We moved to Shatin in 1985 and the first village we lived in, Tsok Pok Hang, was at the foot of Shatin Pass.
Shatin Pass is an old traders route. The trading junks from Swatow and places further up the coast of Mainland China would offload their goods in what was then known as Tide Cove, and they would be transported by a train of coolies (labourers) over the pass into Kowloon.
After settling into the village it wasn’t long before I started hiking in the surrounding hills. In those days I was quite fearless and frequently hiked solo. It was on one of these hikes that I discovered something quite bizarre. As I was negotiating a narrow contour path overlooking To Shek, I came across a box-like object that had been buried, and unearthed, along the side of the path. Curious, I examined it and realised that it had the distinctive shape of a Chinese coffin. I felt uneasy at my creepy discovery and following the incident, I never felt the same about hiking solo.
Up until the late 70s, when the construction of Chinese graves was prohibited, the traditional method of burial in the New Territories was to bury the deceased for a period of time, between six to eight years, until all that was left were bones. These bones would then be disinterred, cleaned and placed in a large urn, or bone pot. The pots would then be placed in a traditional Chinese horse-shoe shaped grave. When the government banned the construction of these graves, the bone pots were collected and placed in a small concrete structure called an ossuary.
My short story, The Bone Pot, came about one Sunday when I did my regular hike up to Shatin Pass. It had rained torrentially the night before, but the day dawned clear and I made my way up the well-maintained foot path that meandered along a pleasant stream.
As I passed by some trees I noticed something nestled between them. It was a pot. Intrigued I reached between the branches to pull it out, and just as I was about to touch it I realised what it was – a bone pot! It had obviously been washed down the hillside from an ossuary in last night’s rain.
With my heart thumping I backed away, thanking my lucky stars that I hadn’t pulled it out onto the path, lest I incur the wrath of the inhabitant.
It was a few years later when I started writing short stories that I recalled the incident. What would happen if a Westerner, with no knowledge of Hong Kong and its traditions, had found the pot?
And so, I present to you:
THE BONE POT
Arthur Sampson had always enjoyed walking in his native Northumbrian hills. Whenever his work in the London accountancy firm of Sampson, Sampson, Wilson and Sampson had allowed it he would take the weekend off and travel northward. Sometimes if the weather was nice he would even book a room at one of the Inns along the way and spend the night there, returning to the village where he had left his car to return to London the following day. He never actually camped out. That was for sportsmen and ruffians. Arthur like his hill walks but he also enjoyed his creature comforts. No hill walk was complete without a cooked meal and a bottle of claret at the end of it.
Now, trudging up a hill in the Shatin valley of Hong Kong in late April, he wondered what he had ever seen in the pastime. It had rained the night before and he had thought that, providing it remained clear, that it would probably be a nice day for a walk.
Arthur had been In Hong Kong for Just over three months. His company had been considering the idea of opening an office here for quite a while, and as junior partner he had been chosen, much against his will, to get it off the ground. He had worked nonstop through the cooler months to set the office up and had justified his partner’s faith in him. It had meant working seven day weeks but he had done it and found a great deal of satisfaction in what he had accomplished. It was going to be a long time before he was able to take a holiday, so this weekend he had decided to take a walk before the weather became too hot.
Now, as the sweat trickled unpleasantly down the back of his neck, he paused and looked up at the ridge that was his destination. He was on a well traveled path that would eventually take him up to Shatin Pass, both in front and behind him were parties of hikers and picnickers all with their own radios and portable tape decks. The noise, the heat, it all became too much for him, and he found a good sized boulder on the side of the path to sit on. The group behind him passed by nodding greetings and waving cheerfully.
Arthur was too disgruntled to make much of a reply and just nodded curtly to their friendly greetings. Finally, the people, their noisy children and their radios were gone and Arthur was alone on the path.
He mopped his brow and slapped at a mosquito that had decided to make a meal of him. This was no fun, he thought. It was too hot and he had been spending too much time sitting behind his desk to enjoy a walk like this.
Since opening the office for business last month he had had to take several potential clients out to dinner. Entertaining customers was not something that he was accustomed to. Being a junior partner back in the UK that job was usually undertaken by the senior Sampson and Arthur found that he quite enjoyed the novelty of it. After the first few dinners he had started inviting people out at the slightest excuse and now his waistline was beginning to show the result. A very persistent mosquito buzzed around his ear and Arthur swatted it away. It was the last straw. He would pack it in and go home. Perhaps treat himself to a good lunch at one of the hotels in the valley. But just as he was about to rise his eyes fell on a brown pot that was resting between two small trees and almost covered by smaller twigs and branches that had been broken off in the rain storm the night before.
