Connect with us

Midweek Review

Shades of Beddegama in teeming Hong Kong

Published

on

By GEORGE BRAINE

Even after being closely connected to Hong Kong for 26 years, I am still amazed by the contrasts there. Professionals earn the highest salaries in the world while destitute old women scavenge for cardboard boxes. Tycoons live in the world’s most expensive mansions while the poorest live in tiny subdivided flats. Perhaps the most striking contrast is the crowded urban areas of Central, Kowloon, and Mong Kok, and the deserted villages in the rural parts of the New Territories, where I lived.

Hong Kong is barely 500 square miles, and only half of that is inhabited; the rest is given over to hillsides and country parks. They are seven million tightly packed people. Then, how does one explain deserted villages?

 

Wong Chuk Yeung

Leonard Woolf’s classic Village in the Jungle, set in colonial Ceylon, narrates the slow decline of a small, isolated village, Beddegama. As the people leave or die out, the jungle gradually covers the crumbling, miserable huts. The last survivor is Punchi Menika. In the final scene, as Punchi Menika lies in her dilapidated hut, a giant wild boar glides in like a mythical devil to gore her. This scene came to mind when, during a hike, I stumbled upon the village of Wong Chuk Yeung. Located about 3 km uphill from the lovely seaside town of Sai Kung, the village lies within a country park, at the end of a narrow, twisting road. On the way up, the road winds through a steep slope on the left and a forest to the right. Uphill, trees press on the road from either side, forming a canopy.

At its first appearance, the village gave the idea of being inhabited, with strands of electricity, street lights, and a functioning water service. The one mailbox overflowed with recently delivered mail, mainly electric and water bills. However, the lichen-covered houses and the trash-strewn, weed-choked alleyways indicated a lack of life. Rice fields and fruit trees long abandoned and overgrown with weeds surrounded the village. Butterflies and dragonflies fluttered. Signs of rooting by wild boars was everywhere, and the fragile barking deer scampered off at my approach. Five-meter long Burmese pythons had been seen nearby. Old graves stood sentinel.

Long ago, the village was occupied by rice and vegetable farmers of the Li clan. They lacked proper roads, schools, electricity, or water service, but this simple life style suited the villagers. Then, imported rice became much cheaper. Rice also became hard to grow because a nearby iron mine caused a drop in the water table. Lacking even public transport, the younger generation preferred the comforts of urban Hong Kong or emigrated to Britain.

The last survivor Since that first encounter, I visited the village, on and off, over a number of years. An elderly man dressed smartly in a jacket and trousers, carrying a rolled-up umbrella, would pass me by on his way to town. I would also see him in town, chatting with people his age or doing a little shopping.

Later, I also noticed a younger man from the village, laboriously pushing his bicycle uphill, laden with plastic shopping bags. He would pause often on the way, squatting on the ground to rest before attempting a further stretch of the steep road. He did not make eye contact or return my greetings.

Then, I stopped seeing the elderly gentleman. He had died. I also learned that his wife used to carry home-made cakes on a shoulder pole for sale in Sai Kung. She had passed away before my time. The younger man, the last survivor of the village, was their son. The family had emigrated to Britain but returned to Hong Kong and to Wong Chuk Yeung for some reason.

As the years went by, the last survivor no longer had his bicycle. Instead, three dogs with matted fur would accompany him all the way to town and back. I would sometimes see him in town, feeding the dogs with scraps of bread, and reading crumpled racing sheets that he may have found in trash cans. At the village, I had noticed a ramshackle house with garbage strewn outside, the dogs loitering at the door barking fiercely at my approach. That’s perhaps where he lived.

Eventually, only one dog was left. For the last survivor, life must have been horrendous. The eerily quiet nights would have been fearsomely lonely, perhaps the ghosts of departed ancestors his only company. Occasionally, a police vehicle would pass me on the way to the village, so they must have been keeping an eye on his safety.

On my way down to Sai Kung town, splendid views of the island-studded bay, a golf course, and of a distant reservoir opened up. Although other hikers appeared on weekends, the road was mainly deserted during weekdays. Domestic helpers walking their employers’ dogs could be seen, but they too become fewer when the heat of summer set in. On some mornings, paragliders would be floating down towards Sai Kung town, adding colour to the clear blue sky.

Driving home from Sai Kung on a blisteringly hot afternoon, I saw the last survivor struggling home and stopped to give him a ride, going out of my way to the village. As my car struggled up the steep climb on first gear, we drove in silence. When he opened the door to get down, I extended my hand and said “George”. He repeated “Georgie” in the Cantonese style that I find so affectionate. Pointing to himself, he said “Li”. He had finally spoken.

