Prose Feature: Wild Countryside of Childhood Past - Chiu-yi Rachel Ngai

With the monkeys tapping on the windows, I grew. In fields of wild grass and scattered boulders, I ran. Under trees, flowers, the watchful gaze of sparrows and faraway caws of eagles, I rose.

Do you see that path? Are you scared? Don’t be, it leads to what I used to call my ‘secret garden’. My friend, you came here with me. You are new to these mountain pathways, but I am not. I am old. I walked these mountains before I knew how to walk. What do you mean that doesn’t make sense, my parents carried me. Yes, it counts, stop talking and follow me, geez. Yes, I do need to be this dramatic with everything, thank you very much. This isn’t the first day you’ve known me, what were you even expecting?

Bet you weren’t expecting this when you came to Hong Kong. I give you both city and country, buy one get one free, two for one special. See, this is the real deal, the best place on Earth.

Come on, let’s go. It really is a good picnic spot, and I used to go there a lot as a child. These pathways are ones my feet will always recognize. Mountain roads aren’t re-paved as often as the city roads are. I don’t think these have changed at all. You see that giant rock? Boulder? Whatever? I have a scar on my knee from when I fell off it, and in an absolutely shocking twist of events, my cousin broke his toe kicking it immediately after. It was a painful day for my family. Rest in peace the skin of my left kneecap and my cousin Joe’s left toe. No, seriously, that’s his name. Joseph Kwok, also known as Joe. ‘Tis what you get for growing up on a mountain. Thicker skin.

Oh wait, stop, stop, stop. Shh. There, on the grass behind those trees. That’s a Many Banded Krait, stay away. They’re pretty, but they’re also pretty venomous. Don’t move, let it go first. The last time I saw one, I was five years old and catching fireflies with my father. Have you never seen a snake in the wild before? Huh, I thought you might have, growing up in Arkansas. What, me? I saw a wild boar once, and there are literally always monkeys. Lots of monkeys in Hong Kong, a ridiculous amount. There’s this place we, the general populace, lovingly dubbed “Monkey Hill”. I don’t even know what its official name is. Three guesses as to why it’s called that. If you guessed because there’s monkeys there, you’re right. I can take you next week if you want, but I promise you’ll see some today, too. I know this place is called Lion Rock, but it’s not because of the wildlife. Of course not, why would you think that? No lions here, definitely not. It’s called Lion Rock because of the mountain’s shape, remember? I pointed it out when we were on the bus. The lion-shaped mountain.

I hope this hike hasn’t been too much for you, I know you’re not used to walking this much. Ey ey hey stop! Okay okay, sorry sorry, you’re an athlete, you won a long-distance race in seventh grade, I understand, my bad, mea culpa, this humble one apologizes. I hope you trip into a stream.

Anyway, where was I?

Oh right, the mountain name. Yeah, there aren’t actually lions here, unless you count the stuffed animals I had as a kid. Even so, Panther Tiger is long gone now. I’m not accepting criticism of my stuffed animal naming skills at this time, thank you very much. He was a very good friend to me, I loved him. And then I lost him. I was seven, okay, I lost a lot of things. Don’t look at me like that.

C’mon, we’re almost there. I promise it’s worth it. I’ll show you the boulder I used to climb as a child and we can search for the harbour hiding amidst the skyline. We can spread our blankets under the sky and eat those sandwiches we packed. I have stories from when my cousins were young and wilder than they are now. Okay no, I know she was a little angel when you met her, but Natalie is actually a demon, and she was worse when she was younger.

Come on. There’s a stream where you can wash your face a few steps ahead. If you want to and if you're brave, you can drink the water. We should be high up enough for the water to be pure and mountain and relatively unpolluted. Really! I used to always see hiking groups of little old ladies walking up with empty water gallons to collect the water. Don't underestimate little old Chinese ladies. A lot of them look frail, but they can and will chase you with a wok. No seriously, I was raised around them, I grew up around them, and I will always fear them.

This weird staircase thing leads to the country park barbecue pit area and the campsite. Let’s take this detour, I want to show you the barbecue area. They’re actual stone-walled firepits! It’s an amazing place to have a family gathering. You bring some coals, firestarter, barbecue forks, honey, food, maybe one of those barbecue nets and just have a blast. Hong Kong barbecues are very different from American ones. In addition to your typical hotdogs and marshmallows, we also do fishballs, beef balls, cuttlefish balls, chicken wings, pork chops, chicken thigh meat, and honestly whatever else you want to bring. It’s not just meat either, we also barbecue sliced white bread and vegetables such as carrots and bok choy. The way my family used to do it was pretty standard? I think? We would have two separate jars of honey, or if you want to be fancy, actual barbecue-specific honey—one for raw meat and the other for cooked meat, vegetables, and bread. We would slather the food in honey before cooking and slather it again when it’s around fifty or seventy-five percent cooked. It makes everything super crispy on the outside and it gives it that nice, tangy barbecue sweetness. Oh man, those were the days. I’m not sure if the weather is right for this because it’s a little too hot for barbecuing right now, but we might be able to fit in a barbecue session later in our trip when autumn comes. I’ll invite some old school friends or family members, we’ll make it a day. I think everyone deserves a true Hong Kong style barbecue. I know right, it sounds amazing. I promise it’s as good as it sounds.

