Ah On (main picture) and Dick Ho (insert)

(Adapted from HK magazine: http://hk-magazine.com/feature/losing-our-religion, December 5th, 2008)

Even our gods aren’t spared from our relentless urban redevelopment, writes June Ng.

Chai Tin Tai Shing—also known as the Monkey God—is said to be one of the few Taoist deities that can possess a human being in order to issue orders or guidance to our earthly realm. Legend has it that during a 1968 ritual, the Monkey God himself chose the site for the Tai Shing Temple in Sau Mau Ping, a squatter village known as Tai Shing Tsuen that once sheltered many Chiuchownese and Fukienese immigrants. The temple became the largest of four such buildings in the area, earning it the nickname Tin Shun Tseun, or “Village of Gods.”

Forty years later, however, the gods have been evicted. The government is planning a $3.3 billion development project at Anderson Road in Kwun Tong, in between Sau Mau Ping Road and Anderson Quarry. The land is to be converted into a residential area, including a public housing estate that can accommodate 48,000 people. The temples, while not on the site of the proposed buildings, stood in the way of a major road linking the area to the center of town.

The government first announced its development plan in 2000, but Sau Mau Ping residents tried to persuade authorities to change the design in order to preserve the temples. “We don’t object to building a public housing estate because it’s good for the people,” says Lam Cho-shut, chairman of the Tai Shing Temple Committee. “It’s possible to change where to build a road. But the government refused our suggestion because it might cost an extra $30 million.”

In the end, the Committee finally agreed to rebuild the temple along Po Lam Road. But when Joy Wong, a contributor to the blog “Living in Kwun Tong” (kwuntong.wordpress.com), and a photographer friend went to visit the temple cluster, she was shocked to find only ruins. “It’s heartbreaking to see that things in your community can disappear like that,” she says. “Something that’s always there and you never pay attention to, but once it’s gone you realize its significance.” Within three months, she says, all traces of the temples were gone.

So where are the gods now? Tai Shing Temple, together with its two neighboring temples, is in an old shipping containter until the Lands Department completes foundation work on the new site. (The Tin Hau Temple, which had honored the goddess of the sea, has ceased to exist after the temple master decided not to run it anymore.) But it’s not worship as usual. “At first they wouldn’t let us display the incensory for paper offerings to our gods, because the authorities say the land is for warehouses—which are for storage purposes only,” says Lam. “And people have to stay five meters away from the slope for safety reasons, even though the perimeter is already surrounded by fences. So how can people have space to walk in and worship the gods?”

It’s easy to dismiss such worship as sheer superstition with over-the-top rituals—worshippers, for example, might ask the Monkey God to possess them and then perform acts such as washing their face with boiling oil, walking on burning charcoal, or climbing a ladder made of blades with their bare feet. Some believe drinking the ash of paper offerings can cure diseases. But Cheung Sui-wai, a history professor at the Chinese University, sees these rituals as part of Hong Kong’s cultural heritage, reflecting the lives of early non-Cantonese immigrants such as the Chiuchownese and Fukienese. “A lot of new immigrants did not speak Cantonese, but only in their own dialects,” he says. “So the district temples naturally became essential places for them to socialize.” While times have changed, that sense of community has not. Residents of Sau Mau Ping still celebrate the Monkey God’s birthday, although on a smaller scale this year after the basketball court they had been using was torn down.

The Tai Shing Temple’s case is not unique—according to Kwun Tong district councilor Lau Ting-on, there are approximately 23 temples in East Kowloon, some of which will be affected by redevelopment in Kwun Tong and Ngau Tau Kok. Lau stresses that he is not opposed to redevelopment, but that a balance should be struck between urban development and traditional culture, as temples bear significant historic value and provide comfort to early non-Cantonese immigrants. Lau is even planning to write a book detailing the stories behind the district’s temples.

When asked whether they would help preserve temples under threat, the Home Affairs Bureau’s Chinese Temple Committee (CTC) replied, “All properties/structures including temples affected by urban redevelopment projects shall be dealt with by the project proponents concerned in accordance with the law. This falls outside the purview of the CTC.” And, in actuality, the CTC only directly administers 24 temples, most of them already graded historical buildings—which means most small temples like this one in Sau Mau Ping pass by unnoticed. The CTC also refused to say whether any surveys had been done on the conservation value of temples in Hong Kong.

While the structures and related property can be preserved, many of our religious ceremonies are likely doomed to fade away. “The government does not support this intangible cultural heritage, especially religious rituals,” says Professor Cheung. “They respect visitors but not the community. All they think about is whether or not a place has tourist value. The need to provide for religious ceremonies is definitely not accounted for in our urban design.”