Ditch the shopping malls and skyscrapers and delve into the city’s rich cultural heritage with a visit to one of Hong Kong’s top five temples. Nowhere is better to learn all there is to know about the hopes, dreams, fears and superstitions of this city’s industrious urbanites – especially true during Chinese New Year and important lunar calendar festival dates. While some places of worship have been given a glossy new makeover, many of Hong Kong’s oldest temples have been serving as important community gathering points for hundreds of years.
This quaint collection of villages in Tai Po has been drawing visitors to its Tin Hau Temple and two wishing trees for hundreds of years. Traditionally, festival goers would write their wishes on joss paper and tie it to an orange, which was then tossed up towards one of the banyan tree’s highest boughs – the higher the branch the better the odds of your wish coming true! As the practice became more popular, authorities stepped in to help preserve the trees and visitors are now encouraged to tie wishes to wooden racks nearby instead. Steps away you’ll find a small Tin Hau temple, dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea, which can typically be found in any ancient fishing community in Hong Kong or along the Chinese coastline. Sit down with a fortune teller here if you want to find out about that wish.
Stepping into the Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road is like entering another world, a realm inhabited by the venerable deities of Man (God of Literature) and Mo (God of War) who are worshiped here. Rays of sunlight cut through the rising smoke of giant incense coils hanging low from the ceiling and down onto the altars of the 10 judges of the underworld. Make sure to take in all the details – the lines of descending green Shekwan roof tiles represent bamboo and longevity, while the antique sedan chairs inside were used to carry statues of the gods during festival processions.
Although calling itself a monastery, the name is a bit of a misnomer as there are no resident monks at this eclectic Sha Tin temple. Follow the steep winding path up the hillside, flanked by 500 life-sized Arhand statues to reach the main complex and its 9-story pagoda. Here you’ll supposedly find more than 13,000 Buddha statues – but at this point, who’s counting? – and a few bodhisattvas on horseback for good measure. The main attraction, however, is the preserved body of Yuet Kai, the monastery’s supremely devout founder. Embalmed in lacquer, plastered with gold leaf and dressed in robes, the upright body currently sits on display in a glass case inside the main monastery building.
At Diamond Hill, only one subway stop away from the Wong Tai Sin temple, you’ll find the peaceful and serene Chi Lin Nunnery. In stark contrast to its colorful and brash Taoist neighbor, the Buddhist nunnery exudes calm and tranquility with smooth stone balustrades, lotus ponds and stunning wooden architecture. Inspired by Japanese and Tang Dynasty temples, the elegant series of halls and walkways were constructed without the use of nails, using a complex design of counterweights and dowels. Across the road, the Nan Lian Garden is a scenic oasis amid towering high-rise apartments looming up along the hillside. A relaxing stroll past ancient bonsai trees, koi ponds and meticulously landscaped gardens is the perfect antidote for those needing some time out from the hustle and bustle of the city.
With its bold, red pillars and ornamental latticework, Wong Tai Sin displays all the qualities of the archetypal Taoist Chinese temple. Colorful and noisy, worshipers come year round to pray for good fortune and divine guidance from the “Great Immortal Wong.” Crowds flock here during the Chinese New Year to offer incense, make wishes and visit fortune tellers in hopes of an auspicious and prosperous year to come. Visiting the temple during this time may be interesting from a cultural perspective, but it is certainly not for the faint-hearted. Throngs of people push their way through the winding temple complex in a cloud of smoky incense towards the main altar and gather around stalls selling charms and amulets of all shapes and sizes. It is certainly a once in a lifetime experience, but alternatively, an early morning weekday visit will serve just fine.