Our family recently watched the mini series the Odyssey. In that story Penelope was the heroine in the Greek mythology. She waited years for her husband cursed by the gods to come back to her home in Ithaca. She kept her suitors at bay for years and waited faithfully.
While I have read the classic by Homer, I had completely forgotten the story. Both our children had been studying ancient mythology and I was so surprised and impressed that my nine and eleven year olds could identify the winged messenger Hermes, the serpentine Hydras, and various other Greek gods and characters.
This story did remind me however of a similarly mystical story from my childhood. That tale did not have to be retold as often for there was a visual reminder of the legend, and we would be reminded every time my father drove us to the New Territories via Shatin.
Of the many mountains in Hong Kong, there is one range that the city north of the island was named after. Kowloon literally means “Nine Dragons”, and the peninsula of Kowloon consist of nine undulating peaks that must seem to resemble the elusive but most popular of ancient creatures. Each peak also had its own name. One was call “Bat Seen Lange” which means the “Eight Holy’s Range”, and another was called “Lion Rock”. Every child that grew up in Hong Kong knew “Lion Rock”. This granite outcropping stood proudly on the central north-south axis of Hong Kong. Its bold mane was shaped from overhanging igneous rock that framed the massive head of the “King of the Jungle”. From afar, this natural feature resembled a lion at rest. Its massive head, a hump on the back and then one last hump representing the curved rump stood guard of the Colony and its deep-water harbor.
Behind Lion Rock lay the then sleepy hamlet of Shatin. To get to Shatin before the tunnels were bored under the mountains, one had to take some form of transportation along a two-lane road that would originate from the front of Lion Rock past Kowloon Reservoir. The reservoir has been the model subject of many portrait photographers. From the roadside, one could stop at a bus stop and gaze over the granite guardrail into the reservoir. Since the Kowloon reservoir was designed in the thirties, it was small and never could the designers dream that the needs of consumption exceeded the capacity of this reservoir over one hundred fold. Even in the sixties, this reservoir was often nearly empty. While a dry season was cause for the many water rationings that I can remember as a child, the low water level produced a beautiful landscape along the banks of the reservoir. The light golden brown soil with its many tidal rings caused by the slowly diminishing water level formed the most intricate layered ring patterns. These were further accentuated by the natural topography surrounding the reservoir. The ridges would stick out like points into the reservoir, and the valleys extended down into the water like hidden coves. Like the long ribbons of rthymic gymnastics, the undulation coupled with the orange colored exposed banks with its dramatic rings looked like a three-dimensional wheat field with its rows and rows of golden crops sandwiched between the lush green forests above and the emerald blue waters below.
The meandering road would also take one past the lush tropical forests that once occupied most of the territory. I still remember that my father would slow down during this portion of the drive so that we could catch a glimpse of several simian species. We would strain our eyes to see who would catch sight of one first. This was not really hard for they would often swing freely from branch to branch. If we had been particularly good, my parents would allow us to bring some bananas from home to leave by the roadside for them.
After passing this area, we would look over to the right where our Uncle Yee lived. He was my father’s older brother and he long ago chose a reclusive location away from the urban areas as his refuge and home. We very seldom dropped by without notice, and even with notice did not visit frequently. He was a doctor by profession and a collector of Chinese antiques at heart. His first wife was tragically killed in an automobile accident not long after they were married, and although he remarried a second time a few decades later, that marriage did not last long and ended in a quiet divorce. In retrospect, he became married to his hobby shortly after his first wife perished and he cultivated his new relationship into a masterful collection. For us nephews and nieces, his mystery continued to grow for even when we visited him and had dinner with him, there were many rooms that we could not enter, and his collection was never fully displayed. He was our family’s own Howard Hughes in a way, though he was never bizarre in his behavior. So as we passed by our Uncles house, we would strain our eyes and stare past the front gates through the courtyard to try to catch a glimpse of the man himself.
Immediately past this location lay the Shatin area. This was really a small area built up by alluvial soil from the many small brooks and rivers that discharged the waters collected on the mountains all around. Further forward lay one branch of the Tolo Harbor, a wide expanse of water that lay to the east. As one descended the mountain roads to the alluvial flats below, magnificent hills were to the left and the backside of Lion Rock was on the right.
As we looked south at Lion Rock, there lay a couple of hundred feet below where the imaginary tail of the lion would be a rock out cropping called “Mong Fu Shek.” The English name given to this outcropping was “Amah Rock.” While both names were appropriate in terms of the resemblance that the geographic feature bore, only one begins to describe the folklore behind the name.
The vertical piece of granite was approximately fifty feet tall. Laid squarely on the top of that was a cube like boulder probably ten feet across. Together they formed a human figure that faced east looking across the flat lands towards Tolo Harbor. On the back of the vertical piece of rock that was the torso was a protrusion. And on top of that protrusion was a smaller boulder that formed another head. From most angles, the second feature on the back seemed like a cloth sack with a baby inside. It is like a modern day backpack for an infant.
Legend has it that two lovers wedded and had a child. But the husband was a seaman and his duties called for him to be out at sea for long periods of time. It was time for him to embark on another extended journey. He departed the flats of Shatin past Tolo Harbor to the east and continued out to the open sea. The faithful wife swore to await his return and climbed up the hill each day from the lowlands to get a better view of the waters to the east. As time went on, her friends urged her to give up her longings and to return to the village to begin a new life. Yet day after day and year after year, she would use a large piece of cloth to wrap her child around her back and climb up the hill to gaze out onto the sea. On one such day she vowed to stay aloft and not return until she saw her husband’s safe arrival. Legend has it that she and her child turned to stone as they waited.
The Chinese name “Mong Fu Shek” is the better name, for the words chosen for the name gives one a better description of the subject. “Mong” means to look, it also connotes longing for and hope. “Fu” means spouse or husband, and is the word that is used as a prefix in the term “couple”. “Shek” means rock. The English probably recognized the resemblance of this natural feature and called it Amah Rock for it could have easily resembled the various women that served as servants in that day. These household servants were called Amah’s and often they would carry the children of their masters on their backs rather than in their arms. While the English name adequately describes the feature of the monument, only the Chinese term reveals the legend behind the name.
Whether it is Penelope, Mong Fu Shek, or Amah Rock. The steadfast love as illustrated by these two stories contrast greatly to the kind of love that exists today in the institution of marriage. While I am not qualified to comment on why marriages fail so often today, somehow these stories reach out to me to tell me that there is a certain sense of nobility to be faithful. That it is all right to hold out and hope. And that the longings for reconciliation while painful, is in most cases the right thing to do. That a family that is not separated physically and moreover is united emotionally is somehow blessed.
Maybe I am just old fashioned, but I can see Mong Fu Shek clearly in my mind even though it is many thousands of miles away. Her gaze and longing is a pointed reminder for me.