Hong Kong: Also a city of temples

Hong Kong’s a busy place-bustling, vibrant, fast-paced. It’s home to nearly seven million inhabitants, countless skyscrapers, big banks, big business and big hotels. It’s a city of Rolls Royces, Bentleys and multi-millionaires. 
No doubt about it, Hong Kong’s a financial colossus. Dollars in the billions rush through the city’s brokerages, banks and stock exchange every day.

But there’s another face to Hong Kong, a kinder, gentler side, for Hong Kong is also a city of temples.

More than 600 sites
The majority of Hong Kong’s ethnic Chinese practice such traditional Asian religions as Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. It’s estimated there are more than 600 temples, shrines and monasteries scattered about the former British colony.

They range from ancient, abandoned village affairs to giants such as Wong Tai Sin Temple. This is a place crowded at all hours of the day with worshippers burning incense, praying and having their fortunes told.

As with Christian churches, the temples share many common characteristics. A frieze of pottery figures depicting dragons, fish or human characters from Chinese mythologyecorate the outdoor ridges of the wealthier temples. Often, a pair of stone lions stand guard over the courtyard, the male on the right with a large ball to play with, while the female has a cub under one paw.

Most temples have colourful, symbolic paintings over the doors and plaster decorations under the eaves. ‘Spirit doors’ are placed directly in front of the main door to keep out ghosts and evil spirits and pictures of fearsome guardian generals are painted on the inside. Temples never have windows-they’d only allow harmful spirits to sneak in.

Colourful interiors
The interiors are a riot of colour-garish and overly ornate to Western eyes-with red, representing happiness and luck, the predominant colour. Other important colours are green for peace, and yellow for wealth.

I find these temples far more relaxed and informal than western churches-in fact,  they’re venues for worshippers to socialize and sightsee, as well as worship. Sometimes the incense is so thick, stepping outside brings a breath of fresh air. While the faithful don’t mind Western tourists walking around and taking pictures, remember these are sacred places-so don’t be obtrusive.

  • The Man Mo Temple on Ladder St. in the Western District is Hong Kong’s oldest. Built in 1847, it honours Man, the God of Literature, and Mo, the God of War. Giant red doors open to a smoke filled scene, with spirals of smoldering incense hanging from the ceiling and joss sticks burning in brass pots.

Popular temples
Other venerable temples popular with tourists are:

  • Hung Shing (Tai Wong) Temple, well-known for its fortune-telling
  • Pak Tai Temple with its 10-foot copper image made in 1604. (Pak Tai is the ‘Superior Divinity of the Deep Dark Heaven, True Soldier of the North’.)
  • Tin Hau Temple in the Stanley suburban district. Constructed in 1767, this beautiful temple contains the skin of the last tiger shot in Hong Kong.
  • Wong Tai Sin Temple is Hong Kong’s largest as well as one of the most colourful and ornate.

Oasis of tranquility
Dwarfed by high-rise apartment buildings, it’s an oasis of tranquility built to a potent deity who’s said to cure illness, grant good health, good fortune and resolve worries and problems.
It also has a Chinese medical clinic and schools.

The centrepiece is a brightly coloured, gilded main alter with paintings of Wong Tai Sin.  The temple is predominantly Taoist, but mixed with Buddhist and other religious beliefs. It used to be open only to sect members, but is now open to the public.