King of the Hong Kong Kids: Hongkong by Martin Hürlimann (1962)

Martin Hurlimann Reader Image

My sense is that this book is really primarily about the people of Hong Kong. Since it was published as part of Atlantis Verlag’s “Städtebände” (city volumes), however, it features photographs of much of the typical hardware of the place, arranged in sections such as “In the Harbour of Hong Kong”, “On the Streets of Victoria”, “Around Hong Kong Island” and “In the New Territories”. Hürlimann handles such material expertly, but he only really convinces the reader-viewer of his excellence in the pictures he groups under the heading “DIE KINDER VON HONGKONG (The Children of Hong Kong).

Here, he hardly ceases to amaze with his ability to capture the absorption of children in their reading, in their games, or in the simple pleasure of one another’s company. He was able to do this because in the 1960s children in Hong Kong still lived a large part of their lives outdoors, gathering on the stairs, in the sheltered arcades of shops, or ⸺ as in the image featured in this report ⸺ in small bookstalls. As the relevant caption puts it: “Auf den Treppen der Pottinger Street finden die Buchstände eifrige Besucher”, that is: “Bookstores find eager visitors on the steps of Pottinger Street”.

I can’t read German and, if you don’t either, it poses no obstacle to a deep enjoyment of this work. The written material included here, just from my random sampling with a German to English on-line translator, suggests that it is all informational in type and, as such, can be found elsewhere in English. But if you know German, then it is clear that you will have a mine of Kongological information at your fingertips.

Two sections which particularly appeal to me are in den new territories (In the New Territories) and tempel (Temple). In the former, there are several images of impeccably kept fields near Clearwater Bay Road as well as Fanling, one of a walled village in Kam Tin (which appears to have part of its moat intact), and five images taken on the island of Cheung Chau, including a crowded market scene and an aerial shot (“wie sie sich beim Anflug Hongkongs von Westen her zeigt” = as seen from the approach of Hong Kong from Western [sic]).

The section on temples is tiny, with only two photographs, one of the ever-popular Wong Tai Sin Temple in Kowloon. The second picture shows the main Tin Hau Temple in Sai Kung, and gives you some idea of how things must have looked before the waterfront development took place. It is quite similar to the following image, taken by Bryan Panter in 1957.

Another special feature of this book are the photographs collected under the heading FLÜCHTLINGSSIEDLUNGEN (Refugee settlements), including a very ramshackle squatter village built on the side of a hill. As a contrast, Hürlimann also provides several photos of the new housing estates, often built side by side like wafer biscuits stacked inside their packet. This was the beginning of the massive urbanization that took place in Hong Kong after 1949, but at this stage the apartment blocks were still largely limited to six or so storeys: the residential sky-scrapers of today were yet to appear.

After having read-viewed Hongkong, I was intrigued enough to want to find out more about Martin Hürlimann, and was even more intrigued to discover that there is not a single photograph of him to be found on the internet. Is this something many makers of photographs do, I wondered ⸺ hide themselves in all the photographs they take of other people and places?

In many ways, Hürlimann’s work left me yearning for some lyrical evocation of Hong Kong. Actually, this is quite hard to find, and to date I have only come across traces of it in the writings of Martin Booth on the Buddhist temple of Po Lin (in three of his books: The Dragon and the Pearl, Hiroshima Joe, and Gweilo) and in G.S.P. Heywood’s Rambles in Hong Kong. But there is one colour picture captioned “Die Bucht von Sai Kung” (Sai Kung Bay) that makes up for the want of poetry elsewhere: taken from the top of a hill, it shows green fields running down to the foreshore, then blue, sparkling sea-water, numerous small islands covered in verdant foliage, and then the taller, darker mountains of the larger islands, that eventually dissolve into both sea and sky at the shimmering horizon line. Its impact is rendered all the more powerful in that it reveals something of the natural beauty of Hong Kong that is on the point of being lost to us forever.

My Thor

2018-11-27 Sou Kwun Wat TH RESIZED

I can’t help wanting to give a voice to the thunder —
there is so much more to it than meets the ear —
an authority at odds with “lightning discharge”
and “a large over-pressure of the air”.
It has its own poetry —
thunder’s actual meaning is always on the underside
and overside
of everything it says —
with too much happening at once
for the narrow literal sense
to maintain its dominant sway for long.
Such resonance. Such conviction. Imagine
a human being talking like that, not an atom
of vocal energy suppressed
in the direct act of utterance:
total candour commandingly declared!
The skin tingles in the presence of such force.
Bones rattle vibrantly in their skeleton.
And what about the heart?
From the sludge of exaggerated swamps it is shocked
and, like the rainbow-eyed frog
freshly opened to the storm,
jumps rudely aliver all of a sudden out of its dank and improper element.


Photograph: 香港掃管笏天后古廟 Tin Hau Temple, So Kwun Wat, Hong Kong

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.

Continue reading “Hong Kong Tin Hau Temples: Hau Kok 口角天后古廟”

Tin Hau Temple (Fanling 粉嶺)

Lung Yeuk Tau Tin Hau Temple

香港龍躍頭天后宮 Lung Yeuk Tau Tin Hau Temple, Hong Kong

Incense lit in honour of the Earth God
rings round me. Here I sit —
smoked — on a crude stone bench,
catching my breath, as awareness spins
through simple cycles
of scent-rest-scent-rest-rock.
In the sky-painted forecourt,
a humble tap drips deep in the hush,
and a fern, deeper,
squarely on one wall,
grows in recognition of the part
chance and disorderly vegetable life
play in this world.
Two pygmy demons, wild
dogs’ eyes goggling,
brandish serrated swords
as protectors of the Sea Goddess —
a stern empress — serene, unworldly
in her sombre cave. Electric
red-flame candles
and a neat building of oranges
glow from the altar
through gloom, but still
this faceless atmosphere puzzles prayer:
I have nothing of my own
worth adding. What can I do
but align the straying needle
of my noise patiently
to the temple’s faint magnetism
and hope it strikes root in dark’s —
deeper — indirection?

