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