The pop singer Madonna has a song with a similar title. However the one that I am referring to here is the one that my paternal grandfather built for all his grandchildren at Pine Hill, his weekend home located in Castle Peak in the New Territories. I was not the first grandchild; for my father’s two older sisters both had children. There were six grandchildren from these two families and my two sisters added that total to eight before I came to being. My only claim to fame was that I was the first male grandson to bear the Ip family name for my grandparents. Subsequently, four more came about making a total of a dozen grandchildren for my grandparents.
The Villa at Castle Peak sat on a multi tiered piece of land. It must have looked like a terraced paddy field from afar for while the main house was located on the largest flat plateau, the guest house with it’s own garden and driveway sat on higher ground. A terrace below the main house level was originally designated to accommodate a swimming pool, but since this level was lower than the main house by 30 or so feet, it was tucked out of sight and would have been very difficult for adults to supervise the swimming activities of the many children. For safety reasons plus the fact the beach with its wide-open seas lay only another 75 feet below this terrace, the pool was never built. In it place instead was a nursery and a garden that contained even more varieties of fruit trees, flowers, & plants than was present back at the main house in the city.
Whenever we took a trip to Pine Hill, a sort of routine developed after the one-hour ride. For me there was usually a pre-arrival routine of a different sort. Pine Hill was situated at the 18-½ mile mark from the city center. From mile six onward, the main highway turned into a meandering snake-like journey of weaving curves one after another as the road hugged the coastal shoreline. About the eight and half mile mark where Tsing Yee Island gave way to the larger causeway of water between Lantau Island and the mainland, the window next to my seat would have to be open so that fresh air could be blown against my face. Gup Sui Mun was where the villas of the wealthy merchants and families would have their “beit sui’s”. These villas came in all shapes, sizes and inspirations. Instead of looking at these beach houses, my concentration was on how to keep control of the free flowing salivation that was oozing from beneath my tongue. By mile fifteen, I was thoroughly sick to my stomach and my dad would have to stop the car on the side of the road where I would puke. That is when I usually learned of who lived at each villa. The community that lived along Castle Peak Road was small group of friends and acquaintances. My dad would use this occasion as I was bent over to tell me whose villa I just threw up at. So through the years of visiting Pine Hill, I got to know most all the owners of the villas before mile 18 ½.
As I regained my wobbly legs, for the rest of the group, the arrival at Pine Hill began with the customary stretching of the limbs, a walk through the front of the house straight through to the back lawn’s edge for a panoramic glance of the ocean view, a few deep breaths of fresh air ever so gently scented by the surrounding pine needles, and a cup of hot tea or water distributed for young and old alike and welcome from our faithful servant Ah Yeen. She would address each of us ever so respectfully in the age old traditional way. Since my father is number four out of five children, he would be call “saey seiu” which meant forth master. I being number three of our family would be addressed as “psalm guoon” which meant third young esquire. Shortly after, the kids would then out to play and the adults would invariable walk to the far eastern end of the main terrace, open the double wide gates that guarded the narrow hand laid stone stairs and walk down the 30 or so feet to the nursery area.
As young children we to made this customary pilgrimage too but for entirely different reasons than the adults. For at the far end of this nursery level, nestled at the furthest boundary of the site was another set of steps that led us down another 20 or so feet to the last terrace that stood only about 25 feet above the beach and the sands below. It was here that our grandfather decided to build a playground for his grandchildren. The area was only about 30 feet by 30 feet, but it became our sanctuary. We were far away from the main house and yet we were still in the comfortable confines of the property and were separated from the beach below by a steep cliff of rock and rough brush.
Here we felt completely safe from all earthly intrusion. There was however a hillside grave located just to the east side of the stone steps leading down to this play area. It was on the down slope outside of the property and faced away from the steps towards the wide-open sand and sea. We never paid it much attention but its mere presence was enough for us to not want to be the last one remaining at the playground. But as long as we had company, we thought no further of this, and played in our little haven.
It seems silly to describe a seesaw, a slide, a swing set and a merry-go-round. But we have all such vivid memories of the games that we played there. We do not know the brand of equipment that grandfather ordered. It was very well built and commercially fabricated to very high standards. I’ve not seen anything remotely resembling this set in quality and certainly not in the memories that it still conjures up. Since there were only four pieces of equipment, sometimes the waiting children would play games on the sandy floor.
