The Tin Hau Temples of Hong Kong

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Last year I visited Hong Kong, a tiny metropolis with a big personality. It’s the kind of city I like–boisterous, crowded, diverse. The food is excellent and there is no dearth of green spaces, although the humidity can be overwhelming. I am sure I’ll post again about some of these aspects, but today I want to share some photos of the Tin Hau temples.

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These temples are dedicated to the Chinese patron goddess of seafarers, Mazu. Since Hong Kong is a harbor city—in fact, Hong Kong means “fragrant harbor”—it makes sense that it has more than a hundred Tin Hau temples. Similar temples exist in other coastal areas in China and neighboring southeast Asian countries. Apparently, there are around 1,500 Mazu temples in 26 countries. A popular goddess, indeed! Perhaps that’s goddess Mazu below with the two guardian generals known as “Thousand Miles Eye” and “With-the-Wind Ear”?

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One of the striking things about the temples in Hong Kong is how they visually contrast with the surrounding monochromatic city life. It’s such a pleasant surprise to chance upon an old incense-laden courtyard with its red lanterns and turquoise roofs, right in the middle of those ubiquitous skyscrapers.

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Something amazing that I first saw in these Hong Kong temples, and have subsequently noticed elsewhere in southeast Asia, is these huge spirals of incense hanging from the temple roof. Do you see the round plate underneath each spiral? That’s meant to catch the ash as the incense burns away; neat, right? Imagine standing in an old dark cool room with hundreds on these fragrant spirals burning on top of you, enveloping everything in a smoky haze—it’s truly mesmerizing.

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The priests didn’t speak any English, but they very kindly let me peek at everything and take as many photos as I wanted. Here’s a register where they record the donations. It reminded me of the bahi khata registers used by shopkeepers all over India.

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They also have several fortune-telling devices inside the temple, e.g., these wooden nibs, each of which is inscribed with a message; you are supposed to pick one out and then the priest deciphers the message for you! I did try it out, but can’t remember now what the priest told me (with the help of a fellow temple-goer who kindly acted as a translator).

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Most temples I visited had an in-house shop that sold incense, beautifully colored candles, oil, bundles of auspicious paper that is meant to be burnt, and several other items that are needed for various rituals and ceremonies. They are quite similar to the Hindu temples in this regard. I am mostly an atheist, but I do enjoy these paraphernalia of worship.

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But my favorite part, by far, was the walls full of tiny photos—they are shrines of love and memories, where people come to offer flowers and fruits and sweets and drinks to their ancestors as a way to bridge the unfathomable gap that separates the living from the dead. What a wonderful way to remember the ones we knew and miss! These small rectangular pieces with a stick-on photo serve the same purpose as a tombstone does in cultures that bury their dead, giving people a specific place to “visit” and commemorate their departed. When you lose a loved one, what you miss is their physical presence. And something like a public shrine offers you a substitute—a poor one of course—that feels a little more grounded in the face of impermanence.

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So, if you are in Hong Kong and need some respite from the sensory overload of modern life or a break for your tired feet, I highly recommend a contemplative hour in one of the Tin Hau temples. It doesn’t matter if you are religious or not. Really, what could be nicer than sitting on one of these chairs under a lush green tree on a hot afternoon?

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