Chapter Fifteen

Palaces and Temples



The home on the Peak

I took a forty-eight hour leave and spent the Friday night with Chris at his friends’ house right at the top of the Peak. The master of the house, a short, rather scruffy little man, with beetling eyebrows and a bald pate, is head of one of the major Western banks in the city. His wife is a friendly, motherly sort of woman, a philanthropist interested in social welfare and especially in Hong Kong’s Leprosarium on a lonely island off Lantao. Husband and wife are both OCHs, Old China Hands, who have lived in the Far East, including Japan, for a long time. During the war, he was in Shamshuipo prison camp, while his wife escaped to Australia and thence via Panama to Britain.

The elegant single-storeyed villa stands on the knife edge ridge of the Peak and commands vast views across the harbour, the hills rolling away into China and, on the other side, Apleichau Island, Brickhill, Stanley and the distant Lema Islands. A glance from any window is an inspiration; the first thing to be seen, set in a huge perspective of sea and mountains, is miles away and far below. During the winter months, a chill mountain breeze mutters outside and a warming fire splutters and chuckles in the hearth. In summer, when the big windows stand wide open, the whole place becomes an airy palace.

The spacious sitting room is comfortable but not lavishly decorated. Sherry, Dubonnet and wine are available from an obsequious Chinese servant, at the touch of a bell. At first I felt quite uncomfortable. As I was thinking of the poverty-ridden tenements in the city below, the servant addressed me. “What time will Master want tea in the morning? What kind of breakfast does Master want?” He reminded me of the genie in Aladdin’s lamp.

The servants are a people apart in this household, not to be included in conversation, joked or smiled with, humbly abiding in their own quarters. This is an upstairs-downstairs world, where the chauffeurs, butlers, wine servants, waiters and amahs know their own place. If they are discussed at all, it is with a paternalistic kindness which subtly emphasises the difference between we and they. Out here the OCHs behave like British gentry of the last century never having experienced the socialist revolution that followed the war. Hong Kong has never known the idea of a redistributed income.

To my surprise I found that the master of the house, in spite of his great experience of the East, had no interest whatsoever in Eastern culture or indeed anything that we could detect outside the field of banking and economics. When he heard that Chris and I were intending to spend Saturday with a Chinese friend visiting Taoist temples he thought it “most odd”. As for Cantonese opera, “Phew, once was enough for me!”

When the subject of Buddhism came up, he let loose a string of conventional misapprehensions and things became a trifle strained after he had produced a tirade against the Reform Club and I mentioned I had lunched with Mr Brook Bernacchi in his mountain retreat on Lantao.

Bernacchi believes that representatives from the Chinese classes should have a say in Colony policy. The Reform Club is a vehicle for such ideas. I had to agree with my host that such ideas entailed some risk at the present time of international chaos and the Korean War. Hong Kong Chinese, at present, have only a limited political consciousness and it seems unnecessary to fan flames of possible political discontent. However, in broad terms, I was on Bernacchi’s side.

I had some support from our hostess who knew Bernacchi’s mother and admired the son’s independent line. She also liked Chinese drama and art, but criticised Europeans who became so Easternised as to lose touch with their own culture. I was on safer ground discussing the education system, provincial universities, Oxbridge, the public schools and grants for degrees. Even so, my visits to temples and tenements branded me in their eyes as ‘unusual’, to say the least.

Of course the beds were luxurious and the sheets so smooth that I slept in a more relaxed way than I had for months. I had felt positively unclean on arrival and a good bath did wonders. It seemed a long time since I had experienced ‘civilisation’.




Temple tours

On Saturday afternoon, the master of the house very kindly lent us his car, a huge fawn Humber, with a uniformed chauffeur in a peaked cap. We picked up Yannang in Aberdeen and spent our time driving around the island, visiting temples in Aberdeen, Shek O and in Causeway Bay. Yannang was delighted by the comfort of the cushions, armrests and car radio and we had a long talk about ‘human pride’, one of his favourite topics. It was rare for us to converse in such luxury.

It was Ching Che – the Feast of Excited Insects, a kind of early spring festival. On this day, a lordly dragon who has been hibernating since the autumn raises his head and knives and pins should not be used for fear of cutting him; insects revive to fresh life; the sun is blessed for his vitality and it is a day for augury, paper sacrifices to the gods and for invoking the Yellow Tiger.

Having entered Aberdeen Temple, we were immersed in a cloud of incense. The two life-sized and moronic-looking stucco guards, who flanked the doorway, let us in without assault or battery and, crossing a small hall decorated with paper streamers and gay lanterns, we approached the high altar. Huge joss sticks glowed before it, spirals of smoke ascending to the roof; smaller ones smoked in the sand box nearby and candles of many sizes illuminated a row of colourful divinities. It reminded me of Christmas.

