The Ghosts of Tai O

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-1

Stepping out onto the verandah, a strong feeling of déjà vu sweeps over me. I breathe in the early morning air of the sleepy fishing village of Tai O, the sound of the water inviting me out to explore.

The purity of silence only a pre-dawn sky can provide, accompanies me as I walk down a path toward the shore of the South China Sea.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-2

A restless purr of a yellow cat holding sentry duty catches my attention, she gives me a quick look-over before closing her eyes and nodding approval to pass.

Clearing the path, I continue down along the shore of the Tai O Heritage Hotel.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-3

Sleep last night was worthless. The building kept whispering stories and secrets to me from a century long ago.  Words with a personal ring, the whispers of long-lost friends.

My mind races at the possibilities, whether I am a dreamer caught up in a turn-of-the-century drama, or whether the history of this place holds a reality I am now just becoming aware.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-4

Standing on the shore, I expected to see a fleet of Chinese junks flying the flag of a renegade pirate; a flag supposedly designed by myself. To my relief the shore is empty and I chuckle at the thought of what I would have done if it wasn’t.

My dreams of the night, vivid creations of the rich history of this place.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-5

Crouching down, I pick up a stone and toss it out into the water as I hear a faint foghorn of a ship out on the horizon. I have finally made it to one of the oldest and most secluded areas of Hong Kong.

When I first arrived in Hong Kong almost two decades ago I had targeted this fishing village to be one of my first adventures, but time and life got in the way.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-6

She is an old fishing village, one that has definitely seen better days.  Today Tai O is more of a hangout for older people in their 70s, desperately holding onto the good life of saltwater and the sea.

Younger souls fresh in their 20s and 30s are also around, looking lost amid a modern world that has little room for the craftsmanship of fishermen.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-7

Above me is the old police station, an outpost of the Hong Kong and British maritime police, where officers actively protected these shores from centuries of pirates and smuggling.

Stories that fueled the dreams from last night, still reverberating in my mind as I begin walking down the road ~ returning to a place I have long forgotten.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-8

Less than twelve hours ago, Tai O was just a figment of my imagination, a chaotic myth of the old days of Hong Kong. I now find myself walking effortlessly under an early morning sky as if I were born on these streets.

I walk with purpose, with an understanding of what I am looking for even though my mind is filled with confusion.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-9

The memories are fresh. The old stilt houses, the planks leading from one neighbor to another and the wild activity that made up a day.

Blurred images of friends laughing and enjoying the serene atmosphere of the night, forgetting the dangers that filled our hearts every evening as we’d head out to sea for work.

Work. Not quite the type of work that would make most families proud, but work nonetheless.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-10

The police station in Tai O is no longer here, having shut down over fifteen years ago, but the building still stands just as it did when built by the British in 1902.  Now a beautiful building, fitted out by the Hong Kong Heritage Conservation Foundation to become the Tai O Heritage Hotel.

I smile at the thought that at least I have a more comfortable bed than those who spent a night in the holding cell a century ago.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-11

The building was home to one of the territories first colonial police stations guarding the western border between Hong Kong and China, and holding pieces of history that are now all but forgotten.

Reflecting back on the dream that woke me during the night, I wonder if it is a reminder of the role I filled as a noble Hong Kong policeman serving this village more than a century ago?

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-12

The answer to this question is obvious to me, as the sense of nostalgia tells me this definitely was not the case. I was living a darker, very different life.

I realized this the minute I arrived at the hotel. The electricity I felt as my fingers brushed over the nine bullet holes embedded into the security shutters on the main floor of the hotel, telling me this was not just a chance meeting in Tai O.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-13

I admire the historians and renovators who kept the original shutters, damaged and scarred but holding a place in time at the police station. Trapping the memories of those days gone by.

Years earlier, there was another piece of violence all but forgotten.  A firefight on these shores more than one hundred years ago.  Faded shots and screams still echoing in the air.  The ghosts, waiting for my return, now stand alongside me as I walk these streets. The voices of my dreams earlier tonight are with me once again.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-14

I weave through the different paths, looking around aimlessly for something I once called home.   Familiarity is all around me, but I am very out-of-place.