Nasty” Developers

The front page banner headline in the South China Morning Post came like a bolt from the blue. Forgotten Wong Chuk Yeung was in the news, with a bang, for illegal deals between developers and villagers domiciled in Britain.

 

Villagers profit in secret land deals

Indigenous residents sign away small housing rights in exchange for HK$500,000 or a new flat at the site, which helps developers avoid rezoning and premiums

Cheung Chi-faiNov 04, 2011

The article mentioned that the village was 350-years old, and once contained 96 houses. Obviously a substantial village, although I had not seen that many ruins; some crumbling structures may have been covered by weeds, or dissolved into the ground. But, every plot had an owner, and the developers were methodically buying up all the plots.

I had been writing-up my visits to the village on a blogsite, along with photos, and former villagers now in Britain had been reading my entries. In the comments section of the blog, the following message appeared:

Hi George, found your blog and found it fascinating. Great pictures. This is my family’s village, it is a lovely village, though very run down I still like to go and visit it whenever I am in HK – with much sadness all the villagers involved have now signed the papers for the land to be sold off to a development company. Not everyone wanted this but the majority won and it is now in process of exchange. I am extremely sad about this as the land has a lot of history. The buildings, the wildlife (the numerous beautiful butterflies!) in the land all needs to be preserved – Hong Kong needs to preserve old ancestral lands such as Wong Chuk Yeung before it’s too late.

Another villager in Britain, fiercely proud of his heritage, commented that he “will do everything it takes for Wong Chuk Yeung to stay in the Li family name”. He, and the last survivor, Mr. Li, may be what stood between the village and “development” that would erase all traces of a bygone-era.

 

Last days

I stopped visiting the village, but would see Mr. Li in Sai Kung town, sitting at McDonalds, engrossed in a newspaper that appears to have been salvaged from the garbage. He held the paper very close to his face, which probably meant he was nearsighted. That may have also accounted for his shyness and avoidance of people, because he couldn’t see well.

Over the years, his favourite place in town had been the Hong Kong Jockey Club betting centre. Even in the last days I saw him, he would be squatting on the pavement near the betting centre, carefully reading the racing sheet. He had shirtless, shoeless, the bicycle and the dogs long gone. He was become much scrawnier and unkempt over the years. Even when I said “Hello Mr. Li”, he would not look up or return my greeting.

I left Sai Kung in 2015. Recently, I saw that the following message had been left on my blogsite:

I’m sorry to announce that the lone survivor died at the beginning of this year (2015) and within weeks the developers moved in and put up 10 foot high corrugated hoardings fencing off the land from the public access road. This is a major eyesore and even worse is the bulldozing of the trees and wildlife areas (lush green grasslands that covered former paddy fields that were farmed by the villagers in the 50s and 60s).

I wonder about Mr. Li’s last days. Were they as wretched as Punchi Menika’s in Beddegama? Did he die alone, and discovered days later, or did someone find him before it was too late?

As for Wong Chuk Yeung, I have no wish to return. I prefer to remember it from all those years ago.



Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Midweek Review

Crossmatch: A moral mirror

Published

on

by Santhushya Fernando

Blossoming somewhere between a Chinaman and a Jam Fruit Tree is a Lotus. An unusual place to bloom, but there it is, anyway, Crossmatch. Crossmatch is Carmel Miranda’s debut novel that won the Gratiaen Prize 2020. Here’s what isn’t there in Crossmatch: steamy sex, profanity, harsh political commentary, preaching, flowery similes, structured ‘tools of literary writing’, boring descriptions. Probably uninfected by formal literary training, Miranda writes a provocative story with the acumen of a skillful doctor documenting on a patient’s bedhead ticket with some hardcore suspense thrown in. Crossmatch, for its entire 261 pages is captivating in its heart race potential.

Is she for real?

About 20 pages into Crossmatch, I phoned a senior friend who has spent the better part of his life at the Faculty of Medicine and the National Hospital of Sri Lanka (NHSL). “Seriously, you had a colleague called Dr Carmel Miranda? She writes like a hawk observing it all- is this a real name?” He’s was entertained, and replied “Carmel Miranda is for real. She spoke very little, did very much. Never spoke an unnecessary word: serious, committed, all about the patient, precise, not attention seeking, you know, the kind of person you miss when they are not there”. Oh, so I figure. Like Lotus. In Crossmatch.

