Friday, 13 April 2018

squatters’ rights

Last summer, a friend in Penrith, my home town in the UK, told me that he’d watched a TV documentary about Hong Kong, and he expressed surprise that shacks and shanties were still to be found here. A couple of years earlier, a friend who’d been a high-ranking government official during the British administration was equally surprised to see the squatter huts around where I live.

Of course, the huge squatter areas of the 1970s in town, such as Diamond Hill, are long gone, but a lot of impromptu dwellings exist out in the New Territories. However, I must confess to being ignorant of the legal status of squatters until the first day of 2018, when Paula and I were doing our favourite bike ride, the long and winding road. At one point, we found that the path we usually follow was blocked, and in the course of navigating a detour, I spotted a sign that contained a lot of writing. I stopped to take a look.

All the structures in this photo are squatter dwellings, except, possibly, the three-storey building on the right.

I’d seen signs related to squatters before, notably the one announcing that a given slope is subject to landslide risk, and some dwellings have been scheduled for clearance. This one was different. There were a lot more words for a start, and I thought that these were worth recording:
  1. Squatter structures existing before 1982, as well as their uses, were surveyed and recorded by the government.
  2. Change in the use or unauthorized extensions will lead to demolition of the squatter structures concerned.
  3. New erections of squatter structures will be demolished, and offenders may be prosecuted.
  4. Residents are advised to contact their respective Squatter Control Offices for appropriate advice on any repairs before commencement of works to ensure that the works accord with the requirements.
  5. A territory-wide squatter occupancy survey was conducted by the government in 1984/85 whereby the squatters were registered. Coverage by this survey is one of the eligibility criteria for public rental housing when squatters are affected by clearances. However, the survey does not confer any right to anybody for the occupation of government land.
  6. Purchase of squatter structures is not protected by the law nor confers any rights to their occupants on clearance. Therefore, DO NOT purchase any squatter structures.
  7. Unauthorized occupation of squatter structures recovered by the government is liable to prosecution and eviction.
  8. If in doubt, please contact the District Squatter Control Office.
I frequently cycle through squatter areas, and I’d already noted that squatter dwellings have piped water and mains electricity connected, but I knew little else about the legal status of such structures, so this sign was quite an eye-opener.

Despite Article 3, I see new structures going up all the time, although any long-term resident of Hong Kong is unlikely to be surprised by my statement. For example, this fine house, located on the frontier road, is unlikely to have been built—and therefore surveyed—before 1984/85 (Article 5):

Although you cannot see them, there are four air-conditioning units on the right of the building, and three on the left, so it’s a fair guess that the interior will be surprisingly luxurious, even though the walls are merely industrial panelling. Note too the sign in front proclaiming government ownership of the land. I see scores of these signs, and as in this case they refer to a narrow strip of land that has been so designed to constrain development around it. It doesn’t refer to the land on which the house has been built.

However, it’s not difficult to find examples of squatters blatantly ignoring such signs:

I took this photo just a short distance from my house on the eastern outskirts of Fanling.

I should comment on Article 6, which admonishes readers not to purchase squatter structures. I know of at least one confidence trickster who scours the countryside looking for structures that have been abandoned. He renovates them and sells them on. Welcome to the Wild East.

Since discovering that first sign, I’ve noticed quite a few more, although there are none within easy walking distance of my house. This is the nearest, and also the first that I found, at the junction of Po Kat Tsai Road and Lau Shui Heung Road:

The curious thing about this location is that there do not appear to be any squatter dwellings in the immediate vicinity, although there are a lot of what I’ve described elsewhere as ‘quasi-industrial units’. I’ve since spotted a couple of signs east of Fanling in another area where there are only such industrial sites, and I now begin to wonder about the legal status of such premises.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

farmland fandango

The triangle of land between the Sheung Yue River to the northwest, the Shek Sheung River to the northeast and the Fanling Highway to the south is extensively cultivated. It is also considered environmentally sensitive, to the extent that the Kowloon–Canton Railway (KCR) was obliged to go underground when it wanted to construct a line to Lok Ma Chau. It also poses some keen route-finding problems for cyclists, because it is criss-crossed by an extensive network of narrow paths, many of which lead nowhere.