Upon closer inspection of the sandy floor, there were little craters of imperfection. We would peer down on the floor to look for those little craters in the sand much like the craters on the otherwise smooth surface of the moon. These were created by small insects the size of a large grain of rice that looked like a small beetle with two long front prongs. We would find thin pine needles or little twigs and insert the thin ends into the middle of these quarter-sized craters and ever so gently wiggle the twig into the hole located at the epicenter of the crater. If we were careful, after a few wiggles we could make one of those beetles appear. More often than not, they were not to be found at home, so our contest was to see first could aggravate one of these small guys enough by the protrusion of our twig into their living quarters to get them out of their resting place.
Another game that we would play while waiting our turn involved choosing very carefully from the many pine needles that lay ever so gently over the sand. It was in the ferreting out for the perfect needle that we would sometimes discover the perfect crater resting just below a soft camouflage of brown pine needles. The species of pine that grew there had co-joined needles. If you could just imagine a pair of wooden chopsticks the kind where the ends are joined together. The two pine needles were joined at the base in one common sheath like bulb. Each opponent would select the pine needle with the strongest looking sheath. We would then use the ends that were not connected and then cross them with the other pine needle. We would then gently pull the two intersected needles closer towards ourselves until the two needles sheaths at the base were now intersecting each other in close proximity. Holding the sharp end of the needles together and at the count of three, we would then pull the needles hard away from each other. The object of the game is to see whose pine needle stayed joined at the sheath for one would invariably be pulled apart.
Sometimes the older cousins would finish their turn on a certain apparatus and then without warning bolt up the stairs that led from the playground to the nursery level all the while yelling ghost. That scared the rest of us that were unsuspecting and we would stop whatever we were doing and scamper up the steps to the nursery level all the while making sure that we were running up on the left side of the steps for the right side was closer to the grave that we could not really see, (as if that running up the steps in the middle would have brought us closer to the ghost of the grave). Even as we reached the nursery level, we were usually too frightened to scream and we would not stop running until we reached the next set of steps that took us from the nursery level back up to the main house. WE stopped not because we were now somehow suddenly braver, we were usually just plain old exhausted from climbing those large steps that led thirty feet up back toward the house and from having run up stairs already from the playground. Halfway up this final set of stairs lay the root of a beautiful banyan tree where the roots seem to grow out and cover a large granite boulder long since worn smooth by the gentle summer rains. It was ever so scenically placed with the South China Sea in the background. Only when we got up to this point did we dare look back to make sure that no other being was lurking behind us. Back up at the house, the older cousins would be laughing their heads off when they saw us younger ones finally appear both pale from exhaustion and from fright. Even these episodes never stopped us from playing at the playground. We had far too many wonderful memories.
Many years later on a routine visit to Hong Kong to visit my parents during the Christmas season, I received the very disappointing news that the family had decided to sell Pine Hill. We would still have just short of a year to continue to enjoy the place while the buyers completed their plans for development. I decided that it was time that I took another one of those 18 1/2 mile drives out to Pine Hill. The road system had completely changed. Instead of driving on the scenic winding Castle Peak road, most vehicles now traveled to Castle Peak and beyond on a four lane divided highway high above the coastal route. Gone too were the stone markers that designated the mileage from the city. Instead there were the all too many generic signs that showed each exit.
Upon arrival at the property before the drive up the hill, at the base of the property, I noticed that the metal sign that said Pine Hill was no longer there, and it seemed to me that the tropical vines had had a few banner years of growth by the way they overtook fences and trees. After all, this could all be expected for Ah Yeen and Ah Tsiun, the gardener were well into their eighties now and could not be expected to keep up the ongoing battle to curb and redirect nature’s natural course. But once in the house, all the memories started trickling back. I walked into the pantry to see the old ceramic distilled water jar and the ship’s meal bell. In the back kitchen, I saw that Ah Yeen was still cooking with the wooden stove. As far back as I can remember it seems that there were always white-hot coals or slow red embers glowing in the bottom of the brick and tile ovens, ready for fresh wood or coals to be added before the cooking started.
Then I entered the card room where the adults would play card games or Mah Jong. There it was, twenty-five years later and still much the same. In one corner, a Japanese doll in full traditional costume guarded the room. The other side was the ivory pagoda that I had spent much time imagining myself inside going from one floor to the next stood. Each room at Pine Hill had its own scent. To this day I do not know why that was the case, but the scent was a different as the décor. The Villa was Italianate, with a circular pond with a fountain Muse holding a fish in his arms. The rooms had various themes and colors and each of my father’s siblings left their touch. Each of the rooms upstairs was designated to be the room for one of my grandparent’s children. So when we went to visit ourselves, we would say which uncle’s or aunt’s room that we would stay in. I usually stayed at my “sook sook’s” room or my father’s room. My parents would stay in “ma ma’s and yeah yeah’s room. There were five rooms upstairs and a veranda connected the three that faced the South China Sea. For some reason, I do not believe that I ever slept at the room at the end next to my grandparent’s room. That room was above the card room and had views in three directions.
