Keepers of the temple flame

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 June, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 June, 2000, 12:00am

OFFICIALS of the former colony of Hong Kong often retire to tend roses in English cottage gardens. Ron and Veronica Clibborn-Dyer are different: after 30 years of police service here, they have retired to tend orchids and ancestral bone jars (gam tap or golden pagodas) in a New Territories nunnery garden.

There they have goats and pigeons, Muscovy ducks (the Aylesbury ducks were eaten by a leopard cat), three dogs and a pond full of rare paradise fish that have been swept down from the mountains by summer rains. The garden is full of interesting plants, native birds, fresh herbs and fruit trees. It is life as far from the ultimate vertical city stereotype of Hong Kong as one can imagine. It all began about five years ago, on a walk with their dogs, when they found a British phone number in a deserted temple building.

'We had seen the nunnery before from a distance,' Ron says. 'But one Sunday we noticed there was a hole in the tiled roof and the next week we found the padlock on the door had been broken.' His illegal-immigrant antennae, honed by years in the police, started picking up signals, and they went in to investigate.

The temple had indeed been broken into and there was evidence that IIs had been living there. As they looked around they found the phone number scribbled on a piece of paper - and when they called it later they found themselves talking to a young member of the Lee family who had gone to Britain many years before to start a fast food restaurant.

By coincidence Lee was due to visit Hong Kong a few weeks later, and over several conversations he came to a unique arrangement with Ron and Veronica.

They were invited to be the guardians of the temple, to maintain the buildings and look after the shrines and the ancestors.

They found the problems with the nunnery were numerous. It was falling into ruin and to renovate it would take time and money. It was a beautiful place but no New Territories villagers would live there: it had too many ghosts and graves in and around it.

The story of the nunnery is a history of New Territories traditions. There is one old grave near the entrance to the house, where great-grandfather Lee is buried. His first wife had only daughters and one of them was determined to avoid the drudgery of marriage in the only way that the tough New Territories traditions allowed - by becoming celibate, vegetarian and joining - or in her case starting - a community for like-minded women. Her father sold a property in Sheung Shui and bought this plot of land on the remote hillside and built three houses - at a time that, according to the oldest people of the area, 'the hillsides were alive with sounds of activity from this community', Ron says.

This particular community - popularly called a 'nunnery' (si gwu num) - with simplicity of life rather than any particular religious order as its doctrine, lasted until the late 1980s, several years before Ron and Veronica moved in. They heard the old woman in charge was frightened to live in the house on her own when her last companion passed away, so she decided to sell part of the nunnery land and buy a flat in Sheung Shui from which to manage things. It is said, however, that she died the day before the property transaction took place. The locals have told Ron and Veronica that she did not own the land, but only held it in trust and therefore had no right to sell. The place had remained unoccupied ever since.

It was curious to see elderly women's accommodation - intact although riddled with woodworm - when Ron and Veronica moved in. There were trunks and toothbrushes and simple possessions left just as if their owners planned to return soon.

The building itself is made of several separate sections. The first three old houses were probably built in the 1920s, the last alterations seemed to have been made in the 70s when a new access bridge was constructed across a ravine.

Since Ron and Veronica moved in, the whole place has been renovated. One area has been converted into their own flat, the other areas have been cleaned and painted. Particular attention has been paid to the three temple halls that are now neatly kept - the ancestors and gods appeased with incense and, at times, fruit offerings.

The main temple hall is occupied by the bodhisattva of compassion, more commonly known as the goddess of mercy Kwun Yam, protected by the guardian of Buddhist scriptures and able door guard, Wai Tor.

The Kwun Yam temple hall has rare statues representing the deities of orchids and trees (Laan Fa Dai Sin and Ying Tung Dai Sin) - introduced, Ron and Veronica believe, by one of the most well-known women to live in the temple.

Another temple hall is dedicated to the city god (Shing Wong), who traditionally stands as head of the local village earth gods. It is this deity that advises on family fortunes and health and would appear to have been the guide and mentor of one of the most famous women of the temple community.

