April 9, 2008
Hong Kong, China
Yesterday, Fiona Zhu and I took one of the many double-decker buses down Kowloon’s main drag, Nathan Road. We got off the bus at Haiphong Road, walked behind the mosque, and entered Kowloon Park. The park was an unexpectedly pretty and relaxing place in the midst of the city, doing for Kowloon what Central Park does for Manhattan—making urban life more bearable. But this peaceful little place was once all about war.
The parcel of land now known as Kowloon Park has been around for more than a hundred years, but it spent many of its early years as a military installation: British, then Japanese, then British again. A series of military barracks once marched up and down the property. The main building of Whitfield Barracks remains, now known as the Hong Kong Heritage Discovery Centre. The land around the old barracks has transformed into a series of meandering paths through trees and flowers, fountains and waterfalls, ponds and bridges, sculpture displays and shady pavilions.
In the large pond lives a lovely collection of lithe pink flamingos.
In the large pond lives a lovely collection of ducks, swans, and lithe pink flamingos. The pond is bisected by a bridge, and surrounded by lush green landscaping. The setting is almost idyllic enough to be disorienting, backed as it is by the silvery and golden glass towers of Kowloon.
Kowloon Park is almost idyllic enough to be disorienting, backed as it is by the silvery and golden glass towers of Kowloon.
Up a nearby set of stairs, I strolled around a circular aviary, looking into large cages at macaws, cockatoos, parrots, imperial pigeons, and my favorite: two rhinoceros hornbills, each wearing what looked like a second sunset-colored beak atop the first, quite an unwieldy headdress. While I circled the enclosure, Zhu Zhu ran out of the park in search of bug repellant and medicated cream to treat some half-dozen or so mosquito bites she’d suffered at the bird pond.
Signs posted liberally around the park cautioned people not to approach or feed the birds, because of the risk of bird flu. I’ve seen several announcements on the English-language TV channels, advising people to prevent avian flu by: “eating healthy, practicing personal hygiene, staying away from birds, and seeing a doctor immediately if they feel unwell.” It’s a sobering thought. However, this marks only the second time bird flu has crossed my mind since I arrived in China—the first was when I saw chickens wandering the villages of Toishan, on the same paths Zhu Zhu and I walked. It’s strange how scary some ideas seem, until I’m staring into their beady little eyes. Then I just take a step back and shrug.
As we toured the old Whitfield Barracks, I remembered my Uncle Roy telling me about the Japanese soldiers he used to pass on the street every day near his home.
But bird flu seems less frightening to me than the war that came here in 1941. As we toured the old Whitfield Barracks, I remembered my Uncle Roy telling me about the Japanese soldiers he used to pass every day on the street near his home, not far from here.
Military barracks once marched up and down the property now known as Kowloon Park.
He told me that he and his friends once saw soldiers beating and beheading Chinese prisoners. The Japanese occupiers had caught the civilians breaking some rule—looting perhaps—and the soldiers had beaten them until they were nearly dead. Roy watched as they put a hose in one man’s mouth, filled him with water, and jumped on his belly. It’s likely the man’s insides burst. He saw a soldier bring down a sword on a man’s neck, but turned away before the head rolled. I wondered if those things happened right here, in this peaceful place, near this clean white building, fronted by trees full of lavender flowers and concentric circles of cheerful rose bushes.
I wondered if those things happened right here, in this peaceful place.
At the edge of the park, another old military outbuilding still overlooks Haiphong Road, peeking out from behind grand old camphor trees. The elderly trees spread their stupendous arms over the street, casting young green shade on the miniature people below.
Grand old camphor trees spread their stupendous arms over the street, casting young green shade on the miniature people below.
We returned to Nathan Road, which was once an excessively wide avenue for a city with few cars. “Someone must have predicted the future,” I told Zhu Zhu, “because my book says it’s one of the few roads in Hong Kong that never has a traffic jam.”
The Anglican Saint Andrew’s Church was built around the turn of the last century.
We walked a few blocks to Saint Andrew’s Church, a small Anglican church of red brick, white trim, and a sweet little bell tower, built around the turn of the last century. Inside, sunlight filtered through stained glass windows, giving the sanctuary a romantic glow. But I was less interested in the church itself, then in the low tunnel behind it, dug into the hill at the back of the parking lot.
I was less interested in the church itself, then in the low tunnel behind it, dug into the hill at the back of the parking lot.
A brick archway just a few feet high stood over what was once the old tunnel’s entry, now blocked with concrete. If it had still been open, I would have had to stoop or crawl to pass within. This was one of the tunnels were Hong Kong people hid during the air raids of World War II. I wondered how big it used to be inside. I wondered if my uncle or any of his brothers and sisters had ever hidden in there. He’d never mentioned it. Then again, air raids were so common that he might have hidden in many places during those years.
This was one of the tunnels were Hong Kong people hid during the air raids of World War II.
Roy had told me that his family used to stay indoors on clear, sunny days and moonlit nights, because those beautiful conditions were also perfect for air raids. So, since they usually stayed home at those times, they probably didn’t have much occasion to dodge into a tunnel. I’ll have to ask.
That’s the problem when you start digging into the past. It goes on forever.