Giving Oneself to Place • Intimacy and Hong Kong Temples (Part I)

2017-11-17 Little Temple Tsz Tin Tuen Mun II

Temple at Tsz Tin Tsuen, Tuen Mun (2017)


The Shrine of the Earth

Tsz Tin Tsuen 紫田邨 is a small village in the north-western part of Tuen Mun. Its name means “purple fields” in Cantonese. Like virtually everywhere else in Hong Kong’s New Territories, Purple Fields is undergoing intensive “development” and has virtually completely lost its former identity as a farming community. As I made my way up a gentle slope to the entrance, I got a clearer view of new housing estates towering pristine over squat local buildings: the first one I encounter is called Luk Tin Lau 綠田邨 or “Green Fields Estate”, the name a painfully ironic reminder of what once existed where now only a geometrical conglomerate of concrete, glass, and metal stands.

Opposite, overcast in its deep shadow, sits a modest residence probably dating back to the 1950s and bearing the name of Chau Yun 秋園 (Autumn Garden). In this case, however, the name remains true to substance: some of the trees planted around the one-storey dwelling are beginning to shed their leaves, although on this particular day it still feels intensely like Summer. The contrast in design, in scale, in aspiration is simply overwhelming. I had come to Purple Fields primarily to track down a few rough paths (marked on my map with dotted lines) so as to get off the beaten track out to some remoter places, but with all the construction work in progress and the complete transformation of the terrain, finding any of them proved to be impossible.

I bowed my head, partly in resignation to progress, as I passed under the fine formal gate that marks the way in to the village proper, and meandered along the winding main street, lined with unassuming houses and a si do 士多 (“store”) or two which were yet to open for business. Before too long, on a corner block, something caught my eye: a neat, tiled building with couplets engraved in stone on either side of the open ground-floor recess. An altar was just visible through the gloom at the back, and on it were oil-burners, candles, a vase containing the long stems of luxuriant green-leafed lucky bamboo [富貴竹], and dishes piled with cumquats (from the Cantonese gam gat or “golden good luck”). Pink-sticked incense burned in a small bowl of sand just outside the entrance.

I was slightly puzzled by the fact that the temple did not appear to be dedicated to any particular god, but this did not really matter, because the four-character horizontal inscription on the lintel, marked with five pieces of fresh-looking red and gold lucky paper, bore the following remarkable message:

The Divine and the Human, Together in Delight

Without demeaning the supernatural powers, and without at the same time exalting the human beyond the limits of its station, this plain phrase assumes a wonderful intimacy between the two realms. There is undoubtedly reverence implicit in the physical appearance of the shrine — all is spotlessly clean and in perfect order — but there is no trace of the abject piety that so often infects our mortal response to the numinous. I recall to this day my shock and lingering pleasant surprise when I read a passage written by the great modern Chinese translator of Balzac Fu Lei 傅雷 in which he expresses his dislike of the grovelling element in the music of Bach. In this brief Chinese inscription, with its emphasis on mutuality and delight, we are transported to a realm that is so completely unlike that familiar scenario in which a sinful human being kneels in self-abasement before a wrathful deity. There is a hint here at a saner attitude, as well as a much more charming one, in which human pleasure is not necessarily contrary or offensive to the incomprehensible forces that shape this planet.

Continue reading “Giving Oneself to Place • Intimacy and Hong Kong Temples (Part I)”