She had been a mui tsai - a slave girl, sold by her mother at the age of 10 when her father died. She was forced to do heavy labour and portering work over the mountain paths from Yim Tin to Wong Kong in mainland China across the bay. At the age of 20, she followed a dream and went to live at the nunnery, having learnt the secrets of medicinal plants, and spiritual healing. 'My belief is that she brought these two uncommon deities with her,' Ron says.

Ron and Veronica also have a love for orchids and trees, and a great deal of their time is spent in the garden. A tour reveals a tree laden with epiphytic orchids - watered by an innovative system of micro-sprays so it seems as if you are walking in a misty jungle - heliconias brought from Borneo, medicinal herbs, a host of butterflies (their identities patiently recorded), and a red-winged crested cuckoo that can be summoned by mimicking its call.

Water comes down from a culvert 250 metres away up the hillside. A friend - and keen jogger - used to end his morning run every day by helping Ron lug a six-metre section of pipe up the hill. 'As we got further down he used to help with two a day,' Ron says. Even now turning off the water is a delicate affair. 'Once we turned off the tap too quickly and one of the pipes up the hill burst at the joint. Veronica and I had to dismantle the whole lot and put them all together again,' he says.

Ron and Veronica are keen recyclers. I remember on my first visit to the nunnery helping transport an impossibly heavy cast-iron bathtub over bridges, along tiny paths, and up steep steps to the house. Ron had spotted it on the side of the road, and decided it would be ideal for the temple.

And one of the ponds - full of the rare paradise fish, and decorated with delicate furry lilies that flower for just one day - started with a shower curtain as its waterproof base. It is made up of a huge air-conditioner cooling tower base unit - another trophy from a friend's sharp eyes along New Territories back roads - now artistically hidden beneath more local materials.

In his former incarnation as a police officer, Ron used to arrest snake heads. Now he arrests snakes. There were two huge pythons in his garden, waiting in custody, on suspicion of eating a month-old kid goat called Snowy White and a Chinese goose. Ron did not take the pythons out to show me. One time he did that a couple of years ago and the snake grabbed his arm. 'I asked Veronica for a beer and a bowl of water to bleed into, and told the snake that if it let me go then I would let it go - it took about half an hour to release me.' Did he feel weak from the blood loss? 'No, just a bit stupid.' Maximum penalty for these two is relocation to another part of the New Territories. Ron is a great supporter of Hong Kong's natural fauna being allowed to do what natural fauna do, as long as they don't get his goats.

He has a small herd of 18 now, with names like Buddy Holly, April Showers and Dick Barton Special Agent, the energetic brother of the deceased Snowy White. They used to live in an outhouse complete with old sofas and armchairs, but now they have been moved to a larger paddock. They are not milked - as Ron says, once you start milking a goat you have to make it a daily task and 'life is too short - there's always ParknShop'. Instead the goats' task is to clear the undergrowth around the area, making the nunnery less of a firetrap during the hot, dry months - and it is a job they do with enthusiasm. For a while Ron and Veronica suggested that supporters of the project 'sponsor' a particular goat, but the pythons' dining habits have made that something of an embarrassment. They also have two cows, Buttercup and Daisy, that now live with the wild herd in the hills together with two new calves born in the past two years. These also respond to the sound of Ron's voice.

One of the tasks in the nunnery is tending the bone jars - not of Lee ancestors but a legacy of a little business on the side by the former residents, who used to give good fung shui space to deceased city dwellers at a small price. Ron and Veronica now get visitors - sometimes as many as 50 - every Ching Ming and Chung Yeung festival: relatives, often now British citizens, arriving to pay respects to their ancestors.

There was a minor hiccup a few years ago, Ron says, when wild animals knocked over two bone pots. 'I had to guess which skull belonged in which pot,' he says.

And how long will they stay in this curious, magical place? 'It's hard to predict,' Ron says. 'The local people say the gods brought us here, and we believe it will be the gods that tell us when it is time to leave. But this is a very special place, and we continue to learn something new every day.'