American Philosophical Society, History, Lafayette, Mesmerism, Pantheon, Philadelphia, Philly, Uncategorized

The “Mesmerizing Marquis” de Lafayette — Animal Magnetism comes to Philadelphia


1780 silh

The mesmerizing marquis. 1780 silhouette of Lafayette, Library of Congress.



An Archive of Discovery

This past summer, I interned with some great folks in the archives of the American Philosophical Society, in Philadelphia, which has been promoting science, history and culture for over 250 years.

Wait!  “Philosophical” is used in an archaic sense from the 18th century – – “Natural Philosophy” meant science and technology.

The APS is all about “useful knowledge.”  Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Rush, etc. were all interested in practical applications of scientific discoveries — not just intellectual conversations, although it’s certainly a place for that, but also to promote research, science, exploration — discovery.

This post meant as a tribute to one of my favorite members of the APS, and one of America’s first friends in France.

(I am re-running my summertime blog, because I found some great pictures to add, and because it is nearing Thanksgiving, and this insightful historical vignette involves a turkey.)


Lafayette “Citizen of the World”

One function of the APS is to serve as “America’s Pantheon of Smart People”.

It says “American”, but membership in this very select company is international.  And since Lafayette was a member of the APS, and is back in the news this summer (more about that later), let us talk of French people.


Lafayette women by the boatload

Lafayette, like me, drawing women by the boatload

Well, before we talk of the French, actually we should start with Romans.

Do not worry.

This won’t take long.

Paris Pantheon

Paris Pantheon LOC

The original Pantheon was in Rome –and the beautiful version we see today, has survived for almost 2,000 years — put up by the same guy who built Hadrian’s Wall.

Hadrian loved to travel all over the empire, building things, and was reckoned to be one of the “Five Good Emperors” (I guess five good ones, out of something like 264, is probably typical odds for emperors and presidents.)  A Pantheon is basically a circular temple to honor all your gods, idols, heroes, etc.

If you have never seen or heard of France’s version, the Panthéon in Paris, it helps to know that it was completed in 1790, just a year after the APS building in Philadelphia, and is exactly like it.

Except the Pantheon is French, is a former church, is neoclassical, is a mausoleum, and only honors French people.

IMG_3394-2The APS, an American Pantheon of sorts, honors brilliant people of all nationalities, was never a church, is Georgian-style, and it has no dead people in the building of whom I am aware.  Other than that, pretty identical concepts.

The APS has honored many Frenchmen of course, including the Marquis de Lafayette.  Actually, he was just one of seven marquises on the membership rolls.

At least one Frenchman made it into both the APS and the Pantheon — the Marquis de Condorcet. Although he may not be a good one to bring up, since he was buried in the Pantheon, but they seem to have misplaced his body.  Modern science has no patience with this sort of carelessness.

Washington & LafayetteTalk about Women

George & the Marquis, just chilling and talking about women

But we don’t want to talk about the misfiled Condorcet anyway.  Our favorite Frenchman, Lafayette, was in the news again this summer, because of Hermione currently visiting the U.S.

To anyone of my generation, there is only one “Hermione” and I am not embarrassed to admit my love for the Harry Potter series.  But this other Hermione is also beautiful – – a recreation of the frigate that brought Lafayette back to the U.S. during the Revolution, with the news that the French would help us fight the British.   The ship arrived at Yorktown, and then visited Baltimore and Philadelphia, and on up the East Coast this summer.  It is an absolutely beautiful tall ship.  But where was I?  Back to the APS.

L'Hermione Max Mudie photographer 2015 BEF 0728_websize

L’Hermione, a recreation of the French frigate that brought Lafayette to America during the Revolution. Photo with the kind permission of Max Mudie, a photographer in Southampton, England. My blog is not commercial, but I enthusiastically direct people to his sites, and, because his pictures of tall ships under sail are just outstanding.

