Silence in the city: quiet places in hectic Hong Kong

HK Temples

Silence in the city: quiet places in hectic Hong Kong

 

An escape from the noise and chaos of the always busy streets of Hong Kong, Victoria and her sister Michelle went hunting for spaces of silence in the cobblestoned streets of Tai Ping Shan, a picturesque pocket of the bustling Sheung Wan neighbourhood where for decades ‘ghosts’ have kept it ‘off-the-beaten-track’.

11am . Hollywood Road Park .荷里活道公園 . Possession Street 


Bamboo trees, moon gates and Chinese pavilions in Hollywood Road Park

It was mid-morning, with only a few elderly people and young children scattered about. Chinese elements all around – ponds with koi fish and tortoises, moon gates, pavilions, bamboo and big banyan trees – give the park a tranquil, soothing atmosphere. The occasional shriek and squeal from five-year-olds running by didn’t break the contemplative atmosphere. It rather was a quieter reminiscence of the park’s much louder history. This place was once known as Tai Tat Tei, this was popular night market with food stalls, mahjong tables, and fortune tellers. The place to go for a bit of fun in the city. That was until 1980’s when the market was shut down and landscaped into this park.


Once a rowdy night market with mahjong parlours, food stalls and fortune tellers now a peaceful park  

Now it’s difficult to imagine the rowdy pouty place this once was. In the shade of the traditional red-pillared and green­tiled pavilions, we found the perfect place for a quiet ‘stay and rest’ (the Chinese word for pavilion, 亭, comes from the saying ‘停留休息’). Surrounded by traditional Chinese pagodas with skyscrapers looming in the background. The juxtaposition of old against new is a beautiful testament to the history and culture amidst the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong’s streets.


Red pillared and green tiled pavilions, a picture-perfect place for quiet contemplation

“In the ‘temple of the dead’, you find spirit tablets of thousands of poor immigrants who died here”

 

12pm . Pak Sing Temple . 百姓廟 . Tai Ping Shan Street


Giant incense coils at the entrance of Pak Sing Temple

Our next port of call was Pak Sing Temple on Tai Ping Shan Street. It looked small as if it just had been squeezed into the last remaining empty spot on the street, but we soon discovered it is a huge complex with a fascinating history. Also known as the “100 names temple”, Pak Sing temple was built in the 19th century for Kshitigarbha Buddha; King of the Dead. And it really was a temple of the dead. In the years of the plague, it became the home for spirit tablets of poor Chinese immigrants who died in Hong Kong, but couldn’t afford to have a proper burial. It sadly also became a place of refuge for elderly, sick, homeless and people who came here to die. Old records form of the nearby Tung Wah Hospital describe the temple as: ‘the dead and the dying huddled together in indiscriminately small filthy rooms’.


Temple of ‘100 names’ in Tai Ping Shan; a temple for the dead


Pak Sing is one of the city’s most unique temples

The giant incense coils hanging en masse at the temple’s entrance set the tone. With no noise to be heard from Tai Ping Shan Street, the smell of incense in the air, the grand red and gold colours of the ancestral hall untouched by sunlight, it is hard to imagine the chaos and the disorder of death that once ruled here. At Hollywood Road Park, the silence was content, lazy, but here at Pak Sing Temple, the atmosphere was contemplative and more thoughtful with a sense of gravity.

1pm . Cat Street . 摩羅上街 . Upper Lascar Row


Hong Kong’s best vintage flea market in Cat Street

After the sombre and retrospective silence at Pak Sing Temple, we wound our way to the cheerfully captivating Upper Lascar Row摩羅上街, also known as Cat Street. It’s always been and still is a ‘flea market’. Those who bought stolen goods from thieves (rats) were known as cats in Cantonese, hence the name. Cat Street is a trinkets lover’s treasure trove: anything from porcelain bowls to Chinese paintings, Mao memorabilia, Bruce Lee posters and jade jewellery. We were fortunate – because it was forecast to rain, it was almost completely silent on the otherwise busy market street and it was quite relaxing to look at what was on offer without being jostled in a crowd or hassled by shopkeepers.

