A Temple and A Theater

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Hong Kong, officially Hong Kong Special Administrative Region [SAR] of the People’s Republic of China, is one of the most exciting places I have ever visited. Even as short-term visitors, we were able to discover many facets of its contrasting life pulses. The visual treats ran the gamut from ultra contemporary architecture to ancient fishing villages, from multiple-story neon advertisements to gently rocking houseboats.

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“Pearl of the Orient”
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Harbor on Cheung Chau Island

Our day trip to Cheung Chau island was a lovely change from fast-paced Hong Kong. The island is just one of many within the SAR, and all of them are within easy reach through Hong Kong’s ferry system. We had no specific expectations of this small but popular island, we were simply looking forward to sailing on the South China Sea, be it only for one hour or so.

There were two ways for us to reach Cheung Chau Island from Hong Kong Island, by slow ferry or by fast ferry. Both of which departed from Pier 5 right below our abode at an alternating 30-minute rhythm. We chose the slow ferry because, on the top level, passengers can step out onto an open stern balcony. There are even Ramen-in-a-cup vending machines and A/C on the top deck, not that it was turned on, but it’s there! Even with the surcharge for such luxury accommodations, we only paid a little more than one US dollar per person, one way. Mind you, that’s the age-challenged rate, able-bodied youngsters pay twice as much.

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All too soon we disembarked on Cheung Chau and began to wander the narrow lanes. As a matter of fact, they are so narrow that police and emergency services have to commission especially build narrow vehicles – everyone else rides bicycles.

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It took me by surprise that hardly anyone with whom we interacted on the island spoke English. In central Hong Kong Island, in the malls, the international hotels, the financial centers, and in restaurants everyone spoke English with ease, which I had automatically expected as a result of the long British presence. The same is pretty much true in Kowloon, even though we did encounter a much stronger Chinese-only culture there than on HK Island as soon as we moved beyond the touristy areas. On Cheung Chau, English was clearly the exception, which prompted me to ask our English-speaking waitress to write down the name of the Pak Tai Temple for us so we could ask for directions, should we get lost along the way. Unfortunately, she couldn’t give us any information about the weird looking brown fruit (?) we saw in a market stall. She tried, but I didn’t understand.

The Pak Tai Temple on Cheung Chau, also called Yuk Hui Temple, is a Taoist temple dedicated to the worship of the Sea Deity Pak Tai, who only 3000 years earlier morphed from princely but mortal Taoist scholar into the revered immortal Yuen Tin Sheung Tai, the Supreme Emperor of the Dark [or Northern or Mysterious] Heaven as a reward for stopping the carnage of the Demon King during the fall of the Shang dynasty.

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To this day, Pak Tai is highly regarded as a patron deity by the regional fishermen who come to worship at the temple asking for calm seas and to give thanks for their catch. There has been no significant change in attitude toward the Sea Deity among the local population since the day in 1777 when Huizhou fishermen brought a statue of Pak Tai to Cheung Chau island which instantly quelled a plague epidemic that had been devastating the population. In gratitude, the locals built this temple to honor Pak Tai. Even during our brief visit, we could clearly see how the temple was an integral part of the daily lives of the fishing families. Prayers and incense offerings were plentiful, as were consultations with the resident soothsayer.

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Pak Tai flanked by life-size statues of two of his generals. The 7-candle candelabrum resting on a tin of Danish butter cookies was a bit of a surprise.

In the Taoist belief system, the Pak Tai temple has important Feng Shui because its building location was selected to ride the Pulse of the Dragon, a force that extends across Cheung Chau island. The mountains of Hong Kong Island protect the island and the surrounding sea is intrinsically connected to the people of the community, completing the trinity of air, water, and earth. The temple’s Feng Shui is enhanced by the two side halls, each containing ceramic images of strong forces, a tiger and a dragon respectively which are representative of the Tiger and Dragon asterisms found in the most ancient Chinese star maps.

The friezes beneath the roof overhangs were fascinating. For me as a Westerner, the comparison to Bayeux Tapestry, Troubadours & Minnesänger, with a little Chaucer and Shakespearean court jesters mixed in, was inevitable.

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And when I snuck into the forbidden room behind these lovely lacquered and carved doors, what should I find? A set of ritual lances similar to the ones used by the warriors in the frieze above!

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Arriving back in the temple forecourt with its famous four lions and lionesses with their cubs, and a funky, ancient incense bowl,

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The lion statues are engaged in an eternal ball game. Legend says, if an unmarried young woman manages to capture the ball, she will marry a prince.

we realized our educational experiences that day were not yet finished.

Walking toward the temple, we had passed this, this loud and colorful bamboo thingy. As we found out soon, it announced performances of Man-style Cantonese Opera in the rather jury-rigged looking building behind the oversized temporary billboard.

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Leaving the temple, we had a better look at the rear of the temporary theater building.

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The Art of Chinese Theatre, usually called opera, is as ancient as the Art of building temporary theaters for the traveling thespian troupes, using nothing but bamboo and string. All the scaffolding I noticed in China, was constructed of bamboo. The size or height of the structure to be repaired or to be built seems to be immaterial, even skyscrapers are erected beneath an intricate pattern of bamboo covered with nylon netting. The construction of a theater, however, is a step above scaffolding. It is, I learned through an article in the South China Morning News of a few years ago [isn’t google marvelous?] not just an art, but a dying art.

There are neither blueprints nor schematics for the construction of a theater. The master builder directs his crew in situ, as he paces out the dimensions in accordance with Feng Shui, the spirit of the location, as well as the balance and proportion of the spaces, and the rooms needed for the type of performances proposed. This is a craft only experience can teach. Traditionally, theater builders learned from their fathers and the building skills were passed on through the generations. Sadly, there seems to be little interest left for something so non-electronic in our modern times.

But there is hope! In 2012 an annual Theater Building Expo/Festival has been initiated in Kowloon which proved quite successful. Each year now, it generates increasing interest in the ancient art.

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Intermission

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Chinese opera was in peril also, especially during the Cultural Revolution. But it too is undergoing a renaissance, at least in the Hong Kong region. After the return to the Motherland, several government agencies have established teaching facilities offering instructions ranging from casual evening classes to courses offering certificates and students may even obtain a university degree in the Performing Arts for Cantonese Opera.

Hong Kongers, especially the older folks are intimately familiar with the storylines, the characters, the music, and the dialog of each opera. Every visual and auditory cue has a specific meaning. The exaggerated makeup signifies a player’s character through colors and lines, while the undulating motion of “watersleeves” for example, extra-long sleeves of outer garments, are used to expresse emotions.

I know very little about Chinese opera, but I believe that Cantonese opera is divided into two main categories, that of warrior legends and scholarly, educational pieces. The emperors and their vassals supported and promoted opera as a tool to keep the citizenship-at-large loyal and submissive, to put it bluntly, akin to panem et circenses or our constant “fake news” currently. The warrior operas presented the stories of heroic male and female, yes, female generals to demonstrate the aristocrats’ worthiness of leadership and their strength of character. The more poetic and romantic pieces were morality plays to emphasize family values, the obedience to parental units and thus to the Emperor by extension.

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Have you ever heard of a Bun Tower or a Bun Festival with a Bun Tower Climbing competion? Neither had I untill visiting Cheung Chau island. Read all about it in the link or your wiki page of choice 😇

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Buns
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The Bun Tower

What a day! Time to return to the harbor and catch the fast boat home.

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