Lafayette LOCIn 1824, Lafayette sailed across the Atlantic once more, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the United States.  He took a  triumphant year-long tour of the 24 states, with countless veterans’ reunions, dinners, parades and ceremonies in city after city.

Including even a stop in my humble hometown, Waterloo, NY. – – where an ancient cannon, actually a swivel-gun off a slave-ship, was fired in his honor.   Unfortunately, it exploded, killing the local militia captain. (When Lafayette learned of the accident, and the absence of a pension for the captain’s family, since he wasn’t killed in action, he graciously sent a thousand dollars for their support.)

Our village green was re-named Lafayette Park, just like the park in front of the White House, and our public school has served French fries ever since, continuing to cook them in the original vat of hot tallow to this day.

The parade honoring the Marquis in Philadelphia was four miles long, and took over an hour to pass by.

L0000483 Portrait of F. A. Mesmer Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Portrait of Franz Anton Mesmer Franz Anton Mesmer Rudolf Tischner Published: 1928 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Franz Anton Mesmer. Wellcome Library, London.

And of course, when in Philadelphia, he visited the American Philosophical Society (he’d been a member since 1781).

During his visit, he shared his interest in the experiments of Franz Anton Mesmer.

This was the fascinating German doctor who basically invented hypnotherapy, and is commemorated by the word “mesmerize”.


M0018514 French satire: 'Les Effets du Magnetisme.....animal'. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images 'Les Effets du Magnetisme.....animal'. Die Karikatur und Satire in der Medizin Hollander Published: 1921 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Animal Magnetism run amok. Wellcome Library


The Marquis had already turned 67, but was after all, a Frenchman — widowed, footloose and fancy-free — and he thought Mesmer’s theory of “Animal Magnetism” sounded pretty promising.  (Especially in French:  magnétisme animal seems just the thing for chatting up les coquettes).

V0017306 Mesmeric therapy. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Mesmeric therapy. A group of mesmerised French patients Oil 1778/1784 after: Claude-Louis DesraisPublished: [between 1778 and 1784?] Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Mesmeric therapy. Wellcome Library

The APS was open to a demonstration, because in that day and age, Mesmer was considered to be a scientific investigator.

Even though everyone already knew he was mostly nuts.

(Mesmer was not invited to be a member of the APS.)

V0011095 A practioner of mesmerism performing animal magnetism therap Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images A practioner of mesmerism performing animal magnetism therapy on a seated male patient. Pen and ink drawing. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Mesmerism. Wellcome Library

His process involved dim lighting, magnets, hypnotism,  water armonica music, and a lilac-colored robe, and is no longer accepted as real medicine anywhere outside of southern California.

(If you’re interested, there is a flattering bio-pic where he’s played by Alan Rickman, in his pre-Harry Potter days.)

L0000477EA Le doigt magique ou le magnetisme animal' Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images 'Le doigt magique ou le magnetisme animal'. The doctor, having discarded his wig and cloak hypnotises the woman in the guise of Bottom from 'Midsummer Might's Dream'. One hand strokes the patient while with a finger of the other she is hypnotised. Engraving De arts in de caricatuur / Cornelis Veth Published: [ca. 1925] Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Apparently Mesmer aroused a few doubts, as well. Wellcome Library

M0006352 "Le Baquet de Mesmer" Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images "Le Baquet de Mesmer" Engraving Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Mesmer’s “baquet” – – a kind of washtub filled with iron filings and broken glass. Wellcome Library

The APS had fun at Lafayette’s Mesmerism demonstration, trying to tap the human body’s energy to generate a “artificial tide” of “animal magnetism.”  The members held onto metal rods, mounted on a sort of washtub contraption, to see what came up.

In Vienna and Paris, the apparatus was reputed to generate health-giving convulsions, animal magnetism and a general loosening of purse strings and possibly dress strings, among well-to-do hystericals, but Philadelphians, then and now, are immune to such things as electricity, emotions and sex.  (Franklin was the exception, of course).