There is an urge for me to call out names and shout good morning in a strange Chinese dialect I have never heard before, much less spoken.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-15

  • The water.
  • The houses.
  • The sea.

The strong smell of shrimp paste, dried fish and scallops fill the air and tell me a story I cannot quite remember.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-16

I am trapped in a time and place, where there isn’t a clear definition between good and bad. Where answering the question of how to make a living was never considered. Just one path, one fate.

A life, where evolution of the soul and mind did not come easy, if at all, unlike the freedoms I have today.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-17

Caught up in the spirit of adventure on the South China Sea; a pirate’s life.  A fantasy of many young kids growing up in those days.  Romanticizing life in way only a child can, inevitably to be disappointed in its reality.

Decisions made from necessity, poorly thought out and running with a band of marauders between Tai O and Mainland China, a life of survival with no way out.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-18

The excitement of the chase, the beauty of the culture and memories of her many smiles, all combine to justify the clash between lifestyle and philosophy.  The stories and secrets whisper to me yet again.

Words that did not make much sense back then, even less so now.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-19

The ending of this dream is not a surprising one. Over a century ago on these very shores, violence ended my story. The image strong in my mind.  Of myself, a dying man.

My final thoughts questioning if somewhere, somehow in another time or place I could have travelled down another road.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-24

History is this great mirror able to show us a different time, different place and different potential in us all as we find our way in life.

I see a faint image of a wife and child standing alone. A twinge of sorrow fills my heart, my eyes moving to a basket of dried shrimp she’s holding, igniting another memory from so long ago.  Their whispers silently fading away as they bid me adieu.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-23

We are all more alike than we could ever understand.  Rich or poor, young or old, the vast differences we see on the surface means nothing.

Build a life worth living, so when the inevitable day of death arrives, we know our life was one fully lived ~ a life worth dying for.

The Ghosts of Tai O Village ~ Hong Kong-20

453 Comments on “The Ghosts of Tai O

  1. Randall, what a marvelous piece. Your musings transported me back to places where we too could feel history, most notably Hué, Vietnam.

    Of all your brilliant photography, somehow the cat, iridescent fish, and sky of lavender and teal most captured my eye.

    I’m curious – what are the marmalade-colored treats drying in the sun?

    • Thank you Tricia ~ I’ve yet to make it to Hué and very much like the idea of visiting and feeling its history/culture as well. Nothing like a bit of intrigue and history to keep the traveler moving. As for the marmalade-colored treats, they are dried duck egg yolks that are used in many Chinese dishes (the best, in my opinion, are in Moon Cakes…and Tai O is famous for them). Cheers to a great summer of travel and fun. Take care ~

      • Now that you’ve identified them as duck egg yolks, I can see the resemblance, but otherwise would have thought that they were a sweet treat. The vibrant color of those yolks reminds me of the eggs that we cooked with in Italy. The Italian yolks look so much more colorful than the bulk of their American counterparts.

        I just searched for Moon Cakes, and some of the examples look beautifully elaborate!

      • Agree, agree, agree! The color and flavor of farmed raised eggs are incredible ~ it is disappointing when I return to the States to the pale-yellow ones. I need to go to the Farmer’s Market instead!

  2. Your images have such light, texture and mood! Such a pleasure to take the journey through your thoughts. I remember the South China Sea and its shimmering mystery. Don’t you just love just saying its name! I thought it was magic even though it was a war that brought me there. My view was from the Philippines and I learned to dive in it and to try and capture the beauty under the surface with my first camera..a Nikonos II. You certainly brought up some memories with the mention.

    • I’m with you, the mere mention of “the South China Sea” sends my mind drifting away ~ so much history and the mystery of the area will always remain so. Inspiring place. What a great memory to have of the area, even with the war bringing you here, it sounds like you dove head first into the culture and mystery (and the Philippines a perfect diving paradise). Wish you a great summer ~

  3. Fabulous, fabulous. THe colors were incredible. I could almost smell the place. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you Sandra ~ there is something fragrant about a fishing village, perhaps even more when its history and lifestyle is fading. Wish you a great week.

