Monday, February 21, 2011


Tin Hau is an out-of-the way neighbourhood of Hong Kong--which is to say, it's no more frenetic than the Lower East Side of Manhattan. To the south of the subway line along the main east-west axis of the city, a tight rectangular street grid a few blocks wide frames impossibly narrow buildings of three or four apartments per floor, but jutting up seven or eight stories, their street-level fronts a mix of the auto-repair shops that once dominated but now yield place month by month to trendy restaurants and shops.

Tucked at the bend of a dog-leg side street behind two of the remaining repair shops, the Lin Fa Kung Temple rests against the base of a precipitous hillside. The living rock of the slope protrudes into the temple's interior. The inner sanctuary rises to a second level, following the face of the hill, accessible by stairs from either side of the lower shrine. At 7:30 in the morning, an elderly woman bustles from Buddha to Buddha, then back again to the table where she's laid out her supply of incense sticks, distributing them eventually to the various sand-filled bowls waiting to receive them. A young man with a backpack stands before the central altar on the entrance level, bows three times, then leaves to start his day.

I keep a little to one side, dependent on the kindness of strangers to accept my presence, conspicuous and naive as I am, trying to notice everything.

I head on down the street to the dim sum shop, which has spilled a dozen customers out onto the sidewalk, find a seat at a table with two strangers. I order tea and a few of the staple items I know by their Chinese names--deftly avoiding the chicken feet.

The place is glaringly lit by compact florescent potlights. The neon lime green of the formica tables matches the walls. Mounted high on the back wall is a rosewood-stained wooden shrine to a polychrome porcelain Taoist god I don't recognize, his stern expression reenforced by the two forefingers of his left hand raised in admonition--admonition to what I have no idea, but I suspect protecting his devotees by warding off unseen dangers. No-nonsense bolts visibly screwed through the shrine's back panel secure it to the wall. Below it on the floor sits another shrine in which a four-by-five grid of twenty characters printed in gold on red hang in lieu of an image. Offferings of oranges, incense, and cakes rest before the inscription. The floor-level shrine is abutted on one side by the beer cooler, on the other by a serving cart of dirty dishes. On the top sits a supply of styrofoam carry-out containers along with extra incense and more oranges in a plastic grocery bag.

Returning to the temple the next morning, I stop at the corner shop across the street, stand in line for a bundle of incense sticks, and hand the shopkeeper a HK$100 note, having no idea how much I owe. She smiles, holding up two fingers. I hand her a second $100. Shaking her head and still smiling, she hands it back and makes change, taking the 20. I owe her.

I don't even know what sect Lin Fa Kung belongs to, and half the iconography is lost on me. Upstairs, to the right of the principal altar, a wall of Buddhas sit rank and file in meditation. A conical reliquary revolves slowly, mirrors flashing above tiny niches housing further Enlightened Ones.

I make a mess of it, lighting the whole bundle, as I'd seen one worshipper do the day before. It doesn't occur to me until too late that now I have to distribute the lighted sticks among the altars. Bowing with the incense in hand, I take a blinding wallop of smoke in the face two or three times in my circuit of the altars, but no one stares; everyone is kind in their understated tolerance.

Tomorrow, I'll come a little closer to getting it right, like an eager child refusing to be intimidated by initial failure. I could instead just stay in my hotel room and do a lap around the rosary I've shlepped with me from Canada, sticking to what I know. But I'm here, just as I am, to walk a jet-lagged new path strewn with banana peels, an ignorant, well-intentioned clown eight thousand miles from home.


  1. Sounds like you are having fun and learning things.

  2. It's wonderful, giving up being in the know and just taking in what's in front of me with naive eyes--trying to notice everything, like pieces of a puzzle, some of which I recognize, some of which I don't. I haven't had this much fun since I was four.