When Franklin discovered there would be no kites involved, he declared the electro-magnetic bathtub was not real science, but everybody liked Lafayette immensely and had a good time.

V0016530 A large gathering of patients to Dr. F. Mesmer's animal Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Patients in Paris receiving Mesmer's animal magnetism therapy. Coloured etching. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Parisians swooned, but Philadelphians proved immune to animal magnetism. Wellcome Library.

Ben Franklin, not averse to women’s company, as long as it wasn’t his wife’s,  had already checked out Mesmerism forty years before, when he was ambassador to France.  Louis XVI appointed him to a royal panel examining this invention.  The panel included the Mayor of Paris, and Lavoisier, the famous chemist and biologist, who of course, was a fellow  APS member, and also a doctor you may remember, named Guillotin.


L0011369 Apparatus used by Galvani - three Leyden jars Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Apparatus formerly used by Luigi Galvani - three Leyden jars 18th Century Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Galvani’s Leyden Jars. courtesy Wellcome Library

It seems likely that scientific  guys like this would have discussed Franklin’s attempt to electrocute and electrically roast a turkey on Christmas Day 1750.  Despite the warning labels on every “Leyden jar” (basically a large capacitor, that sends out a mini-lightning bolt), Franklin first zapped himself instead of the bird, causing numbness in his limbs and a need for bifocals.

The turkeys were eventually zapped and suffered violent convulsions.  Then at some point during the dinner preparations, they were found to be merely stunned, and required another shock before they were killed.

You have to wonder if some guests felt uncomfortable with this resurrected dinner on Christmas.

M0014508 Early experiments with the Leyden jar. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Early experiments with the Leyden jar. Lettres sur l'electricite' Antoine Nollet Published: 1753 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

18th Century Fun with Electricity. Wellcome Library.

Dr. Guillotin immediately abandoned his plans for executing people with an electric chair, and moved on to a more reliable invention.

guillotine LOC

Old King Louis “Take if you must, my old gray head, but spare your monarch’s stomach” LOC

(Technically, he didn’t invent the guillotine, and opposed capital punishment, but we needn’t cloud a good tale with facts.)

(I attempted to recreate Franklin’s Electro-Turkey Experiment with a bathtub, toaster, and turkey, but until the pending lawsuits with my landlord and PETA are resolved, I am not allowed to discuss them on advice of counsel).

But science marches on, and on a happier note, two of the panelists examining Mesmerism — the Mayor of Paris, and Lavoisier (who used his knowledge of chemistry to make better gunpowder to kill people) —  met up again years later, when they were both guillotined.

But I digress.

Foucault's Pendulum F.I.

a Foucault Pendulum in Philadelphia, a couple of miles from the APS. courtesy Franklin Institute

The Pantheon in Paris has some scientists too, of course, and was the site of Foucault’s pendulum, which demonstrated the scientific principle that, even if you are a terrible bowler, if you have

(a) a pendulum, and (b) lots of time, (c) you can still knock down all the pins.

It just takes longer.

When I say “lots of time”, you’re wondering, why are you so imprecise, when you felt free to criticize the Pantheon for misplacing a few bodies?  why not just say, “24 hours to knock down all the pins”.

Well, as Franklin said to the turkey, get stuffed.  You’re obviously not scientifically-inclined.

Because according to my extensive research (Wikipedia) it takes 32.7 hours in Paris, for scientific or cultural reasons, to knock down all the pins.  (“Latitude vs Attitude”)

Or 2 entire days, if you’re at 30 degrees latitude.  If the reason isn’t instantly apparent, you are clearly not headed for membership in the APS.

But perhaps you could take up bowling.

OK, I have totally lost track of Lafayette.  Sorry.  C’est la vie.  My lunch break is over, and back to the archives!


