Billy Potts was standing beneath a waterfall when the fire dragon plunged into the sea. “Even as the dragon sank beneath the surf its flashing eyes pierced the dark water and one by one, the waves extinguished every ember,” says the Hong Kong-born writer and designer. It was this year’s Mid-Autumn Festival and the dragon, made of straw studded with joss sticks, had just been carried along a stream that travels downhill from Pok Fu Lam Village to a cliff on the southeast corner of Hong Kong Island. “[It was] an extremely rare and unusual ritual – something that was really being done according to tradition, not for outsiders,” says Potts.
It was an appropriate setting for such a vigorous display of faith. Waterfall Bay is one of Hong Kong’s most beguilingly beautiful places – and not just for the reasons you would expect. It’s a spot where rocks, woods and sea form the backdrop to some peculiar expressions of Hong Kong culture.
The oldest surviving record of Waterfall Bay is a note on a British navigational map produced in 1740. Nearly eight decades later, a British naturalist named Clarke Abel visited the waterfall as part of Lord Amherst’s failed mission to improve diplomatic relations between Britain and China. In his 1817 book Narrative of a Journey in the Interior of China, Abel described “a beautiful cascade which rolled over a fine blue rock into the sea.” He hopped aboard a watering boat and attempted to hike up to what is now known as Victoria Peak, but he quit at one thousand feet due what he described as “excessive heat.”
The waterfall was known locally as Ngou4 Jeong4 Fei1 Buk6 (鼇洋飛瀑), which means “Happy Giant Turtle Waterfall.” (Ngou4 is a giant mythological sea turtle.) The oldest Chinese record of the waterfall seems to be from writer Wang Chongxi, who edited a guide to Xin’an County — which included present-day Hong Kong and Shenzhen — in 1819. The book listed the waterfall as one of the “Eight Kings of Xin’an,” alongside the Tsing Shan Monastery on Castle Peak, the Chiwan Tianhou Temple in Shenzhen and a variety of scenic islands, lakes and mountains.
Though written records of Waterfall Bay are rare, it was well known to local pirates and European sailors, who took advantage of the cascade to restock their supply of fresh water. It must have been a truly spectacular thing to behold: a rushing torrent of water spilling into the ever-churning sea. But its reign as one of the region’s natural wonders came to an end in 1863, when the waterfall’s source was dammed to create the Pok Fu Lam Reservoir. The torrent was reduced to a trickle; water that once sated the thirst of mariners now supplied the burgeoning city that had emerged on the north shore of Hong Kong Island.
Waterfall Bay went through another upheaval a century later. When it opened in 1967, Wah Fu Estate was one of Hong Kong’s most ambitious public housing projects, a city-within-a-city perched on the edge of a cliff above the bay. Buffeted by mountains and the sea, Wah Fu’s location is renowned for its excellent feng shui, and rumours abound of the good fortune of its residents.
Inevitably, though, there were those who met a less auspicious fate. Local folklore tells of pirates who massacred villagers living near Waterfall Bay sometime during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912); their bodies were burned and ashes dumped into the water as it flowed over the cliff. Much later, a boy from Wah Fu drowned beneath the waterfall. Some believe the souls of these victims became water ghosts (seoi2 gwai2 水鬼) – and they still lurk beneath the surface of the emerald-coloured pool at the base of the waterfall.
The ridge above Waterfall Bay is now a park populated by benches, gazebos and barbecue pits. But the Leisure and Cultural Services Department has evidently deemed the waterfall too risky for the public to enjoy – maybe it’s the ghosts. A locked gate now blocks access to the natural feature. But Hongkongers know their way around a fence, and on a sunny Saturday, a couple dozen people are enjoying the rocky beach around the waterfall. Three couples sit on an outcropping nearby, watching the waves as they broke against an offshore bar. Children look for fish in the small inlet that leads to the waterfall. Across the water, a concrete World War II pillbox sits abandoned and covered in graffiti.
As in many scenic spots around Hong Kong, a few statues of Chinese gods have been affixed to the rocks, but here they are accompanied by something unusual: a Hindu shrine. Every day, members of Wah Fu’s Indian community climb down the stairs to leave offerings of fruit and flowers to the various assembled deities.
It’s just a hint of the astonishing collection of religious figurines that exists on the opposite end of Waterfall Bay Park. Thousands of ceramic statues of Kwun Yum, Kwan Tai and other Chinese gods are joined by Thai Buddhas, the Virgin Mary and lucky cats. The figurines sprawl along the shoreline, cemented to slopes and rocky outcroppings, interrupted only by a wooden pavilion that serves as a kind of clubhouse for regular visitors. Narrow cement paths weave uphill towards Wah Fu Estate, lined by little garden plots. None of this is official. It’s a do-it-yourself space, a collection of individual contributions that add up to a wondrous whole.
“Who is responsible for this space? Everyone!” exclaims a sixty-something man who introduces himself as Peter. Barrel-chested, with a faded tattoo on his right arm, Peter is standing next to the water in a speedo, looking out at a group of swimmers bobbing in the turquoise waves. A man is busy scraping away barnacles that are growing on the concrete steps that lead down to the water. A few more speedo-clad men are lounging nearby, soaking up the warm October sun.
Peter gestures to a wood hut built by the swimmers. Inside, towels hang from hooks and a chihuahua looks out impassively from a bench. “People have been coming here to swim for more than 50 years – everyday from 6am to 6pm,” he says. Women tend to come early in the morning, while the afternoon is dominated by men. They come whatever the season. “In the winter, we may swim for only 15 minutes, but in the summer we are in the water for an hour or more.”
Nearby, in the wood pavilion, a group of men are playing cards. Unlike the swimmers, they aren’t a chatty bunch, but they do mention that an old timer named Uncle Wong maintains the statues along the shore. A search for Wong proves fruitless, but reporters from local newspaper Apple Daily had better luck: they caught up with the octogenarian in 2014. Wong told them that when he moved to Wah Fu in 1997, there were only a handful of religious figurines. He reckoned they had been left there by families that had left Wah Fu, or by people cleaning out the homes of recently deceased relatives. Soon, though, the number of statues exploded, for reasons Wong didn’t entirely understand. Every time he walked down to Waterfall Bay, there were new figurines. He began to dedicate two hours every day to cleaning them, cementing them into the ground and lighting incense to honour the gods.
“I’ve been doing this for 17 years, 365 days a year,” he said. “If I travel somewhere, it’s only ever as a day trip, and I’ll come early in the morning to light the incense before I leave.” Other neighbours have joined Wong in caring for the statues, and some have landscaped the site with pieces of stone and concrete. Every morning, after Wong completes his routines, he looks around and sighs. “It’s such a beautiful view,” he said. “There’s no other place like this – only Wah Fu.”