 
A trinkets lover’s treasure trove in the Cat Street flea market


Here you can find anything from porcelain bowls to Mao memorabilia and Bruce Lee posters


Some real antique gems between the cheap and cheerful memorabilia

1.30pm . Man Mo Temple . 文武廟 . 126 Hollywood Rd


Man Mo Temple, one of Hong Kong’s oldest, most popular and photogenic temples

Round the corner, up the stairs, and over the road is Man Mo Temple文武廟. Man means ‘civil’ and Mo ‘military’.  Surprisingly, Man Mo Temple is dedicated to two very different gods.  Man Cheong is the God of literature while Mo refers to Kwan Yu, the God of war. The images of the two gods are enshrined inside the temple: you’ll see Man Cheong dressed in a red robe, holding a writing brush in his hand and Kwan Yu dressed in green, toting a long warrior sword.  This was where scholars would come to pray for sitting exams or community leaders to solve disputes.  It still is one of Hong Kong’s oldest (1847), most popular and photogenic temples. At Chinese New Year it gets especially crowded with parents bringing their children to worship Man for some heavenly assistance in their school exams.


Locals come here to pray for some heavenly assistance in school exams


Bold red and gold and red colours, strong smell of incense and a deep silence  

Like Pak Sing Temple, the heavy red and gold colours and abundant carvings inside the temple added to the mood of contemplation and meditation, though here, everything looked far more elaborate and resplendent. It was easy to picture scholars ardently praying here before taking their civil examinations. Going deeper and deeper into the temple, the silence became thicker and the smell of incense stronger. What struck me most about this temple was that there were plenty of people here praying, despite it being noon on a weekday.

2.30pm . Blake Garden . 卜公花園 . Po Hing Fong X Kui In Fong


Blake Garden, a nice place to rest under the shadow of two huge banyan trees

My last port of call was Blake Garden卜公花園. Walking up Square Street to get here, I passed by graffiti depicting a human face in grey scale, but his eyes were replaced by Hong Kong’s skyline. I think that’s the type of view most people have of Hong Kong -­ all they see is the skyline, but there is so much more to this wonderful city.


After the plague, this part of Tai Ping Shan was bulldozered to create Hong Kong’s first public garden (Image: HK Archives)

“If had not been raining, and a guard had not been roaming about, I would have tried to climb them.”

Blake Garden was a real find. A lovely place to sit under the shadow of two huge banyan trees. But little did I know about the dramatic history of the place. The area of Tai Ping Shan was devastated by the bubonic plague that spread here at the end of the 19th century, it was overcrowded and dirty. So in 1905 Governor Blake decided to demolish and redeveloped as Blake Garden making it the first public garden in Hong Kong. What I loved most about this park were the banyan trees. If had not been raining, and a guard had not been roaming about, I would have tried to climb them.

Only a short walk away from Hollywood Road Park, and yet the silence here felt completely different. Maybe it was because of my awareness of the tragic history of the land I was standing on, which seemed to be mirrored by the weather: it was raining heavily, in true Hong Kong typhoon season style.


The giant roots of the banyan tree in Blake Garden

Sitting down under one of the pavilions, watching the rain pour down, I had time to reflect on my day. Had I found silence? Yes, quite a few times, in different places and different forms.

Searching for silence on a hot June day had taken me into a neighbourhood full of life, history, and authenticity. While I had started the day feeling that the silence would be an ‘escape’ from Hong Kong, I ended the day feeling like I had instead delved deeper into the city. And so, at 3pm on a rainy afternoon, I was ready to descend the steps back down to Hong Kong’s busy streets, more in love with the city than ever.

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Victoria (Vicky) Firth, born to British father and an Indonesian mother grew up in Hong Kong. As a typical ‘third culture kid’ she has a natural curiosity for the world around her. Currently a geography student at St Andrews in Scotland, Vicky loves the splendid and cultured environment of Edinburgh but is always happy to return home to Asia.

Photos by Vicky’s sister Michelle Firth.

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