Oh wow, this place is exactly as I remember. This is… very nostalgic for me. My mother used to indulge in my wacky childhood tendencies and take me here once a week for me to scatter crushed eggshells by the trees because I thought they made fairy dust and helped the trees grow. Oh my god, stop laughing at me!. Yeah, yeah, more embarrassing stories for you to tease me about, boo hoo. I’m not the lactose intolerant person who tried to chug a gallon of milk in the school parking lot in under three minutes.

Okay, I think I’m done revising my past now. Let’s go back up.

Look, look, monkeys, on that tree over there, do you see? A whole troop of ‘em. They look like Rhesus Macaques or hybrids. Hybrids of Rhesus Macaques and Long-tailed Macaques are pretty common, seeing that they should be the only two species of monkeys in the Hong Kong wild. Grab that stick for me, please. The monkeys in this area don’t fear humans the way their more wild counterparts do. It’s the human feeding that’s technically illegal but we do anyway and the frequent exposure. Just hold that stick out and glare at them and move slowly. Told you you’d see monkeys today.

Hey, take a seat. This time of day, with these trees around, the rocks should still be cool. Take a break. I’ll tell you about the first time I tried to climb a tree. It’s that one there. No, seriously! It’s that exact same tree, I swear. There’s a framed picture of it next to the television at my mother’s place. I’ll get her to send a photo of the photo. I was maybe three years old, so I only got to the y-point where the two main branches meet. I’m aware that it’s barely a metre off the ground, but considering I was three and 95 cm tall, I think I did pretty well. Stand up, let’s keep going. Wait wait, hold on, you have moss on your pants, hold still. There we go. Now you’re actually pretty for once! Kidding kidding. You can’t do anything to me, though, you still need me to get us off this mountain.

I think we still have around ten to fifteen minutes to go. It’s not far. The final stretch of road is a little tricky though. We need to go off the set path onto a dirt road. It’s super cool, there’s the perpetual rainbow waterfall, a bunch of abandoned animal dens, and a beautiful view of the rest of the city on the way plus the final view at the end.

Here! Here, through these trees. You’re taller than me, you might need to duck a little. You good? Wait, duck a little bit. Nope, no leaves in your hair. This way, follow me to the ends of the Earth. Just don’t push me over. I’ll stop making jokes now.

I feel like even these rocks and pebbles are the same. I know that’s illogical, other feet have walked this path since I left, but for some reason, it feels like this place waited for me. Rainbow waterfall up ahead, my friend, get your phone out. It’s beautiful. I feel like coming back has been like stepping into a wormhole. Even though you’re here and I’ve been mostly showing you around, this is still a place I’ve always called my home, even when years have passed since I’ve breathed the air. I have some weird white girl following me around everywhere now, but somehow, it still feels like I’ve never left.

Will you look at that, it’s the rainbow waterfall. It’s too small and off the beaten path to have received any source of official recognition, but it’s just so pretty. It’s not actually perpetual—I just call it that because every single time I’ve been here, the light has always been right to always reflect a rainbow on the waterfall. I love it so much. There’s some really really small fish in this river. They’re cute though, aren’t they? I used to want to catch some in a plastic bag and bring them home, but that would be mean.

Here are the animal dens, or at least I’m assuming that’s what they are. They look like burrows, I like to think that a family of porcupines used to live here. I think they’re too small and too delicately made to be anything else. I’m no expert. I don’t know anything. I’m just guessing. Also, turn around. Yeah, breathtaking, isn’t it? I wish I could tell you the names of the buildings, but sadly I don’t remember them anymore. Don’t look at me, I never used them! I always just went by the colour and shape of the buildings. The y-shaped blue one, the x-shaped beige and pink estate. Don’t you dare judge me, you barely know the street names back in New York and they’re numbered.

And here we are. My secret garden, one of my favourite places in the city, home to a good chunk of my childhood memories. Now you’re a part of it, too. Let’s set everything up. I’m hungry and require sustenance. Wait, I can’t believe I forgot, geez. We need to find a giant stick to keep the monkeys and wild dogs away. I don’t remember seeing them around this area before, but who knows, maybe things have changed. Anyway, cheers! Here’s to getting our energy back for the trip down.

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