  4. I enjoyed this one tremendously, Randall. It’s like taking a virtual walk in a world unbeknown to me, pleasantly lighthearted and light-footed.
    Your photography and narrative are outstanding, what can I add what all the other readers haven’t already said?

    • Thank you Dina ~ this world was something too I had heard so much about, so it was great to have you along to keep me company 🙂 Cheers to more adventures.

    • Thank you Annie, those orange things are dried duck egg yolks that are used in many Chinese dishes (the best, in my opinion, are in Moon Cakes…and Tai O is famous for them).

    • I love that aspect about photography, and I think that is why I got into it so much ~ to see and to show places my family/friends may never see, and mostly to be able to look at photos of places I will never feel with my hands but can imagine so vividly with my mind. Cheers to a great summer of adventure ~

  5. Thank you for sharing with the community a hidden side of Hong Kong. Your pictures are beautiful.
    I am now once again reminded of the beauty that lies back home!

    • There is not a day that goes by when I do not think of my home in the States (Oregon and Seattle), but it is something magical here in your home city of Hong Kong that does capture the spirit and mind of many. A beautiful place, with new scenes around every corner. I am sure it misses you too 🙂 Enjoy your week ~

  6. You amazing photos create such an incredible mood. Absolutely fantastic. Thanks for sharing.

      • I did ? How did I do it…..? LOL, humor is everything…if you can’t laugh, you can’t cry…that would be sad. Share always….make a small icon to share with family…we are all family, but share: see more on unchainthetree.com. I love you

  7. Beautiful photos, you always seem to capture their stories in the most vibrant colors…
    Thank you for once again sharing your world….
    I hope everything is well in your neck of the world …..
    Take Care…You Matter…
    )0(
    maryrose

    • Thank you very much MaryRose ~ things are well and about to enjoy a great summer ahead, and wish you the absolute best as well. Cheers.

  8. Love your images, especially the colours in your fish 😉 I like your concise writing style, makes me think I write too much sometimes in my posts!

    • Thank you ~ the eyes of the fish were pretty cool. I remember the first time I ate some, not quite knowing what they were until I saw the eyes staring me down 🙂 Cheers!

  9. Aye, aye, Randall. I see! What a deft touch you have for perceiving, and in return, producing the wonders of it all, just for we, the audience.

    Thoughts of our existence in another place in Time brings mystery to our minds, and gives our busy brains something to chew on beyond our normal humdrum ho-hum mundane everyday reality, which we all know all too well.

    “Thank you!” from all of us for providing a top-notch site, where adventure is the question to a journey rarely answered.
    Masterful shots and thoughts, my friend! 🙂 Peace and luvz, UT

    • Ha, ha, yes there is something about the adventures of life-on-the-sea that will always keep me in daydream. Wonderful comment UT, and very much appreciate the inspiration. Peace and may you have a summer to be remembered. Cheers.

    • Thank you Truels ~ coming across such neat little places is always a treat. Cheers to a good week.

    • Thank you very much Don, it was a special place in Hong Kong that I’ve waited so long to see ~ and in the end it was just perfect timing. I kind of like it when life works that way. Wishing you a fine summer and appreciate the nice words.

  10. Good post; your words about the place are poignant. I also like Tai O which I went to a few years ago.

    • It is a special place, and what is so cool is that HK is full of such villages scattered all around the territory ~ but the history of Tai O really puts this place over the top for me. Wish you a great summer and looking forward to catching up on all your travels. Cheers.

    • Ha, ha ~ yes, it has been a busy 1+ month for me and the absence from WP has been missed (restrictions on internet the main issue). So good to be back and much to catch up on and of course dream. Wishing you a great summer of shooting and adventures. Cheers!

