Well, what can you do with an island? It just floats there, wantonly untethered. It’s possible it doesn’t even need you, that’s how unequal the relationship is. If it shrugged, you’d fall in the sea. But, with a small one, like Cheung Chau, there are edges everywhere and you can walk right around and tickle them with your bare feet. In the end you’ll be back where you started and that’s not easy on one of those continent things.
And Hong Kong’s deadly crowded. There are people down the front of your shirt, in your nose, tucked behind your ears. Escape is necessary. You’ll need a ferry to get off the bigger, taller, more vertical island, away from the masses. Unfortunately a large percentage of the masses have their sharp young heads filled with the very same idea. You start to get that feeling at Central ferry station. At first there are just a few of you, a couple of plastic moulded seats and some giant antiquated looking fans aggressively attempting to make tiny dents in the heavy, wet heat while simultaneously blowing the hair off your head.
Then the city takes a ragged smoggy breath in and as it exhales a multitude of daytrippers tumble past the blow of the fans to join you as you wait weakly imagining your escape, now toying with the idea of making something else the object of the exercise. There is the mere seed of an idea that maybe something else needs to be the object, as getting away from it all is starting to look like going towards it.
The ferry arrives and an impossible number of us pile on as though there’s a war and we’re evacuating. We bob and weave our way to a place at the window. Fifty five minutes pass, fifty five minutes of deep blue South China Sea, the strewness of hundreds of little land masses and the sheer fabulousness of being passed by the more expensive ferry, the faster one that flies by on a cushion of nothing. If you were on it, I tell myself smugly, you’d not know how fantastic you were.
Less than an hour from the bustling verticality of Hong Kong we’re back in China how she used to be. Not a highrise in sight, flocks of old fishing boats, serious ones, the kind that really catch fish and are not just for show. It’s only as we pull into the dock that we notice that the surface of the little island, with it’s quaint settlements along the waters edge, is moving like ants on a muffin crumb, crawling with merry making tourists.
Cheung Chau is known for two distressingly disparate things: suicide and buns, an almost mystical association beyond the grasp of the ordinary mind. The first half of the last decade saw an alarming spate of macabre ‘charcoal burning’ suicides in vacation rentals on the island; death by carbon monoxide poisoning.
And then there’s the contrasting conviviality of the annual Bun Festival. My companion for the day assures me that then there are real crowds… and 60 feet high towers of buns. At this point I begin to feel a little like I do about Christmas trees and easter bunnies; murkily mystified and just a little roughed up. The place is alive and positively festive, I can’t imagine what it would really be like when it comes alive during the bun festival, I can’t imagine it as a suicide destination either for that matter.
We dodge through the weekend crowds and head out on the path along the water past the long, low profiles of the resting dragon boats. We join the people attacking the walk with gusto. Occasionally we wind off the path and curve up into the hills, through the suburbs, along roads so narrow the main modes of transport are feet or bicycles. Up here its another world, quiet and lost, a little like we become, even with our Hong Kong born guide. We try this road then that, not panicking because we can see the edges of the land, we just can’t find a road that leads directly down there.
We pass solemn cemeteries and deserted stone benches under glowering banyans. It is impossible to imagine the masses of eating, jostling, laughing escapees down in the village.
But they’re still there, even when the sun isn’t any longer, and when we finally wend across the last small crescent shaped beach with our flip flops in our hands. And the crowds leaving are much bigger than the crowds were arriving. Fifty five minutes across the dark South China Sea and we’re safe and sound in the relentless and familiar chaos of Hong Kong pondering, over chilled Tsing Taos, the sheer audacity of the whole concept of escape.