#Tiananmen25 – The June 4th Anniversary Vigil in Victoria Park

Last night, tens of thousands of people gathered in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park to remember the civilians who were brutally murdered in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 25 years ago. The air was somber, but a strong note of anger and frustration ran throughout the proceedings. Together, peacefully, an estimated 180,000 people (or 99,500, according to the police) lit candles, sang songs and chanted slogans demanding justice, while sitting on the ground side by side.

The signs that flank the community leaders on stage say “‘Fight to the end” and “Redress 6/4”. 

People raised their candles in memory of the victims.

People entering the park were greeted by pro-democracy activists seeking donations to support their efforts.

Activists held replicas of the Goddess of Democracy, a 10-meter-tall statue built by arts students to bolster morale when the Tiananmen protests seemed to falter. 

The mood was not always dark; some found joy in the show of solidarity.

A man with a small child holding a poster attracted the journalists’ attention. 

People of all ages and occupations showed up. 

A young girl sits in between her parents. 

A woman reads one of the many pamphlets handed out that night. 

A young boy lights his candle. 

Many in the crowd were too young to remember the Tiananmen massacre as anything more than a historical event. Others however, remembered all too well.

A friend recounts her memories of hearing about the event as a young student in Hong Kong: “Thousands of people protested in Po Leung Kok garden. In class, our teachers showed us video footage and newspaper clippings. We all cried. I was only 9 or 10 years old.”

A monument was erected in the center of the park. A replica of the Goddess of Democracy watched over the vigil. Lyrics were provided to those unfamiliar to the songs sung in unison by the crowds.

A couple of protesters waved the flag of colonial Hong Kong. 

Crowds streamed onto the MTR and onto buses to get home after the vigil ended at around 10pm. 

Never forget.

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Shui Tau Tsuen – 水頭村 – “Water Head Village”

In Yuen Long there is the village of Shui Tau Tsuen, where there are old 19th century buildings. This is where my companions and I set out to visit. Our taxi driver was quite apprehensive when we first told him our intended destination.

“Are you visiting someone?”

No…

“Oh. Are you going to that country club there?”

There’s a country club there? No, we’re not. We’re visiting historic monuments!

“….Okay…”

His skepticism was proved to be unfounded when we excitedly and triumphantly pointed at the aged traditional structure in front of us. He shrugged, and let us off, not before he made sure we hopeless tourists/cityfolk  knew which bus to catch back to the nearest MTR station (which was not, as he pointed out, the one where we had gotten into his taxi).

Behold, the Yi Tai Study Hall built by the Tang Clan, which settled in the lands of Kam Tin perhaps as far back as the 11th century. The details of its origins are a bit muddy–it was built around 1840–but all agree that it was built as a place of quiet, peaceful scholarly contemplation. It was officially declared a Hong Kong monument in 1992 and was restored and opened to the public in 1994.

The entrance to the study hall.

The fact that this study hall is a declared monument and almost 200 years old doesn’t stop its next-door neighbor from cozying up to it. 

An overgrown abandoned plot nearby. 

Kids were playing basketball on a court right up against the historic buildings. 

The old and new coexist comfortably here…

Like this sadly dilapidated and crumbling structure, side by side with a shiny new home.

The village is set in a luxuriously verdant plain at the foot of hills that seem more fitting of Scotland than Hong Kong. 

The odd architecture and neglected exterior of this small apartment block seemed more incongruous than the historic buildings. While the latter remain dignified and proudly preserved, these appeared to simply be left behind by the passing of time. 

The local residents are of diverse nationalities. 

An offshoot of the Kam Tin river runs alongside the village. 

Probably under-visited, this tranquil town deserves a trip especially since there are some other places of interest nearby, like the Kam Tin Walled Village (吉慶圍). That’s for the next blog post…


To get there, take the Purple Tuen Mun MTR line to Kam Sheung Rd Station, then walk for 25 mins or take a 5-minute taxi ride.

Shui Hau – 水口 – “Water Mouth”

In the middle of March, I ventured to Shui Hau, a mudflat in a bay on the south side of Lantau Island. Its name means “water opening”, or if translated more literally, “water mouth”. I was with colleagues from the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation to pilot an educational program where schoolchildren would be brought to help conduct a horseshoe crab survey. Such mudflats are perfect nursery grounds for young horseshoe crabs. Some strange meteorological or chemical phenomenon was happening as the conditions were just right for a dense fog to materialize, covering the entire bay. It was a surreal scene–one that I have never seen and that I would have never guessed to see here–and I hope my photos can help you see that Hong Kong is a place of remarkable natural beauty. No horseshoe crabs in these photos, but I’ll post some in the near future.

