by Keith Addison
Hong Kong Life magazine Oct. 1994-Jan. 1996
The Valley of the Lost Decade
How to Spend 12 Weeks in Bed
Pass the Doggie Bag
If Pigs Could Fly They Wouldn't Need Cars
Stealer of Souls
On the Slow Train with a Skinful of Wine
The Neighbourhood Dragon
From 1994 to 1932 in Only Three Minutes
Singing and Laughing
Have Nose, Will Follow
Harrods to Sell Elixir-of-Life
Galahad's Secret Mission
Escape to Shangri-La
Put it in Your Pocket
What Johnny Should Have Said
The Cockroaches Went in Two by Two
A Complaint to the Inspector of Thunderstorms
Escape to Shangri-La
There is a beautiful, enchanted mountainside on Lantau Island, with dozens of old Buddhist shrines and monasteries hidden away in its wooded, folding slopes.
___It is under a spell, part of a different world, a world out of time -- a Shangri-La, right in Hong Kong's shadow.
___It's not that you never grow old there, you do. But the first time I went there, years ago, I found myself drinking tea with an old Chinese nun who told me: "I've been here for 55 years, and nothing has changed."
___There are not many people in Hong Kong who can say that.
___It's not an easy life -- no luxuries, simple fare to eat, lots of hard work, steep hills for old legs to climb. It's nonetheless a fine place to grow old. Maybe that's what Shangri-La really means.
___Now, 12 years later, it still feels enchanted -- everything's just the same. One of my old friends is now the abbess, and an important person in the local Buddhist world, but she's just the same -- and she still seems to be the gardener. The old one has been there 67 years now, still going strong.
___This is a women's world. There are monks at the big monastery in the valley below, and at the even bigger one on the plateau above, but there are no men on the mountainside.
___It's not a closed society -- if you're a walker, man or woman, the nuns ask you in and offer you tea and whatever else they might have to hand -- some fruit from the orchards, greens from their vegetable garden.
___They have no need to fear strangers. It must be the safest place I know -- with no security, it seems totally secure. It must have very good fung shui.
___The old stone temples and nunneries are joined by a maze of paths winding up and down between terraced gardens, bamboo thickets, mountain forest and shady streams, and I took us down a wrong turn that led to a shrine I'd never come across before. An old woman was tending a small vegetable patch in front of an old stone house alongside the shrine, and she too offered us tea, with such a lovely smile that we accepted, though we'd both drunk quite a lot of tea already.
___She opened the double doors to her front room to let in the light and sat us down on a wooden bench while she went to boil the water. The room was simple and unadorned, everything in it strictly functional.
___While we were waiting we were joined by a young Chinese couple we'd seen earlier doing maintenance work at a nearby monastery. And, it seemed, at this shrine. They were taking a break.
___They said they were Christians. They lived and worked in Kowloon, and gave up their days off to do voluntary work helping poor old people.
___"But these women are Buddhists, not Christians," I said.
___"Yes," he replied, "but they are poor. This woman is 85, but she still has to grow her own vegetables. She only gets $500 a month to look after the shrine and to live on. Come, I will show you how she lives."
___In fact we knew how she lived, having both often been in traditional village homes, but we followed him through to the dark old stone kitchen where she was heating a big kettle over a woodstove fed with grass and twigs, and out the back door to where the water cistern was filled from a passing stream.
___We saw his point, but the old woman probably wouldn't want it any other way. There are rich villagers on Lantau who still use grass stoves and still work in the fields. If the old woman had 10 times as much money, she'd still grow her own vegetables. Maybe it's just stubbornness, but maybe it's this tough, simple life that helps to keep these old people so strong and capable. And happy.
___However, waterpipes that work properly and roofs that don't leak are indeed a blessing.
___"Do you do this every day off?" I asked the young Christian.
___"Yes!" he laughed. "Even on Christmas Day!"
___"It's good work," we agreed. "Worth doing."
___"Yes -- it is Christ's work."
___I pictured Amitabha bowing most graciously to a smiling Jesus.
___We returned to the front room, and the old woman brought the tea.
___She told us she'd lived there for "more than 60 years". She "left" China when she was a little girl and "was taken" to Singapore, but later she "left" Singapore and came to Hong Kong. She'd been living on the mountainside ever since.
___This spoke worlds. I'd just finished editing a book about it, and I could see why she might not want to see the rest of the world again. Maybe it was different, but most probably she'd been kidnapped from a village in the Pearl River Delta, or even sold by poverty-stricken parents, and smuggled through Hong Kong to Singapore to be sold again as a slave-girl.
___Her owner might have been quite benevolent, and could even have set her free when she was a young woman. Much more likely she would have been mistreated and abused, and later she could have been sold to a mama-san running a brothel in the Malay Street area, and either escaped or been bought out or rescued by a benefactor.
___That she hadn't gone back home, if there had been such a thing as home, after somehow reaching Hong Kong was probably because she didn't know where her home village was, or maybe even who her parents were.
___The book is called Women and Chinese Patriarchy -- Submission, Servitude and Escape, edited by Maria Jaschok and Suzanne Miers, published by Hong Kong University Press and Zed Books.
___"When I was little, I was bought for working," an old Hong Kong woman says on page one, and goes on to tell her story.
___One chapter describes the early lives of old women still living today in a village not far from the nuns' mountainside on Lantau, betrothed as little girls and sent to their future husbands' homes to be brought up by an implacably hostile future mother-in-law. It was the poorest kind of marriage, but it gave the family one mouth less to feed and the in-laws two extra hands, and it didn't cost anything.
___There is the story of a former child slave in Singapore who was rescued by social workers from a monstrous owner, managed to build a new life for herself, married, and eventually retired with her husband and children to Australia. She didn't tell her family until 1989 that it was her own parents who had sold her into slavery. She was only seven when she watched her mother signing her away.
___The harrowing tale ranges from prostitution and sex-slavery in Singapore to rescue efforts by local governments, by high-handed Western missionary women in China, by concerned Christian women in San Francisco, and by Chinese society itself with Hong Kong's Po Leung Kuk; and from women who escaped the system by marrying Westerners in Hong Kong, to those who formed working sisterhoods and vowed never to marry (see Sisters of Silk) -- and those who bought their freedom at the expense of other women.
___It all ended more than 30 years ago. Or was supposed to have done, but I knew an old man on Lamma Island in the late 1970s who owned a "mui jai", a slave girl. he was a kind old man and she liked him. One of the luckier ones. And the Epilogue describes a modern resurgence of the trade in women and children in China. Last year a government official said the authorities had arrested more than 75,000 people for slave trading in the past two years and freed 40,000 women and children sold into bondage. Maybe some stories never end.
___The nine authors use a lot of new material, especially oral testimony, in painting their composite, 150-year picture of oppression and resistance, revealing in the process a succession of extraordinary women who managed to rise above a bleak and brutal beginning.
___And here we sat, sipping tea with one of them in her stone hut. I couldn't take my eyes off her -- what spirit of fate had guided her through such a terrible world to this hidden haven, and 60 years of peace?
___True or not -- I didn't really want to know and I didn't ask. Her smile and the tea were gifts enough.
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