Two days in Hong Kong

The 10,000 Buddhas
I had decided to head for the Temple of 10,000 Buddhas in Shatin by MTR. This involved a couple of changes and then a climb up what seemed like 10,000 steps (grim even now, but in high summer, murderous I imagine). The walk takes you past another new temple of some sort (Buddhist) and which seemed to incorporate a garden of remembrance (I didn’t go in). The 10,000 Buddhas was remarkable and, as it turned out, an understatement. The quality of the buildings from the outside was not high. Painted in garish colours they resembled closed down cinemas in small towns. However, the main building contained the Buddhas, in fact all 12,800 of them; small, gilded and each (though how anyone can tell this) in a different posture. I took several photos and also bought a pack of postcards. Then up to the pagoda – the price of entry to which was to buy a bundle of incense sticks – which had a Buddha on each floor. It also contained larger than life sized idols (both humanoid and animalistic), decorated and painted lavishly and each seemed to attract its own gaggle of devotees. It was relatively uncrowded, nothing like the Wong Tai Sin, so it was possible to wander round in a leisurely fashion. I was beginning to feel hungry by now and decided to negotiate as best I could, some lunch in what looked like a fairly basic restaurant there. I couldn’t make myself easily understood to the man who appeared to be serving, so he appealed to a group of 16 Chinese who were sharing 2 tables. One of them, a woman, spoke a little English, and when she managed to convey to the man that I was hungry, I began to feel hopeful. He, however, was reluctant do help out a hungry gwailo. The woman consulted her companions and then invited me to join them. I was pleased to take them up on their generous offer and was OK in the knowledge that as a Buddhist temple the food would be vegetarian. I sat next to the English speaker who said her name was Ada. Many Hong Kong Chinese adopt a European name as well. Ada’s English was basic and she had a heavy accent, but communication’s not always solely about language and we managed well . The meal was wonderful. Lots of stir fried and steamed vegetables, congee (rice porridge and much tastier than it sounds), tea, noodles, rice, tofu, a fish shaped dish made from what Ada said was potato, though I think it might have been sweet potato. I asked Ada if she was vegetarian and she said that, regrettably, not, “Too hard”. She was deeply impressed that I was mostly vegetarian. I paid my share (HK$45). Apparently, the group were touring some monasteries and temples because 2 of their number (a Mr and Mrs Do) were emigrating to Canada. When I said I was intending to go to the Po Lin monastery on Lantau Island the following day they went into a huddle. It turned out that some of them were also going the next day and, very kindly, they asked if I’d like to accompany them. I was hugely flattered and agreed immediately.

After we’d eaten they took me to the monastery attached to the temple that I hadn’t realised was there. They showed me the embalmed and gilded body of the former abbot and founder of the monastery. After his death (sometime in the 1960s) they buried him in the customary fashion, sitting down in a box. Six months later, again in a customary ritual, they exhumed his body only to discover that it hadn’t decomposed. A miracle, they reckoned, so they gilded him and put him on display, seated in the lotus position in a glass case. What can you say? On the way down the others decided to visit the garden of remembrance. I declined this and we agreed to meet the following day at 6.45 AM at the Outlying Districts ferry terminal.

Lantau Island, Po Lin and Po Lum
Four women, Ada, Susie, Betty (whom I’d lunched with the day before) together with a Mrs Wong, who was over on holiday from Canada. Despite having lived there for several years, she spoke no English. The ferry was cheap and unsophisticated and took 1½ hours before it docked in Silvermine Bay, Lantau. We caught the bus (very crowded at weekends according to Ada) for the 1 hour journey to the monastery of Po Lin. The road followed the south coast road before climbing up into the mountains to the monastery. We passed a large prison, right near one of the many sandy beaches, holiday apartments and villas. Lantau is a very popular resort for the people of HK, and many of the more well-off have holiday homes there. Though comparatively large – 2 or 3 times the size of HK Island – the population’s only 20,000 or so.

Well before reaching the monastery, it’s possible to see the 57’ high Buddha that’s just been cast, assembled and erected on a hilltop. It’s a wonderful piece and it contains 2 temples in its base and a flight of steps up to it from the road. The steps are not finished yet and won’t be till the road widening is completed, as they are anticipating thousands of visitors. The size of the figure is deceptive as it’s not possible yet to get close up, but the fingers are 6’ long. It’s made of cast bronze panels fixed to a galvanised girder frame and then welded together. There are photos in the monastery of the various stages of its construction.

Po Lin is a large monastery with many buildings including a conference centre and some dormitory areas for students who often stay there. There’s a lovely garden full of roses, dahlias and flowering shrubs, an outdoor and indoor restaurant/refectory and several offices and administrative centres. Ada took us round several of the temple buildings while she and the others pursued their devotions. They showed me what to do as they felt it would benefit us all if I joined in (and it wasn’t a form of Buddhism with which I was familiar). It turned out all that was necessary was a series of 3 nods to any Buddha you saw, with or without hands clasped in front of you. Incense sticks were also lit and placed in small sand filled holders in front of the figures. We met a chirpy, ancient little nun who, though curious about me, didn’t seem particularly surprised I was there. Ada apparently comes here regularly, I learned, as her late mother is remembered (as seems to be the Buddhist fashion here) by the hanging of a small inscribed bone tag in a glass case in one of the temples. Some of the tags have photos of the departed (temporarily so, as Buddhists) on them too. We saw one of the dormitories that consisted of a collection of rickety bunk beds with a hard looking pallet on each. Visitors are welcome for retreats of anything from a day or two to several weeks (they have to pay for their keep) and some serious Buddhist students stay for longer periods but to do so it’s necessary to speak Mandarin rather than Cantonese. Ada spends a week or so there every year.