P.S.  Apparently the “guillotine” was actually a medieval gadget, perfected by a German harpsichord-maker — who understood it was to be used on cabbages for making sauerkraut.  And yet most people making sauerkraut, use a cabbage-slicer called a “mandoline,” not a “guillotine-harpsichord.”

I have always been baffled by this interface between (a) musical instruments, (b) kitchen appliances, and (c) methods of execution.  Leonardo da Vinci invented some sort of organ gun (aren’t most organ recitals deadly enough?), and Lincoln was impressed by the Coffee Mill Gun (also called the Agar Gun, although it did not shoot coffee beans or gelatin) of the Civil War.

The Potato Masher, or Stielhandgranate, was of course the grenade used by the Germans in two world wars, but check out James Brown on “Mashed Potatoes U.S.A.” starting the great dance craze of 1962.

I know some pastry chefs use a cornet for icing, and flute a pie crust somehow, and I’ve seen the percussive kettledrums of course, but I’ve fretted over news of Cuisinart-related deaths, and wondered if they’re really accidental, as most people believe?

We’re always told that the bathroom is the most dangerous room in your home, maybe so, but the kitchen is pretty scary, too.  Don’t we talk about being battered, pancaked, grilled, smothered and skewered?  Isn’t spatula derived from the Latin for broadsword?  If you like crusty bread, a baguette is basically a baton – used for conducting music, playing a carillon, and clubbing rioters.  Mace is also used on rioters, and by knights on recalcitrant peasants, and by my grandmother for pumpkin pies.

And look up the pasta called strozzapreti sometime.

On a related note, did you ever notice, that American  appliances hum at a higher pitch, B flat, I think, than European ones, humming along at G?

I know it’s due to each continent’s different electrical systems, 50Hz vs 60Hz – – but who chose these notes??  I don’t think a convection oven humming “B flat” is appropriate for making a souffle, for example.  And I’ve often wished, as I dance along with my washing machine, that it would vary the beat a bit, and just for once, hum a Middle C instead.

L0000476 L.L. Boilly, Le magnetisme Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Caricature: Le magnetisme. Lithograph 1826 By: Boilly, Louis LeopoldDie Karikatur und Satire in der Medizin (Reproduction) Hollander, E. Published: 1921 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0


Hong Kong, horse racing, Study Abroad, travel

Happy Valley Racecourse, Hong Kong Island.


A Horse Race in China.

I believe that China has the most ardent gambling fans of any nation.

Americans like to gamble, but not like the Chinese — to them, it’s a basic, essential part of life, like fine food to the French, or dancing to the Spanish.  I suppose it stems from seeing life as a gamble — you have to take your chances, competing for a job when everyone else has exactly the same skills and mindset.  And in the industrial zones of China, your life is being gambled away for you, as you attempt to survive the job-site, the drinking water, and the air you breathe.

In Hong Kong, like everywhere in China outside of Macau, every form of gambling is outlawed — with one exception.



The exception is the horse race. There are two racetracks in Hong Kong — both famous, world-class, and impressive.

My friends from Lingnan University decided to meet at the Happy Valley Racecourse, in the center of heavily-developed Hong Kong Island.  Happy Valley is home to the biggest single jackpot in the world for any horse racing event – 400,000,000.00 dollars.

L0055568 Racecourse, Happy Valley, Hong Kong. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Racecourse, Happy Valley, Hong Kong. Photograph by John Thomson, 1868/1871. Viewed from the hill. The village of Wong Nei Cheong can just be seen at the far end of the racecourse. 1868 By: J. ThomsonPublished: 1868/1871. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Racecourse, Happy Valley, 1868, credit John Thomson, Wellcome Library, London.

Originally, the land was swamp and rice paddies, appropriated by the British back in the 1800’s.  The city grew around it, and the track is now surrounded by skyscrapers.


The owner of one building, a particularly enthusiastic fan of racing, built himself a penthouse with a special viewing balcony.


