Hong Kong Tin Hau Temples: Hau Kok 口角天后古廟

Evette KWOK_Tin Hau Temple_Tuen Mun_5 MAY 2019

When you get off the train at the terminus at Tuen Mun and descend into the streets, you plunge at once into a canyon of sombre, towering buildings that seem industrial in nature rather than architectural. Through the centre of town, another degraded river — the so-called Tuen Mun River Channel — crawls rather than runs on its way past the Public Cargo Working Area and down to the sea, slightly murky in appearance and bounded in its expanse by the usual snug straitjacket of concrete. For all that, Tuen Mun had no power to shut out the Spring, and it had come to the city with a riot of bird-call in the sliver of park squeezed between Tin Hau Road and the water, and with a fragrant outpouring from purple bauhinia flowers and from those red floral giants sprouting on the leafless, grey-barked, ramrod-straight kapok trees.

The Hau Kok Tin Hau Temple is, according to the signpost, an 11-minute walk away, and I get there in good time, despite the obstacles put in my path by some new construction or renovation project. The word kok in Cantonese suggest a horn of land projecting into water, but perhaps reclamation has obliterated this geographical reality — a casual flick though the Hong Kong street directory will show you that there are many man-made straight lines in the Hong Kong coastline. Given the proximity to the sea, one would expect the worship of the goddess of the sailors to be vital to the locals, and this turns out to be the case: her temple sits against a hill in a large paved public square of considerable proportions, at the entrance to which is a magnificent though modernized ceremonial pai lau gateway. The interesting thing about this is that the matching couplets engraved onto it contain references both to Hau Kok and Tuen Mun, reinforcing the idea that such temples can play an essential role in sustaining not just a local community but in communing with a specific locale. “The region responds to the attention to the attention it receives from the various members of the community”, writes Thomas Berry, and I can only hope that it is so, because like so many other places in Hong Kong, clusters of high-rise apartment buildings are encroaching with grim determination on all sides.

The temple certainly seems to be an important focus for the community: it shows many signs of being well-used. Although hardly thronging with visitors on this special day of the Ching Ming Festival, the large censer in front of the temple is belching incense, as is the incinerator for paper-offerings located off to the left-hand side, next to a squat shrine — this one painted yellow rather than the typical red —  dedicated to 社稷大王之神位 , the two great kings of the land and of grain. The main gates of this temple are painted vermilion, and the door gods have been rendered in a tasteful, antique style. Above the lintel, there are the usual paintings of auspicious animals and natural scenes. As an added bonus, reflecting perhaps the idiosyncratic bent of artist, we also have depictions of two of China’s greatest poets. On the left, Su Tung-p’o is shown “playing” with ink-stones (a less literal and more scholarly translation for the verb waan might be “makes a display of his connoisseurship”), while on the right we see “Li Po Getting Drunk on Wine” but still steady on his feet. To a foreigner, both seem frivolous if not immoral scenes, hardly edifying for the pious temple-goer intent on worship, but they suggest that the pleasures of this life are not incompatible with the upholding of the sacred, and serve as a gentle reminder that from early times, Chinese poetry has been associated with shamanism and journeys into the numinous spirit-world.

Step over the low stone threshold and the jumble of this temple suddenly makes itself felt. Under altar-tables and shoved in corners there are polystyrene boxes and shopping bags and simple piles of paraphernalia. Perhaps to compensate for this, the offerings on the central altars before Tin Hau are more than ample, and before I have been in the place for more than a couple of minutes, a helpful attendant switches on the powerful industrial-style ventilation fans to reduce the oppressive smoke filling the building. I make my bows to the goddess and note that she is the most robust Tin Hau I have seen to date, larger than life-size and clearly not a figure to be fazed by a bit of noisy human machinery. The walls are stained smoke, and so form a stark contrast with the colour and cleanliness of the temple’s exterior surfaces. The effect, though, is deliberate, I think, and contributes to the impression of that the innermost recess of such Chinese religious edifices is supposed to recreate the conditions of a primordial sacred cave or 仙洞 sin dung.

I leave her for the time being to call on the other inhabitants. In the right-hand bay, the God of Wealth occupies pride of place in the centre. On his right is a mysterious Taoist by the name of Immortal Teacher Lee Seun-fung wearing a hat decorated with divination symbols and trigrams. Tucked away in the corner to the left is a couple of small figurines that seem to have something to do with donors to the temple.

Opposite this left-hand bay there is also a very large model of a junk. Being too big to hang on the wall, it sits on a base on the ground. It is similar to others in Hong Kong, but is distinguished from them by the addition of a second much smaller model junk on board the first one. I imagine that this second model represents some kind of altar used by the sailors at sea; the recursive touch cleverly enhances the lifelikeness of the first one by means of this device. Opposite was a large drum, and this was abruptly banged at odd intervals, perhaps to scare malevolent spirits and “foreign ghosts” such as myself out of their wits. In addition, apart from the inscribed boards, there were squares of red paper pasted here and there with hand-written characters. One of these was 大 and 吉, a character not used in the Cantonese language as far as I know, but which makes sense in terms of its two components, daaih meaning “big” and gat, one of the characters meaning “luck”. I noticed too has I approached the temple that there was a very intricate symbol written on paper pasted on its front wall. Although it looked like a Chinese character, it was more in the order of an auspicious symbol: the number of strokes in it alone would make it a highly impractical part of daily language use. I remember seeing the same design on wine-cups used in the War God shrine at the Dak Hing Congee and Noodle Shop in Sha Tin.

Hou Kok Inscribed Stone TWO

 

The temple also forms part of a small park complex. A curious map of the complex, that calls itself in English the Tuen Mun Tin Hau Temple Plaza Braille and Tactile Floor Plan, indicates the presence of a Tin Hau Pavilion on top of the hill, reached by a “hiking trail”. At the last moment, I thought I should pay a visit to the pavilion, so I took the trail leading up the hillside. I hadn’t gone far when I reached a couple of brown boulders mounted on a plinth. The larger of the two, about a metre tall, featured a vertical line of Chinese characters which read, from top to bottom, 莆田德澤 (this seems to mean “The Virtue of Pu-tian County is Illustrious”, but I am not very sure of my reading!). Further up the hill, another boulder awaited me, barely clear of the exuberant jungle overgrowth. On this was carved the whole text of a Confucian work known in English as “The Great Unity” [《禮運大同篇》], a piece described by Derek Lin as “utopian vision of the ideal world: a world of peace and harmony, where prosperity and joy prevail”. When I finally reached the pavilion, I was disappointed both by the lack of a view and the presence of a party of people who had taking over the main tables for the day and who were only just starting to settle in. But then I noticed the thin path leading to a grave nearby, and it was probably fair to assume that these people were family members of the deceased and had a good reason to be there on this particular day of the year.

As I took the path downhill, there were more graves and more people on the descent, but the attitude seemed to be one of respectful bustle rather than solemn mourning. They took a pleasure in fulfilling this duty to their ancestors and were also no doubt looking forward to their reward of a good lunch after the ceremonial part of the day’s proceedings was over. A complementary pair of boulders was waiting on this final part of the journey. This time the inscription read 物阜民安, “Goods Abound and the People Live in Peace”. Well, at least they got the first part right.

4 April 2016

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• When I first saw the old photo of the Hou Kok Temple used in this post, I didn’t recognize it. Things were certainly very different here before the massive urbanization of Tuen Mun.

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