City hordes cast a blight on green havens nurtured in colonial times

HONG KONG DAYS
Those of us who live in Hong Kong's countryside have mixed feelings about the long, hot summer months.

We are grateful not to be stuck in the humid city, where escape comes only in the form of icily air-conditioned rooms. But we are not so happy about the way that torrential rains cause land slips, blocking the roads. And when it stops raining, hordes of barbecue-crazed city dwellers stream out to cover the landscape with plastic bags, used barbecue forks and all manner of waste.

But how is it that this most densely populated patch of the planet manages to have any countryside at all, let alone devoting more than a third of Hong Kong to nature reserves, known here as country parks?

These are a distinctive part of the British colonial legacy, presided over by a succession of governors who have taken great interest in preserving their natural beauty.

The idea was to provide a breathing space for the city hordes, who often live in cramped conditions with no space for recreation. In the parks, tiny Hong Kong has managed to preserve a greater variety of wildlife than the whole of China, which has gone through periods of Mao-inspired madness when huge numbers of birds were killed.

New species of wildlife seem to be turning up all the time. Another variety of snake was discovered near my house the other day. I can do without the snakes, but living alongside them in the Sai Kung Country Park, one of the biggest reserves, gives me an inkling of what Hong Kong was like before the British arrived. Remnants of old villages can be found, which around here belong mainly to the Hakka people. Originating in northern China, most of them drifted south over the centuries. They are the only Chinese people without a province.

Most of the indigenous inhabitants of my area left as Hong Kong's agriculture dwindled and made their way to Britain, where they form the backbone of the Chinese takeaway industry. Some are now drifting back, disillusioned by the lack of economic opportunities in the UK.

In one very small fishing village I was suddenly ushered into a ramshackle restaurant by a man in his late twenties, who demanded to know where I was from.

"I'm from Fleetwood, like," he announced, before he resumed an animated conversation in Cantonese about the price of fish. His family left Hong Kong for Britain in the 1960s, but he and his brothers are back now, trying to put the family property to commercial use by running a restaurant.

The food turned out to be pretty good, and sitting in the open air might well have been idyllic if there had not been yet another downpour. When the rain clears, however, the muggy atmosphere lifts just enough to give a hint of cooler air. The sub-tropical vegetation, meaning everything from palm trees and wild orchids to very British-looking shrubbery, glows with health. This is the time to dash out for a walk - covered in insect repellant, as the mosquitoes also like to take the air after it rains.

I could walk from my back door for days without leaving the country park. This is partly because there are large hills, which take a while to climb, and also because there is a trail that stretches from the east to the west of the territory, which some people tackle at one go in an annual sponsored race. This is always won by Gurkha soldiers who seem not to understand the meaning of the word exhaustion.

I prefer a more gentle amble followed by a dip in the sea, but that pleasure is qualified by the abysmal quality of the water, not to mention the sharks that have already claimed three victims this year.

When the weekend is over, we country dwellers have the place to ourselves again. We can smugly remind one another how lucky we are not to be living in the overcrowded city, and speak warmly about the better quality of life, until it turns out that, for reasons never explained, the water has been turned off yet again. We are in for another very sticky night. Rural life in Hong Kong is not for the fastidious.

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