In the centre stood Ting Hau,5* the Queen of Heaven, much loved by fisherfolk. Centuries ago, during a pitiless tempest, she had stood on the shore pointing at her people’s boat which alone, out of the fishing fleet, returned to port. She is considered one of the most benevolent goddesses in the local pantheon. Her image sat behind an ancient, dusty curtain pulled sufficiently apart to reveal her squat figure, an expressionless face, a dirty doll’s dress and a hat covered in cobwebs. Before her, on the altar table, sat two minor deities, clothed alike in rich but dirty clothes and representing a minister of the Sung dynasty and a King of the North. On either side of the table stood two life-sized and heavily-robed figures with fierce bulging eyes and multicoloured faces, each carrying a great club. These were Ting Hau’s guardians, All Seeing and All Hearing, between whom no evil can pass undetected. Flanking the main altar were two smaller ones. The one to her left was for Ting Hau’s parents; the one on the right consisted of a table on which were arrayed many carved figures, each symbolising one of the sixty years of the Chinese imperial calendar. In the centre was the image of a well-decorated horse for this is the Year of the Horse. There were also pictures of Liu Jo and the merciful Koon Yam (Kuan Yin), one of the Buddhist Bodhisattvas displayed in this Taoist temple. Near her was a wickerwork arch with a tiger painted on it. This was the Arch of Safety through which all those facing tribulation were invited to walk. Women facing childbirth, for example, may, for a suitable fee, pass through this gate to ensure a successful birth.

Standing in a side chapel was an altar to the ‘Doctor Fairy’, Wong Tai Sin, a famous physician of an early dynasty now deified for his good works. There was great activity near his shrine, a pious-looking, bespectacled priest, dressed in a rich red robe and a yellow undergarment, was murmuring an indecipherable chant to the accompaniment of a drum, a brass sounding plate or cymbal and a brass bowl with a high ringing tone. A flute player joined in at intervals. A well-dressed woman, with a rather fidgety child, knelt before the altar. She gave the priest a piece of red paper on which were written her address and the name of a sick relative. These were solemnly intoned to the deity by the priest who knelt at the altar, banging on the sounding bowl. He then rose to his feet and, followed by the woman and child, walked three times around a table before the altar where the joss sticks burned, still chanting and now banging the cymbal.

On the opposite side of the temple a white tiger in bas-relief glared from a wall. The whole reredos before him was covered with green, paper horses. An incinerator stood in front of the tiger where paper offerings of animals and other objects were being burned, their platonic forms ascending in smoke to the heavenly jungle. Across the floor of the hall a green dragon faced the white tiger and, although it was not his day, someone had stuck a piece of lettuce in his mouth. The worshippers were insuring themselves against ill fortune in the coming year.

We motored around the coast to Shek O, a beautiful and rather solitary village, set between high hills and sea at the far end of the island. Near it is Big Wave Bay, one of the few places in Hong Kong where ocean rollers come in to the shore. It was a grey spring day with the horse-hair trees bent before the wind and an early swallow was resting among the dunes.

The little temple at Shek O was again protected by two life-size Door Gods painted on two wooden panels just inside the entrance. Evil influences, which cannot go other than in straight lines, cannot enter but we, with human cunning, sidled around to the side. The interior was dark and Ting Hau set back behind deep folds of curtains. Great banners bearing paper decorations stood about for use in processions, each one a floral tower with gods nestling among the blooms. Across the top of the altar was spread a beautifully embroidered cloth with the donor’s name in large, bold characters.

As we motored on round the island, Yannang entertained us with the story of the Door Gods.

“In the days before history became scientific the seas of the four directions were ruled by dragons. They were brothers and they had marvellous powers over the wind, waves and typhoons. In particular, the East Sea dragon had been commissioned by Heaven to administer the beginning and ending of the rains and he did this through his knowledge of secret charms.

“Now it so happened that a famous wizard had researched these charms and come to understand them. When the East Sea dragon heard about this, he was naturally disturbed and turned himself into a man to check up on the story. Meeting the wizard, he tested his powers and found the story was true. The wizard had indeed discovered how to control rain.

“The dragon became livid with rage. So angry was he that he broke all the laws of Heaven and rampaged so furiously at the bottom of the East Sea, shouting out all the magic he knew, that a dreadful typhoon struck the land. The land was flooded, many people killed and, since the wizard had not predicted it, his reputation was ruined. The dragon curled himself up in a rock grotto and smirked with self-satisfaction.

