We walked down Boundary Street today after alighting from the train at Price Edward Station. It was a clear day and the high hills and steep slopes of the New Territories, which in theory stretch out from the other side of the road and extend to the China border, were clear and sharp. My eye was distracted by the aerials and domes which anoint each peak, taking me back to more belligerent times. We walked and walked and there was nothing as we approached the stadium on our right to suggest the bird market was imminent. Years of poking around these sorts of places have taught me to hang in there – your surprise is always just around the corner. As indeed it was.
We turned off what was a very ordinary street into a quite remarkable piece of “it only happens in China”. There were few old men walking their birds, as you might see in the parks of mainland China – we were far too late for the full performance such as you find at first light. But we stepped through a gated archway into another world which hinted with a light breath of old China and which existed entirely unto itself. A few old men sat to one side, hands clasped over crossed knees, some turned to watch us walk in but most gazing up at their little song birds sitting in small bamboo cages hanging in branches or off a wall. To our left a stack of small cages, maybe 20cm by 20cm each, a prison cell for one bird apiece. To entertain us some African Grey parrots (seems Charlie, Churchill’s Parrot has fled to Hong Kong, but he looked unimpressed) and other green parrots and the obligatory macaw, chained to their stands entertained and encouraged us to be wary of bone cracking beaks.
These are not the appeal of the bird markets however. Rather theses big birds cock their condescending heads at a small piece of Hong Kong that is a strange microcosm of Chinese culture. The majority of birds here are bred, bought and sold for their song. Some add a little visual colour but most are bland little beasts, their bright appeal lost if they were not singing. And few wanted to sing by midday when we arrived. The sullen lot. A few here and there could be coaxed into a song but if they communicated anything it was the nattering chatter of “bored with the humdrum” beasts, two legged and otherwise, found anywhere on the globe.
Vendors sit and smoke and watch their birds. Others build cages for the bird sellers. Some breed and package grasshoppers, coaxing them into plastic bags or fly mesh containers with grass and sugar cane, to then be sold to the bird owners. Another stall owner makes nothing but clever cage decorations that could be described as cute. A mortuary service exists – a plastic wheelie bin is labelled for “dead birds only”. Bird seed is measured out, sold in prepackaged boxes, broken out of sacks and repackaged in other “prepackaged boxes”. A very Chinese commercial thing if you know what I mean.
But the stacks of small cages, yellow, orange and brown, all carefully placed on top of each other, many with birds too large for them, are what catches my eye. Like their owners these birds are forced to live in close proximity to each other. Unlike their owners (I hope) they have to put up with a shower of faeces that rain down from above. Water and food is quickly fowled, not uncommon in this town. A man extracts his bird, complete with cage, from the third tier down and walks it away for ten minutes. I lost sight of him but he eventually returned and carefully reinserted this mobile apartment back into the tower block. Been to the vet? Out to stud? For a constitutional walk? Singing lesson? Or just a brief reprieve from the shower from above? I had no idea.
It is a captivating place in its own strange way. The birds are their own attraction but more so the men (and few women) who have built a strange and intriguing little community around this obsession. I pushed to the back of my mind any thoughts of avian bird flu as we left and headed to the flower markets. There are times when you just hope the health authorities are on top of things. Even in a place like Hong Kong.