Hong Kong Diary 2: Meditations at the Nan Lian Gardens

Monday, February 22, 2010

_MG_5871 I had high hopes for our shoot in the Nan Lian Gardens, and I was not to be disappointed.  This despite waking up to a cold, foggy morning, so hazy I couldn’t even see the top of the building next to ours.  As we ate breakfast, though, I was treated to a wildlife drama right out of Nat Geo right outside our window; a falcon making a kill!  I’d noted the raptors patrolling over our hotel since our arrival, but never saw one up close.  Now as I sipped my morning coffee my eye was drawn to a flicker of rapid movement outside. 

I looked out just in time to see a panicked pigeon swerve into a window bay, zooming up inches from the glass, with a falcon in hot pursuit.  But the pigeon made a fatal mistake, underestimating the falcon’s climb – it zoomed above the pigeon, folded its wings, then dropped like an avenging angel.  I of course was hooting and cheering like an English football fan, while Cat, still without her contacts, saw nothing but brown blurs.  Ah well.  I took the sight as an omen for the rest of the day, and I was right.

_MG_5710The Nan Lian Gardens, we found, were located right beside the Chi Lin Nunnery, and was easily reached by taking the MTR from Tsimshatsui Station to Diamond Hill, with a change of train along the way.  I lost a few dollars here though, as I failed to realize that you could change train without having to exit the station; we bought a ticket to Mong Kok, planning to buy tickets again to get to Diamond Hill, but as it turned out we could’ve gotten a ticket for the whole trip several dollars cheaper.  Oh well, it’s called learning. 

The gardens were a revelation.  Only the tall buildings peeking above the garden’s surrounding trees betrayed the presence of modern Hong Kong outside.  Within, winding paths led around a tranquil little artificial lake with pagodas, artfully arranged rocks, and enormous, languid koi.  All around were exquisitely shaped and trimmed pine trees, flowering plants, and bamboos.  There were no sounds of street traffic to be heard, only the calls of birds, the gentle gurgle of falling water, and soft instrumental Chinese music.  _MG_5705

The sensation of entering the garden was exactly like that of plunging into the waters over a coral reef – from a world of noise and chaos into a welcoming blanket of utter harmony.  The incredible Zen of the place seeped through the very soles of my feet and through my hands into my camera.  I soon lost sight of Cat as I went into a kind of meditative trance, walking, absorbing, shooting. _MG_5718I found this waterwheel that reminded me of the scene from Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, moving me to set my camera to Monochrome mode.  From there I wandered into an enclosure housing some rock-and-sand arrangements reminiscent of the Ryoan-ji in Kyoto (which I swear to visit someday).  More black and white, naturally, and I found my light lying prone on the floor to get my shot.  A guard spoke to me in Cantonese, which of course I couldn’t understand, so he told me in English I wasn’t allowed to do that.  He was very courteous, far from the brusqueness I’d been told to expect from the Hong Kong Chinese. 

_MG_5813After shooting the sand gardens, I got very absorbed studying the ancient textures of the bonsai outside.  Rather than shoot the bonsai as a whole, I dug into the textures and the way the light was playing on them for my subject matter.  I had the luck to have the sun coming out at just this time – the only time I’d see the sun on the whole 4-day trip. 

With the sun out, I decided to see if I could get another shot of the golden pagoda. I ran out just in time to catch the sun’s glints on the gilded surface, after which the cloud cover closed again, and stayed that way the rest of the day.  There was still no sign of Cathy; I was sure she was lost in the same blissful state as I.  I found I was now at the bridge leading to the Chi Lin temple complex itself, so I went in and took some shots of the architecture.  Then, feeling hungry, I went to look for Cat.

_MG_5783 _MG_5867_MG_5863 Cat of course wanted to shoot in the temple too, so we decided to delay lunch in favor of doing a few more shots.  That eventually took another two hours, during which I rested a bit and shot a few more details of the temple’s architecture.  Sadly, photography was forbidden inside the main temple.  Too bad, as I’d seen a beautifully lighted statue of Sakyamuni within, and the sounds of chanting betrayed the presence of monks that I also would’ve wanted to shoot.  Well, this was their place, and if they say no shoot, I’ll respect that.  

We headed back for the train station, which was fortuitously located right by the Hollywood Plaza mall.  Cat and I were both absolutely ravenous by then, so it was into the mall first for lunch. I could tell Cat was really hungry – normally it’s her role to steer me away from expensive-looking places, but now she would stop at every restaurant we saw and ask if I thought it was a good place to eat.  Good thing the Zen harmony I’d absorbed in the gardens was still with me, as I was able to resist and coax her into the food court.  Cat got a Japanese curry, while I, recalling the dumplings from the previous night, got myself some more Shanghai noodles and xiao long bao.


We’d originally planned to do the Nan Lian and the Yuen Po Bird Garden in the same day, but by the time we finished eating it was 4pm and getting even more darkly overcast.   We finally decided to postpone the birds, and instead shopped in the Hollywood Plaza for digital photo frames for our parents.  We caught the train back to Tsimshatsui Station at 5pm, and found Cat’s brother Martin resting at the hotel.  After a brief rest ourselves, we all trooped out to the harborside to shoot the signature night skyline on the Hong Kong side and await the Symphony of Lights show.

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The fog never let up, so thick that we couldn’t see the top quarter of the famous Bank of China building.  I also saw that it would greatly diffuse and brighten the lights, so I made sure to underexpose a bit.  I liked the golden cast I got using a Cloudy white balance setting, then switched to Sunny and a faster shutter speed for the laser show. 

It was cold, almost Europe-cold to me thanks to the wind chill factor, and damp.  I could only imagine what Cat was feeling, as Cat doesn’t have a high tolerance for cold.  I found out soon enough; as soon as the light show was over, Cat clapped her icy hands over my ears.  I yelped.  No, I shrieked.  Like a little goosed girl.  Laughing, we headed back to the commercial district for hot noodles.  Lots of hot noodles.