After heading out to distant Lantau and surviving the Ngong Ping 360 Death Plunge Cable Car Massacre Ride, two Hemlock cousins and I find ourselves following a herd of international travellers into the famous Ngong Ping Replica Fake Lifelike Mountaintop Village. All have come to see the world’s largest free-standing, outdoor, bronze, non-reclining, postmodern Buddha constructed in 1993 on a lotus throne and three-level altar with a sea view. The hamlet that has lain for decades just north of nearby Po Lin Monastery lacks the quaint shiny curled roofs and freshly cleaned paving stones that visitors expect of an authentic settlement in this part of the world, leaving the Hong Kong government with no choice but to construct this ‘real-looking’ substitute next door. (There would also have been the small matter of integrating irascible and rapacious New Territories residents with teeming millions of tourists.)
To our surprise, we discover nothing less than an amazing cultural themed village, architecturally designed and landscaped to reflect the cultural and spiritual integrity of the Ngong Ping area. No-one actually lives here. The ever-revolving population comprises 25% Mainland women in frilly mini-skirts and high heels, 25% Mainland women’s boyfriends, 25% older and younger Mainlanders in family groups, 20% other Asians and Westerners constantly asking strangers to take photographs of themselves with their companions, and 5% lowly Hongkongers who, having seen their home town prostituted out to foreigners, are forced into embarrassingly coloured T-shirts and reduced to toiling as shop assistants and cleaners.
Through the incense-haze between the rows of resin statues and PVC-framed wall hangings in the Walking With Buddha Themed Gifts Shop, I see an assistant shyly mumble something to a gruff, chain-smoking Beijing-accented man thinking of buying a small short-cut to Nirvana in the form of several fake jade Gautama bead bracelets. I am taken by the ‘third eye’ dot on her forehead. But then, as I draw near, I notice it is slightly off-centre on her shiny brow. Then I see a rash of similar red spots on one cheek, and it occurs to me that she is simply suffering a rather severe case of acne, if not tertiary-stage shingles.
Perhaps the most inauthentic thing about the whole place is the number of 7-Elevens and Starbucks: there is only one of each, whereas any real Hong Kong street would have a multitude. Canned quasi-Buddhist, nasty New Age-type music comes out of loudspeakers as we proceed past the stores along the route officially known as Walking With Buddha. Halfway along is a Bodhi Tree Experience, with trunk and branches of moulded concrete and leaves of shaped wood-like material carrying contemplative messages. Next comes the Monkey’s Tale Theatre Themed Attraction, supposedly drawn from ancient lore but no doubt carefully Disneyfied out of all recognition so as not to distress passers-by with any significance or meaning. A touch of genuine Hong Kong intrudes as we pick our way through metal barriers and the dusty din of stone saws to find that, as with so many roads in the Big Lychee, the Path to Wisdom is currently being widened and resurfaced.
Up close, the Big Buddha itself is what you would expect after years of catching glimpses of the metal giant through the haze from aircraft and Macau ferries. You have to climb hundreds of steps. It’s large. It’s crowded. A special Buddhist snack voucher deal comprehensible only to Mainlanders goes down well among the target audience. There are Canadians, Malaysians, Yugoslavians and whatever all pleading with you to take a photo of them with their friends. The occasional pilgrim drops to her knees – they are invariably women – and prostrates herself in awe of the Lord Sidartha. Devotees are outnumbered by (largely Southeast Asian) Muslims who could be blowing up this idolatry but instead eat its ice cream with the same serene smile as the statue itself.
Through the clamour of snapping cameras and chattering kids comes a scream, piercing for a few seconds, then suddenly muffled. Someone, tragically, has mysteriously fallen over the edge of the podium into the dense undergrowth of a ravine far below down the steep hillside. Someone wanting his picture taken alongside his bearded backpacking buddies, tragically, thought a member of the Appalachian branch of the Hemlock clan would be receptive, for the twentieth time in under two hours, to a request for such a favour. It was the same someone I overheard earlier pronouncing ‘Ngong’ as ‘nong’, so they had it coming. Maybe they will have better luck in their next life.