In The Shadow Of The Big Buddha

With my little girl at Po Lin

Before they built an airport on the reclaimed land beside Lantau and connected the island to the mainland by way of a series of impressive suspension bridges and viaducts, the way to get to Lantau from Hong Kong Island was by ferry.

In late 1993, my wife and very young daughter visited me in Hong Kong for the weekend. We were all based in Singapore at the time but I was spending a fortnight in Hong Kong setting up a new IT system. The Tian Tan Buddha was recently completed and we took the ferry from Central to Lantau and then the bus from the harbour across the island to Po Lin Monastery.

The bronze statue was still shiny then and it glinted in the sunlight in the distance as the bus breasted the Ngong Pin plateau towards the west of Lantau. We didn’t really know what to expect when we reached our goal: the idea had really been planned no further than to see the large sitting Buddha.

We saw it. But with Isla only a little short of her second birthday, the idea of climbing the 268 steps to the outcrop on which the Big Buddha sat was not going to be an option.

So we entered the monastery at the foot of the steps. It was crowded with visitors come to see the statue, with pilgrims with a more spiritual aim and some who were combining spirituality and sight-seeing.

I was carrying a video camera. One of those fairly early VHS models which took a full size VHS tape. Heavy and it made me look like a clumsy tourist. I wouldn’t have looked the spiritual type.

The video we shot that day, though, is some of the best we have from our time in Asia. Isla made friends with some local children and spent much of the time we spent in the monastery running about playing a game of tag. The rules and the accompanying screaming and giggling appear universal.

The monastery even fed us. There was a large refectory and everyone was welcome to sit and enjoy some simple vegetarian food. We were only a few miles from the bustle and throbbing industry of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, yet this was a haven of peace. This was the Asia I had always imagined when told I would be living and working there. I was too old for such naivety, really.

My wife and I spent over five years in Asia but those few hours with Isla at Po Lin looking up at the Tian Tan Buddha was probably the only time we felt simultaneously far from home and glad to be there.