The plot

Lotus, the protagonist is a third year medical student at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo. She’s requested to pay a social visit to a hospitalised patient by her aunt, as all aunts of all medical students do. Like all medical students up to their eyes in real or imaginary stress, Lotus, grudgingly obliges visiting Anil Kumara only to find him dead. Events take Lotus to Lionel, the NHSL mortuary attendant with one glass eye, who convinces her to safe keep the dead boy’s mobile phone wrapped in a newspaper. Something about the numbers in the phone that includes the namesake Lotus Hospital, the NHSL ENT unit number and the contents of the newspaper drives Lotus to dig in deep. She uncovers, quite accidentally, the dangerous underbelly of organ trafficking mafia, poverty, inequality and the heart wrenching plight of the poor in our so called free healthcare system. Was it an accident that killed Anil? If not, who then is the killer? Finally Lotus finds answers and also confronts a devastating personal truth about her umbilical linkage to the Lotus Hospital. Even at the helm of her shatter, Lotus retains her characteristic objectivity and dignity. Throughout Crossmatch Miranda displays a true gift at maintaining the fidelity to her characterisation in personality, lingo, and mannerism.

The moral mirror

If you have read the captivating Gratiaen winner Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka, you would know that one need not be a cricket fan to fall in love with that book. Miranda shows similar skill and humility in telling a “medical story” without medical jargon interfering with storytelling. She has labored well to tell a story about the holes of a medical system in effortless lay language. Never does she matronizingly “explain” medical terms down to the reader, weaving it all in, silkily.

Miranda holds a moral mirror on to our conscience with Crossmatch. It’s a grand mirror with one in center in front of which the reader is stands. That mirror is hinged with two mirrors on the side: the moral mirror of medical education and the moral mirror of medical practice. Both the hinged mirrors reflect unto the main mirror creating an ‘n’ number of reflections.

The moral mirror of medical education in Crossmatch touch on teaching via humiliation, linguism, unjust hierarchies, lack of cohesion in medical education, doctors past their medical fitness ‘expiry date’ continuing to practice medicine. But the beauty of Miranda’s moral mirror is that it does not discuss this in a malicious spirit. All is written with astounding tenderness and sensitivity towards human fallibility. It’s a mirror that every teacher must consider standing before.

The more serious moral mirror in Crossmatch is the territory that few would dare to tread: the kidney mafia, organ trafficking, bending the law, exploitation of the poor in kidney transplantation, lack of a transparent registry for organ donation, the legal and moral dilemma of compensation for organ donation. Importantly, this moral mirror in Crossmatch shines blindingly in our eye asking us questions: do you know what it means to be poor? The desolation beneath the label of poor? How many times do the rich donate kidneys to the poor? Is there ever a free lunch at a private hospital?

Our collective crime: poverty

Miranda reflects the moral mirrors on us for the sole purpose of telling her story. Her tender observations about how people live, talk, move, rationalize, love and sacrifice are all for the purpose of storytelling. Her power of observation is consistent across the slums of Wanathamulla to the bungalows down Rosmead place. After reading Crossmatch you cannot afford to be Sri Lankan and be divorced from the collective social crime called poverty that we all contribute to, by commission or omission. For poverty is the one crime that has the direct or indirect consent of society. The crisp humorful language, sharp precise observation, humane narration without judgment- all these make it a good read. Noteworthy is Miranda’s security as a writer who doesn’t feel the need to climb on top of her story.

Perhaps the only anti-climax of Crossmatch is its epilogue. In an uncharacteristic bout of a need to tie up too many ends, Miranda writes an epilogue reminiscent of last minute commentary over movie credits in a Hollywood or Bollywood movie stating how each character ended up happily. The last line of the main novel (prior to epilogue) “But that doesn’t stop me from dreaming “is disappointing and reminiscent more of a line out of a Hallmark card. Miranda could have written a killer last line. The epilogue takes her matter of fact story telling a bit too far and negotiates a mediocre “happily ever after” to a thought provoking , disturbing story meant to induce a bit of reader- insomnia.

Yes, Crossmatch makes us stand in front of a difficult moral mirror.

To Carmel Miranda I say: “You. Go. Girl!!!!”

