It was one of those spur of the moment things, and I ran out of the house with only two things in hand: keys, and child. But why oh why didn’t I take my camera? I missed out on the chance to capture one of those rare moments when you find yourself looking around and saying, ‘wow, where am I?’.
Because as an expat, after a few years, daily life in your strange foreign adopted home just becomes normal. You get into the routine of things, you go to work, you drop kids to school, you do grocery shopping, you lime with friends… It’s easy to forget that you actually are living in a vibrant, interesting foreign culture.
The language barrier doesn’t help either. I don’t speak or read a word of Cantonese, so although I knew that there was some festival coming up, I didn’t know what, or when, or where, it was.
Big pink and purple flags have gone up all around Mui Wo, and the village squares were getting ready for a party. What was the party for? I wish I knew, but I didn’t. The Dragon Boat races were held recently, so it’s not that. A look at the Hong Kong Government website didn’t show any public holidays coming up. My ignorance of the place where I’ve lived for six years was painfully evident.
But…. then there are the drums. The drums, beating that very distinctive rhythm for what can only be a lion dance, the drums and cymbals that you can hear in the distance, tempting your curiosity to come take a look, beckoning you to go and find the action.
We heard the drums last night, and in the distance saw the lights in the village next door, Pak Ngan Heung, a grotty little village nestled at the back of the valley, close to the Silvermine Waterfall. So, I decided to take The Kid to see what was going on. Screw bed time. You only live once so why not go see it while it happens? Bed time can wait.
Kid was thrilled to be leaving the house so unexpectedly and jumping on my bicycle instead of brushing teeth and putting on pajamas. We zoomed up the road and saw huge banners at the entrance to the village, and flags lining the street. The village square had been covered with large tents and tables and chairs set up for a communal feast. All around us people carried trays with bowls of traditional Cantonese cuisine, and enormous numbers of cold Carlsberg beers which I had hoped they might share with me. (The Carlsbergs, I mean, not the chicken feet.)
There was a stage and a small three-man band playing some music, and an impossibly thin Chinese beauty in eight-inch heels and a fluffy sequined white dress. For a second, I thought I was at a ladyboy cabaret in Thailand; it looked so out of place in normally conservative Hong Kong. She finished her number, popped into one of the village houses fronting the square, and came back out in the tiniest pum-pum shorts I’ve ever seen. Every male head at the tables turned and swiveled to take a look. I suppose the female body will always be one of those irresistible things.
Then to our right we heard the drumming start again — it was the lions, and they were moving fast. We quickly tore ourselves away from the party and made a beeline for the lion dance troupe which was heading towards the small but historic Man Mo Temple, at the end of the village. There were three lions dancing; two blue and one pink. The drummers were sweating profusely and so was I. Almost 8pm and still 31’C and 90% humidity. Carrying a 12 kilo hot potato in my arms didn’t help either. The Kid clung to me and put her hand over her face, afraid of the lions blinking their big eyes, swiveling their giant heads from side to side, and stretching out their long necks. I told her not to be afraid, that the lions just love dancing.
The lions went inside the tiny temple and when they came back out again, just like that, it was all over. The drummers and percussionists packed up their equipment and called it a night. The dancers removed the heavy lion heads and lay them down outside the temple, and wiped their sweaty brows. Little kids ran up to the lion heads and dared each other to touch the lions mouth, and ran away shrieking with delight.
The sequined dancers who form the heads and legs of the lion sat on the bench next to me, relaxed, and chugged some cold beer. Some of them I actually recognised from around town as the local villagers who we see every day doing mundane jobs, like packing groceries in the supermarket or doing construction work. It was quite cool to see them performing in these rituals and really enjoying a party.
With the lion dancing done, we slowly filtered back into the square, and began to make our way home. And it dawned on me that such simple moments like these, where we happen to catch a piece of a local festival, are the moments that remind you to open your eyes and enjoy the journey that you’re on instead of just going through the day to day motions. Those simple moments are the ones that give you that old familiar feeling of awe when you realise that you are very, very far away from home, witnessing things that many people will only ever see on TV or in magazines. And for that, I felt very grateful.
But, it also made me sadly, painfully aware that no matter how long we live in Hong Kong, as foreigners we’ll always be outsiders to Chinese culture. Although locals and expats live peacefully side by side, it’s more of a coexistence than a true integration. This is not just an expat-in-Asia thing: Asian immigrants to North America can spend their entire lives in a Chinatown and never learn English or interact with the locals. So I do know that it goes both ways.
I carried Kid back to my bicycle, and we zoomed back down the quiet village road to go home, and I wondered, will she remember any of this? She is only 2.5 years old, perhaps too young to have formative memories. But will some part of her remember the days when she saw the lions dancing? Will she one day hear the beat of the drums and instantly know what it’s for? I certainly hope so.
But I also hope that one day we’ll live somewhere that we can be part of the party, instead of sitting on the side looking in. That we’ll be part of a local community, and not live in an expat bubble. That my daughter can perhaps take part in these kinds of festivals and shows, not as an outsider, but as perhaps a performer.
As long as she’s not the one wearing the sparkly pum pum shorts! Ha!