Header image courtesy of @lawbetelgeuse (via Instagram)
Although the Hong Kong we picture today is all bustling metropolis, towering skyscrapers, and flashing neon lights, our city was historically little more than a quiet backwater of rural villages and fishing communities. In contrast to our present-day cultural melting pot of a society, the indigenous settlements of ye olden times lived as tight-knit clans in secluded walled villages across New Territories.
Clinging strongly to their ancestral roots and the traditional Chinese value of filial piety, they built ancestral halls inside the village to venerate their common ancestors and hold community congregations. As a vital organ of the village, these worship structures are some of the best-preserved and most sumptuously decorated cultural treasures from Hong Kong’s pre-colonial past. Whether you have an interest in our city’s unique cultural traditions or simply want to marvel at stunning architecture, here are the most beautiful ancestral halls in Hong Kong to visit.
You don’t have to be a member of the Tang clan to appreciate the beauty of their ancestral hall. One of the major highlights along the Ping Shan Heritage Trail, the Tang Ancestral Hall is arguably the most prominent ancestral hall in the city, and for good reason—the site is a surreal blast from the past in beautifully refreshed space.
First built by the early Tang settlers a whopping 700 years ago, the ancestral hall was given a major facelift in the early 1990s, its new façade reflecting the structure’s former splendour. To this day, it remains used by the Tang clan of Ping Shan for worship, meetings, and traditional festivities.
Boasting a simple yet elegant three-hall design, the walls of the building are constructed of red sandstone and granite, with two drum platforms at the entrance and a rooftop embellished with multi-coloured ceramic figures of auspicious animals. Step through the doorway and you’ll find the inside equally awe-inspiring, featuring two well-maintained courtyards and an elaborate altar in the rear hall lined with inscribed ancestral tablets.
The best time to make the pilgrimage is during Mid-Autumn Festival, when the complex comes alive with bright red lanterns and tables elegantly draped with colourful cloths. At night, villagers gather for moongazing and all sorts of merrymaking activities, making for a wonderfully joyous spectacle.
Ping Shan Tang Ancestral Hall, Ping Shan Heritage Trail, Ping Shan, Yuen Long | 2617 1959
Although the Tang clan is by and large based in Yuen Long, the powerful family branched out to surrounding areas since first settling in Hong Kong in the eleventh century, leaving an imprint all across New Territories. One fine example is the Tang Chung Liang Ancestral Hall, found along the Lung Yeuk Tau Heritage Trail. This sprawling complex has sat quietly in the countryside outskirts of Fanling since as far back as the sixteenth century, serving not only as an integral venue for the clans’ meetings and celebrations, but even as a village school at one point.
While there is no denying that time has done its fair share on the face of this structure, it has not succeeded in overshadowing the superb craftsmanship. Look beyond the understated grey palette and you’ll find the site teeming with exquisite altars, fine wood carvings, polychrome plaster moulding, and auspicious murals.
Many points of interest are worthy of your attention, including the two spacious internal courtyards, the large screen door known as a “dong chung” (擋中), which is placed in the central hall to prevent evil spirits from entering, and the three chambers in the rear hall. The central chamber is dedicated to the clan’s royal ancestors, the Song princess and her husband Tang Wai-kip. Brandishing their noble lineage with great pride, the chamber is adorned with a magnificent dragon’s head carving as a symbol of aristocracy. The two side chambers house ancestral tablets of virtuous clan members and those who achieved distinguished ranks in the imperial court.
Tang Chung Liang Ancestral Hall, Lung Yeuk Tau, Fanling
Set against quaint rural scenery and comprising 30 traditional villages, Pat Heung is positively brimming with historic charm, but the Leung Ancestral Hall stands out as one of the best-preserved and most visually striking pieces of architecture in the area. Don’t take our word for it—the building is one of two in Pat Heung that have been declared as monuments by the Antiquities and Monuments Office.
Erected by the Leung clan around 200 years ago, the ancestral hall flaunts an archetypal Qing vernacular style, with a grey granite exterior and a two-hall-one-courtyard layout. Weave your way through the compound and marvel at the traditional Chinese murals, delicate leafy mouldings, and beautiful wooden altar richly festooned with a mixture of stylised plants like plums, peony, peaches, and lotus. With every detail immaculately rendered, these intricate carvings symbolise prosperity for future descendants throughout the different seasons.
Leung Ancestral Hall, Yuen Kong Tsuen, Pat Heung, Yuen Long
Yet another legacy of the Tang clan, the King Law Ka Shuk was constructed in the early eighteenth century to commemorate Tang King-law, the first ancestor of the Lau Kwong Tong lineage based in Tai Po Kau. The building originally fulfilled a dual function as both an ancestral hall and a study hall, equipped with a cockloft on the left that provided space for teachers and single students. Since the school relocated to another site in 1953, King Law Ka Shuk has operated solely as a local meeting venue.
Despite having undergone several incarnations in its time, the building still thoroughly evokes the history of the site, having been carefully restored to look as close to its original state as possible. In fact, in its most recent restoration in 1998, modern materials like cement and steel were removed in favour of materials that would have been used in the Qing dynasty, such as granite and wood. At the same time, subtle modern touches have been added to enhance the building’s functionality, such as lighting and power supply and upgraded kitchen facilities.
Among the restored relics inside, the most noteworthy is the six-level altar in the main chamber. Exquisitely carved and gilded in gold, it was made in Guangzhou in 1932 to house the soul tablets of the clan’s ancestors.
King Law Ka Shuk, Tai Po Tau Tsuen, Tai Po
An unmistakable sense of grandeur is felt immediately upon walking into Liu Man Shek Tong Ancestral Hall, a reflection of the founding clan’s wealth and prestige in 1751 when the structure was built in celebration of their good fortune. In fact, the name of the hall itself is a nod to the Lius’ prosperity; “man shek” (萬石) translates to “ten thousand stones,” a unit of measurement in Imperial China, and the hall is said to be named in honour of the clan’s distant ancestor Liu Kong and his four sons, who had a total annual salary of ten thousand “stones.”
One of the Five Great Clans of the New Territories, the Lius originated from Fujian and put down their roots in Hong Kong during the Yuan dynasty. They established their ancestral stronghold in Sheung Shui over the centuries, growing to its apogee in the eighteenth century.
As their first and main ancestral hall, the Liu Man Shek Tong Ancestral Hall is not only among the largest of its kind in Hong Kong, it’s also richly embellished from floor to ceiling, inside and out. Visitors are first greeted by a distinctive red-stone entryway and a pitched tiled roof supported by imposing stone and wooden columns before they are introduced to an interior done up with plaster mouldings and wood carvings.
You’ll find the ancestral hall buzzing with activity during the annual Spring Rite, the most significant clan event of the year. Held on the second day of the second Lunar month, the ceremony venerates the clan’s progenitors and worship deities like the Dragon God and God of the Earth. In addition to lighting incense, presenting prayers and offerings, there’s also a sumptuous poon choi (盤菜) banquet and a roast pig-cutting ritual to close the festivities.
Liu Man Shek Tong Ancestral Hall, Mun Hau Tsuen, Sheung Shui