At the altar in the dimly lit sanctum, Wong Hui Ling advises that it might be a good idea to touch the pen in the hand of the idol. The idol is of god Man, of the Man Mo Temple in Hong Kong’s central district, and literature happens to be his main portfolio. “Do you want inspiration? Do you want to be the next Rowling?” asks Hui Ling, who is conducting this morning’s walking tour in Hong Kong’s colonial district. Say no more. I move to make the connection.
Standing in the heart of the old city for more than 150 years, the Man Mo Temple is dedicated to the gods of war (Mo) and literature (Man). The former is especially busy during exam time, when he is visited by students and their parents. “Just before school starts you will see a lot of people here,” she says. “People come to pray to get good grades and progress in their careers.”
There may be much less conflict now—Hong Kong’s politically charged occupy movement notwithstanding—so you’d think Mo would have fewer devotees. But though the army has little to worry about, the police still come here to pray. “And guess who else?” asks Hui Ling. Answer: the gangsters. “Both groups are at loggerheads and they ironically pray to the same gods,” she continues, shrugging. “I guess it depends on who prays the hardest and the longest.”
Visitors usually light yellow incense sticks at the entrance of the Po Lin Monastery, and they need to climb 268 steps to reach the foot of the seated bronze Buddha sculpture here. Photo by: Merten Snijders/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images
The main altar is flanked by sentries on either side, there’s a large central courtyard with an ornate door and at the entrance there are brass palanquins for when the idols are taken out in processions. The air is redolent with rising plumes of incense.
Pockets of sacred space still mark this ultra-modern metropolis where economic progress might be a religion, but ancient practices haven’t entirely been left behind. There are more than a million Taoists and Buddhists and hundreds of temples for both sets of worshippers. Though the original inhabitants followed a version of Chinese folk religion, practices seem to be overlaid with strands taken from these different belief systems and subsumed into a general way of life.
In the old district itself there are three tiny temples adjacent to each other, the red and gold lettering announcing them, the ubiquitous red lanterns peppering the doorways and the crumbling ash from the incense sticks filling up the pots.
These temples don’t have priests but attendants who look after them. People wear their footwear when entering, and there are no dress restrictions or other kinds of protocol. In Hong Kong, religion seems to be at its laid-back best.
The most widely worshipped indigenous divinity in the city is Tin Hau, a deity of the ocean, to whom temples across the region are dedicated. Before the British arrived in the 19th century, Hong Kong was in its earliest iteration a fishing village, so naturally she is a prominent goddess in the pantheon.
At the temple in Tai O fishing village, a small settlement of houses on stilts, the unassuming Tin Hau temple is wedged bet-ween homes, the globular Chinese lanterns outside marking it out from the rest. Fruits have been laid before one of the deities, much like in a Hindu temple, and the air has the familiar scent of joss sticks. Tin Hau is front and centre, naturally, but abutting the main sanctum is space for Kwan Yin, the goddess of mercy.
A fisherman sells his day’s fresh catch in the Tai O fishing village that’s home to many temples. Photo by: Huw Jones/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images
Similarly, in one of the oldest Tin Hau temples on Causeway Bay beside Tin Hau are also featured the presiding deities of justice (Bao Kung) and wealth (Choisun). At this more than 200-year-old temple, there are just two worshippers one Monday morning and the staff of three is sitting around, not doing much.
William Tai, one of the caretakers explains what’s what. On one of the outer flanks there is Kwun Yam, which Tai translates to mean Buddha. Really, Buddha in a Tin Hau temple, I wonder aloud. “You don’t know Buddha?” he asks, incredulous. “The Buddhists come from ancient India, thousands of years ago.”
That doesn’t help clear things up. But he remains mystified at my mystification over the Buddha being worshipped in a non-Buddhist temple. “Lots of Buddhas,” he says. “For Taoists, is okay. Is all mixed up.”
This is not the first time I am hearing about this mixed-up culture of belief, where multiple gods can all be worshipped simultaneously, where lines between different belief systems aren’t strictly codified and where there seems to be as much emphasis on scripture as on practice.
“Religion is more philosophy and what you do,” says Vivian Wong, our host from the tourism board during a visit to a religious complex on Lantau Island. “We can worship at different temples.”
She says this as we approach the Po Lin Monastery, facing a giant, 111-foot-tall Buddha. It takes 268 steps to reach the foot of the seated, bronze sculpture. From this point, one can enjoy sweeping panoramic views of the surrounding hills and greenery. The Buddha faces the north, towards China, and was built by a joint initiative between Hong Kong and the mainland.
Across from the Buddha at the monastery and temple, a huddle of visitors is bending over to light and impale their yellow sticks in the large trays at the entrance. Guarded by sentries—each with their own specalisation for keeping louts out—the first room gives way to a courtyard and a larger structure. The complex is big on primary colours and inside is a festive abundance of red. “We don’t only believe in one Buddha,” says Vivian. “We have different Buddhas for different functions.”
I am still not clear on the ubiquitous use of the word “Buddha”—which seems to gesture to a range of divine and semi-divine personas—but trying to pin down the exact meaning is, I suspect, fruitless for the outsider.
Skyscrapers tower over the Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple, a major tourist attraction in Kowloon. Photo by: Tuomas Lehtinen/Moment/Getty Images
Temples and monasteries are one thing. But of course, belief spills out into all kinds of spaces, not just designated sacred ones. As I walk through the city, hints of ritual seem to have infiltrated everywhere.
Outside a soaring, glass-fronted college building, in front of a real estate office, an entire roasted suckling pig lies outside on a tray, along with a few fruits. It seems to be some sort of offering.
Later, passing by a Chinese restaurant in the old central part of town I see a whole, cooked goose, braised in a brownish sauce, neck arched upwards and pointing to the miniature shrine at shin height set up outside. The goose sits atop some sliced meat.
That’s not all. Under a flyover in Wan Chai district, four old ladies have set up temporary spots with idols, offerings and small red stools for customers to sit on. One hands me a placard with an English translation: she’s selling expertise in taking care of evil spirits, it claims. She tries to beckon me. But I demur politely.
is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist. She was previously a beat reporter with the Hindustan Times. She usually writes on criminal justice issues, culture, books and sports.
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