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Hong Kong: Seafarers’ Shrines

Found At Sea

The temples of Mazu, an ancient sea goddess, are a living legend

By NewsChina Updated Jun.1

Many temple sites host popular outings

Hong Kong itself is easy to reach either by direct flight or by taking one of the cheaper (if already on the mainland) domestic flights to Shenzhen and then the bus or ferry over. The central temples, such as the Floating Temple and Tin Hau Temple, are a Metro ride away in the bay area. Joss House Bay is a little further, but only about 25 minutes on the Metro on the blue line. The only really tricky one is the Yuk Hui Temple, which requires a long ferry ride out to Cheung Chau Island – but you can check out another four temples to the goddess while there, as well as some amazing rock carvings that are among the oldest human artifacts anywhere in China, dating back to three thousand years ago. 
Nearby Hong Kong, Macau itself is named after the A-Mo temple, another site dedicated to the goddess that’s worth a visit – as is the island itself, famous mostly for its casinos but with plenty of history. And the biggest Mazu temple in the world, the Grand Matsu Temple in West Central Tainan on the island of Taiwan, is a spectacular site. 

There’s nobody more superstitious than sailors. Wherever you go in the world, the sea is wild and unpredictable – and so humans try to find ways to appease it. In the West, seafarers talked of Davy Jones, Saint Christopher and the dreaded “Jonahs” – unlucky men who would drag a ship down with them. But in polytheistic China, these beliefs found more concrete form. 

The number of Chinese gods and goddesses who hold some kind of sway over the sea is enormous. But perhaps the most popular of them all is Mazu – also known as Tin Hau, the Cantonese for “Empress of Heaven,” a title given to her under the Qing Dynasty (Tian Hou in Mandarin). All across China’s southern coast, temples to Mazu flourish. On the mainland, many were destroyed, like other religious sites, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). But in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, the cult of the goddess was able to survive. 

I took a day in Hong Kong to tour the temples of Mazu/Tin Hau. I didn’t make it to all of them, of course – there are over 100 scattered across the islands. It was strange to think that this much-venerated figure was once, like many Chinese deities, a real person – a young woman in Fujian more than 1,000 years ago. The original Mazu was a shamaness, an interlocutor between the world of spirits and that of humanity, who lived around 960-987 AD.  

At that time, Fujian was just being settled by Han Chinese, and Mazu was probably a native woman who acted as a bridge between the two cultures. All manner of stories sprung up about her over the following centuries, as well as an amazing variety of titles – “Granny Mazu,” “Brightly Burning Celestial Concubine,” and “Heavenly Mother.” Perhaps that’s why her shrines are so various, and why she’s been identified with plenty of other goddess figures, from the Buddhist Kuan Yin to the Catholic Virgin Mary.  

Maybe the most appropriate shrine to Mazu is at the Floating Tin Hau Temple in Causeway Bay. It’s on a boat, holding a simple statue of the goddess said to have been rescued from the mainland during the ravages of the Cultural Revolution. The boat, brightly festooned with red flags, is now permanently moored in the typhoon shelter in Causeway Bay. I gingerly stepped across one clear morning, worried that I might accidentally knock one of the other pilgrims off into the water. Old and young alike gathered to burn incense and bow before the statue of the goddess. 

“Excuse me,” one young woman said in the precise English of upper-class Hongkongers, “But why have you come? Not many English people are interested in this temple.” I explained my curiosity, and that I had grown up surrounded by images of Chinese deities, and she nodded. “My grandfather was saved by the goddess,” she said. “In 1957, he escaped to Hong Kong from the mainland, because his father was a landlord. He swam across, but the sea was too fierce and rough, and he thought he was going to drown. But then he prayed to Our Lady of the Sea, and the sea calmed. So when he got rich, he gave a lot of money to her temples – and I come to them whenever I can.” I noticed a small cross around her neck. “Oh,” she said, “I am a Catholic,” as she lit her incense. 

From the bay, I made my way to one of the more famous temples, the Tin Hau temple in, well, Tin Hau District. The temple, built in the 18th century by a merchant family, gave its name to the surrounding area – and to the Metro stop nearby, making it very easy to find. It’s a simple building, with just two rooms, prettily decorated in white and green with gorgeous roof tiles that show scenes from local mythology and with a bell inside that dates back to 1747.  

But the eponymous Tin Hau temple isn’t the most spectacular on the islands by any means. That honor belongs to the temple at Joss House Bay, out on Clear Water Peninsula. Reaching it took a little more time, but at the site – supposedly built way back in the 13th century – I could feel the goddess’ connection to the water much more clearly. Most of the Mazu temples were originally by the water, but Hong Kong has seen so much land expansion that the goddess has often been stranded well inland. Here, though, sailors still come to ask for her favor.  

Outside the temple, though I didn’t see it myself, boats often perform three figures of eight in order to invoke her blessing. You have to be careful, though – it’s always best to call the goddess by one of her shorter names, because if you address her by her formal title, legend says, she’ll stop to put on her court clothing and makeup before she comes to answer the prayer – and by then it might be too late. If there’s one thing that becoming a goddess doesn’t change, it’s how long women take to do makeup. 

I topped off the tour with a visit to one final site the next day, the Yuk Hui Temple out on Cheung Chau island. Only part of this temple is dedicated to Mazu, most of it is devoted to Pak Tai, a formidable warrior god noted for his battles with all manner of demons and ghoulies. But the view is spectacular, as are the artifacts and sculptures of the temple, from the usual stone guardian lions to the enormous gold crown that the main statue wears, and the huge iron sword that hangs on one wall. The sword is legendary, reportedly dating back to the Song Dynasty a thousand years ago. The gold crown looks like it should be something from myth – but it was actually made and donated in 1966 to celebrate a visit by the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret. Perhaps in her own way, Princess Margaret – notably fond of both liquids and sailors – was also an ocean goddess.