Learn more about the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation at their website.

Clockenflap

Clockenflap is Hong Kong’s long-overdue answer to every other world city’s music festivals. With the venue set against the incomparable sweeping view of Victoria Harbour, the festival is still in its infancy but it’s well on its way to becoming a major event on the international music circuit. Spirits were high and people were dressed in their Sunday hipster best–all of this under crisp blue skies and on one of Hong Kong’s rare urban patches of grass.

Clockenflap took place from Nov 30 to Dec 1 in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District. 

Dodowa Festival II

The Dodowa Festival (first post here) was a wild whirlwind of colors, music and dance. But as an outsider I found the spectators just as captivating. Many stood and reacted to the performances in unison, smiling and swaying together. Children darted through and around the adults’ legs, feeding off of the energy in the air and the high-sugar snacks bought for them by parents in good moods.

I mean, just look at them. Adorable.

A delicious balloon.

Smiles all around.

Sandwiched between friends. 

A baby more interested in his succulent fingers than the partying around him as he hangs off his mother’s back. 

A friend helps this little girl get her earring back on.

Earring back on; ready to pose.

The elders watched everything from a safe distance.

The local candy shop was definitely having a good sales day.

A glamorous and poised woman.

Wearing the national colors of Ghana. Three beautiful girls wearing the entire rainbow.

Dodowa Festival

To this day, I’m not entirely sure what exactly I had the privilege of attending. The Dodowa Festival took place in the eponymous rural town where I was living during my semester abroad in the Fall of 2011.  My two classmates and I showed up to one of the local schools’ soccer fields to find it filled with excitable children and men and women dressed extravagantly in their most beautiful traditional wear, complete with scepters and sometimes even crowns. There were dancers and drummers and impromptu conga lines that we three girls were inevitably pulled into, our initial hesitation quickly forgotten as we were swept up in the contagious festivities.

These imposing matriarchs watched over the events with a dignified and somber air, but eventually joined in the dancing themselves. 

Gorgeous African fabrics always brighten up any situation. 

Vendors were selling all sorts of sweet treats, delighting children and soothing parched throats on this hot sunny day. 

People were wearing matching costumes, while children donned their heads with paper hats adorned with printouts of their favorite Ghanaian football player. The atmosphere was quivering with irresistible ebullient energy. I didn’t know what we were celebrating, but I sure as hell was going to celebrate with them.

Everyone was wearing outfits cut out of the same cloth. I think it is the official pattern of Dodowa or something. 

A happy spectator.

Sometimes you just have to take that important business call even if it’s the day of the Dodowa Festival, you’re wearing a special outfit and you’re 12 years old. 

It started raining, but it did nothing to dampen spirits. If anything, the refreshing drops were welcomed. 

A drummer wearing makeup to look like an old man. I have no idea why.

He’s sexy and he knows it. 

At one point a handsome man who I could only assume was the King of Dodowa was hoisted up in a litter carried on the shoulders of several men. From underneath the large, ornamented and unnecessary sun umbrella carried by yet more followers, he waved at the adoring crowd as he jostled around in his sedan chair, his heavy bling jingling with every movement.

Another Dodowa dignitary.

A man for whom his presence and golden staff were more than enough decoration.

Time to dance!

Sometimes you just have to put the camera down. (Photo credit: Isabelle J.)

P.S.: A year and a half later, I’ve finally decided to find out what this festival was all about. According to this website, the Dodowa “ngmayem” festival is an annual event held by the Shai tribe in remembrance of a great famine that lasted seven years until it was put to an end by a bountiful harvest in the 8th year. “Ngmayem” means “to hoot at hunger”. 

The Fishermen of Cape Coast

Cape Coast Castle was built by a Swedish trading company in the 17th century on the southern shores of Ghana. First a gold and timber trade settlement, then a slave depot for the Atlantic slave trade, it now stands as an incongruous sight on the shores of Cape Coast, a fishing town. It serves as a reminder of a deep scar on the heart of the nation, visited daily by hoards of tourists and students, as well as a convenient launching point for many fishing pirogues.

A schoolgirl chases her classmates out of one of the many dark tunnels leading to the castle’s underground storerooms. 

Schoolboys peering over the walls, perhaps to watch the fishermen. 

People hanging over the castle walls to talk to fellow fishermen in their pirogues. 

Fishermen socializing while they sit and repair their nets at the foot of the castle. 

Fishermen gathering to discuss the day’s work.

A fisherman sneaking a nap against the walls of the castle. 

The white castle stands in sharp contrast against the homes built next to it.

While her parents are busy working, this young girl takes care of an even younger girl.