(Dr Santhushya Fernando is a senior lecturer in Medical Humanities at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo)

 

Continue Reading

Midweek Review

Proposed Plantation University and its economic benefits

Published

on

by Dr L M K Tillekeratne
Former Director of the RRI and UNIDO consultant in Rubber Processing

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s recent address to the nation made an emphatic reference to the establishment of a Plantation University by amalgamating all major crop research institutes, such as Tea Research Institute (TRI), the Rubber Research Institute (RRI), Coconut Research Institute (CRI), Sugarcane Research Institute (SRI). Of these four research institutes, two were established by British rulers over a century ago. The core mandate of the research institutes was to develop the respective agricultural crops, as the plantation crops generated the highest amount of foreign exchange for almost four decades.

With the advent of the free market economy in late 1970s, though the remittances from migrant workers and revenue from the garment industry surpassed the foreign exchange earnings of the plantation sector, the plantation industry continues to play a dominant role in terms of foreign exchange and employment.

Hence, the President’s thinking that the creation of a national university exclusive for the plantation sector is a far-reaching vision that could transform the plantation sector by increasing land productivity and by developing the value-added products manufacture particularly in the case of rubber that the country desperately needed at this juncture. In this context, that the article written by J. A. A. S. Ranasinghe, Productivity Specialist and Management Consultant in a leading English newspaper was a comprehensive analysis of the justification of the creation of a national university for the plantation sector. Such an incisive analysis should have come from a scientist initially.

Dearth of Scientists in the Research Institutes

I whole-heartedly agree with Mr. Ranasinghe on his assertion that research institutes are functioning today in isolation without trained staff to carry out research projects. As he has very correctly identified the dearth of scientists of all the research institutes has hampered the research programmes, and that in turn has led to the deterioration of the productivity of all the sectors during the last two decades. Thus, bringing all the scientists and resources under one umbrella is the need of the hour and that could be accomplished relatively at a short time by establishing an exclusive university for the plantation sector.

The President’s far-reaching vision will be a turning point in producing scientists to run the plantation industry. At a time when most of the other countries in Asia and Africa are increasing their productivity levels of the plantation crops, it is unfortunate that Sri Lanka is far behind in terms of research during last two decades, though its Tea and Rubber research institutes are internationally known.

Downfall of the Rubber Industry

It is sad that in Sri Lanka, the first country in the world to have a rubber plantation established outside Brazil and distributed planting material to other countries mainly in Asia to grow rubber, rubber production has plummeted significantly for the last 25 years. The countries that learnt rubber planting technology from the scientists of Rubber Research Institute of Sri Lanka, such as Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam, have already been able to overtake us both in terms of production and land productivity over the past two decades pushing Sri Lanka down to the 12th place as a NR producer at present. I strongly believe that the situation regarding tea is either the same or even worse.

As Ranasinghe has correctly pointed out in his article, our productivity has fallen to 50% of what we produced a decade ago while countries like Myanmar and Cambodia have been able to double their annual production during this period.

Dearth of Plantation Technologists

It is true that we have agricultural universities producing agriculture graduates. But they do not specifically focus on crops like Tea and Rubber, and cannot undertake the task of increasing productivity by means of applying new technology introduced regularly to overcome issues related to agronomy and tapping. Fresh Agriculture and Science graduates who joined the plantation sector lack the skills and knowledge the plantation industry demands and this mismatch has resulted in a shortage of plantation technologists with required competency levels.

Distinctive Advantages of Plantation University

The agricultural graduates of Sri Lankan universities, however, would be in a very authoritative position in that they can cover a wide variety of other crops better than the graduates getting their agricultural degrees overseas. Agriculture and science graduates should necessarily possess the required field exposure and experience to find gainful employment in plantation sector. Hence, fresh graduates who join the plantation sector will have to work for at least 10 years to be an expert who can identify problems and sort them out on them individually. The industry can ill-afford to wait for such a long period to produce talented plantation expert or qualified scientists, given the dearth of scientists in the country. As Ranasinghe has correctly mentioned, there is a severe shortage of scientists virtually in all departments of research institutes to tackle problems in the industry, which will badly affect the research institutes, if the present system is allowed to continue. More than 50% of the raw rubber and latex end products industry is imported at competitive prices. The coconut production is sufficient for the local consumption and there is no surplus for export in the form of oil or DC.

Exodus of Research Scientists to join Universities

Most of the scientists trained for special mandates in the research institutes have already joined the national universities purely due to better salaries and perks. However, according to the situation existed in early 1960s, those who joined research institutes for developing the agriculture sector were paid higher salaries than those who joined universities, considering their contribution to the development of the economy and the difficult conditions under which they work in remote areas.

