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Shing Mun River, Hong Kong

The miniature landscapes of Pai Tau village

Text and photo by Alessandro Carboni

realised within Library – SoundPocket,  Hong Kong

with the support of the Italian Cultural Institute and the General Consulate of Italy in Hong Kong.

Published on

I carefully look at the map of Hong Kong. My eyes follow my finger moving through the streets, the neighbourhoods, the buildings, the valleys, the sea, the islands: Kowloon, New Territories, Sha Tin and here is Tai Wai. I resume my exploration right from here, but this time I do not head to the mountain, but towards Sha Tin New Town. I begin the exploration from the bridge where the streets, the railway, cycle lanes and pedestrians walks converge. I see how this is a key point because it marks the boundary between the urban area of Tai Wai and another area which is completely different. Besides, the river here changes its shape. I am under the bridge, crushed by the sound, by the amount of concrete used to create this passage. It is a sunny day and the shadows of the structures on the concrete are darker than usual. There are also two white herons slowly walking on the river. The prolonged shadows of their tapered bodies move in and out between lights and shadows of the structures. Mtr trains continuously come and go over my head. From time to time I have to check the recording levels to avoid distortion. On the right, not far from the herons, a gentleman, with his faced covered, stands still looking at the river. He stands in the point where the river, which up to there was a slim line of water on a very large concrete bed, widens and fills up, becoming majestic. I see that in this point there are strange currents that accumulate sands and debris of different colours in the bottom of the river bed. While on the surface, foam, leaves and other unidentified materials create a multicoloured patina. I observe the landscape, trying to understand all the overlapping spacial layers. I am intrigued by the man with the covered face who is getting ready to fish.

The water of the river is black, a dark oily matter that looks like ink. There are even fish that swim on the surface like in one of those Chinese paintings on paper. Water flow is minimal, the projected buildings seem to be reflected by a mirror. I walk, leaving the sound of the Mtr trains behind me. Below there is a quite wide road and above a flyover where Mtr trains run, going from Tai Wai to Wu Kai Sha, to the east.

On my right, at a distance, I can see the Che Kung Temple. With its flags and the smoke coming from the centre of the building. I keep walking up to the pedestrians bridge which allows me to cross the river and go to the other side opposite the National Heritage Museum. I decide not to go inside the museum, but to follow my journey through the urban trails. I carry on along the side of the museum, I find myself in front of a petrol station and once again behind an intersection of flyovers, footpaths, roads and railways. I am near Sha Tin station. I carry on, listening to the sonic landscape that at the centre of the flyover breaks up in several points. A bus from right to left, a train, another car etc. Sound moves from one point to another creating a very interesting three-dimensional space on multiple proximity layers. The passage is very low, so I can closely see the concrete structure that makes up the flyover. In some places the paint is cracked, in others is solid, perfectly polished. Between the pillars, the vegetation, including trees, shrubs, leaves, looks like that of a tropical forest. In contrast with the flyover I had seen in Tai Wai, this one doesn’t have a Gothic dimension. It rather shows a early christian-Romanesque structure, which develops by crypts and long horizontal passages. After a few hundred metres, I arrive to the railway protective net. Here I can follow a path which is right between the railway and a busy road. On both sides there are trees and vegetation which are patiently classified, shrub after shrub, and monitored by the biuro/borough etc.

The path ends up in a walkway that on the right carries on towards the Mtr station and on the left towards the mountain. I carry on to the left and find myself in front of a stairway. After a few steps a stop and observe the landscape in the distance: I see the wall of buildings of the residential area of Sha Tin, the Mtr station adjacent to the Sha Tin Plaza, the stream of trains that intersect like in a grid. I carry on to the left and keep climbing the stairs. After a few metres, behind the vegetation that accompanied the stairway, I notice that there are some homes. They are perched on the mountain, precisely on a small valley that ends towards the railway. This area is invisible from the walkway. Carrying on through the stairs, the fences of the houses get lower allowing me to see what’s inside. The houses seem to be those of a native village. The layers of marks, materials, colours and objects allow me to read the time and the history of this place near the small village of Pai Tau. I notice with surprise that most of the gardens are populated by Bonsai. Small miniature landscapes that fit into the urban landscape. This place is unbelievable! The gardens are in fact laboratories where Bonsai Masters prune and create their miniature works. From this standpoint the sight of the landscape is is fantastic: the urban area in the distance with its macro-scales and here in front of me a miniature landscape recreated by Bonsai. I think about my research on the miniature and on the representation of space, of places. I think about the map as abstraction, as the process of miniaturisation of space, of the relations between micro and macro scales. This point of observation seems to sum up all theories, research and ideas that I have explored in the last period.

I stay here for a few more minutes and suddenly I decide to quickly go down the stairs and go straight towards the urban agglomerate in front of me. I cross the bridge again, but this time without stopping. I arrive straight to a glass door, shiny and transparent. I open it and go inside, I am inside the Sha Tin Plaza, the shopping centre. Colours, sounds, dimensions, everything is overturned. Proportions change, shapes are intangible. I enter the spaces, the crowd that comes from the escalator and follow the flow of the shops and restaurants. I keep walking fast trying to come in and out from the flows generated by people moving in mass between the station, the shopping centre and the residences: a single motion. Finally, I arrive at the passage that leads me to Elk Yen Estate, the first social houses complex built over the bay of Sha Tin Ho.

Sha Tin Plaza is located between two worlds, the village of Pai Tau and Siu Lek Yuen Estate. It doesn’t seem to exist a clear division between the two, but rather, in both, I perceive a strong community life. Elk Yen Estate is a very large, articulated and complex conglomeration. The various units painted green and white, develop on different levels and are dislocated between internal squares, walkways, restaurants, stairs, shops etc. People, particularly the elderly, move smoothly along these areas, creating small groups that gather in the squares and arcades. Similarly, in the village of Pai Tau, I notice how the need to gather in small groups that form communities is equally strong. I try to compare the two places I’ve visited trying to figure out the differences in the two different spatial scales observed in the village of Pai Tau and Lek Yuen Estate. I think about the body that, although migrating and acting on different scales, still manages to manipulate the spatial structure, recreating everywhere its own space. I think about the encounter with the Bonsai on the stairway of Pai Tau village and the excellent technique of the Bonsai masters, capable to miniaturise a tree and control nature. I end this journal with several open questions that I hope can be resolved with the next exploration.

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