A Diverse Bunch
The streets of Hong Kong are well known for being the quintessential commercial Mecca – a neon-bathed chaos of shoppers and shops to which the faithful journey in their droves to worship at the altar of consumerism. But they are also a cultural treasure trove just waiting to be tapped, a window onto 3000 years of Chinese history through which a whole new world of spiritual enlightenment awaits those who take the time to look. Maybe.
In shrines and temples, on streets and street corners throughout the city, a wealth of history, characters, stories and legends, are contained in the endless array of colourful figures seemingly cluttered together at random. It’s surprising what you miss when the world isn’t annotated. But once you know your big heads from your red faces, once you can tell your Tin Hau’s from your Pak Tai’s, what looks like a jumble of portraits and porcelain becomes something far more worthy of a passing glance.
Hong Kong’s gods and goddesses are a diverse bunch. There are Taoists and Buddhists, a couple of Confucians, and many more whose affiliation could be described as loose at best. Gods of different religions often occupy the same temples, and since different gods serve different purposes depending on the situation, Hong Kongers have no problem praying to a variety of gods at any one time. Gods of happiness may sit next to gods of war, gods of the sea may sit next to gods of the city. It’s just a matter of knowing who’s who and who does what. So without further ado, here are ten of the best.
1. Guan Yu (關羽), God of Honour and Slayer of Demons
There can be little doubt that if our Hong Kong Gods were ever to organise for themselves a popularity contest, Guan Yu would be pushing top spot every time. One of the best known Chinese historical figures and one of the most recognisable Chinese Gods, Guan Yu was renowned for his strength and bravery and his deep loyalty to both his men and his master Liu Bei (劉備).
Most often depicted with his distinctive red face and trademark sword, Guan Yu can be found in temples, restaurants, shops and businesses throughout Hong Kong. As a mighty warrior, he is said to protect against ill fortune. As a loyal general, he is the defender of integrity. While as a symbol of righteousness, he is worshipped by everyone from the Hong Kong police force to members of the criminal underworld.
The Chinese God for all occasions, since his appearance in the epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Guan Yu’s escapades have become as much a part of popular Chinese culture as those of the Knights of the Round Table in the West. Every Chinese knows Guan Yu, and in southern China, Taiwan and Hong Kong in particular, he is worshipped far and wide.
2. Tin Hau (天后), Taoist Goddess of the Sea
You know you’re doing okay when you’ve got an MTR station named after you. And with over 60 Hong Kong temples dedicated to your name, an MTR station is the least you could expect in recognition of your years of hard work.
As a city reliant on the sea throughout its history, it is unsurprising that Tin Hau has long been one of Hong Kong’s most important deities. Protecting the fishermen and seafaring communities that have sustained Hong Kong since its early days, many of the city’s Tin Hau temples may now be rather less close to the shoreline than they were originally, but they are no less important to those that depend on her protection.
Of the many Hong Kong Temples dedicated to Tin Hau, three in particular deserve a mention: The Tin Hau Temple of Tin Hau Station fame is probably the most well known, but much more interesting is the Tin Hau Temple of Temple Street fame in Yau Ma Tei. While the Tin Hau Temple at Joss House Bay, is the oldest and the largest Tin Hau Temple in Hong Kong and the destination for the thousands of visitors that arrive each year to pay their respects on the day of Tin Hau’s birthday.
3: Wong Tai Sin (黃大仙), Taoist God of Fortune
The eponymous deity of arguably the most famous temple in Hong Kong, Wong Tai Sin is the beneficiary not just of having an MTR station named after him, but of having an entire Hong Kong district dedicated to his name.
Originally a 4th century Chinese monk going by the name of Huang Chu-ping, he was, according to his own account, “just a poor boy from a poor family.” Growing up in Zhejiang Province, China, he became a shepherd when he was young, and was visited, it is said, by an immortal who gave him the gift of immortality. He began practicing Taoism and was later deified as the Great Immortal Wong on Red Pine Hill.
These days, Wong Tai Sin is the go-to god for those seeking good fortune and guidance in their everyday lives. Wong Tai Sin’s birthday on the 23rd day of the 8th lunar month, is one of the busiest times of the year at the temple where “every prayer is answered”. Even more chaotic, however, is Chinese New Year, when thousands of people turn up hoping to be the first in line to offer their prayers as soon as midnight strikes on New Year’s Eve.
4. Guanyin (觀音), Goddess of Mercy
Predominantly a Buddhist figure, Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, is another of those gods that seems to pop up everywhere. Sitting cross-legged on her lotus leaf, dressed in her familiar white robes, she is said to be the embodiment of compassion – a Bodhisattva on a mission to cure the sick, protect the vulnerable and stamp out suffering the world over.
Usually shown with a vial of purifying liquid in her left hand and a willow branch in the other, her task is to apply her benevolence to granting the requests of all those praying for good health and guidance. She has even been depicted in one Buddhist legend with a thousand eyes and a thousand hands enabling her to perceive all the world’s suffering at once.
Among the many Hong Kong temples dedicated to Guanyin, the most well-known is probably the Kwun Yum Temple in Hung Hom, which sees thousands of worshippers turning up on the 26th day of the first lunar month for the Kwun Yum Treasury Opening Festival and the opportunity to spot the goddess for a hand-out on this most auspicious day.
5. Man Cheong (文昌) & Mo Tai (武帝), Gods of Literature & War
Man Cheong and Mo Tai, the gods of Literature and war respectively, are more often known by the stage name Man Mo when performing together. In Man Mo temples across Hong Kong, they can be seen doing their thing, most of which involves getting dusty with incense smoke and stolidly accepting the fruity gifts that are placed at their feet. But still, the punters just keep coming back for more.
