On my way back to Canada, I had decided to stopover in Hong Gong (xian3 gang3 in Mandarin). The passengers boarding the plane between Taipei and Hong Kong are roughly equally distributed between Cantonese and Mandarin speakers. To ease the communication, and regardless of the absurdity of such a situation, the stewardesses use English as a lingua franca.
I set foot in Hong Kong a few days after the beginning of the H1N1 flu, seen as a very serious threat by the local authorities: all the airport employees wear protection masks, thermographic video cameras are ubiquitous, every single incoming traveler must fill a health information form (to declare any suspicious symptom etc). Driven by a (almost morbid) curiosity, I write that I have some fever. As soon as I hand out this form to an immigration officer, his face suddenly changes. Within 30 seconds, I am firmly encouraged to wear a protection mask. Next, accompanied by a policeman, I am lead to a physician for a brief medical check-up. This physician, whose English is rather impressive, lectures me on the flu and urges me to contact hospital emergencies if my symptoms should persist (I was aware that no case had been found in Taiwan at that time, being quarantined was highly unlikely). Due to this interesting tour of the airport, I lost 15 minutes. My friend who was collecting me at the airport therefore had to wait a bit more.
This friend named 晶淼 (note the pattern of the two characters, three suns, three waters) is an acquaintance from Canada. We took a Sanskrit course together a couple of years earlier and her husband was connected to my research group. Among other virtues, she is a devout Buddhist of Mongol and Manchu heritage (not a single drop of Han blood). She is always eager to speak about theology, a rare attitude among mainlanders, and is rather knowledgeable in this field.
Prior to my journey to Taiwan, I had been exceedingly busy and I could not spare time to book a hotel in Hong Kong (actually, my friend suggested my being accommodated in a Buddhist temple, but did not dare to disturb her masters). She explains to me that the timing of my arrival could not be worse since it is in the middle of the longest Chinese bank holiday (no more than two days off, for Buddha's birthday and the International Workers' Day). In other words, there isn't much hope to find a hotel vacancy. Fortunately, I met a fellow researcher during my conference who is studying in Hong Kong. Through her, I manage to a cheap place to stay. Interestingly, in this hotel, the free surface of my room is no bigger than one square meter, asides from the bed and the bathroom. A perfect rabbit hutch. Free space matters in Hong Kong. Every single squared inch must be used. Some examples: the airport is built on an artificial island, all buses are two-storey, ….
Having left my baggage in the hotel, we go for lunch to a nearby vegetarian restaurant. Since she is the specialist for meatless viands, she orders for me, some lotus flowers. At some point, I notice a piece of hair in my dish. I discreetly put it aside. Unfortunately, another appears a few seconds later. And so forth and so forth. At this point, my friend quotes a Chinese proverb about lotus flowers. Once separated one from the other, they are still connected by some narrow filaments as if they did not want to leave each other. Those weren't hair. On our agenda, Hong Kong museum of history which narrates the various eras of the island's populations. The museum is quite interesting and the collections are vividly exposed. However, I skip the last part "After 1997" that deals its handover, labeled as "The most important event in Hong Kong history". It has a propaganda flavor, surprisingly similar to the Chiang Kai-shek memorial's one. Having spent the entire afternoon in the museum, I just have time for a stroll in the city centre (Kowloon) to enjoy the skyscrapers scenery.
On the following day (May 2nd) is celebrated Buddha's birth, a must-attend celebration for my friend. She takes me to a park where we join a friend of hers (whose haircut is exactly similar). Besides an impressive stage where the ceremony is to take place, there are many stalls selling books and various kinds of food. The attendance consists of 200-300 people, most of them middle-aged women, just a few youngsters and/or males. A gong announces the beginning of the festivities. A cadets' fanfare, whose military tune seems out of place, walks in front of the procession. Next come some 20 women, half of them wearing a traditional Manchu dress (my friend is still wondering why they chose such an incongruous costume), the other half the familiar Chinese dress qipiao. Having kneeled in front of a statue of Siddhartha standing on the stage, they leave their offerings, fruits and flowers, respectively. Next are coming a dozen of gentries, either politicians or business men, including a … Sikh priest (to show how Buddhist are open-minded). Last but not least is advancing a (Mandarin speaking) Taiwanese monk that will conduct the ceremony. My friend, an expert in Buddhist matters, explains to me that he belongs to a particular school of though that put some emphasis on social activities to spread their teaching. After some welcoming speeches by the officials, the Buddhist monks delivers a sermons (as he is speaking Mandarin, its speech is displayed on a screen) about Buddha's life and teachings. The audience stands up from times to times and I do my best to move accordingly. They also occasionally sing mantras. The ceremony does not last more than 40 minutes. Afterwards the monks and the officials move to another statue of Buddha (represented as a boy) to give him the ritual bath.
As we are wandering through the various stalls, my friends point at a picture of the 17th Karmapa (one of the most important Buddhist lamas) and praise his beauty. His looks are seemingly very popular among female followers (cf. picture). He has fled to India some years ago. My friend, an ethnic minority citizen, revering Buddhist officials crushed by the central government, living in the democratic enclave of Hong Kong could have many reasons to criticize the government policies. Nevertheless, she strictly adheres to their views about Taiwan for instance. Hard to understand. There is one calligraphy workshop in the park. Any passer-by is welcome to do his best in copying some Buddhist proverb with a Chinese brush. I have a try with my nuns. Within seconds, three or four Chinese discreetly peep behind my back to see how well the white guy is doing (I have only seen another Westerner during this ceremony, cf. below). They even congratulate me on my calligraphy, out of politeness? The outcome is not outstanding. At least, I haven't made many mistakes for the stroke order. As I am waiting for my friends who haven't completed their copying an Englishless Chinese lady, thinking that I am lost, escorts me a few meters away towards the only other Westerner. A Buddhist convert from New-Zealand, who turns a monk in Hong Kong. He asks me whether I am looking for Buddha's path. I am not. Nevertheless, he is a nice guy, also an acquaintance of my friends. They explain to me that most Chinese cannot compete with his Chinese literacy and that his knowledge of Buddhist texts is outstanding.
The ceremony being over, we go back to my hotel. Something is stunningly different from the previous day. This day, a Saturday, flocks of Indonesian and Filipinas maids and nannies have their weekly day off. As they don't have any place to go and not enough money for shopping, they just stay in the streets and in the public parks, chatting with their friends. They were invisible the previous day and suddenly came out of thin air. I ask my friend whether their living conditions are good. She explains to me that their employers must give them one day off a week and that they are usually well-paid. A small demonstration is taking place a few blocks away. My friend translates the banners for me "The Communist party will disappear".
My friend had explained me earlier that Hong Kong has a peaceful country side free of urbanization, where she often goes for meditation. Following her advices, I head towards the Lantau island which hosts a giant Buddha statue
Located on the top of a hill, this statue is quite impressive. In its vicinity is located the Wisdom Path: the 21 verses of the heart mantra are engraved on 21 tree trunks. These two places are indeed very quiet. To get to the statue and to the temple attached to it, I board a bus that is touring Lantau island. The sceneries are splendid. I just have time to go back to the airport to catch my plane to Canada after these two weeks in the Far East.