I had just ridden the world’ longest outdoor covered escalator system called the Central-Mid-levels; cruised the steep hillsides on the Peak, a cable tram funicular railway that delivered me to a stunning Hong Kong harbor vista; and was jostled in Kowloon’s Chungking Mansions, a menagerie of low-budget hotels, cheap shops, and shifty money exchanges. It is Kowloon’s melting pot neighborhood where Africans, Indians, Nepalese, Bangladeshis, Filipinos and others gather in a throbbing mass of humanity.
After the downtown urban buzz, it was time for some cultural contemplation. I wanted to get a look at the ‘real’ China, whatever that means. Before my trip, others told me that I wasn’t even visiting China, that Hong Kong isn’t the real China even though the country politically absorbed the island territory 15 years ago. My guess is that because the People’s Republic is so vast, there are many flavors to this immense nation, not just one. With that in mind, I take a First Ferry out of Hong Kong to get different taste of the Middle Kingdom.
After nearly an hour, I land on Long Island. That’s Cheung Chau in Cantonese. It is also referred to as Pirate Island since marauders used to hide out in the coves of this South China Sea backwater. Even today, Cheung Chau lives up to its maritime past. It is a bustling working port jammed with fishing boats. In the early morning, I watch dockworkers load heavy containers of ice on the quay in anticipation of the day’s catch.
Later I stumble upon the Palace of the Jade Void, a Taoist temple called Yuk Hui. Legend has it that local fishermen brought a statue of the god Pak Tai, the Supreme Emperor of the Mysterious Heaven, to combat a severe outbreak of the plague that was decimating the population. The disease miraculously vanished. In gratitude, the Yok Hui Temple was constructed to house the statue. It remains the cultural heart of the island.
Climbing a series of nature trails out of the village, I trek to the other side of the island. A long, sandy beach marks Cheung Chau’s famed, windsurfing hotspot. This is the aquatic backyard of local Lee Lai-Shan. She seized the gold for windsurfing in the 1996, the last athlete to win an Olympic medal for Hong Kong. These days such distinctions are credited to the Republic of China. I guess that confirms that HK is now part of the country.
I look out and notice two robust nets forming a large in-sea swimming area. Signs warn about sharks and for swimmers to remain inside the inner net. These sharks must really be bad ass to require double nets to keep them out. I wonder where Lee Lai-Shan windsurfed in her prime, in or out of the nets?
The day rapidly passes by. It is time to jump a ferry back to Hong Kong. But before departing, I sit at water’s edge and sip on a can of Blue Girl, a local pilsner and contemplate the trip. Cheung Chau is definitely light years away from the big city. It operates on a traditional Chinese fishing village clock in spite of having 7 million people just 10 kilometers away. I watch two fishermen arrive to board their boat in the harbor. One of the guys parks his bicycle directly in front of me and chains it to a metal post. On the center tube of his ride are the words, Enthusiasm Journey. That eloquently describes my travels of the day.