Cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai: A half-century journey around the globe to Hong Kong’s Wu Kai Sha

Looking out from his balcony in Hong Kong’s Wu Kai Sha, flanked by the mountains and the sea, cultural historian Cheng Pei-kai reflects on the unpredictability of life. Travelling from Shanghai to Taiwan in 1949 as an infant, had he made the journey one day later, he might have perished in the sinking of Chinese steamer Taiping (太平轮). Meanders in Taiwan and the US took him finally to Hong Kong, a place he never thought he’d call home. The wanderer has settled down at last.
The Nai Chung Pebbles Beach in Ma On Shan, which is on the eastern coast of Tolo Harbour in the New Territories of Hong Kong. (iStock)
The Nai Chung Pebbles Beach in Ma On Shan, which is on the eastern coast of Tolo Harbour in the New Territories of Hong Kong. (iStock)

Having lived in Hong Kong for over 20 years, the luckiest thing that ever happened to me was moving to Wu Kai Sha in the northeast region of the New Territories some ten years ago. Since then, I have lived between the mountains and the sea and enjoy a relatively reclusive life.

From my floor-to-ceiling window in the living room, I see distant mountain ranges forming a craggy line against the horizon, just as it is illustrated in the middle section of Yuan dynasty painter Huang Gongwang’s painting Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains (《富春山居图》).

Huang Gongwang, Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains (《富春山居图》), partial, Zhejiang Museum. (Internet)
Huang Gongwang, Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains (《富春山居图》), partial, Zhejiang Museum. (Internet)

The undulating hills are a soothing sight but they are actually much further away than they appear to be, and feel a little unreachable. The mountains cradle a vast bay where the waters to the east of Tolo Harbour flow out into the sea.

The scenery seems to be as Northern Song dynasty poet Fan Zhongyan described of the Baling landscape in the short essay Yueyang Tower (《岳阳楼记》): “...Dongting Lake envelops the distant mountains and swallows the waters of the Yangtze River. It is mighty, vast, and boundless. In the morning, the lake reflects the shining sun; at night, it all grows dark. The scene is always changing…” 

Tolo Harbour, 2013. (Photo: Lee See-ming/Licensed under CC BY 2.0)
Tolo Harbour, 2013. (Photo: Lee See-ming/Licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Surrounded by the magnificence of the mountains and the sea, I am often reminded of the ancient people’s respect for nature. They have never-ending praise for heaven and earth and hope to be one with creation and to walk quietly into the eternity of time and space, leaving not a single trace behind. At such moments, I would be inspired to unfurl a piece of Xuan paper to write something — anything at all — as a record of my serene life.

A twist of fate              

But how can life be smooth-sailing all the time? Hustling and working hard all my life, I’ve often felt that time waits for no man. I was unable to choose my own destiny. In fact, it chose me. It is as if there is a pair of invisible hands hiding behind the horizon, playing a random game of dice every now and then. It is a game without aim or mirth but just a matter of course for the universe. Mindless as it may be, it is the master of man’s destiny.      

“It’s all fate. Your brother’s fate was to protect you, but he is gone.” - Mother

Whenever people talk to me and later discover that I’m a Hong Konger, they would ask, “Why is your putonghua so good?” I would have to reply that my parents were from Shandong and I grew up speaking Mandarin, but that I was now resident in Hong Kong. And then they would ask, “Where exactly in Shandong?” And my tepid response would be, “Rizhao city (日照, lit. sunshine).”

Strangely though, people were very interested in my background. They would continue asking me about my hometown and if I went back often. I’m an honest man and do not know how to weave a story. Having no choice, I would explain that I have never been there; that’s my father’s hometown.

I was born in Shandong, but not in Father’s hometown. I was born in the city of Qingdao, where Father set up his business but left when I was four months old. Since then, I’ve never gone back and began wandering around from place to place. It was not until I was 50 that I settled down in Hong Kong.     

Cinema still of The Crossing, a 2014 film directed by John Woo about the sinking of Taiping. (Shaw Organisation)
Cinema still of The Crossing, a 2014 film directed by John Woo about the sinking of Taiping. (Shaw Organisation)

My mother told me about how we had travelled to Taiwan. Back then, the civil war between the Kuomintang (KMT) and Chinese Communist Party was very intense and war eventually spread to Qingdao. Father decided to relocate his company to Taiwan and made his way there first. Mother brought me (then an infant), my elder cousin who was looking after me, and other relatives to Shanghai. There, we stayed in a hotel and waited for the right time to head to Taiwan.

