When it came time to renew our lease, our landlord balked.
Not because we were bad tenants, but because they wanted the flat back "to give to their son". Translation: the market is better and we want to dump the property while we still can.
Thus began the annoying but necessary task of hunting for a suitable replacement. After years of high-rise living, we decided to seek an alternative, more relaxed way of life: a village house.
Hong Kong has hundreds of small villages, from those dotting the islands to those sprawled across the New Territories. Some are remote, while others have become surrounded by tower blocks in the New Towns. The trick was finding a house in good condition, in a well-maintained area, with reasonable access to public transport and not overpriced.
Village houses are single buildings no higher than three storeys. They can be set among other houses (some as close as five feet) or separated and surrounded by a wall and gate (it depends on how much land the owner of the house has purchased, or that the family owns; some villagers descend from ancestors who moved to the area hundreds of years ago). As proximity blocks daylight and tends to invite cockroaches, we opted for the latter.
After weeks of viewing houses, a few of which landed in the "Hell-hole" category (this was expected; some property agents show everything no matter how one's needs are specified), we stumbled upon a brand-new village house nestled in a lush, green valley, and backed by an old-growth hillside forest. The valley floor was host to a variety of agriculture, including vegetables, chrysanthemums, and row upon row of peach-blossom trees grown for Lunar New Year celebrations.
The house was one of two buildings set inside a high wall, which was topped with security spikes. The courtyard was large and had a beautiful corner garden with a lawn, tree and flower beds. The house itself was well-appointed, though smaller than our high-rise flat. As the top floor was occupied, we had a choice of ground or first floor. The ground floor was the obvious choice: it had a better layout, provided more usable space (including the exterior), would be easier to move into (no stairs to battle), and was the least expensive.
That no one had ever lived in the house was a huge bonus. All it needed was a cleaning crew to remove the construction dust.
Though not as convenient for public transport (we would have a five-minute walk to reach the main road) it was too good to pass up. We made an offer on the spot.
After a series of negotiations with the landlord, we landed the unit. That's when we began to learn just how different village life would be.
The first hurdle was installation of basic services. Power and water had been hooked up, but neither the phone company nor the post office could figure out where the house was, despite that we provided the address, because the Lands Department hadn't updated its records. It wasn't on the official map, ergo it didn't exist.
The phone company was incompetent; it couldn't identify the location even though we mentioned its equipment had been installed in a box outside the building (complete with serial number) and its underground wiring was accessible through a panel stamped with its logo.
Our neighbours, not 20 feet away, had telephone connections, broadband Internet, and mail delivery. We gave the phone company their address and asked it to send someone, but in the end it took three weeks of daily complaints to customer service supervisors to secure a stable phone and broadband connection.
The post office, to its credit, figured out the problem on its own.
Settling in required numerous trips to pick up all the items needed for the transition: power adapters, extension cords, new appliances (including a proper clothes dryer), and furniture. Though the windows had screens, I bought additional mosquito net to tape over the outer security doors. It was winter, but I wanted no headaches when the spring rains came and the bloodthirsty hordes began to hatch.
Adapting to village life included getting used to noises one doesn't hear as much, if at all, in urban areas. The prime reason is the lack of noise, a wonderful extra benefit to life in the boonies. The upside is listening to bird song from dawn throughout the day: there's nothing like waking to chirps and twitters; it's uplifting. Even the sound of cicadas, as loud as they are, is easy to get used to.
As we'd moved in close to Lunar New Year, we heard plenty of firecrackers as well. Despite being illegal, that didn't stop the locals from setting them off for a week when the Year of the Dog arrived. I didn't mind, expect once when some yahoo let loose a string at 11pm.
Accompanying the pyrotechnics was the sound of lion dances up and down the valley, the echoes of drums and cymbals bounced off the surrounding hills. Even the smallest temples observed the tradition, from dawn until late evening.
It didn't bother me in the least as I enjoy these traditions.
