Hong Kong may be lacking in some things – space, affordable housing, income equality and competition between supermarkets to name a few – but one thing the SAR isn’t short of is temples.
It is estimated that there are around 600 temples, shrines and other places of worship dotted throughout Hong Kong’s 18 districts. There are Buddhist temples and Taoist temples, Confucian temples and monasteries. There are churches, mosques and synagogues; Hindu and Sikh temples. There are over 100 temples dedicated to Tin Hau alone, and hundreds more dedicated to a whole host of different Chinese gods and goddesses.
As a link to Hong Kong’s past, they are an essential part of the city’s cultural identity. Whether it’s the history, the architecture, or the legend of its founding, each temple is like a historical document waiting to be explored – a living museum around almost every corner. They are also among Hong Kong’s most visited attractions, hosting thousands of visitors during religious festivals and sitting atop many tourists’ to-do lists. The following are ten of Hong Kong’s best. If you haven’t at least seen some of them, you haven’t really seen Hong Kong.
Wong Tai Sin Temple, Kowloon
When it comes to Hong Kong temples, Wong Tai Sin is arguably the most famous of them all. Dedicated to the 4th century Chinese monk Huang Chu-ping (黃初平), later deified as the Great Immortal Wong, the temple was established at its present site in 1921 after the Taoist priest, Leung Renyan (梁仁菴), attempted to spread the word of Wong Tai Sin by carrying his portrait from Guangdong Province in southern China, to Hong Kong.
Home to not one, not two, but three different religions, Wong Tai Sin Temple (黃大仙祠), is the religious equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet. There are Taoist gods pray to, Buddhist deities to worship, as well as a Confucian temple and library. There are gods of fortune, gods of wealth and even a god of marriage. Not to mention Wong Tai Sin himself. It’s the perfect place for the devoted and the hopeful to hedge their bets and hope something, anything, falls lucky for them in the coming twelve months.
Wong Tai Sin Station: Exit B3. Or bus 113 from Hong Kong Island via Ho Man Tin/Kowloon Tong
Man Mo Temple, Sheung Wan
Located in the shadow of Sheung Wan’s towering apartment blocks, Hong Kong Island’s oldest and most well-known Taoist temple stands as a remnant of the city’s past in the midst of its ever-changing present. Dedicated 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 – Man Mo Temple was built in 1847 during the early colonial period and has been one of Sheung Wan’s most important cultural landmarks ever since.
Thanks to its historical significance, the temple is both a Grade I historic building and a declared monument. With its trademark incense coils hanging from the ceiling and smoke cut through by sunbeams from above, it’s also one of Hong Kong’s most atmospheric temples – a smoky sanctuary from the city outside, still sometimes visited by hopeful students praying for all the help they can get, and a firm favourite of locals and tourists alike.
Sheung Wan Station: Exit A2 via Hillier Street and Ladder Street up to Hollywood Road.
Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery, Sha Tin
Founded in 1949 by the Reverend Yuet Kai, a Buddhist preacher originally from China, Sha Tin’s Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery (萬佛寺) takes the prize for Hong Kong’s strangest temple. Reached via a winding staircase up the hill behind Sha Tin crematorium, the way to the top is a rogues gallery of bizarre Buddha statues, each with its own peculiar expression, all of them remarkable in their strangeness.
When Yuet Kai died in 1965 at the age of 87, his embalmed body (if indeed it really is him), was seated in front of the altar in the main worship hall where it still sits today. Outside, there’s the Grade III listed, nine-storey red pagoda once featured on Hong Kong’s $100 note. There are statues of the Goddess of Mercy, white elephants, blue lions, and a terrace of 18 more representations of the Buddha’s most revered students. There’s even a vegetarian restaurant should you find yourself overcome by hunger amidst all the weirdness.
Sha Tin Station: Exit B. Walk down the ramp and take a left down Pai Tau Street. Take the first right after that and walk to the end of the road. You should see a sign or a passageway at the end of the street from where you will be able to join the path up to the monastery.
Che Kung Temple, Tai Wai
On the road to Sha Tin, close to Tai Wai Station, the largest and most famous Che Kung Temple in Hong Kong can be found. Dedicated to another of those Hong Kong gods that was actually a genuine historical figure rather than an improbable made-up super being, Che Kung Temple is the place to go for some good, old-fashioned warrior worship.
Like Hong Kong’s most famous god Guan Yu, Che Kung made his name as a renowned general, allegedly saving the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) from disaster on numerous occasions, and being worshipped as a god of protection and good fortune ever since. Che Kung even has his own festival, occurring on the second day of the Chinese new year, during which up to 100,000 people will descend on the temple to try and win his favour.
Tai Wai Station: Exit B, cross the road and walk left for around 5 minutes.
Che Kung Temple Station: Exit B, cross the road and walk right for around 5 minutes.
Po Lin Monastery, Ngong Ping, Lantau
Founded in 1906 by three monks from the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu, Po Lin Monastery was originally just a humble set of prayer halls, secluded amongst the cloud-shrouded peaks of Lantau. Yet ever since the completion the Tian Tan Buddha statue (the world’s largest) in 1993, the site has become one of the most important Buddhist temples in Hong Kong, as well as one of the city’s most visited attractions.
With its orange-tiled, double-rooved prayer halls, Po Lin Monastery has more of a feel of a mainland Chinese temple than most others found in Hong Kong. Home to several dozen monks at a time, many of whom have made the pilgrimage from the mainland to study and worship at Po Lin, the temple is a living breathing place of worship, at which tourists mix with devotees, incense swirls, and the Lantau Peaks add an extra touch of atmosphere to the prayerful scene. There’s even a vegetarian restaurant for when all that sightseeing has worked up an appetite.
