My religious encounter in Hong Kong: Visiting a temple

My religious encounter in Hong Kong: Visiting a temple

By Shao Zhong Li

I knew very little about the local or Chinese religions and their rituals, and seldom visited a temple, until I moved to the Hung Hom. The Kwun Yum temple (觀音廟) is only 10 minutes-walk away from my home. There are many types of temples, this is the largest Kwun Yum Temple in Kowloon-Peninsular* built to worship ‘Kwun Yum’. The following photos show the temple and its surroundings.

Photo taken from the main street, as it shows that the temple (in the middle of the picture) located on a quieter street, surrounded by skyscrapers. This type of view is common in Hong Kong and Tokyo, where ancient temples or shrines are found in urban areas. (Photo by the blogger)

Summing up my personal experience in the temple, I found myself in a space filled with smoke, so dense that it can be choking and irritating to eyes and nose because of the lightened candles and incense in the shape of a stick (線香) and tower (寶塔). It can be quite crowded and noisy, as you can hear instructions from the staff or conversations between staff and visitors. Although it is a temple for Kwun Yum, there are many other goddesses placed side by side with Kwun Yum in the center.

I found myself in a weird position, as a local but also an outsider, when I entered the temple and the staff ‘reminded’ me how to behave appropriate in a temple. He perceived me not as a touristic visitor but assumed me as a Shan xin (善信), whom is not familiar with the rituals. Another reason for feeling uncomfortably was that I was different from the mainstream visitors of this temple, mostly elderlies and housewives from the local residential area, according to my observations and online sources. I am a student and I look younger than them.

Commercialised? Two persons stood at the two sides of the front entrance handing some papers with words and symbols to visitors in exchange for money (a new practice since 2016). Since 2017 I found a notice inside the temple with a list of rituals/services and their prices. It may appear as more organised but I feel uneasy when religious practices are made that explicit. Convenient service: a Chinese medical clinic, on the right in the photo, seems to be part of the structure. (Photo by the blogger)


Stores opposite to the temple selling products for the rituals (usually for burning 化寶), although the temple itself has a banner advising visitors to buy these inside the temple in order to contribute and support the operation of the temple financially. (Photo by the blogger)

The most frequent ritual I practiced in this temple was to acquire an oracle (求簽), to ask for guidance on my studies, future career and/or relationship matters. The routine contains two main parts: first, light up and place line incenses with respect to show sincerity to the goddess. Second, bow on knee and be concentrated, shake the tube of sticks until only one falls out. The number on it indicates the specific oracle paper that I should buy.

The steps in details: buy a pack of incense(the thinnest and thus cheapest slender of incense線香), light them up with the candles in the temple, take 3 incenses and place them in the ash pot, repeat this until I have placed incenses in every ash pot in the temple, put the rest in the major ash pot closest to the front entrance. Do the above with respect and humbleness. Take a tube with the ‘fortune sticks’(this picture illustrates a typical look, half bow on knee(on the cushion) in front of the goddess, close my eyes and ask the question and shake the tube until one and only one stick fall on the ground. Take that stick, buy an oracle (paper form) according to the number on the stick, put the stick back to the tube.

There are two ‘masters’ in this temple that I can pay for the service, they would ask for my birth and my problem, then explain the content and give guidance based on the oracle but in a subjective tone with their own opinion. The advices often cleared my mind to make a decision or encouraged me to work hard.

These are examples from the temple to show how a typical oracle looks like: A number, the level of fortune, the representative ancestor (with a story behind), a poem of it and an explanation of the poem. (Photo by the blogger).

There is quite a great diversity of religious organisations, physical structures and activities in Hong Kong. The most common ones include Buddhism, Tao, Christianity and Islam.

As Pratt defines, contact zones are ‘social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today.’ In the case of Hong Kong, its past as a colony may explain the rise and popularity of Christianity and the devaluation of the traditional religions as superstitious. In addition, as a product of transculturation nowadays, especially for those living without a religion (not necessarily being an atheist), we learn from different religions and memorise their teachings and internalise them as our personal philosophy, values and/or principles.

Personally, I think the religions coexist well, in the way that they stay within their own boundaries. Both Christmas and the Buddha’s birthday are official public holidays in Hong Kong. There is a Christian-based school just a street away from the above Kwun Yum temple and it seems very unproblematic. Yet, it seems there are stricter rules for Christians and they can face more conflicts in the encounter with the traditional practices, such as the rituals in a temple.

Although we are not Christians, and our teachers never used it as an example, but based on the knowledge gained through an education at a Christian-based school for seven years and the studies of the Bible for 5 years, me and my friends reached the conclusion that visiting and participating in the rituals at temples like Shan xin is violating Christian rules, because the rituals indicate worshipping of goddesses, which is explicitly stated as forbidden in Christianity.


Pratt, Mary Louise (1991) Arts of the contact zone. Profession: 33–40.

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