Header photo courtesy of Al Sanin (Flickr)
Hong Kong may be small, but it still boasts approximately 600 temples, shrines, and monasteries, all dotted around the territories. Christianity and Buddhism are the most prevalent and widely practised here, but most other religions are also well represented and have places of worship serving their respective communities. These sites are usually well worth the visits for being serene oases within the fast-paced metropolis. Everybody and their relatives abroad already know about Wong Tai Sin Temple, Man Mo Temple, and St John’s Cathedral, so here are seven interesting temples and religious sites in Hong Kong that deserve more attention.
The Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery is a historic temple located on Po Fook Hill in Shatin, with grounds covering over eight hectares. It has a confusing name because, unlike true monasteries, there are no monks in residence on-site, and the complex actually houses close to 13,000 statues of Buddha altogether. The monastery was established in 1951 by the Venerable Yuet Kai and construction finished six years later, though the addition of statues throughout the grounds continued well into the next millennium. Yuet Kai passed away eight years after the monastery’s opening, and his embalmed and gold leaf-painted body is on display in the main hall.
The walk leading up to the main buildings is an attraction in itself. The 431 steps are lined on both sides with 500 life-sized statues of arhats—Buddhist ‘saints’ who have achieved the state of enlightenment—crafted in Yunnan and Guangdong. The lower section of the complex features the large main hall, a nine-storey pagoda, and a few pavilions, while the upper section has four large halls dedicated to an assortment of Buddhist and Taoist deities.
The walls of the main temple are lined with shelves featuring approximately 13,000 small ceramic Buddha statues, each with different poses and expressions. This landmark was famously featured in the opening scene of the lauded Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs, starring Andy Lau, Tony Leung, and Eric Tsang.
Do note that fake monks have been known to operate around the monastery conning tourists into ‘donating’ money; arrests have periodically been made and the faux monks have been found to be from mainland China. The Hong Kong Buddhist Association has confirmed that genuine devotees are not allowed to beg for money in Hong Kong.
Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery, 221 Pai Tau Village, Sha Tin | (+852) 2691 1067
This tiny temple in the middle of Soho is much too easy to overlook amidst the glitzy shops and restaurants in Mid-Levels; you’ll find it going down the steps opposite the 7-Eleven on Staunton Street, or going up to the top of Peel Street from Hollywood Road. The temple is named after Pak Kung, a Chinese herbalist and medical practitioner who operated under a staircase on nearby Elgin Street. As the story goes, he didn’t charge for medical consultation and frequently gave out medicine to the sick and needy for free. Because of his generosity and popularity, locals in the neighbourhood built a small temple to commemorate him after his death.
The dominating feature of the little temple is its massive coils of incense hanging from the ceiling. There really isn’t space for much else in this minuscule temple, but it’s interesting to see a small slice of history and culture still being preserved in a modern district full of nightlife entertainment and buzzy eateries.
Pak Kung Temple, 41 Staunton Street, Central
This historic temple is another hidden location, sitting precariously on a cliff edge in Stanley. Pak Tai Temple was thought to have been built in 1805 by the fishing community living in the area, in honour of Pak Tai, a Taoist deity who protects fishermen. There is also an ancient well below the main temple building. We’re quite fond of its other origin story, where, according to legend, the structure was built by the notorious pirate Cheung Po Tsai and links to the Cheung Po Tsai Cave in nearby Chung Hum Kok via a secret tunnel, which was blocked off eventually when the pirate surrendered to the Qing government.
The area is small and will only take you a grand maximum of fifteen minutes to explore, but the surroundings are peaceful under the shade of the large overhanging tree, and the temple also has a small balcony that boasts a lovely view of Stanley and the bay. To get to Pak Tai Temple, head to the end of Murray House and onto the boardwalk that is part of Ma Hang Park; the temple is just a little ways down the path.
Pak Tai Temple, 23 Carmel Road, Stanley
Located in Mid-Levels, Jamia Mosque is Hong Kong’s oldest mosque, and the neighbouring streets of Mosque Street and Mosque Junction are named after this place of worship. It has served Muslim Indian soldiers in the British military, sailors, and Muslim merchants who came to the city from as far as Oman and Iran. It was built in 1890 and has been classified as a Grade I historic building in 2010. The entrance of the mosque is through a wrought-iron metal gate with beautiful curlicues and floral motifs.