  11. If ever I make it back to Hong Kong, I want to visit Tai O with you!! Just beautiful.

    • Do make it out here again, and I’ll be more than thrilled to show you the magic of Tai O, hills and food of Lamma Island and Aberdeen and other outlaying island. The place is a mecca of adventure, although I have not made enough use out of it considering all the time I’ve spent here 🙂 Cheers to a great weekend and happy 4th of July ~

  12. Excellent photos! The one of the cat was really sumthin’.

  13. Wonderful post. China was long on my list of places to visit but the closest I came was Hanoi. I spent a month traveling around Vietnam and can still smell the Shrimp Paste my host’s neighbours made. When I first arrived in Da Nang my eyes watered for three days. My colleague who was from Da Nang never learned to swim so I taught her. She and her family showed me a Vietnam few tourists will ever see. Amazing!

    • What an adventure that must have been ~ I have yet to visit Da Nang, but have heard great things about it. When a place can capture a permanent part of your memory, it definitely can be described as a great place 🙂

  14. Pingback: The Ghosts of Tai O | Thoughts&Things

  15. My god you are simply mesmerising to read… So glad I found you. Are you born and bred in Hong Kong like I am? Because the way you speak of it… it’s as if this place is yours. Completely. Yours to lose and to give. Love your photos and your words… gives me goosebumps. Sometimes I resolve to hate Hong Kong but not right now. This is beautiful.

    • Hey, thank you and while not born in HK it is home ~ and my favorite city in the world. Sometimes I can’t believe how attached I’ve become to such a city 🙂 So great to meet you via WP, and really a great comment I appreciate it. Wishing you a great summer (stay cool)… Cheers!

      • Well I’m glad you belong because there is no other feeling like it… Great to meet you too 🙂 haha can’t believe summer is not over, other exciting things are ahead though 🙂 I hope it’s the same for you.

      • The one constant in life is that there is always something great ahead 🙂 Cheers!

  16. Hi Randall! I went back to Tai O recently to have spotted some pink dolphins, but the sights I’ve experiences were definitely very different to the ones captured in your photos here. Brilliant shots, the colors and lines so crisp I feel like your photos give me a clearer experience than my actual visit, I can almost smell the saltiness of the shrimp and fish!

    Definitely a wonderful choice to stay during the twilight hours!! Very different mood indeed.

      • 🙂 Nothing like the South China Sea and HK to provide the inspiration 🙂

    • Thanks Jacqueline, I thought Tai O was great…during the weekday things move nice and slow out there and a perfect way to enjoy the day (and a great meal). The Tai O Hotel was such a neat place, great history.

  17. Mesmerising. You come across as a true story teller who is in the room with me telling me the story of your imagination as I scroll slowly through the pictures. I love the way you capture the mind and its imagination through your narrations.

    • The South China Sea and Tai O ~ two perfect components of a story that will continue on forever. Cheers KC, wish you a great week.

  18. Reblogged this on Kev's Great Indie Authors and commented:
    China Sojourns… is one of my all-time favourites in the blogging community folks. Randall’s gift for capturing images and weaving words around them in a way that mesmerises the reader and captivates the soul is second to none. This is just one post of many on his site that has done this to me and I’m sure this will be only the first of many that I will feel compelled to share with you. Welcome to Kev’s Rollover Sunday, Randall!

  19. These are fantastic. I like how everything your camera touches, from big swanky hotels to hut and hovels, has its own atmosphere and distinctive charm.

    • Thank you Bun ~ you have a great feel for the place, as the swanky hotel hold much history but it is the huts and hovels that tell you about today. Tai O is such a great part of Hong Kong (although often overlooked).

  20. This is a fascinating post. I like your descriptions and how you feel and the photography… is stunning. 🙂
    I was in China a year ago but our experiences are completely different. Thank you for sharing yours. This is amazing.

    • Thank you, Hong Kong is one of my favorite cities in the world ~ definitely the most diverse I’ve ever lived. A city on the other extreme of where I came from 🙂

  21. Thanks so much for the follow. 😀
    So much to see and learn here. Absolutely riveting and the photography is out of this world. I’ve been offline for the summer and I see WP has once again made changes. I dislike Reader and hope to figure out a way to get updates to your posts in my email as I do for all my other subscriptions.

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