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Steering tradition

Nevin Lim (left) lending a hand to Mui to row her tiny sampan.

HONG KONG's magical metamorphosis - from a British colony to a throbbing city with cloud-hugging high rises, a result of a space-constrained city that can only grow vertically - has spared the core of Chinese tradition. Though hovercrafts and high-speed jetfoils have crowded out ancient sampans and junks, fishing thrives and fish remains as significant an input in the Chinese culinary tradition as before.

Fishermen now use deep-sea trawlers and sophisticated fishing equipment, while sampans (small boats) ferry people between various points on the coastline along Victoria Harbour. Most sampans are fitted with diesel engines, and only a few stick to rowing.

When 59-year-old Mui Tsei of Sai Kung New Territories north of Kowloon peninsula, agreed to ferry the group of three Indian journalists, it was a surprise because it was not in the itinerary. The tour coordinator, Nevin Lim, had sealed the deal.

The boat was small, with as much space as in a small Indian car. Mui Tsei is a fisherwoman who does not go fishing. Instead she uses her tiny sampan to ferry people. The retired Government servant was happy rowing her boat. It was hard work. The oval shaped rowing head at the end of the oar was rotated to and fro and pulled and pushed back and forth simultaneously to propel the boat forward and to navigate it. It was not easy because the sampan had to dribble past jutting bows of large vessels, and sometimes between two towering mechanised all-steel boats. The water was so clean one could almost see the bed despite the falling light of a late afternoon.

The journey took longer than it did to walk along the shore, but every minute was worth it because a walk on stable ground was more predictable than the uncertain bob and sway of the sampan whenever it was caught in the wake of large vessels. Mui took HK$40 for the service - a song, because some motorised sampan owners had offered a similar ride for HK$500 whenever this correspondent went for early morning walks on the wide pedestrian pathway at the waterfront in Hong Kong, the main island in the archipelago.

Boats are familiar to Indians as are boat rides, but you cannot deny that it requires a lot of expertise to squeeze past anchored sea vessels without ramming into any. If you are keen, then do not hesitate to bargain for the service. The sampan owners will not protest if you bargain hard, but pleasantly. And in case you walk away, rest assured that you will hear no invectives.

* * *

Flow for health

IF you walk into any park in Hong Kong early morning, you will find people standing in neat rows, paper fans and scarves in hand, going through the forms of Tai Chi Chuan.

Tai Chi by experts Pandora Wu (right) and William Ng (left) with a select group of advanced students.

To you, the uninitiated, it will seem easy till you try it.

The warm-up exercises are similar to what you do at any martial arts centre, but in Tai Chi, these are milder. After your body is warm and traces of sweat appear despite the chill of an early morning, you are ready for Tai Chi Chuan. Masters, like Pandora Wu and William Ng, insist that the best time is early morning when the air is cool and fresh.

Tai Chi Chuan forms are derived from the observed behaviour and stances of animals and birds, but they differ depending on which of the five schools - Wu, Ng, Shin, Chan and Yang - the master belongs to.

The basics are seemingly simple. What seemed like Gathering the Harvest can be difficult for a beginner because the act of gathering and dumping the harvest is done slowly, with the body's centre of gravity shifting ever so slowly. The master guides the beginner who must follow every action, every movement closely, repeating each carefully, especially on when to inhale and when to exhale. The master will introduce at most three forms to a beginner and the learner is expected to perfect these before meeting the master again.

Tai Chi Chuan as an art evolved in the 11th Century and philosopher Chang San-Feng is credited to be the father of this art, even though the origins of Tai Chi Chuan can be traced back to 2500 B.C.. Chuan means fist, and it stands for concentration, not aggression. Tai Chi is the duality of harmonious relationship between yin (stillness) and yang (motion). Every move precedes another as the hands, feet and the whole body work in tandem. It is said that the focus that this art requires purges all irrelevant thoughts from the mind. And that is the aim of Tai Chi Chuan - to free the mind while it holds the harness of the body.

Though the best option is for a Tai Chi master to teach the art, you could probably learn a bit of it from a good video film or CD-ROM. You could also read Sophia Delza's excellent treatise on Tai Chi Chuan. But if you happen to visit Hong Kong and wish to know what Tai Chi is, do not miss visiting the Piazza of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre next to the clock tower that lies to the east of the Star Ferry Concourse in Tsim Tsa Tsui, Kowloon. The Hong Kong Tourism Board sponsors a free Tai Chi class for visitors between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. everyday.


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