The Tram. Looking a bit like J.K.Rowling’s Knight Bus

The trip there from the New Territories was an entertaining saga if its own — getting lost repeatedly, while trying various unique modes of transportation, including a 110-year-old tram.  Getting home took even longer,  and only people familiar with the absolutely indescribable impossibility of keeping any group of Asian college students on track and moving, can understand. (Because enjoying being together in the group is the goal and the reward, rather than actually getting anywhere in particular!)

The racetrack is an amazing sight in its own right:  7 stories of free seating, and 3 more decks for those who want to pay for the privilege of getting VIP seating. The stadium was also very Hong-Kongish in that it was full of food stalls that were randomly placed around the track, and simply full of people everywhere, tens of thousands. I don’t know the seating capacity, but it must have been in the hundred thousand range. In typical Asian fashion, it was crowded, full of animated conversations, clouds of cigarette smoke, and cell phone “Selfies” being taken.


Having finally found the track, getting up to the seventh story to find our friends was a challenge in its own right — the elevators we found took us into the kitchens for some reason, and others were just for use during fires (which didn’t make sense to me, since in America elevators are what you don’t take when there’s a fire). So we took the stairs — also challenging — they were crowded with people, but none of them were actually going up and down.  The glitzy decor of the rest of the stadium wasn’t there, and the stairs were full of cigarette butts, old gum, torn-up betting slips, and countless people sitting quite comfortably on the steps smoking cigarettes, despite the signs saying: NO SMOKING. They clearly weren’t bothered by that. The looks they gave us seemed like they were daring us, “Go ahead, tell us to stop.”

When we arrived at the 7th tier, it hit me, that we were having a distinctly Hong Kong experience. Yes, there were about 10,000 reserved VIP seats, but really, as far as your neighbors at this track, all bets were off (pun not intended) — you could sit on the crowded benches literally rubbing elbows with a CEO on one side, and his shoe-shiner on the other.  It put everyone on an equal level.


Horse running Mulbridge LOCBetting was also interesting, as it was a very complex process. We had three Korean women in our group, who seemed to have mastered it with their system — they placed a bet on every single horse!  They were betting in several categories (win, place, show) and despite the initial cost, they won by default every single time, sometimes winning enough that’d they’d break even or even make a bit of money.


The Lingnan U Betting Club

The most vivid memory from Happy Valley is something that screams “CHINA” to me. When we got to the final round of races, we all decided to place bets. I had been carefully studying the directory, and placed my bet on a favored horse to win. Everyone else was going to do the same, when a shirtless, mostly toothless old-looking man approached them. (This isn’t an uncommon sight in China, another difference between here and there). This man whispered in the ear of the Chinese-speakers and then stood behind them as they placed their bets. I thought he was just some oddball and then proceeded to watch the race.

Well, apparently he was a wizard. My horse lost by a hair, or a nose, to the horse that was the underdog — who was the one the old mysterious man had told my friends to bet on. He was right. They split the winnings (several thousand HKD) between them and had a great time rubbing it in my face.

They turned to thank the old man, and he had vanished. The time he disappeared was the only time that there was no crowd in our part of the stadium, so it seemed like he honestly vaporized into the night air. I don’t know why, but that disappearing old shirtless man is probably the most distinctive image I have of China, of all of the images I have saved mentally. It just seemed so incredibly Chinese to me, maybe because that does not happen anywhere else!

I didn’t need any time to realize that this was a distinctive experience — it struck me as suddenly as the little old man vanished. As we left, I was disgruntled over my lost bet, and my friends were ecstatic that they won (even though divided up, it came to very little money).  We walked out of the stadium through a literal downpour of papers from the betting tables. Showers of papers riding the humid air currents and slowly falling to earth closed the scene.

Of all the things I saw, felt, smelled, ate or heard, during my time in Hong Kong, this day was China.


History, Hong Kong

Tai O


neon fish

Say “Hong Kong” and it summons images of skyscrapers, glistening and modern.

