‘What if the baby comes in the night?” my wife, Allys, asked, looking at the stretch of the South China Sea that separated us from the nearest hospital. “Helicopter,” said a local resident. I looked around me, taking in the thick jungle of trees and roots, crisscrossed with tiny paths, impenetrable to vehicles. “Where’s it going to land?” The man cleared his throat and shrugged. “Better if the baby does not come in the night.”
Three years earlier, in 2015, we had moved to Hong Kong as a pair of young teachers, excited about escaping the grey skies and terrible pay of the UK. Frankly, we were a little bored, and were certain that we wanted to travel across the globe and perhaps never return to the UK, at least not to live.
Our first home was a postage-stamp-sized flat high above the streets of Wan Chai, Hong Kong’s red-light district. During the day, we were at the centre of everything – manic wet markets, sprawling computer centres, bustling restaurants and cafes. At night, the neon signs and street sellers imbued the area with the cyberpunk overtones of Blade Runner. It was a different world and, for a while, we revelled in it.
It was also overwhelming. Allys, who grew up in a sleepy Northumberland town, struggled to sleep at night. I began to find the packed streets claustrophobic, wishing for more space. We were building careers, making friends, and still felt there was much to explore, but after two years in the thick of it, we needed quiet. A myriad of environments were on offer nearby, from the rolling hills of the New Territories to the quieter greenery of the outlying islands. I was teaching English, but also working on my first novel, and was keen to find somewhere that would offer serenity and inspiration.
Just off Hong Kong island, about half an hour on a ferry, is the greener and sleepier island of Lamma. Many who visit fall in love with its old-world charm. No chain shops or restaurants. No cars, the winding paths not large enough to support them, although two‑seater vans zip around the narrow streets like go-karts. Lamma has two main villages – Yung Shue Wan and Sok Kwu Wan – where nearly all of the 7,000 inhabitants live.
By this point, even that number of people felt too crowded. We wanted to be surrounded by nature and by the peace that comes with quiet isolation. We found a place in the northern part of the island called Pak Kok: around 20 or so houses spread through the jungle, inhabited by locals and a few expat families, mingled with abandoned buildings completely overgrown with vines and roots. The jungle owned this part of the island, and if you took your eye off your house for too long the jungle would take it back and swallow it up.
Our way off the island was a rickety old ferry – black smoke sputtering out of its exhaust pipes. Even getting on it was far from straightforward. A little walk down from our house towards the rocky beach, a set of tyres had been nailed into the wall. The ferry would bump its prow into them and drive forwards, holding its position while people jumped on and off. This worked fine in perfect conditions, but in choppy weather, or if there was a typhoon on the horizon (which there often was), it made boarding the ferry dangerous and sometimes impossible. On more than one occasion, I watched as my sole transport option tried and failed to pull up to the rocks, before giving up and moving on, leaving me stranded.
We loved it. After the madness of Wan Chai, it was exactly what we wanted. Sure, we had to plan around the irregular ferry timetable. I had to get up early to get to work on time, hiking through a dilapidated shipyard over broken planks and scurrying rats to reach the school at the other end. Often, I’d have to sprint to make the ferry home. We had to organise food a week in advance. Takeaways or popping to a bar were a thing of the past. But it was beautiful. Standing on our rooftop, looking out at the sunrise over the ocean, and listening to the choruses of croaking frogs and warbling tropical birds –made everything else seem inconsequential.
So when we discussed starting a family, we naively thought everything would be OK. Life was more rustic out here, but people did it. We hadn’t taken into account the luxury of having almost complete control of our lives. What we didn’t realise is that when you have a baby, you relinquish that, and that when you live somewhere like we did, that has a tendency to snowball.
The worry took over in the lead-up to our son’s birth. We foolishly assumed there would be safety nets in place, but some early chats with another Pak Kok resident quickly disabused us of that notion. We couldn’t discuss our options with a doctor because doctors didn’t go to where we lived. The nearest person approximating to a medical professional was a hefty walk away, through dense jungle, up an absurdly steep rise the locals affectionately nicknamed Heart-Attack Hill, and eventually down into the nearest village.
Pregnancy itself was difficult – island life was physically taxing, especially in a Hong Kong summer. Often medical appointments would overrun and make it difficult to get home. There were no luxuries, unless planned for well in advance, or bartered for. We bought cheese like it was an illicit drug deal, texting a man nearby how many grams we needed and exchanging it for cash through his window.
With the worry came guilt. What if something went seriously wrong? What would we do? The only “ambulance” was a tiny van that they sent from the nearest village, which I’d once helped push to the top of Heart-Attack Hill after it broke down.
Oskar didn’t come early, as we’d feared. In fact, he held on until two weeks past Allys’s due date. Every day, we were on tenterhooks, our anxiety at fever pitch. We discussed staying with friends on the main island, or in a hotel, but had no idea how long that would be for. It was a fortunate twist of fate, then, that Allys had to be induced. The birth was going to happen in the hospital and not in a helicopter or on a police boat.
After eight hours of induced labour, Oskar was healthy, Allys was exhausted, and everyone was fine. We thought we would continue to be fine. We were wrong.
