Sep 17, 2010
Sunday, May 16 was a lucky day. I was invited by an SVD missionary from Austria living in Macau to join him on a trip to the first mission station served by St Joseph Freinademetz, SVD. Father Freinademetz, as he was known then, was the first SVD missionary to China sent by St Arnold Janssen, the founder of the SVD. Father Freinademetz travelled from Germany to Hong Kong and landed on the shores of Hong Kong in the month of April 1879. It must have taken him several months travelling by ship.
My fellow brother SVD and I took a ferry boat from Macau which takes about an hour to reach Sheug Wan ferry station in Hong Kong. It is a very comfortable ride which cost 156 Macau Patacas. Pataca (MOP) is the currency used in Macau. One Macau Pataca is almost 5 Indian rupees. Sheung Wan in Hong Kong is a very modernized ferry station where boats leave for other destinations almost every 15 minutes. Sheung Wan is also an MRT (subway) railway station.
Upon reaching Sheung Wan station I bought a train ticket to Choi Hung station which cost 11.50 Hong Kong dollars. One Hong Kong Dollar is close to 6.50 Indian rupees and one US dollar is 45 Indian rupees at the time of writing this travelogue. When you are outside India you always calculate money in US dollars as that is the most acceptable currency anywhere in the world. Mind you, you have to buy your travel ticket from a ticketing machine - there is no ticket counter with a person behind the ticketing window! Fortunately for me, my experience of living in London several years ago came in handy as the railway system in Hong Kong which is considered one of the best in the world, is very similar to the one in London.
We alighted at the next station from Sheung Wan which is the central station and took another train on the Tsuen Wan Line (the red line) going to Mong Kok station. From there we changed trains again and took the green line, the Kwun Tong Line and got down at Choi Hung. The entire train journey from Sheung Wan railway station to Choi Hung took us about 20 minutes.
Travelling by MRT or Metro Rail Transport is easy, comparatively cheap and convenient. From Choi Hung railway station we took a mini bus to our next destination, Saigon. The bus ride is easy; however, one has to pay the exact amount of money because there is no conductor to issue you a ticket! You put in the exact amount in the box as you get into the bus and take a seat. I put in 7.50 Hong Kong dollars for a bus ride of 20 minutes. From Saigon the next mode of transport was a boat!
Hong Kong has over 125 large and small islands. However, only a few of them are inhabited by humans. My final destination was the island of Yim Tin Sai which is over 20 minutes ride by boat from Saigon station. This is the island on which in 1879 St Joseph Freinademetz landed as the first SVD missionary to China. For me personally, as an SVD missionary, this was a homecoming - walking on the trail of St Joseph Freinademetz, the path he walked on over a hundred and twenty years ago.
Just a warning before I continue: please do not try to pronounce the Chinese names mentioned above as these are tongue twisters! Your tongue might get twisted while attempting to pronounce them. If you are really passionate about wanting to pronounce them I suggest you put a few small pebbles in your mouth, add a cup of cold water (no salt please) and try to rotate the pebbles in your mouth with the help of your tongue, slowly and carefully, while at the same time letting out a prolonged ‘ummmmmmm’ sound from your nose. That would be the closest you can get to pronouncing Chinese names. Hey, this is only a joke or as the Filipinos say ‘joke only ha’!
As the boat from Saigon on the Hong Kong side touched the shores of Yim Tin Sai island the scenery around was as if taken from a picture postcard. I could see buntings all along the road from the pier leading to the church up the mountain. There were several boats around the pier trying to dock and we were lucky to find a good spot as soon as we arrived. I could hear the parish band playing, welcoming the guests to the Fiesta. Yes, it was the Feast of St Joseph the patron of that chapel. Although the feast of St Joseph the worker falls on the first of May, the locals were celebrating it on May 16, it being a Sunday, as this would make it possible for all friends and relatives of the islanders to come and join the celebration.
As I climbed the hill on which the church was built, I could hear the parish band play Chinese church music. All the musicians were local school children and it was a great show. My first thought was to look for a toilet as I had consumed a lot of water on the way. Yes, there were several of them, all air conditioned and clean as ever.
People kept coming in as time passed. The church service was scheduled for 11.30 am, so I took the opportunity to go around the place to see what was happening. Entering the lovely church I saw lots of people seated and getting ready for the service. The choir was fine-tuning their instruments and the conductor was having a short practice with those present. The entire Holy Mass was in Chinese with the main celebrant a Chinese priest from the same village. Three more SVDs, including me, one from Austria and another from the Philippines joined him. The entire service took around 90 minutes and was in Chinese. Lovely Chinese music. The homily (sermon) lasted almost 25 minutes; as I did not understand a single word of Chinese, I thought it must have been wonderful.
Earlier, before the service began the parish priest invited the guests for a short ceremony wherein he blessed the new church bell which was donated by a generous lady. The dragon dance welcomed us all. All Chinese ceremonies start with a dragon dance and this one was wonderful to watch.
After the service we were invited to join the community meal which included a roasted pig, pig dumplings, noodles, roasted duck and several delicious varieties of Chinese cuisine. It was fantastic to be there among the local Chinese celebrating the feast of St Joseph. Thanks to St Joseph Freinademetz, SVD who spent the first years of his missionary life in this very place, thanks to him, today there is a vibrant Christian community of Hakka Chinese tribe.
After lunch I visited the ruins of the house where St Joseph Freinademetz lived over 130 years ago. Much of it is now destroyed by several typhoons. But whatever is left has been well preserved by the local people.
We left the place by boat back to Hong Kong and all along the way I kept thinking of St Joseph Freinademetz, and how he must have spent his first few days in that remote island. In one of his letters St Joseph Freinademetz, who was from Tirol, a village on the border of Germany and Italy, wrote that even in death he wanted to be a Chinese. It was because he dressed like a Chinese, ate Chinese food and lived a Chinese life. He became a Chinese and died a Chinese. Today the birth place of St Joseph Freinademetz, SVD in Tirol is a Christian centre of pilgrimage, so is the small church in Yim Tin Tsai.
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