However, it is only recently that I’ve had to confront any of these problems. When I first ventured west of the main railway line in 2012 (Across the Tracks), I hardly ever strayed off the Drainage Services Department (DSD) access roads, although I did once cross the footbridge opposite the village of Ho Sheung Heung. It didn’t take long to reach a dead end, and I thence confined my cycling to the DSD access roads and Ho Sheung Heung Road.

A few months later, where the DSD access road running alongside the Sheung Yue River ended, I discovered a ramp leading up to Kwu Tung Road, which crosses the expressway and thus allows exploration further west. Paula then found that the footbridge over the expressway about 100 metres to the right of the end of the DSD access road provides an even better option, so whenever we did the journey to the west or the long and winding road, we would use the footbridge on the outward journey and the ramp on the return.

That state of affairs persisted until this winter, when—to cut a long story down to more manageable proportions—I wondered whether there was anything worth exploring to the east of these two crossing points. It didn’t take me long to find another footbridge across the expressway, but that was only the beginning of my problems. How was I to reach the DSD access roads?

However, at this point I propose to jump ahead to the ‘finished article’. It turns out to be possible to combine the various paths in a variety of different ways, but Paula and I are now agreed on the optimum sequence—for now! The following video stills illustrate the various choices that have to be made.

The first shows the approach to a T-junction. A turn right doesn’t lead to an abrupt dead end, but the path becomes increasingly difficult to follow, while the left-hand option is straightforward:

The choice at the next T-junction is far less obvious. A turn right here is perfectly viable, although it is less interesting than the left-hand option:

For a while, I did turn right here, then by a circuitous route came back around from the left, but repeating a section of path in the same direction is not allowed in my rulebook.

The path to the left leads eventually to a road that is in a direct line from the footbridge, although it almost immediately dwindles to a path winding through a cultivated area. This is the way I came when I first visited the area, when I was surprised to discover that such a well-made path led nowhere:

But there is a turn-right option before the path peters out:

The ‘circuitous route’ that I referred to earlier came this way in reverse.

The path now becomes rougher and more broken, but it’s a while before another choice has to be made:

The left-hand option becomes impassable almost immediately.

The next decision to be made isn’t long in coming:

It’s possible to continue straight on here, ultimately arriving at the same place, but that option involves a short section on a road accessible to motor vehicles.

When I first came to the next T-junction, I recognized the cross-path immediately, because I’d explored it from the DSD access road running along the left bank of the Shek Sheung River, so it was easy to choose to turn left:

The route turns right at the final T-junction, although during my earlier explorations I had checked out the left-hand option. I’ve been wondering if I missed something here though, because according to Google Maps—not usually a reliable source—there is a path hereabouts that leads across the farmland to Ho Sheung Heung via the footbridge I referred to earlier.

Whenever I’m exploring an area like this, I have a three-dimensional mental map that connects everything together. Paula, however, can only memorize the route itself, which means that it takes her longer to become familiar with it. Nevertheless, when I asked her two days ago whether she now felt confident to lead, she accepted my challenge. This is the video:

Didn’t she do well!

Even though some of the buildings that you see in this video are very substantial, they’re technically ‘squatter’ houses. This doesn’t mean that they’re illegal, but they cannot be bought and sold. The exceptions are the village houses—a legal definition—on the right between 3:20 and 3:35, and between 6:22 and 6:27, on the video.

Finally, a word about the title of this post: a fandango is a lively Spanish dance. I could have got the alliteration by describing this endeavour as a ‘foxtrot’, but ‘fandango’ is also a slang term for a foolish enterprise and thus seems more appropriate.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

photographic abstraction #26

Although I keep thinking that I won’t find enough suitable images to continue my series of abstract photographs, I’m still coming up with new ideas and new motifs. Of course, a lot of the images I produce—and reject—are too amorphous to allow me to suggest a meaning through a title, although I think that you will find the present collection both varied and interesting.

