Ma On Shan

By on April 27, 2016

In Ma On Shan it has been raining, “lo yu.” Not heavy rain. A mist you can walk through without getting wet. But everything is wet. The walls are dripping, the ceiling is dripping. The corridors in the units are wet and slippery. The water somehow seems to be flowing up the walls. There is a blowing machine downstairs in the lobby called Sea Creature. Fans too. It is the rainy season so what can you expect? Welcome back to Ma On Shan.

The suburb is stacked full of identical apartment blocks of 35 floors and more. We took a lift up one of them, to the fifth floor, then along a dark, dank, concrete corridor where we stopped at a cage door. We’d arrived at the apartment.

Our bedroom was an extremely small room but fine for us to camp in for a couple of days. I suspect the bed was not the full width or length. We had to move the bookshelf from the end of the bed because I was accidentally kicking things off it. Having said that, the bookshelf was the only thing stopping me from putting my foot through the thin wall and into the neighbouring lounge room.

In the morning I walked along the waterfront, a beautiful vista of harbour with mountains and countless buildings as a backdrop. A walking track, a cycling track and various exercise equipment pieces spaced at intervals and people going through their tai chi to the blast of music from portable music players. Fishermen.

Back at the apartment I am sitting listening to Chinese pop music with Mama. This stuff sounds suspiciously like some western music I know repackaged. Or is that original Chinese music which has been previously copied by western artists? “Frere Jacque” is a common tune I hear in China, but who invented it? The Chinese or the French? I am beginning to wonder. We are so accustomed to seeing copies of Western things appearing from China, it doesn’t seem to occur naturally that it could be happening in the reverse.

Working hard on my Cantonese but it really is a trial. I want to improve but perhaps I am too impatient. To put it into perspective, English is Shuk’s 4th language after Kaipingese, Cantonese and Mandarin. I am struggling with a 2nd language and have long admired Shuk’s ability. Her English is a work in progress, but again, it’s her 4th language.

Hao Yan is the same, although his English is markedly better than Shuk’s having the advantage of going to high school in Australia. As a boy he only spoke Kaipingese. He tells me that he learnt to speak Cantonese and Mandarin from watching television. He used the same strategy when he came to Australia with no English at all. It’s a remarkable achievement in such a short space of time and I resolved to learn Cantonese with his successful technique. I reasoned that news programs and game shows would be my best bet.

As Ma On Shan is not downtown Hong Kong, Cantonese is the most common language. The local shop keepers are surprised when I attempt speaking Cantonese and genuinely pleased that I’m making the effort, however clumsy it comes out. Baba keeps steering me towards Kaipingese, a separate language entirely, which just makes it harder. I have perfected saying “it is 9.30” so am looking forward to the evening when I can announce the time. I can say the right thing at least twice a day.

Cooked at home in Mama & Baba’s unit. I’d wanted to cook in this tiny kitchen the first time, but didn’t get the chance, so I jumped at it this time when I got the opportunity. It’s a great wok, with an intense heat I am not used to and our dish was below par. Tomorrow we are attempting to cook Robert Noodles for breakfast. Yes, the dish inspired in Kaiping and re-invented in Sydney was making its debut back in China. Heady stuff!

Dinner tonight was leftovers from lunch augmented with roasted pork and a live barramundi we bought for $HK30 ($4.50) which Mama prepared Cantonese style.  Mama’s a whiz in her kitchen and like anyone in their home kitchen, she’s boss. and an outstanding cook.

I do not like all of her offerings, to be fair, but for the food that sits in my channel, she has no equal. No green vegetables I have eaten in China come close to her perfection. She instinctively knows how long to steam things. I doubt that she’s even looking, or timing on most occasions. She’s a machine.

Cantonese TV and Hanging Out in Ma On Shan

Situation normal, at home in Ma On Shan watching a Cantonese talk show on TV. One of the hosts is a man with blue hair. I cannot understand much, but I am keen to put Hao Yan’s technique to good use. It is the only Cantonese being spoken, with everyone in the apartment speaking Kaipingese. It doesn’t occur to anyone that it might be helpful for me if they spoke Cantonese, but you take what you can get so I actively listen to the man with the blue hair.

This is in the background while I listen to Shuk discuss finance with her parents. I nod occasionally at what, I don’t know. The discussion is animated and loud, as they always are. There is an impasse it seems, from my perspective, broken only by the phone ringing. There is loud shouting on both ends of the phone. Mama is shouting at this end and I can hear the person shouting from the other end and what I can hear through the phone is louder than the TV. I guess they are from Kaiping.

Baba is shouting from the sidelines, like a coach. It feels like a night with the Costanzas in an episode of Seinfeld. Shuk takes a shower and I’m left with the Cantonese talking blue haired man, Mama talking loudly on the phone, the other person talking loudly and Baba on the bench.

The noise settles down and we are watching a period drama on TV. The house phone rings again. Mama starts blabbing away. Shuk’s mobile rings. Shuk is blabbing away. The washing is finished and Baba is leaning out the window hanging out the washing, and coaching the two phone conversations simultaneously. He is very versatile, is Baba.

Amidst the noise I’m trying to watch the Cantonese period drama. I’m the only one watching and it doesn’t really matter that the sound is being drowned out. Mama stops mid call to help hang the shirts out the window. Both Mama and Baba are hanging out of the window. We are five stories up but this doesn’t bother them. I quietly pray that some unsuspecting person below doesn’t have my underpants land on top of them.

Table Tennis Ma On Shan Style

I love table tennis. It’s a great sport where skill and tactics are more important than strength or body size. The friendly folk at Ma On Shan who were playing one afternoon were very accommodating and invited me to play. I should have walked away…

The person at the other end of the table was about 4.5 foot tall, a lady in her mid 60’s, well groomed but with an unathletic looking appearance. She wiped the floor with me. Gave me a toweling. She had a sharp eye and an even sharper forehand. I didn’t see her backhand in action because I put the bat down and walked away. She said, “where you go?” I replied, ” no speak English,” and kept walking.

Not quite true, but it makes a nice story. One thing about the people in Ma On Shan – they’re very friendly, very polite and very generous. Ma On Shan may not be on your bucket list, but if you want to mix it with the locals in Hong Kong, then you need to check it out.

  1. Reply


    January 10, 2017

    Cantonese seems like such an impossible language, but obviously that’s not a great attitude if I ever want to study it:P It must be encouraging when locals appreciate your efforts. I remember in Korea I kept getting told that my Korean was “very good” even though I only knew a handful of phrases. I think people just get excited that you’re attempting to connect.

    • Rob Harvey

      Rob Harvey

      January 10, 2017

      I think you’re spot on. They just appreciate that you’re trying.

  2. Reply


    May 14, 2016

    I love walking along that boulevarde by the water. For just a little while you can feel like you’re not in Hong Kong.



I quit my marketing job 20 years ago to become a writer, only I ended up writing html instead of words. Now I'm just writing words. I have a passion for China, through my partner Shuk, a passion for cooking and a passion for history. Oh, and a keen eye for the absurd! Have some fun on these pages and I look forward to your feedback. Rob.

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