“The powers in Heaven were not pleased, however. The dragon had exceeded his brief. ‘He has broken our laws,’ they fumed, ‘The punishment must be Death!’ Now it so happened that the executioner in Heaven, one of three spirits of a famous Minister of T’ang times, had a second appointment as executioner for the Emperor of China. Naturally he could not be in two places at once.

“Rumours travel quickly under water and, when the dragon heard about this proclamation, he was a trifle scared. ‘Coo!’ said he, ‘what do I do now?’ The Emperor was having one of his favourite dreams when the dragon appeared to him and fixed a bargain. At the time when the execution was supposed to take place in Heaven the Emperor would make sure the executioner was engaged in his palace. Unfortunately, on the appointed evening, the Emperor played chess with his ministers for so long that he became tired and took forty winks. In a split second the executioner shot back to Heaven and the dragon’s head lay gory on the block.

“But the spirit of the dragon was not vanquished. It went roaming loose over the housetops. The golden crows cackled at him from the eaves of temples and, every time he tried to enter a house, the horrible sight of himself in a mirror startled him. ‘I shall haunt the Emperor who deceived me,’ he thundered, and set off for the palace.

“The Emperor saw the grasses bend and the trees sway as the dragon spirit approached. ‘Oh Dear!’ he said as the dragon’s breath nearly boiled him in his bath. His ministers and augurs appointed four generals to guard the emperor, two for the windows and two for the doors. The Emperor, having been nearly boiled, was unwell and stayed indoors while the generals guarded him day and night. As time passed and there was no relief, the generals became exhausted. The window generals fell ill so the palace windows had to be boarded up but the Generals of the Door, Wai Chi Kong and Ching Jau Jin, stood firm.

“The ministers and augurs met together. ‘The generals must have sleep,’ they said. ‘What can we do?’ They hit upon a brilliant strategy. A famous artist painted life-sized portraits of the generals which were set up in the doorway. The dragon never discovered the trick and could never get inside; the ministers became famous; the artist so rich he forgot how to paint and Wai Chi Kong and Ching Jau Jin each slept very well. Whether the Emperor ever went out again does not seem to be recorded.

“Of course anyone can copy a painting. That is why the Door Gods keep out evil influences from our homes and temples, however poor they may be, even to this day!”

The largest Ting Hau temple, beautifully decorated outside with elaborate wood carvings and figures of glazed china, was situated on a raised terrace in Causeway Bay. In front of it stood great incinerators where offerings to the sky were burned and stone tigers stood about looking slightly foolish. The layout resembled the temple in Aberdeen but the offerings to the White Tiger were more prolific. In front of the altar large bowls of sand supported the many burning joss sticks and, as at Aberdeen, there were pictures of Koon Yam and a Goddess of Fecundity. A peculiar clay pagoda stood before the main altar and, before the door of each of its seven storeys, stood a little Aladdin’s lamp burning brightly, the Seven Stars Lamp, but Yannang did not know its meaning.

On Tiger Day one of the festivities was ‘beating the spirit out of the devil’. Little paper tigers constructed around bamboo slips were on sale at stalls near the temple together with a ‘Devil beating and Temple Visiting Kit’. This comprised pieces of folded paper covered in strange designs, the original meanings of which lie way back in time and are now forgotten. A collection of small sticks was used to beat a piece of paper representing the devil, while the paper tiger stood by, a joss stick burning in front of him. Outside the temple several groups of women had gathered to engage in this vigorous activity.

I bought myself a tiger and a kit. At once a crowd of grinning Chinese gathered around, including an amazing old man with the longest grey beard I have ever seen, huge bushy eyebrows and twinkly eyes. There was an animated discussion and I asked Yannang what it was about. He merely remarked that they knew I wanted the objects as curios and not for use in the temple.

There were several methods of augury available. One was to shake a tube of many little sticks before a god. When, eventually, one of them fell out, it was taken to the priest who interpreted the character drawn upon it. Alternatively, you might toss two moon-shaped pieces of wood, each with a flat and a rounded side, into the air. Depending on how they fell, so one’s future was foretold. To ensure accuracy these tricks should be repeated several times over.

I found these Taoist temples infinitely curious. Chinese people are amazingly superstitious in the most elementary way. This cult of dressed-up dolls, fortune telling and future fixing seems quite out of tune with the sublime reflections of the ancient Taoists of the Tao Te Ching or the writings of Chuang-Tse. For centuries the Taoist philosophy vied with those of Confucianism and Buddhism in China but, for a long time co-existing with primitive village cults, it finally faded into them. There is still a pope of the Taoist cult, the Chang Tien Shih or Heavenly Leader but no educated person takes him seriously. I am sure Mr Ma would rather be found dead than seen nosing about a Ting Hau temple!