What is going on in the first picture? To me, it is a perfect illustration of chaos.

chaos theory

I believe that most people are familiar with Descartes’ famous dictum, cogito ergo sum (‘I think therefore I am’)—indeed, I’ve had it quoted at me on several occasions by someone trying to make a philosophical point, invariably without their realizing that this statement assumes that ‘mind’ and ‘body’ are somehow separate, which is probably an error. The most cogent rebuttal of Cartesian dualism was made by British philosopher Gilbert Ryle, who called it ‘the ghost in the machine’:

ghost in the machine

You don’t need me to point out that the next image isn’t hair, but it is something that’s been brushed. I can’t remember what though.

hair today, gone tomorrow

The impact was on the left, but the target was in the middle. In other words, the attacker missed:


The title I’ve given to the next image refers to the term’s cartographic usage rather than to remission of pain:


It isn’t often that an image is so striking that I simply have to get off my bike and take a photograph, but this is what happened with my final image, which I’ve named after one of the few musical acts of the twenty-first century that I consider worth listening to.

white stripes

recent posts in this series
Photographic Abstraction #21
Photographic Abstraction #22
Photographic Abstraction #23
Photographic Abstraction #24
Photographic Abstraction #25

Thursday, 29 March 2018

cycling: video action #2

Although I hadn’t intended to post links to more YouTube videos, there is quite a lot of background information to attach to this latest collection. All feature Paula riding in the front.

The way of the dragon’ is undoubtedly the best of my recent discoveries, although my first two attempts to shoot a video were failures. For my first attempt, I started filming at the beginning of the rough road leading off Ma Tso Lung Road, but when we started to go off-road, Paula went straight on at a point where she should have turned right. My second attempt was a much bigger disappointment though.

This is a still from that first video:

There is a drop of almost a metre from the concrete at the bottom of the photo to the dirt where Paula is, which means that it’s necessary to go very slowly. However, going slowly affects one’s stability, and Paula toppled over into the vegetation on her left. She wasn’t hurt, but here’s the rub: for reasons that I can’t explain, the video camera wasn’t behaving as it had done on its first day out, and there were no distinctive beeps to tell me whether I was turning it on or off. And I turned the camera off when I thought I was turning it on, so I missed all the drama. Paula was happy about that!

I explained how I discovered the first of the serendipity alleyways in Serendipity #1, but the first video I shot covered only the alley itself, and the complete connection between Ho Sheung Heung Road and Ma Tso Lung Road also includes a road that presents its own problems. If you watch closely, a lot of concrete has been slathered across this road, creating many 2–3cm lips that are uncomfortable to ride over on a bike.

The interesting point to note about the alleyway itself is the hill. This still of Paula near the bottom provides a flavour of this section:

I don’t think it’s particularly steep, but my legs always feel the strain. I think that this is because it’s natural to attack a hill on a narrow path to avoid wobbling, while the same gradient on a road can be treated more casually because wobbling a bit really doesn’t matter.

For something that really is steep and narrow, look no further than swiss roll:

This photo was taken from the top of the ramp, which I’d originally come across while exploring the road across the top. However, once I’d established that there is a through path here, it was obvious that I would arrange things so that we cycled up, not down, this ramp.

I’ve included a second still image here because of the look of incredulity on the Filipina domestic helper’s face: did someone really just cycle up that hill? I don’t think anyone else does.

I’ve already posted videos of some sections of the long and winding road, but one of my favourite parts is the iron bridge path:

A few months ago, just before we reached the iron bridge, we met a man who told us “there is no way through”. Of course, we knew differently, but if you watch the video, you will get a sense of why a non-cyclist might think there really is no way through here:

When I established ping kong ping pong last year, we started linking this ride with the long and winding road. However, this meant missing out the last section of the original route, and in the last couple of months we’ve reverted to that original.

The first section is yet another uphill narrow path that feels steeper than it is, while the second still shows where the path joins a dirt road that provides an exciting finale: