Sunday, November 18, 2007

That's one big freaking Buddha

Continuing my furious flurry through the islands of Hong Kong, I spent yesterday with some close HKU exchange allies on Lantau Island. As my critiques of Hong Kong have grown ever louder and more vociferous, I've been advised that one cannot truly consider Hong Kong Island and the hyperurban parts of the city in isolation. Rather, Hong Kong must be viewed as a whole, with the easy accessibility of all of the islands taken into full account. And I have to admit, when I consider the islands, I have to think a bit better of Hong Kong.

Like basically all of the islands I've visited around here, Lantau is primarily fishing-based. But it has its own bits of character. It's the largest island other than Hong Kong Island itself, and features, alongside its fishing villages, some tastes of its big brother. It's the only other island accessible by metro rail and houses both Hong Kong International Airport and Disneyland Resort. The fishing villages themselves feel a bit older and more wooden, yet more urban, than their cousins on Lamma and Cheung Chau.

This is Tai O, a bustling little town that's known for the 19th-century stilt houses still used by the locals who live in town (though many of these homes were destroyed by fire in 1997). In addition to being a bit bigger and busier than the similar fishing villages on the other islands, it feels more like a real place where people actually live. Especially on Cheung Chau, it seems like the village exists largely in service of the people who are visiting the island on day trips. Other than tourist shops and seafood restaurants, it's hard to identify how the community actually sustains itself. Tai O, on the other hand, feels more like a real village that has opened itself up to curious visitors than a village that has been put on for the benefit of foreign eyes and wallets.

When we first arrived, we walked in the alley behind one of the seafood markets rather than through the market itself. In so doing, we discovered just how a fish goes from something an clearly-identifiable living creature to the foul-smelling dried-up pile of meatwads that fills the bins in the seafood markets: clothesline. I am not yet certain how this affects my Basin Theory on Perceived Social Prosperity, which is based primarily on the visibility of clothing on clothing lines. A fish-based corollary may be in order. Still, unlike most things in Hong Kong, the conspicuously-drying fish smack more of culture than of class and commerce. I can appreciate that.

The main attraction on Lantau Island is Tian Tan, the Big Buddha. He is, as you might guess, a very big Buddha on the top of a hill. He is, in fact, the largest outdoor freestanding bronze Buddha in the world. You'll recall that one of my first observations about Hong Kongers - and really, all of China - was about their love of superlatives, however many qualifiers are necessary to achieve that biggest/longest/oldest status. I'm sure I included more adjectives about Big Buddha than were necessary, but I trust he'll forgive me. I mean, he's Buddha, right? As my companions and I stood and gawked at the imposing Buddha, one of them remarked, "I wonder how he got up there..."

"With a big crane, 15 years ago," I answered, with not too much bitterness in my voice. One of my most consistent experiences in Asia has been seeing things that look really old, but are in fact totally new (remember the Batu Caves in Malaysia?). Era confusion aside, he's still pretty impressive, and we were lucky enough to have a pretty clear day for visiting him. I've heard that, on a badly polluted day, you can't even see the top of his head from the base of the hill on which he sits.

Also of note is the pavilion upon which he sits, which features an exhibition about the life of Buddha and about the circumstances of Tian Tan's construction. Among the pieces of history from the unveiling ceremony is the text of a speech given by a mainland Chinese official. In hailing the spirit of cooperation between Hong Kong and the mainland that made this project possible, the official extolled without a hint of irony China's history of religious freedom and tolerance. I scoffed as loudly as possible.

It was another welcome side-trip, though I'll admit that I did allow some solemnness to invade my mood, even on this island haven. I don't know if Hong Kong puts me in a bad mental state, or if I'm in a bad mental state that just happens to coincide with my time in Hong Kong. Probably some mutually-reinforcing combination of both, a perfect little case study for an ambitious amateur psychologist. Still, sitting lazily on a bench at the top of the hill, looking out on the view over a wide expanse of Lantau, listening to some distinctly California-sounding Phantom Planet on my iPod (no, I was not listening to "California"), I felt pretty good. I just need some more of that.

As my new desktop background, I've adopted this macro photo of incense burning at Po Lin Monastery, which sits at the foot of Big Buddha's hill. In the Buddhist tradition that dominates around here, you light incense to send your thoughts, prayers, and messages to the heavens in a wisp of smoke, where your ancestors can hear them. Even without being a remotely religious person in any tradition, let alone southern Chinese Buddhist, I usually like to light a few sticks whenever I pass through. To a good rest of my trip:

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