Deranged, in a Lamma Sort of Way

Photo by Andrew James

Pak Kok, a tiny village of two-storey villas and narrow paths nestled in a small, verdant corner of Hong Kong’s Lamma Island, is home to exactly one convenience store. It sells what you need: vegetables, toilet paper and beer. Outside the store, at a simple table under a canopy, two prematurely weathered Brits in their 30s sit drinking Tsingtao. Fat drops of condensation run down the tall bottles, forming a spreading puddle that is obviously multiple-bottles old.

Richard and Richard — though the one with a chipped tooth and a shaved head prefers to be called Tin — are catching up with each other for the first time in 10 years. Tin has been AWOL in Lapland, Finland, Iceland and numerous other frigid-sounding lands. The other Richard has been on Lamma the whole time. The two are in good spirits, despite what could be a fraught friendship. Years ago, the details are a little fuzzy, one took over the other’s restaurant job after he was fired. They confess to being “derangedly drunk” as my friend and I chug Ribena and enjoy the entertainment that only two happily intoxicated Brits can bring. It’s just after midday.

The two beer drinkers are only slightly exaggerated emblems of what the lazy life on Lamma can do to a person. God knows how they earn their crusts — the closest Tin gets to telling us is that he plans to do something about fixing boats and writing defamatory articles. The other Richard answers our questions only by asking what we do. He lives in isolated Pak Kok, accessible by ferry only to Hong Kong Island’s less-frequented south side. The cheap rent might have something to do with it.

More expats are to be found at Lamma’s main village, Yung Shue Wan, a 30-minute walk north. There, cheerful drunkenness is equally present, chiefly among the expats congregated around Spicy Island, an Indian restaurant and the handful of bars and cafés during lazy evenings at the end of the work week — which for most stretches from approximately Wednesday through Tuesday. The local Chinese are more restrained when it comes to drinking, but it isn’t hard find a sociable bunch in shorts and singlets enjoying a few pints at day’s end.

Whenever Lamma (population: 6,000) comes up in conversation in Hong Kong, people speak of its chilled-out vibe, great food, hiking and biking. That’s all credit well deserved. To step off the Yung Shue Wan ferry from Central is to be forcibly relaxed. The gentle breezes at the pier carefully brush off the stresses of the city, the waterfront seafood restaurants offer the best and freshest in the SAR and the many accessible trails take walkers and cyclists to quaint villages, pretty beaches, and summits that afford views of vast stretches of ocean and skyscrapers on Hong Kong Island. Of course, it is still Hong Kong, and if you look closely enough you can see endless streams of trash stalking to shore like invading battleships. Because of this, swimming at Lamma’s beaches can be an exercise in waste management.

Over the hill from Yung Shue Wan, in the fisherman’s village of Lo Tik Wan, a detritus of chip packets, dead fish and plastic bags lie thick on the beach — but that doesn’t stop a man dressed in a shirt, long pants, straw hat, glasses, and gumboots wading out to chest-deep waters to lay out a net. After securing the net with rocks on the beach, the fisherman picks up an eight-foot-long piece of white piping and thwacks the shallow waters, sending small fish jumping towards his trap and several steps closer to a wok. After a series of thwacks, the man gathers his net and picks out bits of trash before carrying the net ashore, where he dodges washed-up polystyrene chill-boxes on the short trek back to his home.

“What have you got?” I ask, as he passes by.

“Fish!” he says.

They look too small to make a decent meal.

“For eating?”

“Yes, they are okay to eat. Ha ha!” he says, before adding, “Just for fun!”

I’ve encountered that friendly attitude a lot in my one month on Lamma. My first night on the island coincided with the first birthday for “Kath’s Bar” — no one seemed to know its actual name, but if they craned their necks a little, they’d see a sign above the door that reads “Banyan Café.” A spread of free finger food adorned the tables while the chirpy hosts served pints at half the price you would pay in the city. Three guys with guitars played Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and other sing-along classics. I knew one of the guitarists from Transnoodle, a popular local band named after a takeaway shop on Yung Shue Wan’s main street. I requested he play one of his band’s better-known numbers: “Spicy Island.”

“Since you’ve been gone,” he sang, with just a hint of slurring, “I’ve been missing all the curries that we used to have — at the Spicy Island.”

I listened, happily, and proceeded to get derangedly drunk.