Gods, smoke and incense at Hong Kong Island’s most famous temple
A Guardian of Permanence
When you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all. Or so the saying goes. And while that may be true of some Hong Kong temples, there are others which you can’t let such a notion allow you to miss.
Located in Hong Kong Island’s Sheung Wan district, beneath towering apartment blocks on a road lined with art galleries, antique shops and trendy western bars, Man Mo Temple (文武廟) stands as a guardian of permanence against Hong Kong’s ever-changing urban landscape.
The largest temple of its kind in Hong Kong, it is the oldest and most well known Taoist temple on the island. It was built in 1847 during the early colonial period and is dedicated primarily to the two gods from which it takes its name – Man Cheong (文昌), the god of literature, and Mo Tai (武帝) the god of war.
As the god of literature, Man Cheong was traditionally worshipped in Imperial China by revision-weary scholars hoping to pass the civil examinations for entry into Ming and Qing Dynasty officialdom. Even now it is not uncommon for students to offer a prayer or two in the hope of academic success.
Man Cheong can be seen inside the temple wearing a red robe with a golden hand holding a pen on display in front of him, while Mo Tai, is the green robe-wearing god, not the one in red, as many accounts mistakenly have it. A large golden sword stands in front of him and there is even a black and white photograph of a bearded look-a-like next to the statue if any further identification were needed.
Man Cheong & Mo Tai
Indeed, Mo Tai, better known as Guan Yu or Guan Gong, is probably one of the most well-known gods in all of Hong Kong. Recognisable in most representations by his red face, long beard, and enormous sword (not a euphemism), he is traditionally seen in the West as being venerated as a military god or god of war, but this would be to oversimplify things.
As a renowned warrior, Mo Tai is worshipped in some instances as a slayer of demons. He is also sometimes worshipped as a god of wealth since he is believed to bless and protect businesses from ill fortune. More often, however, as a military general faithful to his warlord master and loyal to his men, he is seen as an upholder of the code of brotherhood, honour and righteousness. As such, Mo Tai is worshipped by the police and by underground criminal societies alike as a protector of bonds and a guardian of the loyalty such organisations demand. There is even a shrine to Mo Tai in every Hong Kong police station.
Man Mo Temple then, can be seen as the literature (文) and military (武) temple (廟). In Putonghua, the Wen Wu Temple (Wén Wǔ Miào). Due to its social and cultural importance, the temple is both a Grade I historic building and a Declared Monument. There are statues and shrines to its two principle deities. There are the two sedan chairs on display, carved in 1862, that were once used to carry the Man Cheong and Mo Tai statues around town during festivals. There is also a bronze bell cast in 1847, and a similarly antique drum, which were used to attract the gods’ attention from their other otherworldly matters during the offering of prayers. But perhaps what is most remarkable about Man Mo Temple, is all of that incense.
Three Buildings, One Temple
Hanging in giant, yellow coils from the ceiling of the main hall, incense burns to feed the gods as sunbeams cut through the smoke. The coils are bought by worshippers seeking the gods’ benevolence and can burn for weeks at a time, the smoke being said to carry worshippers’ prayers to heaven.
Of all of the many Hong Kong temples, the effect of the smoke and the sunlight casting beams across the hall as the coils glow yellow above, is perhaps most impressive at Man Mo Temple. It is this that I wanted to capture on my visit. And despite a lot of standing around getting smoky whilst waiting for the sun, I think I came away with a few decent shots that show the atmosphere of the temple well enough.
As well as the main temple building, there are two smaller buildings next to it, each separated by a narrow alley, which actually makes Man Mo Temple a three building complex. Lit Shing Temple (列聖宫) is to the left of the main Man Mo Temple and is the middle structure of the three, while the Kung Sor (公所) building is on the right-hand side when looking at the temple from the front.
Lit Shing Kung was originally built as a general worship hall for any god the worshipper preferred. It is now home to a pair of golden-masked deities seated on the main altar, together with many smaller statues within the hall, each representing a different god to which prayers can be offered and incense lit.
The Kung Sor building, on the other hand, was once used as a local meeting hall and as the main location for settling disputes within the Chinese community in early colonial Sheung Wan when the newly imposed British law just didn’t do the trick.
It is said that oaths and promises by each party were sworn inside the building before being written on yellow paper and sealed by spilling the blood of a live chicken on the note. The note was then burned and anyone breaking the promise would find themselves befallen by all the wrath the gods could muster. These days, the outer hall of the Kung Sor building contains a far less interesting gift shop and incense store, while the main hall acts as a memorial hall to deceased relatives.
Man Mo Temple is located at 124-126 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong Island
Opening times are 8:00am to 6:00pm daily
Read More: For more on Hong Kong’s best temples, see category: hong kong temples
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