Saturday, 18 November 2017

ramping up the difficulty

Since returning to Hong Kong last month, I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the area to the east of Fanling. I hadn’t thought there was much scope for innovation in this area—most of my exploration of cycling possibilities had been to the west—but as I recounted in Reservoir Dodges, there is a path linking Hok Tau Road with the villages further east. All I needed to do was find a viable way back home and I had a complete circuit, albeit one that involved the slog up Lau Shui Heung Road on the outward leg of the ride.

I can’t believe how many new paths and alleyways I’ve discovered in the past four weeks, all of which will be documented in due course, but by far the most technically difficult is a path that links the aforementioned circuit with ‘the final frontier’. The alleyway that leads north from Sha Tau Kok Road, close to its junction with Lau Shui Heung Road, is straightforward—until it crosses the Ng Tung River. This is what then lies ahead:

Following a painful crash the previous weekend, I’d originally come across this on foot because I couldn’t grip the handlebar on my bike with my right hand but didn’t want to be stuck in the house. However, a couple of days ago, having cycled down the ramp the previous day, I decided to see whether the uphill version was possible. It is, although I did fail on my first attempt! Here is a closer view of the previous photo, which probably gives a better idea of the steepness:

In fact, using basic trigonometry, I calculated that the section alongside the steps has an angle of 38 degrees (the riser/tread ratio is approximately 0.8, which is the tangent of this angle). There is a kind of lip, indicated by the red arrow in the next photo, where the slope is briefly steeper than this, and on my first attempt I simply didn’t have enough momentum to get my front wheel over the lip, and I stalled.

Naturally, I went down to the bottom for another attempt, and I succeeded, although this ramp is always going to be difficult—the surface of the path being slightly rounded from side to side doesn’t help—and I don’t think I can guarantee to do it every time. I’ll just have to see. The slope does ease off slightly once you’re over the lip, and I wouldn’t expect to fail if I got that far.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

pavement mathematics

Most of the pavements (Americans read: ‘sidewalks’) in Hong Kong have been laid down using interlocking bricks, and I’m intrigued by the different patterns that can be seen. I often wonder, for example, how many ways an area can be covered using shapes that are twice as long as they are wide, which is the standard ratio for paving bricks, although the precise size does vary from location to location.

I have my own terms for the various possible layouts, although I have checked out what might be called the ‘official’ terminology for different ways of arranging bricks. Where appropriate, these appear in what follows as italic phrases enclosed in parentheses. This is probably the most common layout:

This is the zig-zag (herringbone bond) layout. In this photo, the L-shaped pairs of pale bricks complicate matters, but the basic principle of this layout is clear.

The second most common layout is what I call the three-brick rectangle (single basket-weave bond):

In my part of Fanling, this mixture of reddish, greyish and yellowish bricks is especially common, and I often think that there must be some kind of pattern involving the three colours. While this is clearly incorrect, the distribution is almost certainly not entirely random.

The two-brick square (double basket-weave bond) is much less common. This photo was taken on the forecourt of University station, where the alternating lines of light and dark grey bricks are a complication on the basic pattern:

The least common method for covering large areas is what I call a linear pattern. There are two different types of linear pattern, distinguished by whether the bricks are laid end to end (stretcher course) or side by side (header course). This photo illustrates a rare example of the two types being combined:

Note the two parallel stretcher courses just right of centre, which appear to indicate a (slight) change of colour in the bricks. The half-brick offset of the right-hand course is an anomaly.

Linear brick courses are often used to delineate the edge of a paved area, as in the next photo, which shows a header course bordering a path with a zig-zag arrangement. Note that it has been necessary to trim the bricks adjoining the header course to fit, given that the orientation is effectively a mismatch—any area paved in a zig-zag pattern cannot be enclosed by straight lines without some such adjustment.

These may be the basic patterns, but there is huge scope for variation. For example, the next photo illustrates why I call the herringbone bond a zig-zag pattern:

The next two photos are of arrangements involving bricks of more than one colour and are superficially similar, although a closer examination reveals the dark grey bricks in the first image to be part of a stretcher-course linear arrangement, while the alternating red and grey bricks in the second image are part of a zig-zag pattern.

