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A walk around Hong Kong's most popular temple. Sheep made from stone, stick shaking, good wishes and fortune.
After an enjoyable stroll around the Nan Lian Gardens and the Chi Lin Nunnery, an extremely quick train ride from Diamond Hill to Wong Tai Sin subway station, and then a few steps out of exit B3 I have arrived at my next destination, Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple. Wow! I think it took me longer to say Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple than the time required to get here. Why such the long name? And why did I come here?
The last question first. Why this place? Because I heard on the grapevine that the Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple is one of the most popular temples in town. Also, it is extremely close to other sites such as Nan Lian Gardens and the Chi Lin Nunnery. Three birds, one stone.
The length of the temple name? Well, that's a longer story requiring a bit of research using the official Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple website. Let's break it down:
"Wong Tai Sin": The temple is dedicated to Master Wong Tai Sin (also known as Huang Chu-ping) who was born in Zhejiang Province around 300AD. To be more precise, Wong Cho Ping was born around 300AD and after a few years as a poor shepherd-boy he was blessed by a fairy. The fairy led Wong Cho Ping to a cave and taught him to create a miracle drug from refining cinnabar (a plant extract) nine times. Wong Cho Ping went into seclusion in the cave where he practiced Taoism. After many years he reached enlightenment and became immortal. His brother finally found him 40 years later and boy did Wong Cho Ping have something to show his estranged sibling. Not only was he immortal but Wong Cho Ping could also turn rocks into sheep! Sounds like the sort of guy you would invite to your next barbeque. With these feats Wong Cho Ping was renamed Wong Tai Sin, meaning "Great Immortal Wong". Master Wong Tai Sin is now a popular deity blessed with the power of healing.
"Sik Sik Yuen": From my understanding Sik Sik Yuen is the management body set up in 1921 during the development of the temple site. When directly translated however the first "Sik" means saving or being thrifty with money while the second "Sik" means colourful or human desire. According to the Sik Ski Yuen website, when these two "Sik" are combined it means "Spirituality, Tranquillity, Intuition and Purification". I have no way of comprehending how the Chinese language works, that makes absolutely no sense to me.
"Temple": Because it's a temple silly, but with the Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple you get not one, not two, but three religions. Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism are all worshipped here.
So that's the details out of the way. Time to explore. The first item of interest is the Supreme Paradise Pai-fong (i.e. Gateway), or in Layman's terms the entrance.
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Some of these places really talk themselves up don't they? Back at the Nan Lian Garden there was the Pavilion of Absolute Perfection and now the Supreme Paradise Gateway. Let's just see how supreme this supposed paradise is.
If number of visitors is an indication of the level of supremacy in relation to paradise, the Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple is definitely paradise to the supreme. Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple ... ok I've had enough of typing this long name, I'm going to abbreviated it to SSYWTST, wait that's too long as well ... I'll just call it the "Temple" then. Now where was I, that's right, the Temple is much, much, much, much more popular than the Chi Lin Nunnery. The tranquil setting of the Chi Lin Nunnery and the Nan Lian Garden is now just a distant memory. Now I need to keep my wits about me as I manoeuvre through the mass of people. On the plus side, there is much more to see at the Temple compared to the Nunnery. There is detail and life everywhere.
As I enter I make my donation and go with the flow of the crowd which is headed in the direction of the Main Altar. Before making my way to the Main Altar I admire the 12 zodiac animal statues displayed to the south of the Main Altar. I can't admire for too long as I am bound to get in the way of a family snapshot or a selfie.
Rising above the 12 zodiac animals is the entrance to the Main Altar, the richly decorated Jinhua Heritage Pai-fong.
The platform between the Main Altar and the Jinhua Heritage Pai-fong is a hive of activity and colour. The air is thick with incense and the hovering yellow and red lanterns produce a dramatic effect.
A popular ritual at the Main Altar is the practice of Kau Cim, a type of fortune telling. The process goes a little something like this. First, light some incense and bow to Wong Tai Sin at the altar. Next, grab a free bamboo container which contains numbered sticks within it. With your Kau Cim sticks head to an area where there are cushions to kneel on. In the kneeled position shake the bamboo container until one of the sticks falls out. Exchange this specific stick (along with the remaining sticks and bamboo container of course) for a piece of paper with a number on it. Finally, take your number and some money to one of the many soothsayer stalls next to the Temple for an interpretation of your fortune.
The Main Altar itself was constructed between 1969 and 1973 with major renovations between 2008 and 2011. The altar contains a sacred portrait of Master Wong Tai Sin, wooden sculptures of the Wong Tai Sin story, statues of Gods and images of Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian scriptures.
My favourite aspect of the Main Altar would have to be the rich gold, blue, green and red patterns on the Dougong bracketing system of the roof eves.
