Header image courtesy of StrippedPixel.com (via Shutterstock)
You may have spotted the name “Wong Tai Sin” on a map of the Hong Kong MTR or even seen people rushing into his elaborate, century-old temple during Lunar New Year. Since the beloved Taoist deity settled in Hong Kong in the early twentieth century, millions of incense sticks have been lit in his honour, countless visitors have knelt at his altar to seek out their fortunes, and the rattling of bamboo sticks has echoed through its grand halls. Read on for the storied tradition of Wong Tai Sin to discover the importance behind his prominence.
According to an ancient Chinese text from the Jin dynasty, Wong Tai Sin was not born with godly power. Originally named Wong Cho-ping (黃初平), the Taoist master led a humble childhood herding sheep until an immortal recognised his good-natured personality and taught him healing techniques and medicinal knowledge at the age of 15. Wong Cho-ping spent 40 years honing his abilities in a secret cave, and finally, he attained immortality.
During his absence, his older brother, Wong Cho-hei (黃初起), kept looking for him. Hoping for clues on his brother’s whereabouts, Cho-hei followed a Taoist priest headed to Jinhua Hill (金華山) and reunited with his long-lost brother, Cho-ping. Pointing at the boulder-studded hillside, the immortal brother told Cho-hei that the sheep were still well-tended. But only with lifeless rocks lining the expanse, not even a speck of sheep could be seen until the accomplished master chanted his command. Suddenly, all of the stones began to move, turning into flocks of sheep with the number counting up to tens of thousands.
Flabbergasted, Cho-hei asked how his brother achieved this miraculous feat and later followed his lead to become an immortal, too. Since Wong Cho-ping attained his mastery in Tsik Chung Hill (赤松山), people also call him Tsik Chung Wong Tai Sin (赤松黃大仙).
Before the lore of Wong Tai Sin came to Hong Kong shores, the worship tradition was arduously kept up by a small group of loyal Taoist priests in Guangzhou. After the collapse of the imperial Qing dynasty, the old temple risked vandalism amidst anti-religion sentiment.
With uncertainty looming over the temple’s future, the believers conducted fuji (扶乩; “support the planchette”), a Taoist divination technique in which a deity’s message is channelled through a drawing stylus. Following the deity’s guidance, the priests decided to head south. Finally, they settled in Hong Kong, carrying with them the painting of Wong Tai Sin, while the old temple site in Guangzhou was turned into an orphanage.
Starting afresh in a foreign territory, the priests set up a herbal medicine shop in Wan Chai in tribute to Wong Tai Sin’s history as a healer. An altar dedicated to the god was constructed at the back of the shop, which worshippers could visit and pray at while seeking medical advice. However, this was not to last—a fire destroyed the shop and it was forced to fold, and for a few years, Wong Tai Sin was without a home.
Years later, one of the priests shared that he had received a message from the god himself to build a new temple. Conducting another fuji, he divined Chuk Yuen Village (竹園村) as an ideal location—the priests earmarked the area with a bamboo stick and were told that the locale bore the virtue of a phoenix’s wings. In a concerted effort to restore the worship of Wong Tai Sin, the new premises were built in accordance with the Five Elements principle (陰陽五行) and became what we now know as the Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple.
Legend has it that Wong Tai Sin protected his sacred temple and locals during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong from 1941 to 1945. Leveraging his majestic powers, the Chinese deity spared no effort to extend his generous help, sometimes through miracles.
In 1942, a Japanese intruder tried to seize the temple’s signboard, but they fell off while climbing a ladder. Fearful that it was a supernatural force that interfered, the intruder respectfully bowed to Wong Tai Sin’s statue and then left the temple grounds.
In 1944, the Japanese police raided the temple, ordering everyone to verify their identities. However, some members failed the check—they either went missing or were unable to fetch the proof. While the keeper was mediating the issue, a red glow appeared from the side of the temple pavilion, warning that the Japanese officers were not welcomed.
However, the most bizarre incident took place in 1945 when the Wong Tai Sin Temple and other neighbouring premises were up for forceful acquisition. Prescribing free medicine to the poor and needy, the Taoist temple was a charity organisation, which qualified it for an exemption. Despite that, the priests were still anxious about the fate of the shrine and consulted the god, receiving a favourable response. Finally, when Japanese officials visited the temple, the first officer slipped on the floor as he got out of the car, with the second officer rushing to help and stumbling as well. Covered in bruises and dirt, the officers decided to head back, pushing the date of acquisition, which never materialised.
Given his prominence and popularity, it is not a coincidence that a landlocked Hong Kong district in Kowloon and its related railway station both bear the name of Wong Tai Sin, as the temple that is housed in this area is one of the most-visited in all of Hong Kong.
Embodied within the motto “Ask and be answered” (有求必應), the guiding light of Wong Tai Sin illuminates people’s uncertainties through kau chim (求籤; lottery poetry), a divination technique in which oracles are distributed among 100 bamboo sticks. Kneeling before the shrine altar, the visitor shakes the cylindrical container until a bamboo stick falls out. A soothsayer then helps reveal the divine message to the visitor, matching the number on the stick to a sealed piece of paper, which conceals a fortune from ancient Chinese poems.
On the eve of Lunar New Year, long queues form outside the well-respected temple, with people jostling for the opportunity to light the first incense to honour Wong Tai Sin. It is a tradition that started in the late 1940s when the Chinese Temple Ordinance restricted the temple opening to the first lunar month. Such untimely regulation led to an influx of people during Lunar New Year, hoping to offer the first incense stick for the best blessing.
Drawing new breath in the coastal port, the Wong Tai Sin Temple maintains its commitment to its patron diety’s origins as a healer, all the while remaining true to the “trinity” principle (三教同尊) in which Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist teachings are equally respected. Worshippers continue to flock to the temple to pray for good health and guidance, and it is believed that fortunes made at Wong Tai Sin Temple were particularly auspicious.
In December 2014, the Wong Tai Sin Belief and Customs was recognised as part of Hong Kong’s intangible cultural heritage, encompassing everything from its Taoist practices to temple concepts. As the caretaking organisation behind the Wong Tai Sin Temple, Sik Sik Yuen (嗇色園) carries on the namesake deity’s legacy through a wide variety of charity services, including a free Chinese medicine clinic, public schools, and more.