Sunday, April 22, 2012

Tourists in the temple

In the 19th and early 20th century, temples in Hong Kong were at least as important for their civic functions as their religious ones - the Chinese populace mistrusted, or were just shut out of, many of the official institutions of the British colonizers. Temples were community centers and law courts, and were particularly active in raising money for hospitals. The Man Mo Temple in Hollywood Road (there are lots of Man Mo Temples around) was built in 1847 and still funds a hospital, with the donations left by worshippers and visitors going towards that. Its central location and historical significance make it a big tourist draw, plus it isn't far from my hotel, so I was drawn.

There's a sign asking visitors not to take photos and videos inside, so I decided to be a good guest and obey that, even though plenty of people around me didn't. Below is a glimpse inside the door from outside. I wish I could have gotten pictures of the food offerings on the altar, including a big bottle of cooking oil and a cellophane-wrapped twinkie.

If I understood what I was seeing correctly, below is an oven in the courtyard for burning spirit money as an offering for deceased relatives in the afterlife.

The view from "Ladder Street" next to the temple - a broad, long, steep staircase climbing the mountainside for several blocks.

Nearby, a more globally familiar institution could be found...

Over in Kowloon, I checked out one of HK's countless temples dedicated to Tin Hau, the goddess of the sea, friend to sailors and fishermen, at least if you burn enough incense to her, I suppose. They're usually located on or near the waterfront - as was this one before the land reclamation that has happened in massive amounts over the past couple centuries made it an inland location.

The Chinese approach to places of worship like this is much more casual than in Christian churches or other Western institutions. The plastic lawn chairs out front where attendants can hang out hint at this. Worshippers wander in and out whenever they feel the need, rather than coming to scheduled services. Temples like this and others would have supplies or building materials stacked in the corner in full view, and counters where attendants would sell incense sticks and other paraphernalia, chattering, smoking or listening to the radio.

Those conical things on the ceiling are enormous incense coils that can sometimes burn for days. The metal trays underneath catch the smoldering ash. The sweet smell of sandalwood incense is one of my main sensory memories of the trip, often mixed with the odor of Chinese barbecued pork.

You'd hardly know from the pictures above that these temple grounds are right in the middle of a roaring urban area. Below, right outside the gate, a purveyor of erotic toys offers his wares with refreshing directness.

Around the back of the temple is this little park.

Playing mahjong or something similar... the rattle of mahjong tiles from windows, open doorways or tabletops in parks is one of my main aural memories of HK.



  1. Goodness, you have updated your blog! ;b

    BTW, you do know, right, that the two temples in this photo-essay are the ones that have appeared in a lot of movies? So many I can't even remember specific titles -- though I do have a very specific visions in my mind of a scene in which Cheng Pei Pei prayed at the Man Mo Temple and another with Ekin Cheng at the temple that gave Temple Street its name... ;b

  2. I'm the Stanley Kubrick of blogging! Big, ambitious projects, sloooow process, and blinding genius.

    I didn't know that, but I guess it figures. Would the Ekin Cheng one have been one of the "Young and Dangerous" movies?