Chinese Temple (Fan Lau 分流)

Fenlau Tin Hau Temple_1 JUL 2018

There are no doors: it’s a temple
to gods elemental in their way as air and light,
supernatural and so naturally indifferent
to prim domestic space. The altar
against the back wall is garish crimson red;
the votive candles on it powered by electricity
burn day and night with all-too-human flame.
The only hint of scripture is in the signs of black mould
that wear the white-wash thinly.
In a corner, the caretaker’s broom and shovel
gradually gather dust. A rough-hewn wooden stool
the delight of childhood
sits there for those who need a moment of gloom
to pray to. At the right hour,
when Fan Lau seems sunk in shade, incense smokes
the buzz and the hush of the flies.


This is what the temple looked like back in 1998

Temple of the Sea Goddess (Sai Kung 西貢)


2012-09-05 Pak Kong TH Temple Re-sized

A pedestrian on Hiram’s Highway at an inhospitable hour
and with the voluminous sun licking its glint off empty satellite dishes,
I left 西貢 Sai Kung at midday,
disgusted by the cramped tanks of fish crabs cuttlefish
stacked as exhibits outside cavernous seafood restaurants
and took off in search of the temple of 天后 Tin Hau
to doctor the black rainbow.  The day was radiant through acres of sky
clear as the scent from plots vacant with flowering ginger
and ignoring the brash signage pointing out the turn-off
to the Pak Kong Treatment Works with its never-ending filter beds
marked so deceptively sea-blue blue in the grid of my fold-up map,
I wandered instead past a village of junk —
humming a skeleton tune picked up half-learnt from nowhere —
where aerial vines launched themselves into space from out-house roofs
as taps dripped their heart-rate on moss-panelled concrete
into the Earth God’s earth.

Noon’s thick-skinned heat

shivered to the whish of thin jagged water
sluiced in creeks down the sharp-angled slopes
of 馬鞍山 Ma On Shan, green saddle-mountain ridge ridden by winds,
while further along the deserted meander of 北港路 Pak Kong Road [North Harbour],
home without walls to dry estates of insects,
I rolled up my T-shirt over my belly
and invited tall grasses touched only by rain
to tickle sensation back into office-white skin.
Beckoned by a hill-side track fainter than poppy-seed dust,
than the crackle of air through the shell of a derelict spider,
I paid my respects to two well-tended graves:
the impeccable photos on their thoughtful white headstones
gazed straight out to sea and were retouched through cloud-banks each dawn.

At a pumping station, where the road finally halted,
I asked a man washing a sports car with a rag and a red bucket for directions —
he broke into a smile at my broken Cantonese
and pointed to a dot on the map I hadn’t even noticed,
as I burned with memories of 鹹田 Ham Tin’s needle-hot sands
where small lumps of beach-tar stick to the feet in surf
and where the gaunt twin islands of 大洲 Tai Chau and 尖洲 Tsim Chau
loom like door-gods, one squat one sharp,
at an entrance to elsewhere the blood alone visits
when the head is postponed in the shaft of a sun-baking torpor.

On my slow way back, unable to resist the lure of dotted-line short-cuts,
I wound up in a clearing at 狐狸頭 Wu Lei Tau [Fox Head],
where dozing workers sprawled on dark sheets of shade
ignored the intrusion of this wrong-headed pilgrim.
Another short short-cut through low-stone-walled gardens
surrounding neat emerald, vegetable Edens,
doubled-crossed all promise of initial adventure:

行唔通! [“You can’t get through there”]

said a back with its voice turned squarely against me.

When I made it to Pak Kong a second time,
a woman in a car park assured me in English I was close.
Two minutes later, past new close-set houses
patrolled by dogs barbed-wired with fangs,
I found 天后 Tin Hau’s “temple”, shoved into the backdrop
by swank Spanish villas chilly with anti-climax:
it was no more than a cell of bright-tiled cement
shut behind chest-high fencing
(its flimsy string-curtain a curious echo
of the dense fringe that hangs over 天后 Tin Hau’s face).
Mosquito-repellent incense burned distractedly in that blank atmosphere,
smoke circling like a finger that waits for the mind
to recover words it was ready to say,
but lost in a detour beyond reach of the ablest syllables —
pilgrimage of another kind, to the root of the tongue . . . And then?

Needless to say, I found no trace of 天后 Tin Hau, apart from her name.
I suspect, however, that sometime earlier —
immersed in the rich information of the unfolding landscape
like pallid newts in the pools of 大埔滘 Tai Po Kau
poised in their spacewalk through shatter-proof crystal
but inwardly still to the tics and semantics of current —
I’d sensed an aura of her presence in the sight of a jet-black butterfly
perched in self-delight on a glistening dog-turd,
doubling the sun with the iridescent sheen on its wings,
and quivering to music I once heard myself near 狗肚山 Kau To Shan [Dog Belly Hill],
music that plays from depths in the listener’s nerves
so much more than it does in the ears of “the outside world”,
indelible — auditory — phosphor.