The mosque building is rectangular with an arched main entrance, Arabic-style arched windows on all sides, and a portico with a minaret above. It is also painted a fetching shade of light green, the same colour as mint ice cream, blending in nicely with the surrounding greenery and making for an interesting juxtaposition to the high rises and apartment towers of the cityscape. Though many of Hong Kong’s Muslim community now choose to worship at the larger Kowloon Masjid and Islamic Centre in Kowloon, Jamia Mosque is still much loved for its serene vibe. We can certainly count it amongst one of the most aesthetic temples in Hong Kong.
Jamia Mosque, 30 Shelley Street, Central | (+852) 2523 7743
This large temple complex in Diamond Hill was founded in 1934 as a retreat for Buddhist nuns and later rebuilt in 1998 after the fashion of Tang dynasty architecture. Its design was based off a Sukhavati drawing of paradise from the Mogao Caves in the oasis of Dunhuang along the Silk Road, making it unique amongst the temples in Hong Kong.
Chi Lin Nunnery has grounds covering over 360,000 square feet, featuring 16 halls, a library, a school, a pagoda, a bell tower, and a drum tower. The halls in the Nunnery are constructed entirely with cypress wood and—remarkably—without a single nail, using a traditional Chinese architectural technique instead, where interlocking pieces of wood hold everything in place. These are the only structures built this way in modern Hong Kong. The complex also houses picturesque lotus ponds, Buddhist relics, and statues of deities such as the Sakyamuni Buddha and various bodhisattvas.
Chi Lin Nunnery, 5 Chi Lin Drive, Diamond Hill | (+852) 2354 1888
So many people in Hong Kong journey to see the Big Buddha, but neglect to also pay a visit to the monastery which the famous Buddha statue is an extension of. Po Lin Monastery was founded in 1906 by three monks who were visiting from Jiangsu in mainland China; then, it was simply called ‘The Big Hut’ and was renamed to its current—and more dignified—name in 1924. Po Lin boasts several prominent structures, such as the Hall of Bodhisattva Skanda. The main temple houses three bronze statues of Buddha, representing his past, present, and future lives. The monastery is also known for making wooden bracelets that are only available for purchase on the premises or near the Tian Tan Buddha statue.
Of course, the world-famous giant Tian Tan Buddha is a sight that shouldn’t be missed either. Its name is derived from the Tian Tan Temple in Beijing and the big Buddha rests on a platform modelled after this temple. Completed in 1993, this statue faces north, a position unique among the great Buddha statues, as all others face south. A relic of Gautama Buddha—some of his alleged cremated remains—resides in the halls beneath the statue; entrance is only permitted to those who have brought offerings for the Buddha.
Po Lin Monastery, Ngong Ping, Lantau Island | (+852) 2985 5248
Located on a hilly site facing a gorgeous sea view (and therefore in a prime position, according to feng shui), Tsz Shan Monastery is a Chinese Buddhist monastery built in the elegant styles of the Tang, Northern Song, Liao, and Jin dynasties. Its expansive grounds feature a Main Gate, the Maitreya Hall, the Grand Buddha Hall, Drum and Bell towers, and the Tripitaka Library, and aims to preserve the Dharma as preached by Sakyamuni Buddha.
The main focal point of the monastery is undoubtedly the 76-metre-tall statue of the goddess Guan Yin and the path leading up to the statue, which is lined with eighteen old Buddhist pine trees. A large bronze water vessel called the Thousand Wishes Pond is right in front of the statue; instead of lighting incense, as is traditionally done in temples, visitors make offerings of water to the goddess by pouring water into the pond.
In order to ensure the quality of visits and the serenity of the monastery, those who wish to visit Tsz Shan Monastery will need to submit an online application to gain entry.
Tsz Shan Monastery, 88 Universal Gate Road, Tai Po | (+852) 2123 8666