IV: Tian Tan Buddha, Consumer Enlightenment

May 7th.—Today was a day of few accomplishments but many steps. Listing what I did minimizes the resultant exhaustion: see the Tian Tan Buddha, lunch in Tai O, stroll Kowloon City.

In the morning, we took the train to outlying Lantau Island, nineteen miles away. Fog was denser over Lantau than Hong Kong. The Buddha that was our destination sits atop a mountain, accessible via a steep path—which we didn’t care to waste five hours or calories completing—or a gondola lift, our lazy alternative. Yet the cable system’s catenary was just a thread rising from the island’s shoreline, passing over a lagoon, and going up and into an obscure and gloomy fog. We boarded, and once we passed a certain, rather low, altitude, we lost our reference points to the fog, not even the wire on which our gondola was fixed seemed to move. We advanced with the sensation of movement. Currents of the brume washed below. Clearly, a luckless day.

The Tian Tan Buddha is 112 feet tall with an exterior of bronze. On a clear day, gamblers pulling away their life’s savings in Macau can see it. That’s a view of twenty-three miles. Today I stood at the statue’s foundation, gazed up, and could see none of its face, just its heavy outline and a condensate accumulating and dropping from the lotus petals of its base. Six smaller bronze statues circle it. Their visages were clearly visible, though with the backdrop of trees denuded of leaves and a blank fog, they sat more like phantasms. Enigmatic faces smirking at their own existence. Research (read: Wikipedia) revealed that these smaller statues, six Devas, hold the allegorical ingredients needed for Enlightenment. They hold the lamps, fruits, incense, beneficently outwards as offerings, and I, a recovering Catholic, wandered under each, wondering what, exactly, was going on.

The structures—the Buddha, the Devas, the three-platform altar, and stairway—are recent constructions. Somehow, this fact is an annulment of the site’s significance. Replicating a centuries’ old aesthetic using modern buildings techniques doesn’t quite bestow sanctity. I don’t know, it’s like beating Super Mario World and then returning to level one for a replay. Also offsetting any feeling of significance is the saturation of commercial enterprises. Hung Fook Pearl Shop, Virtual Reality 360, Motion 360 Souvenirs, 7/11, retail chopsticks, faux vintage silk stores, and, at the base of the staircase that rises to the Buddha, a cafe with Coca-cola tables. This is a Buddha for the age of return on investment and earnings per share.

Tai O fishing village was a jangling bus ride away. We arrived feeling like we swallowed a gasoline tank.

With respect to constructed buildings only, the Chinese have better self-awareness than Americans do of their spatial needs. Buildings in Tai O accommodate the width of a body and height of a head. I peek into some and would have to enter on all fours and need an ample rubbing of grease to squeeze out. But where we get lunch is as open an airy as a gazebo on account of its British roots. It’s the former police station, now renovated into the Tai O Heritage Hotel. Tourists crowd the dining room, and beers crowd their tables. Tai O’s chief export and an affront to the air is shrimp paste. It’s produced in child-sized plastic buckets. Men with smartphones in one hand, massive mixing paddles in the other, blend dried krill and water into a mortar, which is then poured onto flat-baskets and left to ferment in the sun. You can paint this condiment onto a plate with a brush. Packing a container of it into luggage feels like a biohazard, but on rice it’s delicious. I imagine a spoonful added as a foundational component of a soup or sauce would have diners pressing in on the chef: what’s your secret? Or spewing in the alley, depending on taste.


Afterward, at night, we explored Kowloon. Lit signage was in intersection with every angle of Earth and sky. Kowloon is a place where any philosophy other than hedonism is a dull abstraction. If Kowloon were in America, writers would have already ranted over its density, the gross proliferation of its profits, its display of throw-away merchandise, and its air of enthroned consumerism. But it is in Asia, so instead of being the benchmark from which to advance, it is an accomplished goal of a still-remembered past.

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