I had come to Hong Kong to visit my sister, who had married an expatriate and was now living a rather enviable life in this vibrant, madly hectic city. With almost three weeks to do my shopping, sight-seeing and lazing about, I had thought I was in for a quiet time; but I hadn’t reckoned on the Monster.
My sister’s precocious 13-year-old daughter thoroughly deserved her nickname. I spent an inordinate amount of time chasing her about Hong Kong as she was delegated to ‘show me the sights’; this often included seeing her back disappearing into a crowd as she yelled “Come on, Auntie!”. Still, we managed to ‘do’ the Peak, Nathan Road, the beach at Repulse Bay, Stanley Market, random open-air markets and at her insistence, Disneyland.
In the midst of all these sight-seeing, my favourite stops were the brief visits we made to the many temples in Hong Kong. I had always admired the colour and vibrancy of Chinese temples and this was my chance to see them in real life.
On that particular day, the Monster decided I should see Man Mo Temple, which was after all the most popular temple in Hong Kong. The numerous tour buses parked near the temple were proof enough of that!
Man Mo Temple itself was a riot of colours: bright red pillars and walls, jade green roof tiles, gold frescoes and indecipherable characters everywhere in all colours of the rainbow. It seemed like there were hundreds of people throughout the temple, adding their own noise and colour to the scene. It was overwhelming and exciting.
The Monster dragged me to a row of stalls nearby, which were apparently the domain of the fortune tellers. On her instructions, I pulled a marked ‘fortune stick’ from a bamboo tube the fortune teller had shook, then used the number to dig out a piece of paper with some more indecipherable characters on it from a row of similarly numbered drawers nearby. The fortune teller then interpreted my fortune from the paper, which I have to say, I’m still waiting to see if it comes true!
I was pondering my fortunes when I realised my niece had gone missing – again – and frantically searched until I found her contemplating two rather ornate sedan chairs. In a calmer moment later on, she mentioned that the chairs had once been used to carry the statues of the gods around the neighborhood but at that particular moment, some firm persuasion was required to prevent said kid from clambering onto a chair and pretending to be a deity. I hastily bundled her into the main temple and sternly warned her that any further nonsense would only be tolerated if it was approved by the deities inside. We then proceeded to examine the statues in the temple, which she pronounced ‘cool’.
I have to admit, I thought they were cool too. I managed to pick out the statue of the God of Literature, Man Cheong, which was wielding a brush. At this point, some explanation was required as to why it was a brush and not a pen; as in the Monster patiently explained to me why the Chinese wrote with brushes, not pens. On the other hand, the statue of Kwan Yu, God of War, needed no explanation, as he looked appropriately fierce with his red face and brandishing a sword.
Having done some surreptitious reading beforehand, I was able to airily inform my niece that the Kwan Yu’s red face represented loyalty and righteousness and that he was such a popular god that every police station in Hong Kong contained a shrine to him. Unfortunately, there were also other colourful statues ranged about the temple as well, presumably of other gods and goddesses. After repeated questions about all the other images, I had to admit I didn’t know any other amusing anecdotes. This did not impress the Monster very much.
There were dozens of incense sticks burning in pots full of ashes in front of the statues, as well as rather charming bell shaped coils of incense hanging from the rafters. The smell of the incense permeated the temple, and was rather pleasant. I was debating with myself whether it would be improper to light an incense stick myself when, just then, a knot of actual worshippers came forward with lighted incense sticks to pay their respects and we tactfully withdrew.
I had actually brought my camera, planning to take the requisite touristy pictures of the temple and the worshippers, but something held me back. Despite the crowds and almost carnival-like coloring, the noise and overall foreignness of the temple, as I watched the worshippers kneel before the altars and close their eyes in prayer, I felt for a moment a sense of serene calmness and peace.
Moved, I left the camera in its pouch and quietly lead the way out, relinquishing the temple to wafting incense and silent pleas. I think even the Monster felt it too, for she was unusually quiet for a few minutes after we left.
Then, as we headed through the crowded streets to the nearest bus stand, she piped up, “Ok, let’s go shopping!” and darted forward.
I groaned and started chasing after her again.