Walking through the house brought back many memories of younger days. As I walk down the stairs along the swallow lined staircase, I could not help remember all the great times I had spent at Pine Hill. And to think that this utopia was about to be torn down tore into me deeply. I took a good last look at the fixtures, the ceramic dolls that lined the make-up dressers in each room. I look up at the room lamps and the colorful fabric shades, and ran my hands on the metal railing of the stairs as I walked downstairs. I opened the hidden door below the staircase one last time and remembered how we were all scared of that corner that led one of the two bathrooms on the ground floor. Maybe because the bathroom was adjacent to the bottom of the stairs and it was in a darker corner where one had to take a few steps further down from the main level of the house that made it feel creepy. Or maybe because the shower area was one more turn deeper into this cavern. But this time I walked inside to savor even those memories.
I surveyed the gardens, long decrepit. I walked to the west side where the kitchen stood. Gone were the warm embers that glowed and the smell of burning pinewood. The hot house long empty of the beautiful orchids that my grandfather nurtured lay bare and in ruins, the glass broken, the metal frame bent and rusted from neglect.
Inside the house, I took one last glance at the table where countless family meals were served. The 2 king Arthur-ish castle like lamps that guarded the buffet. The dancing lady on a roadside still stood guard over the bar, and the oil painting of a stone arched bridge somewhere in Europe framed the other side of the room where the pale yellow couch and side chairs stood. It is painful even now as I write.
Then as the day grew long, I knew that I had once last pilgrimage to attend to. So I began to walk east, along the red fence where “yeah heung fa” the flowers from the vine that blooms only at night used to hang but too are long gone. The twin gates were still there before the step that led down to the garden area, they were rusted permanently open. I descended the steps carefully and paid my last respects to that banyan with it majestic roots on the rock. The garden level no longer had it pots of trees or flowers. Instead, weeds as tall as I stood in its place. The stone steps leading down to the beach was still barely visible under the dense overgrowth, but I could see that some portions had eroded away.
I made my way thru the weed making my own pathway along the edge of this garden level toward the far eastern end of the property. I wanted to visit the playground once more. Much to my surprise, for a moment, even as I reached the end of the property, I could not fine the final stone steps that led down the 20 or so feet to the playground. I looked around to see if I could see the crow’s nest on top of the slide, but the weeds obscured my view. Using my hands I pushed aside the weeds and began my descent. I actually could not see in front of me, but I felt the descent. When I felt that the ground flatten, I knew that I had reached the playground. I walked amongst the tall grass and I found the seesaw. Just as I did when we were children, I walked up one side up the middle until I had reached the middle fulcrum, and then the seesaw swung up as it has done for us children and I walked down the other side. I knew that the swing set had to be close for the seesaw would lead me there. I found the four seats with the metal chain still holding them in place, much to my amazement, the seats were still intact, so I sat on them. Looking up the chain, I saw that the ball bearing joint that held the chains were still dark and filled with the black grease of old. This allowed the swing to move ever so smoothly. It wasn’t just a section of chain welded to a top horizontal bar. As I used my feet to push back, I saw that the swinging joint still moved with ease. It was as if it came back to life to greet me one last time. There was so squeaking, just the smooth motion of a smooth ball bearing joint. Even at the swing, I still could not see the slide, but instinctively I knew where the steps began. I had been on them countless times so I made my way past the weed and there in the midst of a sea of green growth were the outstretched arms of the two rails of the steps of the slide. This was a tall slide. At least 10 feet tall, so I made my way up to the crow’s nest, the only thing that seemed different was that the steps and rails up seemed narrow. When I got to the top, I stood out gazing over the overgrowth. I glanced at the sea and the shoreline but I will see shorelines again, but as I turned to look at the rest of the playground area, I knew that his was my last farewell. It did not matter that that I could hardly see the confines of the area, the inscription in my heart and mind was crystal clear. I stood on top of the slide and started to sob uncontrollably. After a few minutes, I said a prayer of thanks for all the great times that we had here, for my grandparents who started all this. With tears still pouring down my face, I took the slide down once last time. This used to be our playground. I walked back up the way I had taken ever since I was a child, and said my last farewell. That was a bittersweet day.