Ada explained to me how to manage the food business as we were supposed to be eating there but there was a last minute change of plan following another huddle and we set off for another monastery called Po Lum about 45 minutes’ walk away along a concrete path built by the nuns and monks of Po Lum. This monastery isn’t publicised and isn’t shown on my map. It was much smaller and seemed less formal. As we approached Ada pointed out a monk engaged in some kind of plumbing task and put her fingers to her lips to indicate “Shh!” When we’d passed him she explained that he had been a well-known TV star in HK and, in his early 30s, had given it all up, left is wife and child and joined the monastery (Gautama had of course done the same thing). She showed me round so I could get my bearings and then, with some small measure of embarrassment on her part, asked me to get lost for an hour. She was on her way to the nuns’ quarters to continue her devotions and as a man I clearly couldn’t go there. This gave me the opportunity to wander around and take some photos.

The garden was very productive and they are apparently self-sufficient in all but rice. The monks and nuns work communally but, of course, live separately. Ada came to find me eventually to tell me we were to eat there soon and there would be rituals attending the meal that we’d need to observe, and she explained what I had to do.

A bell was sounded and all the monks and nuns assembled and filed into the refectory. We, that is, Ada and the others, I and two other Chinese visitors, followed them and were seated, segregated by sex, on wooden benches in front of long, narrow tables. With the exception of a chant initiated by the abbot, to which the nuns and monks (not the visitors) responded, the entire meal was to be taken in silence. Food was brought in by 3 nuns and a small amount of rice was taken by a monk and placed in a small brass hand attached to the end of a wooden stick. This was taken outside and disposed of. I don’t know to whom the offering was being made. We each had a bowl and chopsticks. The nuns came along in front of each of us, and if your bowl was pushed to the table edge she filled it with rice, vegetables, wheat gluten and tofu. We were each also given a small clementine and 7 grapes. The silence was interrupted only by the (frequent and uninhibited) burps of 3 or 4 of the somewhat ancient nuns gathered together at one corner. The nuns distributing the food patrolled and filled bowls as long as people wanted them to. When we had finished, the food serving nuns had their meal and we were then all allowed to talk. We offered some money; apparently Ada had agreed that we’d each contribute HK$40. I had another look round while Ada had a chat with some of the nuns. Most of the nuns seemed to have a double row of 6 or so scars on their shaven heads. These, it was subsequently explained to me, are self-inflicted and serve as a reminder of deeds in their past that were evil or unsavoury in some other way. They have them on other parts of their anatomy too; men often have them on their forearms. All the nuns and monks wore grey habits, grey cotton ’boots’ with sandals over the foot part and occasionally hoods. One of the nuns who had been a food server approached me as I was walking around and asked me in perfect English, if I’d had enough to eat.

On the way back along the path, past the glazed, tile-roofed shelter, there to offer refuge to visitors in the heat of summer, past the lush vegetation, in the bright sun and heading into a bitter cold mountain wind, Ada talked to me about many of her hopes, fears, small domestic dramas, beliefs and tried to find out as much of mine as she could. Her limited English precluded any profound philosophical discussions, but we learned a lot about each other, nevertheless; about our lives and cultures. She was, I’d guess in her mid-40s (difficult to tell as Chinese seem to age differently from Europeans), happily married with children, tried to be a good Buddhist, was worried about her husband’s gambling (gambring as she pronounced it) and surprised to learn that I didn’t gamble; she thought all men did. I was also flattered to discover that Po Lum does not normally accept unknown visitors and does not welcome men (particularly European ones) so I had been especially privileged, and all down to Ada’s kindness.

As we waited for the bus back to the ferry terminal, we went to a nearby food stall and had some black, sweet beverage, the consistency of runny yoghourt, and another white one of a similar consistency. Ada couldn’t explain what they were; I consumed them anyway but didn’t enjoy them; too sweet for my taste. We met a Chinese guy there who worked as a tourist guide at Po Lin and spoke excellent English. He explained that the black dish was toasted sesame seeds added to corn syrup and thickened with corn flour and the white one was sweetened, thinned bean curd.

The bus arrived, was loaded and departed in some haste. The driver was clearly in a hurry. He threw the bus round every steep corner terrifyingly close to the sheer drops of several hundred feet. Quite a few of the passengers kept covering their eyes with their hands at some of the more vertiginous incidents. Whatever the rush was for it didn’t spare us having to wait 1½ hours for the next ferry.

Ada et al decided to do some shopping at some of the stalls on the waterfront at Silvermine Bay. Susie had been wearing a sort of woollen balaclava with a peak which seemed to be the envy of the others and they found a stall that sold them. They all tried several of them on and I was appointed arbiter of colour and overall suitability and – but only with my full approval – they bought one each. They didn’t like any of the sunglasses. Then they decided they wanted to buy some dried fish which they insisted on unwrapping and sniffing, poking and offering to passers-by for their opinion on its quality. It was clear that they didn’t think I was equal to this task and didn’t involve me at all. Anyway, they bought some together with some crushed, dried black beans and a packet of burnt rice.

Rather sadly, when the boat docked, we all shook hands and parted. My 2 day sojourn with these charming, funny, kind, friendly, curious women came to an end.

One Thought on “Two days in Hong Kong

  1. Jules Oldham on January 19, 2014 at 10:03 said:

    Great blog. Impressed you are up and running.

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