The mass of glowing lanterns set against the darkness of the altar building are also a point of interest.
I leave the crowds and the sounds of shaking sticks behind me and head east from the Main Altar towards the Three Saints Hall where there is even more incense burning.
As the name suggests, the Three Saints Hall is dedicated to the worship of three deities: the Buddhist Guan Yin (Kwun Yam or Guan Di) Goddess of Mercy; General Kwan (Guan Yu) God of War and Righteousness; and the Taoist Master Lui (Monk Fairy Lui). Please correct me if I am wrong, I get a little confused as many of the deities have a multitude of names.
In my previous walk around Nan Lian Garden I experimented with my cameras shutter speed to capture the motion of a waterwheel. Time to click to the manual mode and play with the aperture, which influences the depth of field. Using a large aperture opening (low f/stop) I have attempted to capture the burning incense as sharp and in focus and leave the Three Saints Hall in the background blurry. I was trying to create an effect of heat and smoke blurring the Three Saint Hall in the distance. What do you think?
After experimenting with my camera I turned the mode back to automatic and walked south to the Yuk Yik Fountain and the Yue Heung Shrine.
The Yuk Yik fountain is a very popular family snapshot zone and also a prime spot to throw your loose change. The Yuk Yik Fountain was built in 1936, so I wonder how much money has been thrown in over its 78 years of history. Say I take a conservative guess that $HK10 is thrown in every day. That would mean a total of $HK285,000 has sunk to the bottom of the fountain!
I'm not a fountain aficionado but I thought the seven lotus flower design of the Yuk Yik Fountain was brilliant. Not brilliant enough to throw my hard earned Hong Kong dollars at it though.
Next to the Yuk Yik Fountain is the Yue Heung Shrine which is dedicated to the Buddha of Lighting Lamp.
I dare say the predominately red colour scheme of the Yue Heung Shrine represents the fire of the lamp. But if this is a shrine with a fire theme, why is this guy holding an umbrella?
Maybe he is there to protect the fire shrine from the adjoining fountain.
My next point of call is the Good Wish Garden. Is it just me, or is there a wishing and fortune theme developing? Not sure about the "Wish" part of the Good Wish Garden, but it is definitely a Good Garden and probably one of my favourite areas of the Temple. And guess what I found? Yes that's right, sheep made from rocks, just like the ones Master Wong Tai Sin impressed his brother with.
The Good Wish Garden has a typical Chinese garden style with pavilions, ponds filled with koi carp, streams, lotus plants, ornamental bridges, greenery, bonsai, statues and even a waterfall.
The pavilion above looks like the perfect spot to rest my weary legs and plan my next walking attack on Hong Kong. Within the pavilion I sit, rehydrate and research the interwebs until I am disturbed by a Chinese teenage girl gesturing me to take a picture of her and her brother. "No problem" I said, even though I don't think she spoke a word of English. I went to take the camera off her but that wasn't what she wanted. She wanted her brother to take a picture of herself and me. Me? That's a little weird. Maybe see has never seen an early-30's white bald guy with dorky glasses in the flesh before. How strange is it? I would never contemplate asking a random someone for a picture because they are of a different race and culture to myself (I do stick out like a sore thumb at the moment though), but she is a kid so I will give her a break. In hindsight I should have asked for a picture in return, on second thought, asking a teenage girl to take a picture with you is a little weird. Actually, more than a little weird and probably illegal. Anyway, as I write this she maybe showing the picture to her school friends at home and telling wondrous stories of the fabled bald-white man she witnessed in real life. I can just hear her friends now commenting on me ... "why does it look like that?" ... "is that the type of clothes they really wear?" ... "why is there no hair on its head but plenty on its face?" ... "did it smell?" (with all of today's walking my body odour may have been rife).
With my celebrity status now over and the paparazzi departed I make my way out of the Good Wish Garden and the Temple. On the way I pass by the Nine Dragon Wall, a replica of the Nine Dragon Wall at Beihai Park, Beijing.
With all of the wishing and fortune telling associated with the Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple do I feel my wishes have come true? In a way yes, I really enjoyed my time wandering around the temple and it was definitely worth the visit. Upon reflection however not all my luck was good. After my visit I did a bit more research and discovered that there was a high-tech altar, called the Tai Sui Yuen Chen Hall, under the Main Altar that I completely missed. Sure it costs $HK100 to enter, but instead of incense the worshipping is all electronic and the smoke artificial! There are even LED lights and a planetarium-like dome with projections of the Hong Kong sky. So sore I missed it, I guess the wishing Gods were not on my side. If you want to learn more about the Tai Sui Yuenchen Hall take a look at this Wall Street Journal article.
Hopefully my luck will be better at my next destination, Kowloon Walled City Park. Surely there will be no futuristic city built underneath that I will miss. Better do some in-depth research on the train ride.
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