Hence, the science graduates’ first choice was research institutions. Today, it is the other way around, and only those who cannot find employment in universities and with low merits join research institutes to get post graduate training utilising the limited number of foreign training scholarships offered to research institutes and get qualified to join universities. Empirical studies have shown that trained researchers with special skills to tackle problems in the plantations have become misfits as academics.

Ad hoc recruitment criteria

The situation that existed prior to the late 1980s was totally different even with regard to recruitment criteria. It is due to the shortage of graduates produced by local universities due to closure of the university education for almost three years, due to the insurrection. There was a severe shortage of special degree holders and hence a decision was taken by the government to allow general degree holders in places where previously only special degree graduates with a class were recruited as research assistants in research institutes. Since then the quality of research produced by the research institutes has suffered.

The distinctive benefit in the President’s proposal is that in the future we might be able to produce graduates capable of tackling problems in the plantation sector with their adequate field exposure and hands on experience during their undergraduate studies.

In addition, there will be a good opportunity for institutions like TRI and RRI with international reputation to attract foreign students for training in Sri lanka thereby earning additional revenue to the country as the UK, India and Malaysia do even without having such recognition. If the proposed national plantation university is properly run, it will be quite possible for them to sustain adequate revenue from foreign students without depending purely on annual Treasury grant. Even now trainees from countries like Myanmar, China, Cambodia, Ethiopia and even from Malaysia have got their research assistants trained at these two crop institutes under international grants.

Contribution to the national economy by way of enhanced production

On a hypothetical basis, if the production of rubber in the country is increased to 135,000 Mt, which was the amount produced years ago, purely by increasing the land productivity, without even increasing the planted area, the country can reap maximum benefits from the fast-increasing rubber prices in the world market. Rubber was selling at around Rs 100 to 150 per kg during the last half a decade. Surprisingly, it has gone up to almost Rs 450 per kg now and the situation is expected to increase further with time to come owing to the demand for NR on account of the Covid-19 pandemic.

If the production is increased to 135,000 Mt, additional revenue the country can enjoy would be (Rs 450 x 50000 x1000) Rs 22.5 billion annually.

We should not lose sight of the fact that due to the shortfall in the supply of rubber, a considerable amount of NR and latex is imported by our rubber products manufacturers for value added products manufacture at a cost of over Rs 30 billion.

If this extra production is used to produce goods such as surgical/examination gloves for which the demand is fast increasing due to Covid-19 spread, the additional revenue country can gain is over 200%. It will be possible to create more employment opportunities as well.

Arduous task for the new Minister

The task before Economic Development Minister is to consider how best to improve the economy in bad state. This objective can be achieved in less than a year by getting the neglected rubber farms into tapping and by using techniques like lightly stimulated low frequency tapping and by utilising proven new techniques like rain guards to minimise crop losses due to rain. The additional cost involvement for these developments is insignificant and the time taken is less than a year.

New planting and replanting are two other ways of increasing the crop; they are costly and take nearly a decade to give a reasonable crop increase. Further, there is no guarantee that the improved rubber prices will remain high until then. However, replanting, and new planting should be continued according to the RDD targets.

Another factor that caused a drop in the rubber production was the removal of the extension services from the research wing and its attachment to the subsidiary function of the Rubber Development Department owing to an illogical decision taken by the then government almost 25 years ago. Today, the RDD is functioning in isolation ignoring the recommendations of the RRI. This has been the main cause for the drop in productivity of rubber farms in Sri Lanka. For example, the population of low yielding clones like PB 86 are still distributed and the clone population in the country is an utter mess.

Undoubtedly, everyone looks forward to the establishment of the plantation university.

Continue Reading

Midweek Review

“Madam” and her Wards

Published

on

By Lynn Ockersz

Six anxious, awkward teenage girls,

Are following their “Madam” close at heel,

To the rundown Spa hardly seen in the busy street,

But sought by restless men when darkness sets in,

But in the Isle fabled for its charity,

No one looks askance at this sight,

No one dare asks questions that matter;

Nor is accountability exacted from office holders;

But posers like the following may be asked,

By those who choose to care for the ‘nation’,

Now that Ishalini too has brought things into focus:

Isn’t this an induction into prostitution?

What lured the girls away from school,

And made them walk footloose on the streets?

Would the “Madam” be ever taken to task?

Or would she be allowed to go, with no questions asked,

When a swoop by the uniformed gentry,

Thrusts the girls into a police lockup,

And makes them wilt there sadly,

Though into primal youth they are about to bloom.

Continue Reading

Trending