Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Gulangyu's Rubgy Invasion

Xiamen. Until a few months ago, Xiamen was just another port city in China that I only ever saw in supplier quotations. All that was to change a few months ago, though, when our (very much social) rugby union team were approached by the Xiamen Typhoons. Set up a couple of years ago, the Typhoons had yet to play a competitive match. With a few enthusiasts and many players who’d never laid eyes on the revered egg-shaped ball, they’d previously focussed on training and touch rugby matches. Now was time for a coming-out party.

And what a party. With the enthusiastic backing of the local community, and fantastic support from the business community, the Typhoons set about arranging the inaugural Xiamen Gulangyu 10s tournament. With just four teams (the Typhoons and Hong Kong’s Happy Valley Griffins were joined by the Guangzhou Rams and the Shanghai Hairy Crabs), the tournament would take place over just one day, with late kick-offs and plenty of time for the main event – the beach party. With painful memories of the recent Manila 10s tournament (leaving the hotel at 7 am two days running to get to the ground in time, and then hanging around until late), this sounded like heaven.

The cherry on the top of this rugby-flavoured icing was the ground on which the tournament took place. Gulangyu Island is to Xiamen as Shamian is to Guangzhou. A tiny colonial enclave, Gulangyu boasts no cars, some stunning architecture, and a 111-year old football pitch. Our mission was to show Gulangyu what they’d been missing all these years and, for the first time in its 111-year history, pick up the ball and run with it. That’s right, this was to be the first every rugby played on the beautiful Gulangyu pitch.

The Typhoons and Gulangyu ground staff had done a fantastic, innovative, job preparing for us. There were beer and food tents, plenty of shade and seats, and rugby posts approximated by leaving the football goals and adding bamboo uprights! So to the rugby. Luring the competition into a false sense of security with our receding hairlines, beer bellies, and magnificent tour shirts, we won the tournament. And then on to the beach party, to watch the moon rise over Taiwan in the distance, accompanied by fireworks. Spectacular. We may have won the rugby, but we were soundly beaten in the drinking ‘boat race,’ and didn’t fare much better on the bucking bronco either. Details, details.

I can’t wait for next year. My name will be first on the list for this tour, and I hope to spend a few extra days in Xiamen to see more of what looks like a fascinating place.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Back, with an advert

Wow! It's been over two months since I last posted anything here. Shocking.

I also notice that, despite the blog title, I have hardly yet talked about Lamma on these pages. Let’s try to rectify that with some thoughts about life here.

First, to get some stereotypes out of the way. Yes, there are some washed up old hippies here; and yes, there are an abundance of freelance journalists and full-time environmentalists here too. But the common perception of Lamma does a great disservice to the fascinating diversity of people here.

My favourite thing to do here is to take a quiet wander down the lesser-travelled paths, negotiating the stray dogs and their ever-present booby-traps, but negating the need to jump out of the way of the village vehicles. No cars on the island, you see, just what look like ‘estate’ quad bikes and, of course, the Bedford Rascal van that is our ambulance. God forbid a typical Westerner requires it; we’re too tall to lie down!

Leave Yung Shue Wan and its plethora of mouth-wateringly good Western and Chinese restaurants behind. Let the crowds of tourists head over the family trail past pristine semi-deserted beaches and on towards the famous fish restaurants of Sok Kwu Wan. And pass the returning commuters (lawyers; company directors; salesmen; and, yes, the odd kung-fu or yoga instructor, or part-time teacher) as they hit the bars of Main Street and pick up their vegetables from the grocery stores or market stalls. Before too long, you’ll see another side to Lamma. Subsistence fishing or farming villages abound, each one a fascinating slice of ‘the old Hong Kong.’ Here, mah-jong is played daily and long into the night, and life – to those of us accustomed to city dwelling – appears (forgive the cliché) hard but honest.

But, like much of rural Hong Kong, all is not well. The number of abandoned village houses and empty schools speaks volumes about a people that wish to move onwards and upwards. And good luck to them. As an expat, this exodus to urban areas seems a dreadful shame, but who am I to hope villagers remain forever so simply for their aesthetic appeal. I do hope, though, that Lamma will never lose sight of its inherent appeal as a place to get away from the vertiginous towers and relentless pace of life of Hong Kong or Kowloon.

So come visit Lamma, and see for yourself what draws such an assorted crowd here. Bring some food and use the bbq pits on the beach, or eat some of the freshest fish around – from the floating fish farms in Sok Kwu Wan directly to your table. Just don’t come on a sunny holiday weekend, when the roads are so full of pedestrians that gridlock ensues. If, that is, you haven’t been put off by the two-hour plus queue for a ferry.