25 August 2011

Pirates and Hidden Treasures 海盜和寶藏

Six miles off the southwestern coast of Hong Kong Island is a piece of rock smaller than New York’s Central Park. Shaped like a dumbbell, Cheung Chau – or literally Long Island in Cantonese – was once a strategic hideout for ferocious pirates who ruled the Canton coasts. At the turn of the 19th Century, these pirates of the South China Sea, our very Jack Sparrow and Captain Hook, terrorized seafarers and threatened the Qing court. The most prominent of them all, Cheung Po Tsai (張保仔), famously bisexual and captain of a vast and formidable fleet, was a staple among local legends. With all the eye makeup and flailing hand gestures, Johnny Depp might have had a certain Chinese pirate in mind when he crafted his character.

Aerial view of Cheung Chau

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Cheung Po Tsai was only 21 years old when he took over the pirating business from his adoptive parents. During the short period between 1807 and 1810 – the year he capitulated to the Qing court and became an imperial navy colonel, Cheung pillaged and plundered towns and villages along the Canton coastal area, including Hong Kong and Macau. At the pinnacle of his pirating career...


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Read the rest of this article in No City for Slow Men, published by Blacksmith Books, available at major bookstores in in Hong Kong and at Blacksmith Books.


13 comments:

  1. Thanks for that interesting bit of HK history. Glad you guys obviously had a relaxing time there.

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  2. Thanks, Don. Cheung's life story made for some interesting research!

    Jason

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  3. Jason,

    An interesting article written on one of Hong Kong's prime historic attractions for both locals and tourists alike. Many of my foreign friends visiting the city would naturally opt for a trip there to enjoy a leisurely walk and stoop down through the dark and narrow Cheung Po Tsai Cave for the mystic experience. Indeed, you have deftly combined the site visit for perfect reading with vivid description of your personal outing with your brothers.

    It had been years back since I last visited Cheung Chau and Cheung Po Tsai Cave and this article is definitely a refresh of that visit and recall of history of Cheung Po Tsai - the ferocious pirate ( would be interesting for the research to find out if he is related in any way with the notorious sefarers of South East Asia ).

    Till todate, I believe Cheung Chau still forms part of growing-up ( local outing ) experience for most Hong Kongers that crave it as a unique and special place in their hearts. Their current or past stories of pranks and adventures are flash-back in your writings.

    In Chung Chau, during the past few decades, I stayed at a posh bungalow owned by Hong Kong Land Ltd. It is located in a beautiful mound at the end of the small cul de sac with its door front facing the tiny hill and its backyard overlooking into the endless sea. BBQ arangements are all inclusive in the bungalow. While it is now history, just wonder if the bungalow still exists today. In those days, the free stay at the bungalow was a provision of staff perks and benefits for work-life balance, of which my sister was an employee.

    Keep writing, Jason. Look forward to your next article.

    Martie

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  4. Martie,

    Thanks for sharing your personal experience living in Cheung Chau. I didn't know there was staff housing there -- it sounds like a great perk!!

    Jason

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  5. Jason,

    Just want to clarify my earlier comment.

    In those days, the bungalow in Cheung Chau of Hong Kong Land was allotted (by roster) free to all employees for only two to three weeks of "staycation" every year. It was not staff housing for daily living.

    Cheers, Martie

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  6. I know more about Cheung Chau after reading your article.

    Lily

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  7. Dear Jason,

    I found your article very intriguing as I have recently visited the island myself. I had no idea the island was full of history, and the the whole pirate information is very fascinating. Often times, we automatically associate pirates to be from the Caribbeans - who knew the Chinese had their own version of Pirates.

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful article.

    With much love,
    AB

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  8. Finders keeper, thats the first thought that comes to mind on seeing the title Hidden Treasures, a childs chant. Actually I have done a research paper back in Sydney as to who owns the treasure trove that is unearthed on one’s land, and it harks back to the Biblical parable about anyone finding a precious pearl in the fields.

    Enough waffling, thanks for the hugely interesting piece, Jason, I never knew the island was imbued with all that anecdotes and history. Would the Chinese navy today have been ashamed to read about Cheung’s fleets?

