Hong Kong is a city of worship. There is much to praise: the cuisine (from delectable dim sum to cheap food carts), its spectacular viewpoints, and the endless shopping. (More posts on all of these quite soon.) But in the west end of the city, on Hollywood Road and Lascar Row, which are a few meters distance from one another and run parallel, you can find two diverse groups of worshippers and the idols they regard as sacred–deities and Mao Tse-Tung.
Hong Kong’s Cat Street Market
The first group of worshippers will head toward Lascar Row. Though this is its formal name, most often it is referred to as the Cat Street Market. It sounds delicious, I know, but they do not specialize in kitty couture or cuisine. Here you can find those devoted to antiques or making curio purchases. Some stalls look like a hoarder’s car, others are quite presentable. But you will not find any regard for theme. Garfield clocks sit next to corpulent Buddhas. At the next stall you can purchase faded statues of Winnie the Pooh, pictures of naked white women, or Bruce Lee playing cards. “Get your tea pots or your Lady Gaga collectibles,” one of the junk dealers could easily shout. But the highlight of the market is all things Mao: Plastic covered, pocket-sized books, Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, are at every stand, as are hundreds of porcelain busts of the former communist leader. (Some are placed beside Confucius or Buddha for the sake of Lascar’s appreciation of juxtaposition. Or Mao can be found displayed next to Lenin, Stalin, or Che for some communist diversity).
Visiting the Man Mo Temple in Hong Kong
A steep walk up a short hill, you’ll find the next group of devotees at the Man Mo Temple. This turquoise-tiled roof sits on a busy Hollywood Road, where bankers commute to work and shoppers come for souvenirs, and obviously antiques. The approximately 150-year old Man Mo Temple is home to numerous deities, but most importantly it houses the God of Literature and the God of War or Martial Arts. Throughout the day, the pious enter into the fragrant room, where coils of incense burn from the ceiling and look like bee hives cut in half. (These coils take about one week to burn.) A few meters from the entryway is a red and green door with golden carvings of dragons and hilltop temples. It is not an entrance itself; but rather an architectural device to ward off the devil.
At the rear of Man Mo, worshippers light dozens of incense sticks, waving the smoke before four four-foot idols that stand in the center of the room. The smoke is nourishment for the deities’ spirits. The incense is then placed in ash-filled copper pots like flowers with no petals. But the main reason the faithful visit Man Mo is to line up to meet with the two most prominent lords occupying the back alcove. The red-robed Man Cheong is the God of Literature, and Mo Tai, AKA Kwan Yu, the God of War, wears a green robe. Both one time dignitaries of China, who now sit side by side, wear matching golden crowns, bejeweled with fruits and flowers.
In the early days of the temple, disputes that could not be settled under British law, were rectified by Qing Dynasty judgement. The accused and the plaintiff would stand before the lords and write down their statements on a yellow piece of paper. It was believed that no one could deceive the lords. Therefore, punishment would eventually find those who lied, while not writing a statement was an immediate confession. Luckily, that system no longer exists. Instead, worshippers write their prayers on red slips of paper and deliver them to the shrine for the two lords who sit surrounded by bowls of fruit and vases of flowers.
Before these gifts are two bronze extensions of the lords, Man’s brush and Mo’s sword. It is believed that if you rub the brush, you will achieve good academic results. The sword is rubbed for health. In my time spent inhaling the incense rising from the hands of worshippers and the scents descending from the coils above, there was a continuous line to rub the brush. No one rubbed the sword.