The use of different colours provides some spectacular possibilities, none more so than the following three-colour linear arrangement, which I recorded on the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong:

Other opportunities for creativity are afforded by what I describe as ‘wavy’ bricks. The first photo here shows a basic two-brick-square pattern using such bricks, while the second shows what can be done with three colours in a zig-zag layout:

There is another complication in the way bricks have been arranged on the pavements around these parts: what I call ‘separators’. For what I assume are purely decorative reasons, a brick-paved sidewalk is often broken up by these separators, as shown in the following photo:

The separator here is effectively five parallel stretcher courses, but the use of coloured bricks creates a line of what I call ‘nine-brick squares’. Mind you, a moment’s reflection should be enough to realize that it is, in fact, impossible to arrange nine 2×1 bricks in a square, but what I mean here is the polygon that encloses nine bricks arranged in a 1–2–3–2–1 formation, as in the following photo:

Viewed from an angle rather than from directly above, it is deceptively easy to imagine that this enclosing polygon is in fact a rhombus, but it is straightforward to establish not only that the sides of the polygon are of equal length but also that the four apices are all right angles.

Although the nine-brick-square separator is extremely common, it is invariably used to separate areas with the same type of pattern. In the transition from, say, a three-brick rectangle to a zig-zag arrangement, the usual separator is a single stretcher course in a distinctively different colour:

The next photo shows how separators are usually inserted at regular intervals along a stretch of pavement:

And the separators here—alternating three-brick rectangles (dark grey) and two-brick squares (light grey)—show just how much scope there is for inventiveness using these features. Note the parallel stretcher and header courses on the side further from the road.

I’ve come across quite a few other types of separator in addition to the ubiquitous nine-brick square. Here is a selection:

Finally, you might think that all these pavement patterns are to be found only in urban areas, but my final photo was taken in Ta Kwu Ling, a village close to the Chinese border that was part of the ‘frontier closed area’ until the beginning of last year.

It is the most extensive example of alternating stretcher and header courses that I’ve come across to date.

Friday, 3 November 2017

on the trail

The items that I chose to include in Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes, which I posted last week, have two characteristics in common. The first is obvious: they all reflected changes that had occurred while I was away. The second is not obvious: all the reported changes were unexpected. However, there was one location where I did expect change to have taken place, and that is the subject of this post.

I first wrote about ‘the nature trail’ back in January, and I strongly recommend that you check out that earlier post for background information on this location. I concluded that post with the following:
I will be back here a few weeks later to see if Michael was correct, that the work here is unfinished. I do hope so.
Although I cycled past the entrance to this alley almost every subsequent Sunday, it wasn’t until my first Sunday back in Hong Kong (last week) that I took another look. The most obviously new artwork is these two colourful hexagonal ‘mosaics’:

The next image shows a section of the path and how most of the artwork here has been painted along one side, presumably so that people can avoid walking on it.

The following photos have been arranged in the order in which they were taken. They are, in general, more elaborate than those featured in Nature Trail (most of which have now faded), although the same flower/foliage motifs predominate.

The anthropomorphic carrot in the next photo is in the same style as those painted on one of the houses in ghost alley (the entrance to which is only about 50–60 metres further along Ping Yuen Road), which is strong evidence that the same people were responsible for the art in both locations.

To be continued (probably).

Monday, 30 October 2017

disappearing world #5

It had always been my intention to continue my Disappearing World series once I’d returned to Hong Kong, but I hadn’t expected to start with the subject of this post. However, I visited the village of Nga Yiu with Paula on Saturday because we’d heard that a disused brick kiln thereabouts was now a roost for several hundred fruit bats (Nga Yiu is less than a kilometre east of Muk Wu, which was the subject of the first post in this series).

We didn’t find the kiln, but I couldn’t help but notice what appeared to be a traditional watchtower that was festooned with creepers. It had to be worth a closer look.

This is the view from the opposite side (because of the vegetation, it isn’t possible to take a meaningful shot from further away):

There is also a sign on this side of the tower warning people that if they choose to enter, they do so at their own risk (the sign is only in Chinese). The only way into the tower is from an adjoining single-storey building, and the next two photos show all too obviously the reason for the warning. The first was taken from outside and the second from inside the annex.

The floors and staircases of the tower itself were clearly made of wood, but they have now rotted away or—more likely—been eaten by termites. The only illumination is via tiny windows (three on both the first and second floors, one on each of three sides; there are no windows on the ground floor) and what would once have been a door onto the roof. I could therefore take the final two photos only by using flash.

