Each morning at 6:30 they come to the Zoological and Botanical Garden in Hong Kong, about 100 Chinese men and women dressed in everything from drab pantsuits to nifty sports outfits advertising computer software. They're ready to begin the day by doing Tai Chi, and for the next hour or so they'll bend, stretch, kick, and bow. Most of them are old, although they are joined by some young Chinese as well as a few foreigners who've come to watch, or to participate in, an ancient ritual that has won converts across the globe.
A few individuals go off on their own along paths that circle cages filled with exotic birds, like red-crested cranes, who themselves perform the delicate one-footed balancing act so often depicted on oriental silk screens. Most of the older Chinese, however, take up positions on a cement staircase that leads from the fountain at the garden's centre up to a bronze statue of King George VI, a reminder of Hong Kong's status as a British colony.
The garden itself was conceived by a farsighted English governor in the 1850s, Sir John Bowring, known as Peng Fau, or "Head Soldier." In Cantonese, it is still called Peng Fau Fa Yeun, Head Soldier's Garden. Nearby, a funicular railway, opened in 1888, rattles to the top of Victoria Peak, the highest point on the island of Hong Kong. Around the perimeter of the garden, traffic rushes across Upper Albert Street and down Garden Road, headed for central Hong Kong. But inside the lush and tropical garden, the only sounds are the screeches of birds, the sounds of monkeys and jaguars, and the shouts of the Tai Chi Chuan leader who stands halfway up the steps calling out the moves.
The Tai Chi ritual can be traced back to the ninth-century Taoist philosopher Li Tao-Tzu, who is said to have defined the first 37 moves in a book called The Earlier Heaven Movements. Two centuries later, another priest in a Shaolin Temple in China, watched a snake curl up to fend off the attack of a predatory bird. The bird tired and the snake spiralled up for the kill. The priest, Cheung San-feng, combined the actions of the snake with his earlier training in the control of the body's internal energies to develop a system of self-defence, Tai Chi Chuan. For centuries, monks instructed soldiers of the Imperial Army and taught unarmed civilians to defend themselves against roving bandits.
Then as now, Tai Chi Chuan emphasizes the mastery of form through movements that are slow and vaguely balletic; they're often described as "shadow boxing." As you walk the streets of Hong Kong, you can see practitioners crouch and rise as they wait beside bus stops and ferries. What began as self-defence has become a form of physical fitness: The semi-crouched position is said to promote greater muscle control; the deep breathing to stimulate blood circulation and relaxation; and the slow motions to improve balance.
Organized Tai Chi takes place in many parks, but the activity assumes special significance in the Zoological and Botanical Garden, where humans attempt to master forms inspired by the sort of birds and animals that pace in nearby cages. The 50 or so people lining the garden staircase watch carefully as their leader, a wizened old woman with frizzy hair and a small hump on her back, executes a series of moves with a grace and endurance that often leaves Western observers breathless. She starts with her arms at her sides, then slowly extends them above her head, rotating her palms upward, fingers open, shouting out instructions, her loud voice travelling up and down the staircase. Everyone copies her as she turns her palms downward, inching them back to her sides as if she were pushing an invisible weight.
Those who exercise alone on the garden's winding paths engage in a later version of Tai Chi, the one more common in the West. It, too, grew out of Taoist principles, but seeks to achieve both physical health and mental cleansing through a sequence of 108 moves known as "the set". Many individual steps in Taoist Tai Chi retain their original names - "White Stork Spreads Wings", "Carry Tiger to Mountain" and "Creeping Low Like a Snake". The aim of all Tai Chi is to balance, within the body, the Chinese principles of Yin and Yang - the dark and light, masculine and feminine - two apparently opposite but complementary parts of the whole.
Reconciling differences is an integral part of the life of Hong Kong. If, for instance, you stand in the middle of the Zoological and Botanical Garden and turn away from those doing Tai Chi you can see, jabbing the skyline, the steel spikes, or "chopsticks", on top of Hong Kong's tallest building, the Bank of China. This 72-storey, glass and steel skyscraper expresses many things, but above all, reconciliation. It was designed for the People's Republic by the Chinese-born, American-educated architect, I. M. Pei, whose father was the first Hong Kong manager of the Bank of China under Chiang Kai-shek. With the coming of the Communists in 1949, the elder Pei advised his son to stay in America and continue his education at Harvard. I. M. Pei's accomplishments include the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington and the Louvre renovation in Paris. But it's unlikely he's ever faced a greater challenge than the Bank of China.
When the planning began, Pei was forced to consult experts in the ancient belief system (some would say "superstition") of feng shui. The individual characters stand for "wind" and "water", but together they mean far more - "the golden chain of spiritual life running every form of existence and binding together, as one living body, everything that is in heaven above or on earth below," according to a learned 19th-century German commentator.
So Pei's plans for the Hong Kong headquarters of the Bank of China had to include the correct siting of the building in relation to the dragons living beneath the earth; the proper placement of doors, windows and mirrors to thwart, or aid, spirits of the dead; and finally, the judicious selection of numbers associated with the building. The number 8, for example, is considered good since, in Cantonese, it sounds like the word for "prosperity" - and, if one idea sits above all others in Hong Kong, it's the almost magical belief in the benefits of prosperity. Even though construction of the Bank of China was incomplete, the building officially opened at the most propitious time - 8:08 a.m. on the eighth day of August, the eighth month, in 1988: It didn't start to do business until 1990.
Now it sits on a skyline of unbroken towers, a modernist triumph gleaming in the morning sun, a building so light it could be a giant work of origami, silver paper squares folded over and over, stretching into the clouds.
Along the inner steps of the garden, the early morning Tai Chi is coming to an end. Joggers are entering the garden, along with businessmen talking into cellular phones. Young children, supervised by Filipino nannies, stare at the animals and tease the birds. Elderly people mop the perspiration from their foreheads. Those who have completed all 108 moves in the Tai Chi set clasp their hands before their eyes and execute a final bow. The few old men who've brought pet birds with them now pick up their bamboo cages and leave for home, occasionally speaking to their caged companions, explaining, perhaps, that they will return the next day.