Po Wah Lam
The struggling writer tells Yvonne Lai about returning to his roots in the Hong Kong hinterland and a two-wheeled journey of discovery.
THE PREFACE I was born in Liverpool, England, and moved to Hong Kong when I was a baby. I lived in the closed area on the border with Shenzhen until I was seven years old. Then my family moved back to Britain, where I grew up in the Wirral [peninsula in England's northwest]. After studying design in college, I returned to Hong Kong at 22 for a visit. I was enthused about how unique the area was. If I had never lived in the closed area and never left Britain, I probably wouldn't have tried to become a writer. But this nugget of my childhood engaged me and turned me on to a greater sense of discovery.
SETTING THE SCENE The village where I spent my childhood is called Ha Heung Yuen. It was pristine and green. It had a great little community, festivals and my school. Everyone had a nickname. Everyone had dogs and cats. Everyone knew each other.
Lin Ma Hang Road runs more than half the entire length of the closed area's frontier. It starts at Man Kam To Road and ends at Sha Tau Kok. My mother helped build this road; she was one of the many labouring Hakka women you still see at roadside constructions today. It used to be a heavily patrolled road, a sensitive nerve line dividing two opposing beliefs: capitalism and communism. Now, there is no life. [When Lam returned recently to his childhood village] I saw only abandonment, crumbled buildings and the occasional vacant watch post. There's a bigger story behind that: Hongkongers moving to the city, abandoning village life. Across the fence, the China side [is now] filled with buildings; terrible and boring.
THE PREMISE When I was 30, I was given a once-in-a-lifetime chance to write and publish a book. I had a scholarship at the University of East Anglia, in Norwich, England. Penguin Books was interested. It's hard to pinpoint what went wrong. The Locust Hunter, my novel about growing up in the closed area, ended up being published by a company that went bankrupt soon after. For years this [bump in the road] festered inside me.
As I reached my 40 years on Earth, I found my bumbling still troubled me. With my second book far from completion, and with no interest from publishers or agents, I figured I'd break away and look for what I thought would be a sort of redemption. A bike pilgrimage made perfect sense. Cycling clears the mind. When you are on a bike, there is a real sense of weightlessness - you feel like you are flying. There is that moment when you don't have to worry about anything - like shedding all your emotional baggage.
On the cusp of my 41st birthday, I found myself in Hong Kong, embarking on a two-day clockwise tour of the city.
TRAVELS WITH NORMAN My 30kg load included a pannier packed with a hammock, rear racks, a wind-powered electricity generator for recharging my phone and a cat.
I found Norman, my toy cat, on the Web, after having seen a similar cat curled up asleep in a train museum in Britain.
You may laugh but it was primarily a safety measure. Hong Kong is a dangerous place to go cycling - there are many cars. If I were just another guy on a bike, what would drivers care? I thought that if I put a cat on the back of the bike, people would look twice and pay more attention. I met with many laughs on the ride because of Norman. People would slow down in their car and ask how on Earth my cat could stay asleep on the back of a bike.
AROUND OUR WORLD IN TWO DAYS My starting point was Sheung Shui. I quickly met Sha Tau Kok Road, which took me to Luk Keng. As I wove my way across Luk Keng Road, from across the bay I saw Sha Tau Kok emerge. After the descent past Bride's Pool, in no time I was making my way towards Tai Po. I wove my way across Tolo Harbour then Sha Tin using its famous cycle path. After leaving Ma On Shan, I reached Sai Kung in the late afternoon and spent the night there.
[The next day], I set off at 10.30am. From Sai Kung I followed Hiram's Highway, which has become a major freeway. Heading along Clearwater Bay Road, I met my first monster climb of the day - Razor Hill. I realised it was a terrible mistake not to have ditched the panniers in Sai Kung. I turned off into Anderson Road. Tumbling to the bottom, I found Po Lam Road and consequently the petrifying Tseung Kwan O highway. Sometime after 4pm, I met the ferry at Kwun Tong. From there, I sailed across to North Point and rode to Central and caught the ferry to Mui Wo, on Lantau Island. I saw the ghost-like Tsing Ma Bridge span across the sea. As darkness fell, I met another Goliath - Tung Chung Road. Finally after much cursing and puffing I made [it through a pass in Pak Kung Au]. To my left was Lantau Peak and to my right was Sunset Peak. Down the 'hill', at the Tung Chung MTR, I had to splash out on a taxi to Tuen Mun, where I began the two-hour ride home.
It was late. Very few cars were on the road. The moon was bright and I felt like the king of the road. Whether it was adrenaline or euphoria, this is the part I would call mystical illumination. I arrived back in Sheung Shui at 1am; I had cycled 101.75 miles (164km).
Although it wasn't every inch of the city, it gave me a sense of Hong Kong. I survived the trucks and the heat and the climbs. I am alive.