Intrigued, he peered into the undergrowth to examine it more closely. He had always been interested in pottery and this was quite a find. It had obviously been discarded, else why would it be lying in the undergrowth as it was. He reached in and pulled it out. It was not very heavy and there was something inside. The top was sealed with was appeared to be wax. It was a rather plain drab brown in colour, about two and a half feet in height and maybe three feet around at its widest. He was really excited by his find and pulled out his handkerchief to clean the mud and twigs off it. He hefted it. There was something loose inside but it was not too heavy. He would take it home.
He picked it up and started down the trail back towards the valley. It was rather awkward to carry and there was an odd smell coming off it. When he got it home he would give it a good wash inside and out. On the way down he met an old Chinese couple who were on their way up to the pass. He was carrying the pot on his right side and the woman passed him on his left. The old man however stopped politely to let him pass, and when he saw what he was carrying snorted in disgust.
“Wah!” He said. “Chee seen qwai lo.” And stood back as far as the narrow path would allow.
Arthur turned his nose up and carried on past. Damn foreigners, he thought. Nowhere in England would a man stop and hurl what was obviously obscenities, at another hiker without any reason at all. Maybe he was jealous that he didn’t find the pot first, thought Arthur. Whatever the reason, he soon forgot the incident and concerned himself with getting the thing home. It seemed to be getting heavier and smellier with every step. Soon however, he would be on the road and there would be a taxi to take him home.
When he got to the road though, he had a nasty surprise. The one taxi that was sitting at the curb side shot off with tires squealing at the very sight of him. What a damn nuisance, thought Arthur. The legislation controlling taxis just wasn’t strong enough In Hong Kong. But then there was another one coming down the road and Arthur put the pot down at his feet to wave the man down. The driver started to pull over then he too shot off back into the road, tires squealing. This was too much. He would have to walk home, he decided.
It took him an age to get the thing home and he almost regretted having found it. But sitting in his living room with the air conditioning on and a glass of chilled wine in his hand he was quite pleased with himself. It was a confounded nuisance not being able to get a taxi and the silly people that he passed on the way home all giving him a wide berth the way they had done, made him feel like a leper.
Just at that moment the phone rang. It was an international call from London. They had tried to call him at the office but there was no reply the man said. It was the middle Sampson. Arthur forgot himself for the moment and told the man that it was Sunday. And like most civilized places in the world offices in Hong Kong closed for business on Sundays. Middle Sampson made it perfectly clear that he didn’t care what day of the week it was. They needed certain information and Arthur was to get into the office and make it available. Now!
There was not a great deal of choice in the matter. Arthur had a quick shower and traveled into the city. His discovery was left sitting on a piece of newspaper on the living room rug for another day when he had more time.
And so, Arthur forgot about the pot. The rest of that day was spent in his office as was the following week and it was Thursday before he had time to look at the pot again. He returned home from work just after eight and wearily made himself a quick meal. It had been a trying week so far but things were beginning to really take off for the company.
He ate his dinner and sat dawn on the living room settee to relax for a while and before he knew it he was asleep. He had only just dozed off when he was woken roughly by someone shaking his arm. He opened his eyes in panic and there, before him was an old, very irate, Chinese gentleman in a white robe. No longer frightened, Arthur sat up angrily, but before he could say anything the old man was shouting at him.
“Yau mo gau chor!” Shouted the fellow. “Dim gaai, nei jiu ling ngaw di qwat?”
From his position on the sofa Arthur looked up. In his anger he failed to notice that the old gentleman was almost transparent and floating at least a foot off the ground.
“What are you doing in my house?” Arthur demanded. “And how did you get in?” His questions were answered with another outburst from the old man and although he didn’t speak Cantonese there was no doubt in his mind that he was being soundly cursed.
“I’ll have you know that I do not speak Chinese.” He said huffily. “And if you do not leave immediately I will call the police. Do you understand!”
The old man glared at him and clenched his fists.
“You bastard!” He exclaimed in English. “You steal my bones!”
Arthur was angry, but nothing if not sensible. As long as he stayed on the sofa it was unlikely that the lunatic would do more than shout at him.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Said Arthur. “I have never stolen anything in my life!”
The old man turned a funny red colour and shouted a string of obscenities at Arthur. It was just as well he did not speak Cantonese as he had always been very protective about his mother, and the suggestions that the old man was making would have offended him deeply. Then with another glare, the old man shook his fists at Arthur and disappeared with a pop.
Arthur stared at the space that the old man had inhabited and shook his head. He lay back against the sofa and wondered what he had eaten for lunch that would produce such vivid dreams.
That night, as he tried to sleep there were all sorts of strange noises from the building. It sounded to him as if someone was breaking things. At one point he got out of bed and opened his front door to see if the ruckus was coming from the flat across the way, but just as he opened his door, his neighbour also opened his, and the two men blinked at one another across the lift lobby.
It was not until the following morning that he entered his kitchen to make himself some tea and discovered that every single cup and saucer he possessed had been smashed. He had, of course, called the police, but apart from taking his statement, and cautioning him regarding home security, they had been unable to offer him anything.