    Personally I love the island, its quiet and serene and unworldly ambiance and its traditional stores. And most of all, its un-Hong Kong-rat race feel. History aside (I’ve never visited those famous caves), the reason I made an annual trip to Cheung Chau before was for my retreat in August (haven’t done that for the past two years due to the inclement weather). What our group would do was to alight from the ferry and hiked up to the very top of the hills, to Xavier House, where we would spend 3 days and 2 nights in utter silence. It is a very enriching experience as one meditates and prays there. And the view from there is heavenly, there is no other word for it. This is quite a juxtaposition to the other teenagers losing themselves in their sexual frolic that would make movies like Lars von Trier’s film “AntiChrist” seems like child-play, right?

    Don’t quite know how I can describe the views and the grounds of Xavier House. As it is at the very top of the hill, the expanse of the horizon adjoining the sky is amazing and no one would believe that the pictures were taken in Hong Kong when I showed them. All you can hear is the call of the birds or the crickets (or whatever they are) and the azure arch above is so deep. I remember looking at the sun through the branches of the immensely tall trees and the halo that filtered through was so beautiful. And I would go down to as close as I could get to the waterfront (it’s a cordoned off property afterall) to capture the crooning of the waves crashing on the rocks in the dark. There would be as many stars on the sky as there was sand on the beaches, and if there is a full moon you can trace its silver path cutting through the ocean. Actually rumour has it that there were snakes there, and I have seen a giant lizard that was too colourful for my liking once, but let’s not spoil the picture here.

    [To be cont'd]

    Christine

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  9. You can tell I am not focusing as much on the spiritual side as I probably should, being able to reproduce the scenery here in such detail. I shouldn’t bore your readers anymore (guess not many of them may be into literary scenic portraits or water-colour painting, if my description is that good). But there was once when I rose in the morning and on looking at the beauty outside, I can truly empathize with what God Himself has felt on the sixth day, that He saw all things created and that it is good. Never ever in my life have I felt that way before, whether in Hong Kong or Sydney or during my visits overseas as a child.

    Though I can still get my favourite lollies and puddings in the traditional stores there, the sad thing is probably the waning cultural influence on the island. Granted, the festival of the Tai Ping Tsing Chiu is still hosted every year, but discussion with a very learned elderly scholar earlier informed me that it is no longer what they were before and it is now more of a show than a tradition or a religious practice. And it is not even a proper show, so he commented. Some would say it is better than if none is hosted, but when one ponders on how much the concrete jungle and our “decadent ways” have encroach into the natural one and our traditional values and beliefs, and when these events may be hosted just to bring in the tourists for commercial reasons, I really know not which side on the tug of war should win. Guess we can still give them credit for hosting one of the hardest sport on the land (that not even the Olympic Games would allow it), the搶飽山, and let’s pray that not more of what Hong kong originally harbours will be lost.

    Christine

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  10. Hi Christine,

    I did notice that there were quite a number of Christian establishments on the island and so I was glad that you mentioned the Xavier House.

    What your elderly friend said about Tai Ping Tsing Chiu is so very true. The annual ritual has become little more than a tourist attraction. Much of the authenticity and spirits must have been lost over the generations. That's how I feel about Christmas and Chinese New Year some times. I suppose that's just the way things are.

    Cheers,

    Jason

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  11. I was actually trying to find anyone who lived in Cheung Chau during my childhood (around the late 70s to early 80s) when I came across this blog.

    Great article Jason! You probably know a lot more about the island than me. I think I've only been to Cheung Po Tsai maybe twice and I live there till I was 7 when I moved to Toronto.

    I have gone back a few times over the years, most recently in 2010. The last time I went, it was just me without the wife and kids and just walked around the areas that were particularly sentimental to me. We used to live at the Peak so, I took the route through a series of stairs which passes my old kindergarden and my elementary school (Shun Tak). There used to be a theatre there as well but long gone now.

    Anyway, Thanks again for refreshing those good old memories.

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  12. Thanks for your comment. It must be nice returning to Cheung Chau when you are in a completely different stage of your life.

    Jason

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