In other words, this tower, which I surmise once served a defensive function in more lawless days, is now a ruin. I wonder how long it will last before falling down completely.

other posts in this series
Disappearing World
Disappearing World #2
Disappearing World #3
Disappearing World #4

Friday, 27 October 2017


(Turn and face the strange)
David Bowie, Changes.
Since 2006, I’ve spent the winter months in Hong Kong and the summer months in my home town in the UK. And every time I return to Hong Kong, Paula asks me whether I can spot what has changed during my absence. Hong Kong is always changing, but there seem to have been more changes than usual this year. This is an account of some of the more striking changes I’ve noticed this time.

It was dark when I got back to Fanling last Friday, but as usual our plan was to cycle along the frontier road on Saturday. During my absence, streetlights had been erected at 15–20-metre intervals along the entire length of this road:

This road was part of the ‘closed area’ until 2013, and it had always been illuminated by floodlights—also visible in the photo—to deter illegal immigrants. Consequently, this strikes me as a complete waste of money, unless, that is, they are no longer functional.

Having completed the frontier road, we then continued along the long and winding road, and it wasn’t long before I could see some apparent changes ahead. However, it was only when I was almost on top of it that I discovered a new rain shelter on the banks of the Sheung Yue River.

A short distance further, on a path described in Room for Improvement, I stopped to take the next photo. You will probably be wondering what is significant here, but note the whitish patch on the path. The concrete here was loose, and it would go ‘click! clack!’ as you rode over it. This is one of several such repairs that I’ve noticed while cycling this week.

After our Saturday bike rides, Paula and I always go to Sun Ming Yuen for afternoon tea, and on the way we have to negotiate the junction shown in the next photograph. I wrote about how this junction had been (badly) redesigned in The Design Floor, the problem being that when each of the four roads meeting at this crossroads has a green light, the other three are on red. However, a disproportionate amount of the traffic on the road on the left of the photo turns right, and a huge amount of traffic from the right turns left. Under the old arrangement, that traffic backs up to the next but one traffic light, which is clearly unsatisfactory. The change has been for this left-turning traffic to proceed at the same time that traffic in the opposite direction is turning right, making it even more awkward for pedestrians to negotiate the junction.

Incidentally, Paula wasn’t aware of the change here, partly because she doesn’t make a point of learning the sequence at any light-controlled junction. Given that I cross when I judge it safe to do so, not when the green man is illuminated, I was bound to notice this change.

Sun Ming Yuen doesn’t have any specials at weekends, but we also go two or three times a week for morning tea, and an innovation that I heartily approve of is shown in the next photo: smaller steaming baskets that hold just two rather than three or four dumplings. The photo shows a basket of two siu mai (minced pork, prawn and Chinese mushroom; my favourite) alongside a standard basket that held three char siu bao (steamed bread with barbecued pork in hoi sin sauce). The third bun is in my bowl.

Another important task on my first day back is to stock up with beer. I usually do this at the local branch of ParknShop, which when I left for the UK had a single entrance/exit. As you can see, that entrance now has a one-way turnstile, because the checkouts have been moved and a separate exit opened.

And the beer itself has also been the subject of change! My first choice is always Tsingtao, and in the past it has been sold at a variety of discounts. The nominal price is HK$14.90, but ‘buy three, get one free’ was common, as was three for $35.90. You can imagine my surprise (and delight) at finding it being offered at six for $60, which I’d never seen before. I took the following photo in the local branch of rival supermarket Wellcome (I’d gone in to check whether it was matching the ParknShop price, because whenever the offer price changes, there always seems to be some coordination/collusion between the two, which doesn’t make any sense).

An old man used to live in a hut at the beginning of the path between the edge of Fanling and where I live, and when he died or was rehoused, some enterprising artists decorated the hut to commemorate the fact that he kept a lot of cats (The Cat Man’s Hut). The hut has gone, although the cat farmer painted on the door can still be seen. This statue of a cat farmer appeared while I was away (the plaster pak choi is not new):

I’ve saved the best until last. My Sunday bike ride takes me through the village of Chow Tin, which I featured in Disappearing World #4. I took the photographs for that post back in May, and if you check the second photo in that post, all you’ll see is a blank wall. Now look at it!