But then the ugly side of country life reared its head: village dogs. I have no idea how people raise these animals, but the majority are obnoxious, stupid and mean, with a few close to feral. Walk the path next to any home with a dog, and the dog is sure to growl, bark and even lunge at the gate. Granted, people believe that having a large dog deters burglars, but even lap dogs exhibit this mindless territorial behaviour. One nearby house has a killer dachshund with sharp, pointy teeth.
The show is more bark than bite, though. Most village dogs are cowards when the gate is open (one step in their direction sends them scurrying away) but a few exist that would attempt to tear out my throat, if given the chance. Our landlord's dog is an undisciplined cur that thinks people are giant chew toys, which is why he's chained up most of the time. He knows us and doesn't bark when we're about, but let a stranger approach the gate and he starts channelling Cujo. Delivery men cringe even though they're well out of his reach.
But village dogs don't just bark at strangers; they bark for no reason whatsoever. Some bark all hours of the night, and when one gets going, the rest join in.
Were that not annoying enough, many dog owners are content to let their dogs defecate anywhere they please when out for a walk, including on the paths, sidewalks and the road. The peasant mentality is alive and well in rural Hong Kong; the mantra is: someone else will clean up the mess. Thus every trip out becomes a game of vigilance: step there; don't step there.
It wasn't until spring that another noise joined the party, when the frog population exploded. I hadn't counted on that. The valley is, for lack of a better word, infested. When it rains, they go nuts, croaking 24 hours a day. I didn't believe anything could drown out cicadas, but I was wrong. And that many frogs means some are bound to become road-kill, which adds to the list of things to avoid stepping in.
Aside of the noise, dealing with wildlife is a constant challenge. Keeping insects out of the house isn't easy; keeping geckos out is much more difficult. It wasn't long after we'd moved in that I discovered a large gecko hiding in our bedroom. I didn't bother to chase it; geckos are hard to catch. A few months later I found it near the door and was able to shoo it outside.
Two weeks after that, a smaller gecko moved in. I cornered it and made it run into a bag, which I took outside so I could set the little fella free. A few days later I spotted a third gecko, which I caught with my bare hands. I took it for a long walk from the building, in the hope it would settle down elsewhere.
It may not help; I know how they're getting in and there's no way to stop it. I may be winning the battles, but the geckos will win the war.
Country living includes dealing with the usual insect problems, such as ants, spiders, grasshoppers and mosquitoes. We've kept them in check, except for one morning when I awoke with a huge, hard, red welt on my hip, with an extreme itch the likes I've never experienced. I couldn't determine what bit me, but suspected it had been a spider.
Soon thereafter in the ensuite I spotted a jumping spider lurking by the window. I dispatched the wee beastie to arachnid heaven.
Not all bugs are a nuisance, however. By far the coolest insect I've encountered is the praying mantis. With all the greenery around here they appear now and then. When I see one I get it to climb onto my hand so I can take it to the plants where it can hunt for bugs.
And then there are slugs and snails. When the spring rains began, they began popping up all over the place. Each day the exterior walls are speckled with small snails, while their three-inch-long, houseless gastropod cousins ooze their way along the ground, leaving little slime trails in their paths. Harmless, yet gross. The more it rains, the more snails I have to pick off the walls.
Speaking of rain, I knew we were in trouble when a pamphlet arrived in the mailbox with the title: How To Reduce Flood Loss.
Further research revealed the valley is notorious for flooding during typhoons and black rainstorms. Our house had been built on an elevated platform, so I was concerned less with flooding than with the potential for backed-up pipes if the low-lying areas become inundated. The last thing we need is more toilet trauma.
So far this season we've seen yellow and red rainstorms, with red lasting for several hours. The worst that happened was the path over the nearby river channel was flooded. The house should stay high and dry during a black rainstorm, unless the deluge is prolonged under a massive, slow-moving typhoon. But even if the house is never flooded, it could still end up surrounded by water.
I may have to invest in some hip waders.
We don't know what surprises are in store for us in the coming months, but every day reveals something new. The pleasant occurrences outweigh the unpleasant, the beauty surpasses the ugliness, and the relaxation soothes the frustrations.
That's the charm of life in a village house.
May 9, 2006
Next Tale: Zeused!