating them.
That was the only nervousness the boy would ever have with this city.
Hong Kong was nothing that those cinematic ‘establishing shots’ made it to be. Yeah, Victoria Harbour is beautiful, but it was only as much the city as is India Gate Delhi. The Peak too, only as much Hong Kong as Gateway of India was Mumbai.
Yeah, the ‘heart’ of Hong Kong is all glass and concrete. Provided you could call that place, always in flux with people moving in and out as they would from any financial hub Hong Kong in the first place. No one calls Dubai airport’s transit area Dubai, right? That glass and concrete part is only that much Hong Kong. People come here, mostly on short time assignments and go. Without even knowing the city.
Beyond that exist well-knit communities in villages 300 to 400 years old still farming. Many of them are still walled in a throwback to the times gone by.
The village boy immediately belonged here, settled in the first he took as home with windows looking at sprawling bonsai mandarin plantations on one hand and a lush green hill behind. It was not love at first sight, but a lifelong romance had begun.
A romance that would take him to the Tai Mo Shan- a hike traversing over 5 waterfalls, largest over a 100 meters in a row, in a single hike! Startled? The boy too was- only till he took a nice long swim in the natural pool in the third one. Or to the Tung Lung Fort built in 1722 to guard against the pirates. Or the Bride’s Pool- another waterfall combined with a beautiful valley praying for the wife who lost her life while crossing the waterways, after whom the waterfall took its name.
Or the stilted villages like Tai O with their unfolding bridges taking you straight to further south east- Vietnam and Cambodia.
And the villages with their centuries-old traditions living on for centuries- the dragon dances, the bun festivals in which a very rustic looking person sees you and you being the only non-Chinese there starts explaining the history and the ritual. And then that he is Vice President or this and that in HSBC or again, this or that!
And yeah, the small bunkers, now shrines, dug by the Hong Kongers who resisted the Japanese during World War II with all their might, often making the biggest of the sacrifices. And the sprawling parks in the middle of the city with retired elderlies playing Mahjong all day, often also babysitting their grandchildren as both the parents would have gone to work.
Hong Kong is now home. Yeah, I often feel sad seeing a few of the fields in front of my house disappearing every year, yet, happy that forests make for them. Yeah, forests cover over 26,400 hectares of the total area of Hong Kong, about 23.8%- much more than during the World Wars.
Come, visit my home. But please please please, not on those 2 nights 3 days packages. I can share with you some best-kept secrets for a longer and better rendezvous with this harbor I now call home.
There are cities in the world. And then there is Hong Kong. The only one. Yeah, there’s no city in the world like this one. You don’t believe me? Fine- name one in which you can come out off an all glassy mall selling the top most branded stuff and climb a hill- right away. Yeah. That’s Hong Kong.
Dragon Boat Race
Which other city in the world can you find an all new, just out of the showroom Mercedes waiting for a tram, locally called Ding Ding, pass by. Yeah, that too not as a ‘tourist trap’ but an actually functioning public transport system used by thousands of the locals like me for their daily commute.
Pok Fu Lam Dragon
And while we are at this- which other city have you seen using every possible mode of transport, of course barring bullock carts? We have ferries linking not merely outlying islands to the city but even parts of the city- like Star Ferry linking Hong Kong Island to Kowloon operating since 1873 in various forms and still using one built in 1956! Quirky fact here: The company was founded by an Indian Parsee merchant Dorabjee Naorojee Mithaiwala as the “Kowloon Ferry Company” in 1888- that 126 years before you know who became Prime Minister of where. We have tramways established in 1920s and still operatioal. And Samapans aka local, Chinese boats, and Metro Rail network, and buses, and mini buses and light rail and name it- we have it.
Cheng Chau Bun Festival
We are city which has the sea and the hills, and a jungle of concrete and glass and many real ones, falls 100 an dmore meters high and rivers mere 4 kms long. Of course we draw a lot of tourists because of this. And they come here with eyes dazzled with all the glitter and the organised chaos in its flea markets- Ladies Market in Mong Kok and Temple Street Market in Yau Ma Tei taking the cake.
Tradition can be sexy too!