Tung Chung Station: Exit B then bus No. 23 to Ngong Ping.
Ferry to Mui Wo from Central Pier 6, then bus No. 2 to Ngong Ping.
Pak Tai Temple, Cheung Chau
A Grade I historical building, Pak Tai Temple was built in 1783 and dedicated to its eponymous deity by the earliest settlers of Cheung Chau. Worshipped as a Taoist god of the sea by the island’s seafaring residents, Pak Tai is said to have helped to banish a particularly nasty plague that hit the region in 1777 and has been keeping bad news at bay ever since.
The temple is the oldest and most important on the island, as well as being the site of the mad scramble that is the Cheung Chau bun festival on the eighth day of the fourth month of each lunar year. The most recent renovations were completed in 2003, yet despite some of the brickwork looking a little less than historic, the cool mosaic scenes and ceramic figures on the front of the building are some of the most impressive in Hong Kong. There are also several Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) artefacts and a Song Dynasty (960–1279) iron sword inside. Cool.
Cheung Chau ferry from Central Pier 5 and head left along the promenade after you arrive.
Tin Hau Temple, Yau Ma Tei
Located right in the thick of the Kowloon action, it’s hard to believe Yaumatei’s Tin Hau Temple ever so much as heard the sea lapping in the distance, let alone once stood on the waterfront. But where 150 years of land reclamation has entirely changed the city around it, despite the shoreline these days being almost three kilometres away, the temple has remained a key part of the Central Kowloon heritage and a focal point of local Yaumatei life.
Dedicated primarily to southern China’s most famous Goddess of the Sea Tin Hau, the Yaumatei Tin Hau Temple is actually not one, but a complex of five different buildings, each with its own particular character. Tin Hau, Kwun Yum and Shing Wong are all worshipped here. There are also countless smaller statues and figurines of various other curious characters cluttered about the altars. Listed as a Grade I historic building since June 2000, it’s a smoky mish-mash of incense and icons, and arguably the most interesting of all the Tin Hau temples in Hong Kong
Yaumatei Station: Exit C and walk south.
Chi Lin Nunnery & Nan Lian Garden, Diamond Hill
Located one stop from Wong Tai Sin in the shadow of Kowloon Peak, Chi Lin Nunnery is a curious temple. You’ll most likely find it mentioned in the guide books. You’ll most likely find it on most lists like this. You may imagine it to be the “oasis of calm amidst the high-rises” that many report, a place where the old East meets West cliché rings true. Some people love it for these very reasons, and for the most part, the descriptions are accurate. For others, however, the experience turns out in actuality to be a little more … “meh.”
Established in 1934 and renovated as recently as 2000, Chi Lin Nunnery has all the usual suspects of Buddhist worship. The Maitreya Buddha, Sakyamuni Buddha, and the ever-popular Goddess of Mercy are here, all housed in Tang Dynasty-style wooden halls. It’s certainly a contrast to the apartment blocks rising in the background, though the slightly sterile, recently renovated feel, may come as a disappointment to some. For many, the adjacent Nan Lian Garden, with its harmoniously landscaped ponds, rocks and pagodas, is the more enjoyable attraction. Maybe a combined trip to the far more authentic Wong Tai Sin temple nearby is the best way to see the two.
Diamond Hill Station: Exit C2 and follow the signs.
Bus 116 from North Point via Causeway Bay
Hung Shing Temple, Wan Chai
A cool little temple in the middle of Wan Chai, Hung Shing Temple is dedicated to the upstanding Tang Dynasty official (AD 618-907) Hung Hei, worshipped as a god of the southern seas and protector against disaster. Built around the middle of the 19th century along the eastern end of Queens Road on what was originally the Wan Chai shoreline, the temple is another of those survivors from a different age around which the city has risen regardless.
As well as being one of the most well-known Hung Shing temples in Hong Kong, it is also unique in that it is actually built into the rockface onto which it backs. Indeed, the huge boulder on top of which the right-hand side of the building rests, cannot only be clearly seen from the outside, it makes a surprise appearance in the inside as part of the main altar. Listed as a Grade I historic building since 1987, Hung Shing Temple is also part of the Wan Chai Heritage Trail, established in 2009 in order to promote the local culture, history and architectural heritage of Hong Kong’s oldest district.
Wan Chai Station: Exit A3, then make your way south to Queen’s Road East and the temple at No. 129-131.
Bus No. 10 running from Sheung Wan to North Point via Queen’s Road.
Kwun Yam Temple, Hung Hom
As one of Asia’s most recognisable and widely worshipped gods, Kwun Yam also known as Kwun Yum, Kwan Yin or more commonly Guan Yin the Goddess of Mercy, is one Hong Kong deity that isn’t short of altar space. But of all the shrines and temples throughout the city dedicated to this most compassionate of gods, the most famous of them can be found just off the East Kowloon Corridor on the northern edge of Hung Hom.
Worshipped as a Taoist rather than a Buddhist god in Hong Kong, Kwun Yam is generally celebrated on the 19th day of the second, sixth, ninth and eleventh months of the lunar calendar. Yet these pale in comparison to the 26th day of the first lunar month during which thousands of people descend on the temple in the belief that on this day, the goddess will open her “treasury” in order to grant loans for the coming year for those that come bearing gifts. Paper offerings are burnt, prayers are said, and food overflows the altar as the police control the crowds outside. Who knows if any of these “loans” are ever granted. But it certainly hasn’t stopped people trying.
Bus 116 from Hong Kong Island to Valley Road, Hung Hom. Check the map for details.
Related Posts: For more on Hong Kong’s best temples, see category: hong kong temples
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