Lamma as a village -
some thoughts

(by Raman Athinathan, 4/4/2004)
 

There are two or three ways I think in which the role of the village can be discussed. A village can be of relevance from the social angle, or it may have an economic role, or it can have both social and economic aspects.

I have sometimes wondered how Lamma looks like to me. If I might strike a personal note, I had never lived in a village anywhere until I came to Hong Kong some ten years ago and began to live on Lamma. I thought that I could speculate on life on Lamma compared with what little I have seen in the villages of South India or Bangladesh, for example, that I have visited. My knowledge of the villages was until then confined to what I had read, although I had known some English villages. For example, as one starting research in the social sciences, a book to which I was introduced was that of Professor Gilbert Slater on some South Indian villages, published in 1921 (Professor Slater was the first professor of Indian economics at the university of Madras where I was lecturing on urban economics to town planners in the late sixties and seventies). He was firmly convinced that life in India started in the villages and that unless conditions in the villages were studied and attempts made to improve them, the real progress of the country would not be possible. So he arranged for surveys to be conducted and the survey results to be published under the title mentioned above.

When I came to live on Lamma, I could see how different Lamma was to the villages I had seen before. Lamma's role has been to be a village connected to Hong Kong Island and the New Territories as a good place of residence for those working in the latter, as a place where solitude and quietness would be possible, where one can walk and jog and where one can enjoy the sea and boating, for example. Lamma has had a role as some sort of a good living place for people who are looking for lower rents and more space. As time has gone on, the economy of Lamma has been based on visitors and tourism. The overseas visitors to Hong Kong have come to Lamma for their weekend or other holiday. The residents, especially the overseas residents, in those days and the Chinese and European residents of these days came to Lamma to have some quiet. This has given business to the restaurants, especially the seafood places.

In contrast, the Indian villages do not seem to have the potential for attracting visitors either for tourism or for rest, although there can be exceptions. Mahabalipuram, an international tourist village some thirty eight miles to the South of Madras, used to be a very much sought-after tourist spot. I had been there a few times in the sixties and seventies. I have wondered whether it is from what I hear a real, functioning village these days. Like Lamma, the Indian villages have been very much thought of as economic units.

Mahathma Gandhi, the father of the Indian nation, had a lot to say about the role of the villages, particularly as economic units and how best to improve conditions. His emphasis on self-sufficiency of the villages has come to be widely accepted for a long time.

Since the fifties, the central government, the provincial governments and the planning commission in India have arranged for surveys to be conducted in the villages. With a view to improving the economic conditions there, rural planning has been very much stressed for the last nearly five decades.

Village training has been a part of the training for the members of the civil service since the days of the Raj. The members of the prestigious Indian Civil service were advised to spend sometime every month in the villages and see how conditions there could be improved. However, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru often used to say in the fifties and sixties that the heart of the politician was not in the village.

The village communities do not appear to have been so well organized in India until even perhaps ten days ago. In many cases the villages have been units producing milk and milk products to the nearby towns and cities. They have been centres for handicrafts, woven silk, cane products, such as furniture and baskets, brasswares, etc. for ages. Fish hasnít been available in Indian villages, nor does one find seafood restaurants. The villages donít seem to be places for tourists either.

There are no power station in the Indian villages and environmental questions donít seem to be ever a topic of discussion.

Many villages are also losing people, I understand, on account of the very fast urbanisation trends. Here Oliver Goldsmithís ďThe Deserted VillageĒ comes to mind. On the other hand, the nature of Lamma has been different from what has been explained above as some sort of a village. Itís a village where the fishermen have been able to form a community and form a fishermenís association under the chairmanship and guidance of Mr Jonathan Gray. There isnít much agriculture in the village anymore, except for some vegetable growing and fruit gardening. It has been a place to which the expatriates have been attracted to, particularly for residence. I understand that until the early nineties it was Cheung Chau which was the most favoured place. Thus, real estate activity is very important here.

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In recent years, the young, well-educated, local people and the local people returning from overseas seem to like Lamma enough to stay here. Apart from them, Lamma appears to be a favourite place for local visitors and expatriates living elsewhere during weekends and public holidays.

In the villages of the Indian subcontinent for example, there are only the local people. Lamma island has had a mixture of both the expatriates and the locals. The former outnumbered the locals before to the enrichment of the community life on Lamma. In the development of the economy the expatriates have played an important role. The contacts between the overseas residents and the local people have not been too strong in the last three of four years years.

In India, it's the green fields, rice, the vegetables and fruits grown, the milk that is produced that have mainly contributed to the growth of the villages. On Lamma, it's tourism, recreation, fishing and the availability of accommodation, the shop facilities, etc. for those who wish to enjoy rural surroundings while working on the main island, that have determined its growth and economic position and trends.

The broad features of an Indian village are worth looking into.

In the Chinese village there are the people belonging to the different clans such as Chan, for example. In the Indian village, the clan is called the caste. Persons of high caste often used to live in the main areas of the village. Those of lower caste used to live in secluded or remote areas of the village. This has changed over the last three decades. Various communities, including lower castes, can live in the same area nowadays. However, in many places they still do not seem to do so.

Social relationships between the members of the different castes have improved in recent years, but, whether in the villages or in the towns, the upper castes still socialise mostly among themselves. If there is a marriage in the house of a high caste Hindu, the chances are that most of the guests invited would be from the high castes. However, in the event of a death, all communities make it a point to visit the house and pay their last respects to the departed and for this, no invitation is necessary.

In many villages there is a small temple and adjacent to it there is a small tank. In the evenings, the upper classes visit the tank to wash their feet and face and then go to the temple. After paying their respects to the deity, they usually meet their neighbours or close friends and have a chat with them in the temple itself, sitting in one corner. The talk would cover for example things and matters such as the price of a house in the village whether it is going for sale  whether the father of a girl in the village is looking for a good bridegroom and how much he would spend on the wedding. Some residents in the village even sit in the evenings at the entrance to their house where the pial offers sitting space and talk to their friends on these matters.

In the Indian village, there are so many temple functions in a year, unlike in a Chinese village, and the residents make it a point to take part in all the functions.

Most of the villagers are vegetarians and they buy their vegetables and fruits - usually grown in the village itself - in a small shop in the village. They cook the food in their houses. There are perhaps one or two tea stalls in the village where they can get snacks like vegetable puffs. In a small vegetarian restaurant, if there is one, it should be possible to get dosa (the rice pancake) and other simple snacks.

The residents do not usually have their food at the village restaurant. At the most, they have their cup of tea and some snacks there, but only occasionally. So one does not see villagers sitting together in large numbers in front of the restaurant and having breakfast or a meal as one sees on Lamma with the large number of residents having their dim sum outside restaurants in the village. Outside eating does not seem to be very popular in Indian villages, except when the villagers go to the cities on business.

The small village shop (usually there is one, at the most there are two) sells items such as betel nuts, areca nuts, beedis or cigarettes, razor blades, flowers, just to mention a few. There is also the grocery shop selling  provisions. However, there are no supermarkets. Probably there is no need for them.

In most villages there is a village barber. They provide the villagers with hair-trimming, often at the homes of their customers. The village dhobi (dhobi is the Indian English word for the wash man) washes clothes. He collects the clothes, takes them to a nearby place and returns them washed the next day. But many villagers wash their clothes in their own houses. There are no dry-cleaning shops in the Indian village, unlike on Lamma.

In short, when I try to think of Lamma and the typical Indian village, I am inclined to feel that they are very, very different.