They look at their travel guides and do the stuff- Must Visit in Hong Kong, 1 day in Hong Kong, 3 days in Hong Kong and all that! They religiously visit the Victoria Harbour- the identity of the city, its establishing shot as they call it in cinema studies, and the Victoria Peak which gives a magnificent view of the city of light (pollution) that gets instantly Instagrammed and Facebooked. Some of them do manage more of a real taste of the town and go to Tai O, the stilted village of our own, to Lamma Island and Cheung Chau where no motorized vehicles are allowed barring small ambulances and other necessary- government owned ones. Yeah, there are places in Hong Kong where no cars are allowed!
They do go to the overrated Disneyland, the real gem of a theme park named Ocean Park with rides turning you upseide down over the sea- scaring the crap out of you and to real big, 250 tons Big Buddha aka Tian Tan Buddha- mostly to find it hazy and misty- damn you Hong Kong weather! But then, most of then don’t really get the real feel of this city!
The feel that lives in its festivals! Hundreds and hundreds years old festivals still being celebrated with the same zeal and same way- sans of course the police, the medics and the tourists! They give you the real feel of the city- continually inhabited by homo sapiens since pre historic time but not much more than a fishing village till even 400 years ago and its transformation into the megapolis it became.
Watching these festivals can in fact stun you into an amazed silence! That high flying banker you always see in sapper business suits doing a lion dance dressed as a lion right to the head gear! That beautiful doctor you go to as much for flirting as for medicine playing the drum like a boss leading the real tall dragon that needs hundred and at times even more people to carry it!
My absolute favourites is the Fire Dragon Dance in Pok Fu Lam village that coincides with the Mid Autumn festival usually in Oct! Best part about this almost absolutely non touristy festival is the super long dragon taken to each and every house in the village to bless them maneuvering the real narrow lanes and by lanes. Added advantage: You could be the only “non Chinese” attending the same and thus given a pride of the place, like I was, with locals wanting to tell you all about it- that it is celebrated to thank the Gods who helped villagers fight a particularly nasty Plague that ravaged it centuries ago. Second best thing about this one is that unlike the Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance- which is way too touristy, you don’t have to see it from afar- other side of the barricades. You can actually touch, put incense into the dragon and can even carry it if you are daring enough to face both hot ash and bends in the narrow lanes unknown to you!
Close second on the list is the Cheng Chau Bun Festival, or Cheung Chau Da Jiu Festival- a Taoist Festival marking a Taoist sacrificial ritual held on 8th day of the fourth month of the lunar calendar, usually in May or June. It disbelieved to be celebrated, again, after the Gods responded to the villagers pleas for ending a plague and protecting them from pirates. The wishes are believed to have been granted once the villagers brought an image of the god Pak Tai to the island. Even since, they parade the deities through the village lanes to chase out evil spirits. Funniest part of the more of a carnival than festival comes at the fag end- with the famous Bun Tower climbing competition- where men and women climb atop real high bun tower to snatch the buns symbolising good luck for the new year. Note that this a mere One Village Festival- yeah, it is that unique!
Then there, of course, is the Dragon Boat Festival, a very typical Chinese festival held on the 5th day of the 5th Lunar month (normally in May or June) that has gone truly international with dozens of international teams participating! The festival- believed to be celebrated in memory of he story best known in modern China holds that the festival commemorates the death of the poet and minister Qu Yuan (c. 340–278 BC) of the ancient state of Chu during the Warring States period of the Zhou Dynasty. Qu was upset over the king aliging with a rival state of Qin, as he suspected its intentions and was exiled for his opposition. His fears came true however, and Qin captured Ying, the Chu capital. Deeply sad Qu Yuan committed suicide by jumping into the Miluo River. It is believed that local people who greatly respected him raced out their boats to save him but could not. From there comes the Dragon Boat Race! Failing to find even his body, they dropped balls of sticky rice into the river so that the fish would eat them instead of Qu. From there comes zongzill the rice wrapped in bamboo, reeds and many other forms of leaves that is now famous across South East Asia!
Yet, Dragon Boat Festival was a very local festival until 1976 when Hong Kong first organised an ‘international’ dragon boat race with just one foreign team from Nagasaki, Japan, off Shau Kei Wan. Who would have known that the race would grow this big and become such an international event with over 200 national and international teams participating! So next time you plan a visit try looking around for dates which may accommodate joining one such festival at least! As it is if you haven’t seen any of the Hong Kong’s quirky festivals then you haven’t seen HK at all!