We’ve come across Mo Tai already under his more common name Guan Yu. Usually seen in Man Mo temples wearing his green robes, with his familiar sword by his side, he is joined by the red robe-wearing Man Cheong who carries a pen. Both were traditionally worshipped by those studying for the civil examinations during the Ming and Qing dynasties in imperial China, and even these days, it is still not uncommon for students or parents to come offering prayers in the hope of academic success. The Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road in Sheung Wan is one of the most famous temples on Hong Kong Island and a grade I listed building too.
6. Che Kung (車公), The Good Luck God
Like many of the gods on our list, Che Kung was an actual historical figure, who lived during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) and made his name as a military general. Said to have spent his time suppressing uprisings, protecting emperors, and generally serving as a one-man dynasty-saving badass, upon his arrival in Hong Kong, he is also said to have saved the residents of Shatin from a rather nasty plague that was threatening the area. So indebted were the Shatinians to Che Kung’s plague-defeating powers, that they built a temple in his honour in which he has been worshipped as a god of protection and good fortune ever since.
Hong Kong’s largest and most Che Kung Temple can be found in Tai Wai – the venue for the annual Che Kung Festival carnage, as up to 100,000 people turn up to celebrate Che Kung’s birthday. On the second day of the lunar new year, worshippers will battle the crowds, negotiate the police, and place their edible offerings at the feet of Che Kung in the hope that at some point in the coming twelve months, they may win $40 on Mark 6, thus proving that Che Kung’s powers of benevolence know no bounds.
7: Choi San (財神), Chinese God of Wealth
Another favourite of the New Year period, Choi San (財神) is the money god extraordinaire. On posters, and decorations, in statue form or on TV, Choi San is instantly recognisable with his little crock of gold and his funny little hat. He’s even got his own amazing song that every Hong Konger could sing by heart if you asked them nicely.
There seems to be no clear account of Choi San’s background. According to one story, he was originally a hermit by the name of Zhao Gongming, who was said to have employed his particular brand of sorcery to stave off the collapse of the Shang Dynasty in the 12th century B.C. Another has him as Bi Gan, who was put to death by the last Shang emperor Zhou Xin after he criticised the emperor’s dissolute ways. But whatever the legend, a little prayer to the god of wealth should never be too far away if you want to keep your fortunes in check.
Choi San is not, however, a celestial cash machine. As the song says, it is your good intentions that will be rewarded. You will find fortune if you follow the right way, not by expecting riches to land in your lap. He may be one of Hong Kong’s most popular gods, but a pushover he ain’t.
8. Pak Tai (北帝), Taoist God of the Sea
Another God of the Sea, Pak Tai (北帝), or the Northern Emperor, is said to have been introduced to Hong Kong via settlers from Guangdong province, whose safe journey south was achieved with his blessing.
A Shang Dynasty prince according to legend, Pak Tai was appointed commander of the Twelve Heavenly Legions by the Jade Emperor to help in the fight against the dreaded Demon King wreaking havoc across the kingdom. Upon defeating the Demon King, Pak Tai was given the title Yuen Tin Sheung Tai (玄天上帝), or Dark Heavenly Emperor, and has been worshipped for his disaster-averting powers ever since.
Usually depicted with long hair and beard, wearing golden armour under his ceremonial robes, his bare feet are often found resting on the tortoise and serpent sent out by the Demon King to defeat him, signifying the triumph of good over evil. Hong Kong’s most famous Pak Tai Temple can be found on the island of Cheung Chau and is the site of the annual Cheung Chau Bun Festival.
9. Shou Xing Gong (壽星公) – Chinese God of Longevity
One of the three wise men of the Chinese heavenly realm, Shou Xing Gong is one of the most peculiar looking of all the Chinese gods, and earns his place in our list because of it. Along with Fu Xing (福星) and Lu Xing (禄星), Shou Xing (壽星) belongs to the three star trinity of happiness, prosperity and longevity, which together are said to be the three most important elements of a good life.
Represented by the south polar star in Chinese astronomy, Shou Xing is the wisest of the three, and is believed to be responsible for determining the life-span of those of us here on earth. Always depicted carrying his gnarly old staff and the Peach of Immortality, the Old Man of the South Pole is said to have spent nine years in the womb and been conceived when his mother espied the south star in the sky, which subsequently disappeared from view.
Today, Shou Xing and his big baldy head are particularly important symbols during birthdays of family old folk, and more generally, when praying for their continued good health. You won’t find any temples specifically dedicated to the Three Star Gods in Hong Kong, but in streets shrines and temples around the city, their statues – and especially that of Shou Xing – will usually never be too far away.
10. Laughing Buddha (笑佛), God of Happiness
Also known as Budai (布袋), the Laughing Buddha may look like one of those blokes that throw on a brown blanket and go begging in Lan Kwai Fong, but he is in fact the living embodiment of Maitreya, or the future Buddha. Traditionally a fat bald guy with a big smile and a pot belly, Budai is known as a god of happiness and contentment. Usually carrying a cloth sack in which his meagre possessions are kept, he is typical of the Buddhist worldview in which the cultivation of the soul, rather than the accumulation of material wealth, is an essential virtue on the path towards enlightenment.
Said to be based on an eccentric Chinese monk who lived around the year 900, it was Budai’s benevolent nature that led him to be regarded as the Buddha to be. Nowadays, his image can be found in homes and offices, shops and restaurants, and anywhere else an extra bit of happy feng shui wouldn’t go amiss. You can even try rubbing his belly for good luck. Just make sure it isn’t one of those Lan Kwai Fong guys.