Fishermen hauling in their catch on Bojo Beach, which is on the way to Cape Coast.

(Photos taken in November and December, 2011 while I was studying abroad in Ghana).

Portraits of Young Bonobos

In my last post, I wanted you to introduce you to the magical being that is the bonobo and to the wonderful sanctuary that has taken on the mission of caring for orphaned bonobos. In this post I want to exhibit the stunning similarity between these creatures and us humans.


These juvenile bonobos are kept separate from the babies and from the adults who have integrated into regular bonobo societies. Once they’re mature enough they too will be released into the semi-wild enclosures. 

Many animal lovers do not doubt that animals have a soul, a consciousness far more complex than science is able to prove. I love animals, but my appreciation for apes is very different. Anyone who sees or interacts with them for the first time cannot help but feel awestruck at their uncanny humanness: the curl of their fingers as they grip an object, the sounds of glee they make when they play, or the expressions on their faces when they ponder.

I swear they like to mess with people. These wires are mildly electric. 

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It does not surprise me that one group is pushing for captive chimpanzees to be recognized as individuals deserving of basic rights (NYT). Some people look towards the stars and wonder if there are other sentient beings in this universe. I look at the great apes and think that these alien seekers are looking in the wrong place: there are already several separate humanoid races on this planet!

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I’ve always been a nature lover, but I remember very clearly the first time I felt the value of conservation resonate deeply within me when I was trekking with mountain gorillas in Rwanda. I realized that with apes, there was more than the common arguments for species’ conservation such as the ecological impact, the responsibility of humans or the intrinsic value of nature: to let them go extinct would be a tragic genocide.

LLC_1574 - Version 2Some bonobos, having been rescued from living as pets in possibly abusive homes, exhibit strange behavior. I’m not sure whether this behavior is normal, but the bonobo here liked pouring dirt over himself. 

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A happy bonobo baby with its mother. 


An old soul.

Bonobos: The Coolest Animal You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of

I was in the DRC filming a documentary about the ivory trade in late July this year. Getting to Republic of Congo was hard enough, but crossing the border to the Democratic Republic of Congo was on a whole other level (blog post coming soon…). I had no idea when or if I would ever be back in the DRC, so I decided to get away for the weekend and spend a few nights at Lola Ya Bonobo, the world’s only sanctuary for orphaned bonobos. Lola Ya Bonobo, meaning “Paradise for Bonobos” in the local language, takes in bonobos whose mothers have been killed for their meat or for the pet trade, as well as “pet” bonobos confiscated by the government.

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The bonobos are placed in large tracts of land enclosed within fences so they are able to live freely and in a natural environment. Here, they learn to live within a bonobo society as well as how to survive in a forest without human help. The ultimate goal is to reintroduce these bonobos in to the wild, although it is not possible for all of the animals.

LLC_1649 - Version 2Bonobos can sometimes come off as a little silly. 

Bonobos are a great ape, along with chimpanzees and gorillas, and are found only in the DRC. When they were first discovered, they were thought to be “pygmy” chimpanzees but they were soon designated to being their own species . Unlike their close cousin the chimpanzee, which have pink faces, bonobos have black faces. They are also slightly smaller. Perhaps the biggest differences however is that unlike the war-mongering chimps, bonobos are known as the hippies of the ape world. Chimps are known to kill, cannibalize and engage in warfare to gain access to territories. Bonobos on the other hand, have a matriarchal society in which sex is extremely important. Sex–including acts between members of the same sex, and between the old and the young–is used to reinforce social bonds, to resolve conflict or simply to say “hi”.

Female-female sexFemale-male genital rubbing LLC_1111 - Version 2Young bonobo simulating sexual behavior with an adult 

Even after having spent several months following western lowland gorillas around (read more about my time with gorillas here), I was still struck by how incredibly human-like the bonobos were; they were playful, lazy and social and had real relationships with one another. Us humans share about 98.7% of our DNA with both bonobos and chimpanzees.

LLC_1126 - Version 2An infant bonobo playing with an adult. LLC_1119 - Version 2

Also staying at the Lola Ya Bonobo guesthouse was a film crew working on Bounce, a documentary about the origin of ball sports. Bonobos’ playful nature made them the perfect candidates to test the idea whether playing with balls was an instinctive behavior coded in our DNA.

LLC_1639 - Version 2The Bounce film crew threw a ball over the fence to see how the bonobos would react to it.

The other bonobos watched as a more intrepid member of their group ventured into the water to retrieve the ball. 

Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, bonobos are an endangered species. No one knows exactly how many there are out there, but it is certain that their numbers have been declining over the last 30 years and will continue to do so for at least the next 45 years (WWF). They are threatened by the bushmeat trade (as hard as it is to believe that people want to eat these beautiful creatures) and deforestation, both of which are in turn spurred by poverty and political instability.

More blog posts coming soon about Lola Ya Bonobo! There will be close-ups of bonobo babies…

Visit Lola Ya Bonobo’s website here. Raising bonobos ain’t cheap–they would gladly welcome your donation!

That time a tree fell on my house

I got evacuated from the C.A.R. back in late March due to the political situation in the country, which to this day has not improved much. I took a long hiatus from posting on this blog as it felt like re-reading a book before I had even finished reading it. But I still have many stories to tell, so I will continue to post about my unexpectedly shortened experience in the jungles of the C.A.R. as well as other adventures I may embark on.

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Let me tell you about the time my Biggest Jungle Fear came true: when a tree fell on top of my house hut in mid-March. An astute observer pointed out that my fear did not in fact become realized as I am still alive with all my limbs un-squashed.

What?!—you might exclaim—you live in the middle of the jungle in the Central African Republic and your biggest fear is a tree falling over?! Yes. It is. I can always trust my trackers to avoid snakes (though admittedly I did almost step onto one on three or four different occasions), to prevent gorillas from getting pissed and to tell me when to run away from angry, charging elephants when necessary. But trees? Nope. You sleep in a measly wooden hut surrounded by massive trees that can fall in any direction at any given moment. 

I awoke in the middle of the night to fierce winds howling and the entire forest’s leaves rattling. It sounded like an intense rainstorm but in fact it hadn’t started yet: in the jungle, the rustling of the leaves can be indistinguishable from the pitter-patter of raindrops. I decided to quickly answer my call of nature outside before Mother Nature unleashed all of her glory, but she decided to let the rain start before I was done anyway. Running back inside before I got completely soaked, I started to get a little big frightened. This was the strongest storm I had experienced yet and bits of twigs had started falling around us almost as fast as the rain was.

Suddenly, there was a loud whacking sound: a sizable branch fell on our house. With chaos brewing outside, it was difficult to tell where exactly it landed. I could see that the vet staying in the room next to mine was awake as her headlamp light shone through our connecting wall’s wooden slats. I called out to her: “Are you okay?” Before she could even respond, we heard the much louder ear-splitting crack of a tree unable to bear the added stress, followed by a few moments of terrified waiting. Then, the crash and tumble of an entire tree falling. 

The vet and I sprung into action, grabbing our headlamps and stuffing our sleeping bags into dry bags so that we could run to the nearest structurally intact hut. In the flicker of the lightning I saw the massive tree in front of our house that was most definitely not there before. I allowed myself a second’s pause and a whispered  Holy ****!” before we ran into the rain.

After jumping over several brand-new streams to reach the living room hut, we had no choice but to get ourselves as cozy as we could while we waited out the storm. We made ourselves some hot cocoa and watched in disbelief as a surreal scene unfolded in front of us: our camp caretaker was up washing dishes and a tracker was making coffee in a pot over the kitchen fire. Here we were at 4 am, having barely survived a falling tree, in the middle of a massive storm—and people were going on with their regular household chores! We found out later that the trackers had sprinted across the camp to see if we were ok after they heard the crash, but saw that we were up and about. 

We got to see the damage after the rain stopped and the sun rose.

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It looks like an entire tree, but we think it’s a large branch from the top of the tree of which the trunk you can see on the left of the house. As you can see, we’re very lucky it didn’t land on the house…

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My room—where I stayed the entire duration of my stay—was the one on the far right in the above photo. The vet was staying in the room behind my hanging yoga mat. The area in front of the house is usually a swept clearing. 

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The room on the far left of the house sustained the most damage. It’s a little hard to tell, but you can see how the roof was a little caved in and how the awning snapped.

Back to work for the vet and I! I set out with my two trackers on the main road that leads north of the camp. 

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We found the road to be covered in broken branches and fallen trees. 

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We also found creatures that are normally buried deep within the tree trunks, such as these termite queens (that is my guess, at least). They were the length of a palm. If you look closely, you’ll see that they had little faces complete with eyes and hard, black fangs! 

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The trackers couldn’t resist nibbling on some of the sweat bee honeycombs. The hives are found in hollow trees and were conveniently exposed when its tree fell onto the road.

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The next day, people were sent to assess the damage and to remove the loose pieces. 

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No one could resist seeing a large chainsaw be operated. The tree trunk was cut up into sections for easier removal. The fourth person from the left is an Eco Guard, the armed guards who protect the country’s national parks.

In conclusion, I’m really glad I didn’t get killed in my sleep by a falling tree.