Mountains in Hong Kong

Surely the skyline of Hong Kong observed from Kowloon is the finest in the world. Like all great skylines it’s seen across water, but this one has a back-drop, Victoria Peak. When I first saw it the Peak, which actually is quite flat, framed the high rise buildings. Then, towards the end of the colonial period, a few buildings, outstanding among them the wondrous Bank of China, one of the creations of the great I. M. Pei , tentatively raised their heads above it. But now there is the International Commerce Centre of 118 storeys that towers over not only the other buildings but the Peak as well. One can sit on one of the seats thoughtfully provided by the authorities near the Star Ferry terminal and spend time gazing at the view.

Nearby is the Hong Kong Museum of Art, where there is an exhibition of work by Li Yanshan, a twentieth century artist from Guangzhou who came to settle in Hong Kong. He worked in a traditional mode, having trained himself by imitating the works of old Chinese masters, and excelled in scenes of nature, in particular landscapes. His scenes are calm zones of tranquility, often with a mountain in the background. These mountains really are peaks that somehow recall the schematic rocky hills shown in Byzantine art, and one looks at them across water, or at any rate at some point in the distance which does not seem to be connected with the foreground. Sometimes there is a small dwelling hidden among the detail, but any sign of human presence is dwarfed by the grandeur of the landscape.

The mandarin scholar bureaucrats of traditional China cherished the idea of retirement to a quiet and beautiful place in the country, where they could read the classics and drink green tea in contentment, occasionally welcoming their friends. It’s not hard to warm to this ideal, particularly when one is taking refuge from the crowds and bustle of the streets of a densely populated city. It’s quite a jump from Victoria Peak and what lies before it to the mountains in the work of Li Yanshan and what can be seen in front of them.

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