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.