Every popular image of the city portrays an incredibly bustling and modern metropolis.

That is the image Hong Kong sells.

Hong Kong rocky coast

Tai O-001


But like anywhere that has been inhabited for thousands of years, the city has remnants of an older society, some hidden beneath the urban jungle, others overlooked on the periphery, but still very much alive.


HK fishing village 2One of these mysterious places, stuck in time, is Tai O, on Lantau Island.


The island is practically its own city-state, separate from Hong Kong in many ways, connected by a single bridge. Lantau, with its tiny population, seems distinct from the rest of the shiny metropolis, even from the less glamorous “New Territories.” Ironically, farther along the same coast from Tai O, is the city’s huge airport, built on fill into the ocean, and its convention/retail complex, even a golf course, swarming with trade shows, cable cars, etc.

And on Lantau’s southeast shore, in a beautiful region of pristine and mostly undiscovered beaches, hiking trails, mountains and small lakes, is Tai O, a village lost in an older day. It is a tiny enclave, partly on an island, along a little river where it enters the South China Sea, and almost walled off from the rest of Lantau by forests and mountains.

fishing village 4 HK

Even though it’s become a tourist attraction over the years, its inhabitants almost treated as a spectacle, the village truly is existing in another era. The jets come in overhead night and day, but a visitor to Tai O encounters a fishing village virtually unchanged from those the British would have come upon, when they sailed into Hong Kong harbor in the nineteenth century.

fishing village 5 HK

Yes, there are electric lights, fans, and motor boats, and cable TV in some houses. But Tai O is still very much stuck in its traditional, precarious ways — ramshackle houses perched perilously over semi-polluted water, threatening to collapse and be swept away, come the next typhoon. It’s said that every year there is a special evacuation for these people, during super storms, and many lose their homes. Despite this, and perhaps because of generous subsidies from the government, they’re able to continue living a traditional lifestyle. Their houses look both temporary, and at the same time, as if they have been there for many years. I assume their houses recycle materials from earlier, wrecked houses, but don’t essentially change.

HK fishing village 1

To get to Tai O, I joined a group of friends on a bus, hailed in Tung Chung, and we rode across Lantau on roads hacked into the volcanic mountainsides, at hair-raising speeds, taking the turns faster than I thought a bus could manage. When my eyes weren’t closed, I realized we were passing some beautiful areas, inaccessible by foot, with some of the most beautiful beach areas I’ve ever seen — found among the dense forest land and at the bottom of jagged volcanic mountains.

The bus ride, while fast and offering very pleasant views, remains in my mind as the longest ever, as I had stupidly chugged three bottles of water before I learned the drive was 90 minutes long. While everyone else was alternating between terror, and oohing and aahing over the countryside, I was concentrating on my bladder. By the time we arrived in Tai O, I ran as fast as I’ve ever moved towards the dimly-lit public bathrooms, usually avoided at any cost, but that day, not concerned about the smell, dirt, or anything else.

After surviving that terrible episode, the rest of the trip was great. We wandered around narrow alleys, between dingy houses, many on stilts, with shops selling fish, tourist items, and some wonderful restaurants (hole-in-the-wall but with amazing food and desserts).

There was even a tiny museum. Despite the number of outsiders roaming Tai O, the residents were not at all concerned by having people literally in their backyards, or front yards for that matter. Many of the houses, in the hot summer months, don’t have a complete fourth wall, so the section facing the street is half-exposed, giving us a view into their simple houses, like a series of stage sets. Living rooms, kitchens, and tiny dining areas were on display, with only the bedrooms and bathrooms thankfully covered by a wall. On some stretches, stepping aside to let someone pass, you’d nearly be standing in the living room, usually with a sweaty, shirtless fisherman lying on the couch staring at the TV. Truly a unique, albeit odd, experience.

fishing village 3 HKI realized how much the sea permeates the lives of these people. The souvenirs for sale were all sea-related: bits of decorated coral, lamps made from puffed up blowfish (grotesque), and even an entire dried shark for sale (I assume for eating, though it was looking a bit rough after days in the sun).