Eight months passed. Someone got our tickets ready and the arrangement was that we would set sail for Taiwan in Chinese steamer Taiping on 27 January 1949. I am Mother’s first-born and was incredibly hard to take care of when I was young. I would burp and vomit milk all the time, making life difficult for everyone around me. My relatives were worried that a one-year-old baby like me would be unable to pull through the difficult and long sea voyage. If anything happened, that would be a great pity! 

I do not know how this happened but we managed to secure an air ticket a day before Taiping was scheduled to set sail. So, Mother and I boarded the plane and reunited with Father in Taiwan. The next day, Taiping set sail and collided with Chienyuan, a cargo ship from Taiwan, near the Zhoushan Archipelago, killing over 1,000 people on board. My cousin was carried away by the waves of the ocean and never arrived in Taiwan.

Mother always said, “It’s all fate. Your brother’s fate was to protect you, but he is gone.” My cousin was my first uncle’s youngest son. He was intelligent, kind, and left his hometown to carve his own path. He became Father’s most trusted right-hand man. Who would have thought that his soul would forever be drifting in the sea? When Father registered our household in Taiwan earlier on, his “oldest son” was not me, but my cousin. Alas, he never lived to see his name on the register.

I defended my motherland’s territory and marched in the streets of Washington opposing the US’s secret return of the power of administration over the Diaoyu islands to Japan. What did I do wrong?

Standing up for one’s principles and a 30-year sojourn

I lived in Taiwan for 20 years until I graduated from university and went to the US. I originally planned to return to Taiwan to become a teacher after completing my postgraduate studies. Unfortunately, I was blacklisted by the KMT government for participating in a patriotic movement defending the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the early 1970s. My passport was revoked and I could not return to Taiwan, the place where I grew up.

People wearing protective face masks drive motorbikes in Taipei, Taiwan, 30 June 2021. (Ann Wang/Reuters)
People wearing protective face masks drive motorbikes in Taipei, Taiwan, 30 June 2021. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

My parents and relatives had some connections with the higher-ups and encouraged me to write a confession letter and bow down to the government to solve the issue. Maybe it was because I had read too many Chinese and foreign philosophical books, but I insisted that I had done nothing wrong and refused to taint my own reputation. I defended my motherland’s territory and marched in the streets of Washington opposing the US’s secret return of the power of administration over the Diaoyu islands to Japan. What did I do wrong?

The government was the one in the wrong — they should be apologising to patriotic youths like us instead of asking us to write confession letters. As Confucius said, “Advance the upright and set aside the crooked, then the people will submit. Advance the crooked and set aside the upright, then the people will not submit.” That’s right! I will not submit!

Since I did not listen to my elders, I swallowed the bitter pill and wandered around again. I decided to stay in the US to teach, and 30 years went by in the blink of an eye.    

A place to be still at last

When I first arrived in Hong Kong, I thought that I would simply be passing through as well. I did not think that I would become a permanent resident or that I would live here for the next 20-something years.

But now I sit at my northwest-facing balcony at home, gazing at the scenery around Wu Kai Sha. In the distance are mountains. A flock of egrets fly above the waves in the distant bay, their gently flapping wings painting a landscape of calm across the horizon. It is as if time has stopped, as if it is the clouds that are wandering around instead, and I’m just an old cypress tree that has been battered through the seasons, steadfastly watching the sun rise and the moon descend. 

Xia Yong, Yueyang Tower on fan (《岳阳楼图》扇页), The Palace Museum. (Internet)
Xia Yong, Yueyang Tower on fan (《岳阳楼图》扇页), The Palace Museum. (Internet)

I suddenly had a vision — Fan must have once time-travelled and stepped foot in this place before returning to the Song dynasty to write his Yueyang Tower essay: “In the gentle wind of spring when the skies are clear and the lake is calm, mirroring light merges heaven and earth into a boundless sea of turquoise. Gulls soar and gather on the bank while fish dart and swerve in the water; angelica and orchids bloom by the shore, lush and fragrant.

"Sometimes, the fog disappears and the silvery moon shines. One moment, the moon sheds golden glitters across the ripples; the next, it is a beautiful gem embedded deep in the lake. One hears the fishermen singing in chorus, ah, such wonderful joy! Ascending the Yueyang Tower, one feels free and elated. Forget glory and pain! Drink to your heart’s content standing against the wind. Ah, such pure bliss!”      

Perhaps it was not Fan who had time-travelled, but me. Perhaps it is I that has arrived in 21st century Wu Kai Sha from the Song dynasty, instantly recognising the sunrise and sunset from a thousand years ago. 

This article was first published in Chinese on United Daily News as “烏溪沙的朝暉夕陰”.

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