In the first week, Oskar didn’t feed. It turns out, he didn’t know how to breastfeed. We didn’t realise this could be an issue. By the time we managed to get a specialist out to see us (we paid a premium for a home visit and she missed our ferry stop because, despite my instructions, when the ferry bumped into the rocks, she couldn’t believe that it constituted a pier and that we would actually live there), he was starving, and I don’t mean the term figuratively. He was so dehydrated from lack of food that she had to give him formula within moments of arriving.
Guilt seeped into both of us, finding every gap in our marriage. It forced us to reckon explicitly with who we were, not just as parents but as partners. On one particularly fractious evening, after the last ferry had long gone, Oskar writhed in his cot with an awful fever.
“We can’t just ignore this,” Allys said to me, pacing back and forth in the living room.
“I’m not ignoring it,” I insisted. “But we don’t have many options. I don’t think he’s sick enough to call an emergency police boat.”
“You don’t know that,” she snapped back. “Children can go downhill so quickly. If we wait until he’s really bad, it’ll still be hours before someone can get us off this island and it might be too late.”
“OK! OK!” I threw my hands in the air. “I’ll call the police.”
“You can’t just drag him out into the night when we don’t even know … ”
“What do you want me to do?” I demanded, tired, exasperated. “Just tell me what you want me to do!”
For months, we argued, pointed fingers and reconciled, but ultimately we had to come to terms with whether we’d ever forgive ourselves if the worst happened. There were long sleepless nights, and not just because of Oskar’s wakings. What on earth were we doing?
We started seeing dangers that we had previously ignored: spiders bigger than your face built webs across pathways at almost exactly the height of a baby carrier; bamboo pit vipers so venomous that, if bitten, you’d need to be immediately airlifted to hospital to stand a chance of surviving. One afternoon, I came home to find such a snake wrapped around the handle of our front door. I stood there with a tired, hungry baby strapped to my chest and realised I needed help to get into my own house.
Having taken time away from work to raise Oskar, Allys experienced our isolation in a way I never did. Most days I left the island to teach, leaving her alone with our newborn. There were no support groups, no playgroups she could get to and reliably get back from, no family or friends who could pop in. Close friends we’d had in Wan Chai drifted away because Pak Kok was too far to visit. That kind of isolation is life‑changing: it was as though someone had stripped away every part of her old identity.
Sickness was a constant worry. Babies get sick, everyone knows that. But it instilled in us a constant anxiety, born not out of a fear that something could go wrong so much as a realisation that we would be powerless if it did. Powerlessness, particularly in the face of responsibility, does strange things to the brain. We both started catastrophising, increasingly illogical intrusive thoughts working their way into our psyche. If we had plans to go to the main island the next day, Allys would wake me up in the middle of night.
“What if we get a cab and it crashes and we all die? What if we’re crossing the road and we get hit by a truck?”
Travelling out of our remote jungle felt increasingly impossible, fraught with danger. We now understood that living without the trappings of modern civilisation seems romantic, but that there might come a time when we needed those support systems.
And then there were the storms. In Hong Kong, typhoon and black-rain warnings (the highest level of alert) are part of day-to-day life. When we lived in Wan Chai, a typhoon used to mean a day off work cuddling on the sofa in front of the TV. We took for granted that we were surrounded by skyscrapers, effective drainage systems and modern buildings designed to withstand high winds. Out in the jungle, we were not so protected.
When the first typhoon hit, it was apocalyptic. We lived about 50 metres from the sea and had little protection but for a few lines of trees. With the wind speed outside about 60mph, our single-glazed windows rattled so hard we were certain they would break. Allys sat on the bed in our bedroom, the place that felt the most protected, holding our two-month-old son close and comforting him through what sounded like the world ending outside.
By the time I realised the storm had clogged our roof drains, the water was inches-deep and only getting worse. After a few manic calculations about how long our roof could hold under that weight, I went outside.
In a typhoon like that, individual gusts can exceed 120mph – enough to pick me up and throw me off the roof. But there was no one to call to help. I had to clear the drains myself, a task that took three terrifying hours, frantically bailing and ducking behind walls to avoid gusts and flying branches.
After that encounter, we were hit by a terrifying realisation that if something were to happen, we’d be to blame. No one had forced us to live so far from the safety net of modern society. We had chosen the risks, even if we didn’t fully understand them.
The beauty that drew us here still existed, but it became coloured by other feelings. Peace and quiet began to look like isolation. Privacy and remoteness became inconvenience and frustration. Natural beauty became potential danger. It’s no coincidence that the novel I wrote at that time is a thriller and a horror, because the worst horror I could think of was something happening to my son, and feeling like it was my fault.
Of course, raising a child in the jungle can be done. We still have good expat friends with families who live out there and have acclimatised to living that remotely. But ultimately, while we both miss it immensely, we knew it wasn’t for us. Nothing underscored that quite like the holiday we took to Edinburgh in the summer of 2019, and it was then we decided to return to the UK.
We’d flown back to see friends and family, and just staying in an Airbnb in the New Town was transcendental. The grey skies no longer spoke of drudgery, but meant we could go outside with Oskar without layers of suncream and two electric fans strapped to the pushchair; the day-to-day life that once felt dull was a huge sigh of relief. It was easy. It was safe.
“We’re out of cheese,” Allys said, a couple of days after arriving, and, as I instinctively checked my phone to see when our dealer would be available, a lightning bolt of realisation hit me.
“I’ll go to the shop,” I replied, a huge grin on my face. “It’s just round the corner.”