In the West, we often read about the impact of the oceans’ conditions on the people of distant countries. Those articles always meant very little to me — describing faraway lands, and lives that no one really thinks can be that primitive or dependent on the sea. And then you arrive in Tai O and see for yourself, that the ocean is everything for these people. A hard life. Many villagers looked wrung-out and fairly unhealthy, though strong, and yet, all had posters up in several languages: “Protect our oceans” “No pollution in the rivers” and “How to conserve our water”. To the villagers, their livelihoods and way of life, antiquated as they seemed, depended entirely on the oceans. And they see the oceans despoiled by foreigners and their own countrymen, even the other residents of Hong Kong.

The modern Hong Kong I was living in, seemed very distant at that moment. I think it’s not a perfect analogy, but I imagine the people on Kowloon or HK Island think of Tai O’s residents, in the same way we think about homeless people in the US. We’re slightly aware of them, but if possible, we pay them no attention. One difference, though — in the US, most people do not pay admission to visit the homeless encampments, while many urbanized Hong Kong’ers travel to tour this part of their city.

The folks in Tai O choose this lifestyle, and were taught their fishing skills by the generations before them. They choose a traditional lifestyle that does not require anything more than a no-frills home and a working boat. I also suppose that having typhoons and flood waters regularly knock your house to bits ( I could see the mud from the last flood on the walls of some houses), would make having a fancy house seem a bit pointless. These people are content to live simply, putting them totally at odds with every other person in Hong Kong, save perhaps for the “cage people” of Kowloon’s roughest slum.

We have people living “plain” lives in the US, and the Amish around my hometown are the first to come to mind. But the Amish generally live distant from major urban areas, while these people in Tai O, were a half-hour ferry ride from one of the world’s most advanced mega-cities.

I enjoyed visiting Tai O both as a tourist and as a historian. I was given the chance to see the Hong Kong that the first colonizers would have seen, a bit of the city that William Henry Seward would’ve seen in 1873 when he sailed in from India for a few days. It is one thing to see a museum display about Tai O (which you can visit at the Hong Kong Museum of History, and definitely worth a trip, too) but not the same as actually standing among villagers that are living much as they have for hundreds of years. It is still a living, unembellished village, and experiencing the honest-to-God, actual fishing families, living here in this old-fashioned style, was really cool.

The time-travel sensation was intensified by starting my day on alpha-city high-tech Hong Kong Island. Going from a cityscape like Central’s, modern and impressive, to a small collection of glorified huts on stilts, huddled along the edge of a volcanic mass on the Pacific, was really neat and further showed how China truly is the land of extremes.

Life in a fishing community is not for the sentimental.  Or the squeamish.  As we walked along the maze-like streets, looking at the houses and fishing huts, we passed by a small area where there had been a successful haul, and the fish were being stored in freezers. I watched a guy throwing live, still-flopping fish into the freezer, and we said, jokingly (a joke that the Hong Kong kids didn’t get, we realized) that the man doing that was “Ice Cold”. They didn’t get it. But, and despite how horrible it sounds, the best thing we saw was nearby.

straw hat HK

A fish-seller, a little old lady, was sitting down watching a tiny TV set on an outdoor bench, with tanks of fish all around her. One of these fish, a particularly big one, flopped out of its tank, and seemed like it was trying to make a run for it. The ancient fish-seller rose very slowly… and then with lightning speed bludgeoned the fish to death with a hammer.

And then nonchalantly returned to her TV program.

The sudden brutality, with such indifference, struck us as a total surprise– we were horrified but also laughing for weeks.


A distinct highlight of Tai O, other than stopping at a tiny restaurant and eating what I will always remember as one of the greatest desserts of my life, was sighting the pink dolphins.