Finally, after a trying week it was Saturday afternoon. Arthur closed up his office and said goodbye to his secretary and went home, hoping that there would not be any calls from London this weekend. There had been no further trouble since the Friday morning he had woken to find his kitchen vandalised, although he had been woken up a few times last night by strange noises. Letting himself in he dropped his briefcase by the door and stopped in shock.
All the furniture in his dining room, the table and chairs and sideboard containing his dinner set had been moved into the living room opposite, whilst all the living room furniture, the sofa and easy chairs had been shifted into the dining room. He stood there totally dumbfounded.
Sitting in the centre of the dining room table was the pot! Arthur swore and cursed in a very uncharacteristic manner, and for the next hour and a half moved all the furniture back to its original position.
He had no explanation as to how it had happened but he was definitely was not going to call the police. There would think that he had done it himself for some strange demented reason, and the last thing that he needed was any bad publicity. When he had finished he poured himself a glass of wine and sat down to rest. Thoroughly depressed by the inexplicable occurrence, he decided to treat himself to dinner and after finishing his drink poured himself another, and another, until it was time to shower and change.
It was nearing midnight when he got home that evening; slightly tipsy but in a much happier frame of mind than when he had left earlier. He closed the front door and turned on the light as he walked into the living room. And bumped his hip painfully on the dining room table.
Arthur had gone to his drinks cabinet and found a bottle of good malt whiskey. Taking it into the dining room he had sat down on one of his easy chairs and drunk himself into a stupor. When the old man had appeared, as irate and rude as he had been the first time, Arthur had demanded to know who he was and why he was so intent on being a nuisance. Unfortunately all of the man’s answers were in Cantonese so he did not understand them. Finally, the old man had shaken his fists at Arthur and left in a flash of light.
Unbeknown to Arthur, both he and his uninvited guest had been shouting and, as it was after eleven p.m. one of the neighbours had called the police and reported a disturbance. They had come to the flat and cautioned a very drunk Arthur, who was quite confused by it all.
After they had gone he had shut the front door and absentmindedly gone into the living room; where he had again bumped his already bruised hip on the dining room table. As he swore out loud at the pain, the pot that once again sat in the centre of the table wobbled dangerously and he put out his hand to steady it. It then occurred to him in his befuddled state that he had never had the time to break the seal and see what was inside it. He lifted it off the table and took it back into the dining room that was now, temporarily at least, his living room. He placed it on the floor at the foot of his chair and poured himself another drink. Then he went into kitchen and found a knife with which to scrape off the wax seal.
It did not take him long and after a few minutes he was ready to remove the ceramic plug. Placing the pot between his legs to steady it, he pulled upwards on the plug and it came out of the pot. As it did there was a rush of foul gas from within, and Arthur had to turn his face away. The top removed he peered into its depths to see what it contained, but it was too dark. He would have to up end it if he wanted to see its contents.
He went into the bedroom and returned with yesterday’s newspaper, which he spread out on the floor. Then, kneeling down beside the pot he turned it over on its side, gently picking it up by its bottom he turned it upside down and shook, and out onto the newspaper rolled a human skull.
Arthur stared speechlessly at the human remains on the floor before him; his mind working furiously.
Bones. A pot. Bone pot!
With a rush of understanding he realised what he had. Chinese people traditionally buried their dead, and then after a period of time they disinterred the body, cleaned the bones and placed them in a pot. In his innocence he had found this one and thought it was just an interesting piece of pottery. No wonder everyone had given him a wide berth on his walk back from the hills.
With a pop the old man was back, and as usual shouting obscenities. This time Arthur did notice that his visitor was floating at least a foot off the floor and did what any reasonable man would do in the circumstances, he passed out.
The following day, despite the rain and a thumping hangover, Arthur Sampson went walking again. This time he carried a large parcel with him. He walked back up into the valley that lead to Shatin Pass and at a certain spot, stopped. He made sure that no one was coming from either direction then unwrapped the parcel.
Finally the bone pot sat revealed in the centre of the path. Its top resealed with red sealing wax the only thing that he had available. Gently, he replaced it in the bushes that he had pulled it from, making sure that it was upright and steady. Then he stood back. He felt as if he should say something, a prayer perhaps, but then he thought that the old man would probably have been a Buddhist and might not appreciate someone saying a Christian prayer over his remains.
Lost for anything else to do, he bowed towards the pot and then, hastily gathering up the wrapping paper he turned and walked quickly down the path. He had not gone very far when he saw an old Chinese man coming in his direction. As they passed each other he nodded a greeting, as did the older man.
Arthur wondered whether it was the man from the old couple that he had seen on his previous trip and turned to look. The old man had stopped and was standing, erect on the path, he was looking at Arthur. When he saw that he had caught Arthur’s eye, he smiled and then bowed slightly in his direction. Arthur repeated the gesture and then turned and hurried down the path. He was tempted to take another look at the old man but did not. He knew that there would be no one there.
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