The Pearl River is the only place on earth, except a part of the Amazon, where you can see pink dolphins. You can pay a small fee, collected by rather shady-looking people, to sail out on a boat, driven by equally shady-looking characters, looking for pink dolphins. To do this, I had to put out of my mind, every one of the news stories I’ve ever read, about the safety issues of Chinese ships full of people. I boarded a ship loaded way over capacity, piloted by what looked like a pirate way past retirement age. Ignoring the thought that no one at home would know I was on this boat, in a random part of the Pacific, I boarded.

And I am glad I did. As we pulled away from Tai O, I got to see it in a new light, in the way the locals see it — from the water.

From water level, the ramshackle shacks now looked very impressive, perched atop massive beams. While tiny next to the skyscrapers in Hong Kong, the houses towered over our boat as we sailed towards open water. And, ten minutes later, we were out in the Pacific, with waves rocking our fast-moving boat. I remember looking back, and Tai O was gone, replaced by the impressive sight of a massive volcanic island, with jagged green ridges. We sailed among oil rigs, expertly dodging giant tankers and container ships, some (from the water) appearing as large as Lantau Island.

(dolphin, but not a pink dolphin)

(this picture is not an Indo-Pacific pink dolphin, but it’s a related bottlenose, and also the only decent dolphin picture I’ve taken!)

And finally, we found the pink dolphins. Three of them, frolicking in polluted waters, indifferent to the camera-wielding, mostly Asian tourists in the boats, they went right alongside and did a few jumps for us before disappearing. I felt even luckier when I heard that this was the first the pilot of our boat had seen of them in two months. A unique experience. Really more a pinkish-gray, and I had been expecting very vibrant pink hues, although when one did a barrel roll, it exposed a soft Easter egg pink belly, and that was cool.

On the bus ride back to Tung Chung, I had just thought “I bet we can see the Buddha statue,” and literally at that moment, the Big Buddha, over one hundred feet tall, perched in a valley between the two biggest peaks on Lantau, appeared in the distance. I was struck by just how big he really was, because it was about 3 miles away and I could see it very clearly.

An oddity on this drive: we passed an incredibly modern village, with many cars, so the inhabitants must have had some money, but it seemed to be a village with no name. Miles from Tung Chung, here were about 500 homes, tucked away in the middle of nowhere, that no one could tell me anything about, including the locals.

Cow LOCBut the most striking thing during the drive, was the cows. When the English landed at Hong Kong, a bunch of cattle were released from the ships onto Lantau to graze. Mountainous and full of steep jagged hills with sharp curves, Lantau seems like the worst possible place for cattle. And yet, 150 years later, the descendants of whatever cows were hardy enough to survive are roaming the streets. If I was in India, where you hear of such things, I wouldn’t have been so taken aback. But, this is Hong Kong. And yet, there were about fifty cows, standing in or next to the road, and our bus driver was busy yelling at them, cursing and honking the horn to get them to move. Being cows, they didn’t care, so we had to wait a bit while they lazily wandered from the road toward the unnamed village.

There were more cows, and the oddest sight of the trip, a mile down the road:  Beach Cows.

I mentioned the beautiful beaches earlier, visited by very few humans. But, I swear, I saw three cows on the beach, walking along, half in the water, half on land. Apparently mimicking the human beach-goers, and others were just basking in the sun.

This other world, the “other” other Hong Kong, almost a world of its own, was a magical experience for me. And, whenever I hear people talk about Asia, I think, they have no idea, they’re sold on the image of buildings the size of mountains, gold-plated super cars, crowded streets, and bullet trains. But when I hear “Hong Kong,” I have three images, all competing for space in my head and yet all distinct and simultaneously appearing, the image of the modern urban mecca, the image of the wilderness, and the image of Tai O, clinging to its stilts above unreal blue hues of waters.